Song: ‘Dark Horse’
Artist: Katy Perry
US chart peak: 1
Release date: December 17, 2013
Writers: Katy Perry, Jordan Houston, Lukasz Gottwald, Sarah Hudson, Max Martin, Henry Walter
Producers: Dr Luke, Max Martin, Cirkut
Quintessential Max moment: The amazing pre-‘chorus’ bit
Video synopsis: Perry as a spoiled Egyptian princess
The release of the oddly-chorused ‘Dark Horse’ is, as is the way these days, fairly convoluted. Basically Perry’s strangely overlooked ‘Prism’ album was lead by ‘Roar’, which obviously went on to be a huge hit everywhere. That was then followed by the Alanis Morissette-esque ‘Unconditionally’, which obviously went on not to be a huge hit anywhere really. Prior to its release Perry’s label struck a deal with Pepsi to ‘unlock’ another song from ‘Prism’ ahead of its release, with fans being able to chose between the fun-free ‘Walking On Air’ or ‘Dark Horse’. ‘Dark Horse’ won and the went on to enter at Number 17 on the Billboard chart with digital sales of 194,000. This was all a week before ‘Unconditionally’ was released, ie a song the public hadn’t just voted as being quite good. Here’s what Capitol Records executive VP Greg Thompson said around the time: “Katy’s well aware of [the success of] ‘Dark Horse’. It might be the next single. We’re watching it – and certainly appreciating the airplay – while still wanting ‘Unconditionally’ to have a full run” ‘Unconditionally’ stalled outside the Top Ten (a proper rarity for Perry at the time) and – surprise, surprise – focus was quickly shifted towards ‘Dark Horse’.
Thankfully for Perry the song helped reignite the album, becoming her ninth US chart-topper and eventually ‘shifting’ 13.2m copies (that’s combined sales and streams etc), to become the second best-selling song of 2014 on the whole of planet earth. Is it any good though? Well, I can’t quite make my mind up about it actually. It’s not awful. It has its moments (the verses are really great, as is that “are you ready for, ready for” pre-chorus). But also there’s something about it that feels a little off. Perhaps it’s just the lack of a proper chorus after all those hooks? Maybe it just doesn’t suit Katy Perry at all? Maybe it’s the typically woeful guest verse? It just feels unsatisfying somehow. One bit I do like that I’d not noticed before are the little Enya-esque “ah, ah, ah, ah” bits that bubble up under the second part of J’s verse. Lovely.
Apparently inspired initially by Charli XCX circa True Romance mood board/film The Craft, Perry has described the song as having a “witchy, spell-y kind of black magic-y idea.” She also referenced the strange juxtaposition of her sweet vocal and the ‘trap’ beat. “It’s got me, a pop artist, with a little bit of an urban kind of hip-hop-flavored background soundtrack to it, and the lyrics are kind of witchy and dark, as if I was a witch warning this man not to fall in love with me, and if you do know I’m going to be your last,” she mused to MTV. So now you know.
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I would say this one has two pre-choruses, but no actual chorus. Kind of in the “Pop Song Without a Chorus” group along with Problem and Focus – which, I guess, is the opposite of the “Rock Song With a Chorus” archetype Martin and Luke used from 2004-2009.
Another more interesting pop-subversion on Prism has to be This is How We Do; forget “Pop Song Without a Chorus”, try “Pop Song Without a Melody”. Well, okay, it has some melodies, but it’s monotone and repetitive (read: hypnotic) after the style of Part of Me, but taken even further.