Guest Post: Katy Perry, Dark Horse, and Bigger Fish

Guest Contributor —  February 22, 2014 — 36 Comments

[The following is a guest post from Michelle Mueller. Michelle Mueller is a doctoral student researching polyamory in Pagan communities. She has integrated women's and gender studies throughout her study of religion, and thinks it's never a bad idea to think about representations of women in the media, as well as messages about queer culture and Pagans.]

As many of us in the Bay Area (and beyond) reintegrate into the “mundane world” after PantheaCon, it feels timely to turn an eye towards images of Witchcraft in pop culture. Some Wiccans were upset about Katy Perry’s performance of “Dark Horse” at the Grammys three weeks ago, during which she invoked theatrical imagery to refer to “the Burning Times.” In her grand finale, she attached herself to a broom (basically stripper pole style); the pyrotechnics produced a blazing fire around her, a reference to witch-burning.

I missed the Grammys but my good friend, Assembly of the Sacred Wheel member, Shelly Graves brought the performance to my attention with a Facebook post the next morning, “Did anyone just see that performance by katy perry? Wtf was that? Not cool with the whole witch burning imagery at the end” (Jan. 26, 2014).

I watched the video and caught up on aggravated comments from Wiccans and critics. Intrigued by the strong response, I asked my other Facebook friends what they thought.

Selina Rifkin, Executive Assistant to the Director for Cherry Hill Seminary also enrolled in its masters program, offered:

“I think it depends on how sacred you hold the symbolism she was using. The color black, graveyards, broomsticks, some flames, however we hold these images, they are also part of the broader (yes largely Christian) cultural view of what is dark and dangerous. We aren’t going to change the fact that we are a minority religion, and it’s not reasonable to expect that someone like Katy Perry is going to be interested in anything but addressing the largest audience possible. She has no reason what so ever to accommodate a minority religion, assuming she even knows Wiccans -or any other Pagans – exist.

That being said, Wiccans in particular are working to reclaim some of that “negative” imagery and I don’t think it[’]s a big surprise that a pop star used it to suit herself. After all, if it’s “art,” pretty much anything goes.” (Facebook, Jan. 26, 2014)

Shelly clarified her criticism, “I think that her performance tarnished the message of unity the Grammy’s were trying to present. I was really surpr[i]sed that Katy Perry would do that. I guess people really can be clueless and not understand that The Burning Times were as horrible as any of the genocides that have taken place. People were killed for no good cause.”


For me, Perry’s performance of “Dark Horse” in the Grammys was refreshing compared to other things I’ve seen her do, which I will describe shortly. I didn’t mind the references to witch-burning because it seemed she was identifying with the motif of the martyr or the persecuted witch. I am in good company. Abel R. Gómez, graduate student at the University of Missouri and past contributor to the Wild Hunt, commented, “I liked it. I think it’s possible to read into it more, but to me, it’s just a performance.” Of course, others find the performance offensive because Perry may have been making light of atrocities towards women and healers.

I liked Katy Perry when she first debuted. I’m a Hello Kitty and Sailor Moon aficionado. I liked Katy Perry’s girly style, lollipops, and teenage dream.
I became concerned over lyrics of “Last Friday Night,” which glorify blacking out as meaning a terrific night, especially because of the number of girls listening to her music and the impact this message could have on them. I pivotally lost respect for Katy Perry when I saw this video of a live performance (Sydney, Australia, October 2013) in which she jumps rope in platform heels for 17 seconds before the finale of “Roar,” the song whose lyrics unmistakably refer to the women’s liberation movement: I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter, dancing through the fire/’Cause I am a champion and you’re gonna hear me roar.

I love instances of women affirming their sexuality, but I do not like women being reduced to boobs, which is what I felt this performance did. Her fans loved it. You can hear them singing Roar along wildly in the video. As with the Grammys performance, we will disagree about the intentions of an artist and the quality of their art.

