Fortune favors the brave, and if “Dark Horse” started life as one of many contenders from Katy Perry’s fourth studio album, Prism, fan support and the singer’s drive to push her music in new directions saw the song crowned champion by the close of the album’s 2013/14 campaign.
Katy asked fans to pick which track should be used to support the release of her follow-up to the multi-platinum Teenage Dream album and, when offered a choice of “Dark Horse” or the 90s-dance-influenced “Walking On Air,” they picked the more experimental of the two. It was an early sign that her loyal KatyCats fanbase was willing to develop with the star, as “Dark Horse” represents a decisive shift away from the colorful high-impact pop that had largely characterized her success to date.
Writing and recording “Dark Horse”
The track’s inspiration is said to have come from Katy’s love of the 1996 fantasy-horror movie The Craft, but, as in all modern pop, a range of artists played their part in making “Dark Horse” the song we now recognize. Pivotal to its creation was the collaboration with celebrated songwriter Sarah Hudson, who has also worked with Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber. She and Katy built the song’s template in a California writing session. After discussions with her production team, Katy asked rapper Juicy J to work on the track, and he added another verse and joined the recording sessions, helmed by Dr. Luke and Max Martin, who contributed so much to Katy’s early success.
The urban overlay that Juicy J brought to Katy’s effortlessly accessible pop added an intriguing layer to an already sassy, provocative lyric. As ever, Katy’s in control of the narrative, building a tease that’s as much a come-on as it is a warning about the unpredictable spell a romantic union can create. And therein lies the authenticity of the track. Haven’t we all been there: the draw of the new, the frisson of danger, and the delicious uncertainty as temptation proves just too strong?
As if to match the song’s tease and push-and-pull message, the trap hip-hop flavorings add a sharp bite to the sweeter pop. If there was a nod back towards the collaboration with Kanye West on 2011’s “ET,” however, “Dark Horse” found Katy more clearly in the saddle.
Release and reception
Critics recognized the developing maturity of Katy’s work, noting that the song would sit well with the powerful urban radio programmers without alienating the pop market. They were right. Released as Prism’s first promotional track, “Dark Horse” got an official release on December 17, 2013, topping the US charts in the first weeks of the new year and reaching the Top 10 almost everywhere else. It went on to dominate 2014, racking up no less than a year on the Billboard Hot 100, while the promo video quickly become one of the most-watched of all time, with more than two and a half billion YouTube views to date.
Subsequent releases have seen Katy push her musical boundaries still further, but “Dark Horse” marks the moment that she started to show confidence in moving away from the all-out pop that she first established as her own. There was fresh ground to cover and this track was the thoroughbred that got her over that first hurdle and into the great beyond.