Katy Perry is one of the biggest pop stars of the last decade, and she’s returning to the spotlight once again with the release of her new album, Witness, next month. It feels like ages ago that Katy Perry was a pop-rock femme fatale, with songs like “Hot n Cold,” “Waking Up in Vegas” and “I Kissed A Girl,” which all used predominantly classic pop/rock instrumentation in the same vein as Kelly Clarkson. Her second major label album, Teenage Dream, threw that manual out the window, transforming Perry into the biggest pop star on the planet for a good two years (mid 2010- early 2012) behind a string of six #1 singles (unbelievably, five were consecutive, the sixth, “Part of Me,” came after “The One That Got Away” peaked at #3, the album produced eight top 3 hits in total). It was the most impressive chart streak seen since Michael Jackson did it with a string of singles from Bad in 1987-88 – most certainly a once in a lifetime streak.
It brings up a question that will come up often throughout this blog’s continued exploration of #1 hits: When you reach the top, where do you go?
For Perry, Teenage Dream undoubtedly represents the peak of her career; while it’s possible that Perry’s new album could catch fire in the same way that Dream did, it remains unlikely that she’ll ever come close to duplicating its success. If any album was going to do that, it would have been the album that followed Teenage Dream, 2013’s Prism, and that only had two #1 singles from it. But, while Perry remained (and remains) a strong force on the pop charts, it didn’t have the same lasting power as Teenage Dream. Perry has started releasing tracks from Witness, but none of those tracks have hit #1 as of the time of this post being written, making her most recent #1 single “Dark Horse,” which reached the peak of the Billboard Hot 100 on February 8th, 2014, and stayed there for four consecutive weeks.
“Dark Horse” is unique for a mainstream pop song of the 2010’s because of its production techniques and eschewing of traditional song structure. Written and produced by powerhouse producers Max Martin and Dr. Luke, “Dark Horse” utilizes a pseudo-trap and minimalist beat. It also employs the use of a vocal production technique called “chopping and screwing,” which involves messing around with tempos, including record scratches, and taking out some normally occurring beats. This technique creates a more laid back sort of vibe that’s popular in “southern rap,” which is a vibe or theme we hear during the verses.
Let’s be real, though – “Dark Horse” is the musical equivalent of blue balls. With one of the most recognizable pre-chorus lifts of the past decade “are you waiting for/waiting for/a perfect storm,” all that potential is thrown out the door by the minimalist wordless “chorus” that places the beat and some garbage filler words (“hey”/*snap*/”hey”/*snap*) front and center in favor of a traditional hook-filled chorus. It makes “Dark Horse” all the more underwhelming – especially after so much build in the nicely constructed verses and aforementioned pre-chorus build up. All I can say from a musical perspective is that this really stinks – a song with so much originality and potential from a mainstream pop artist and then all we get is “hey” *snap*? Unfortunate. I’m willing to look over the lack of a real “burst” of energy in the chorus of this song and say that “Dark Horse” would still normally get a pass from me, even today, for its distinctiveness in a crowded swamp of pop music. I still think it’s catchy as shit, it has that weird kid or baby -sounding noise at the beginning that really gets that “na na na na” synthetic effect that runs through the song going.
The real reason I can’t back “Dark Horse?” Juicy J absolutely ruins this song.
I would consider the rap break that “J” provides barely one step above Ludacris’ feature in Bieber’s “Baby.” His flow doesn’t match the feel of the rest of the song, his lyrics are putrid, and it all comes off awkwardly at the end with the word “addicted” being echoed out before Perry comes soloing in again at the top of her lungs. For a Max Martin/Dr. Luke production, that makes the collaboration feel forced and clumsy.
The Ancient-Egyptian themed video for “Dark Horse” features Perry as a dark-Cleopatra type queen. Here’s the reader’s digest version of the video’s plot: Perry eats a Flaming Cheeto, Perry turns the guy who brought it to her into a cup of water, the 90’s computer animated sphinx mouths “there’s no going back,” Juicy J comes out of an Egyptian sarcophagus, you get the idea. There’s high production value in the video though and definitely worth a watch – it does have nearly 2 billion views and is the 14th most watched YouTube video ever (partially because of a slight controversy with Perry dissolving a man who was wearing a pendant that read “Allah” in Arabic that was eventually digitally removed).
We’ll see in a month or so how the next chapter of Katy Perry’s career unfolds, until then, I’ll be going back to her One of the Boys and Teenage Dream-era output far more often than this. Thanks for nothing, Juicy J.