In an interview, Perry herself said, “I hate working out, but I love jumping rope. I think it’s because it’s like dancing; there’s a rhythm….I’m a really good rope jumper. I can double jump, I can cross, I can do all of it. I look like Rocky when I jump rope!’” (Mail Online, Oct. 28, 2013) Somewhere some women may have found her message empowering, an example of choice, free expression, or fitness. I did not.

Two years ago, Katy Perry’s “Ur so gay” made it on the radio, which Elena Rose of Starr King Unitarian Universalist seminary brought my attention to. See link for Katy’s explanation and performance on MTV Unplugged (June 2012). Somehow this song had skipped my radar. Maybe others were offended and the radio stations and DJ’s held back from playing it with the strength of other Katy Perry singles. It’s one thing to be disappointed that your crush likes the opposite gender and not you, but these lyrics are downright hateful to gender non-conforming people:

“I hope you hang yourself with your H&M scarf
While jacking off listening to Mozart
You bitch and moan about LA
Wishing you were in the rain reading Hemingway
You don’t eat meat
And drive electrical cars
You’re so indie rock it’s almost an art
You need SPF 45 just to stay alive

“You’re so gay and you don’t even like boys
No you don’t even like
No you don’t even like
No you don’t even like boys
You’re so gay and you don’t even like boys
No you don’t even like
No you don’t even like
No you don’t even like…

“You’re so sad maybe you should buy a happy meal
You’re so skinny you should really Super Size the deal
Secretly you’re so amused
That nobody understands you
I’m so mean cause I cannot get you outta your head
I’m so angry cause you’d rather MySpace instead
I can’t believe I fell in love with someone that wears more makeup than…”

In conclusion, many Witches are upset about “Dark Horse” at the Grammys. I find other things by Katy Perry more offensive. I found her Grammys performance creative while others found it triggering of genocidal history. I observe with patience and curiosity what in the next year will emerge from behind Katy Perry’s curtain. I hope to Goddess she develops into a more mature performer because I really would like to see her succeed as an artist. I had high hopes when she emerged (though I always felt “I Kissed a Girl” was a rip-off of Jill Sobule without credit.) I believe Perry can use her power and fame more constructively than with lyrics like “Ur so gay,” and I pray she chooses to.

Many have said Katy was tipping her hat to the wildly popular series American Horror Story: Coven. I hope to hear at a future date from Crystal Blanton about this series, as I know she has been following!

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  • C.A. Young

    I confess, any reference to “The Burning Times” loses me because the concept is so tarnished with misinformation at this point.

    With regard to the performance, this particular flavor of gothic is very “in” right now. It reminded me more of Sleepy Hollow (the TV show) than Pagandom, and the fire in the performance seemed less about martyrdom or execution than primality to me.

    Still, art exists in the space between performer and audience. What I get out of it isn’t necessarily what others get.

    • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

      “I confess, any reference to ‘The Burning Times’ loses me because the concept is so tarnished with misinformation at this point.”

      That is sad to hear. The Burning Times were quite real, and they are very much a part of our history. There is no doubt that many of those who were targetted during the Burning Times were healers and practitioners of other forms of beneficial magic. Nor is there any doubt that the magical practices that were being suppressed had their roots in ancient Pagan practices.

      It actually turns out that many modern Pagans, and this very much includes Gerald Gardner, have been very careful about making overly specific historical claims. And it also turns out that many of those scholars who are generally viewed as “debunkers” of the Burning Times, actually admit a whole lot more than is generally understood in terms of the historical continuity of Paganism.

      • C.A. Young

        Before you go any further, please a) define what you mean by the Burning Times, and b) tell me where you’re sourcing this information.

        I’ve yet to find a scholarly source that describes the witch hysteria in early modern Europe in terms even remotely similar to what I was told to believe as a wee newbie Pagan in the early 1990s.

        • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

          Everyone knows what the Burning Times were, including even you. It was the historical period lasting roughly 3 centuries during which there were at the very least several tens of thousands of people put to death for the crime of Witchcraft (about one person every other day for about 350 years).

          Everyone also knows that many of the people who were accused, convicted, and executed as Witches were in fact practitioners of magic. In many well documented cases, Witchcraft trials involved a wide range of beneficial magical practices including healing, divination, weather magic, etc. That this magic was rooted in pre-Christian beliefs and practices is also well known.

          It is only the most extravagantly literal-minded interpretations of the so-called “Murray Thesis” that have been called into question by the scholarship of the last several decades. But very few people have ever actually tried to explicitly defend such a position, especially not within the last twenty years or so.

          • Alyxander M Folmer

            Everyone also knows that many of the people who were accused, convicted,
            and executed as Witches were in fact practitioners of magic.
            -Actually, most of those who died were Christian heretics, (which at the time meant any christian belief that was not part of catholic cannon).
            Yes lots of people died, and that’s terrible. VERY few of them were Pagan. None of them were Wiccan. Almost all of them were Christian.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            “The Witch Craze in Europe” by E. Barstow. She looked into trial records for exact numbers. (I may not have the title exact.)Protestants burned heretics as well, the example closest to me being Michael Servetus, burn in Calvin’s Geneva for being Unitarian.

          • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

            -Point C – The vast majority of those executed were hung, not burned, making the name quite a misnomer.

            I don’t know about elsewhere but, in the British isles, most accused were acquitted.

          • C.A. Young

            Well, usually when people talk about “The Burning Times,” it’s usually connected with the idea of “Nine Million Dead Pagans” and not anything that we can credibly document. I was giving you the benefit of the doubt by asking you to clarify.

            Yes, witch hysteria happened. And yes, too many people died, because really any form of institutionalized torture and murder is too much. And yes, certainly some of them were cunning folk, herbalists, etc. But a) “witchcraft” as a concept does not require pre-Christian anything to work because it’s not synonymous with Paganism, and b) there were a great many more reasons that people were executed, including property disputes, false confessions given under duress (i.e. torture), denominational infighting, etc. Again, asking you to clarify was me giving you the benefit of the doubt.

            Right now, I’m not sold on your position. Give me a solid source and I’ll reconsider. I’m genuinely good with being wrong. I’m just not convinced at the moment that I am.

    • Jessica Kivlehen

      Couldn’t agree with you more, well stated on all accounts. Bravo!

  • sacredblasphemies

    Perhaps this is an instance of Pagans (like many religious people or minorities) seeking a reason to feel like a victim. “The Burning Times” such as they were, had nothing to do with modern Pagans. There were no Wiccans killed in the “Burning Times” as Wicca was not even invented until the mid-20th century. While it was tragic that any woman was killed under the accusation of “witchcraft”, let’s pick our battles appropriately. Doing otherwise only does a disservice for our future as a fledgling modern religion and our ability to be taken seriously as a faith by other people.

    • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

      Pagan beliefs and practices were definitely the target of the persecution of Witchcraft during the Burning Times. This was made very explicit by those who were doing the accusing, the torturing and the executing.

      • sacredblasphemies

        Sure, but it was a Christian society. There’s no evidence of any sort of Pagan survivals into that time and place. It was Christians killing fellow Christians under the pretense of finding and executing “witches”.

        • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

          No culture, nor any one component of a culture such as religion, is ever purely and wholly just one thing. Therefore it is completely wrong to insist that any society at any time was purely Christian. It’s like believing that everyone in the People’s Republic of China is a Communist, and that it is completely impossible for any inhabitant of the PRC to hold any other belief system.

          • http://www.forgingthesampo.com/ Kauko

            It is sad that so many Pagans have bought into the idea–and one that obviously serves Christian interests–that Christianity came into Europe, completely eliminated all traces of native European religions, and left a 100% ‘Christian society’. The need to classify Medieval Europe as either Christian or Pagan is really a false dilemma; any honest look at Medieval-Early Modern Europe quite clearly shows that it was often a blending of the two, sometimes with Christianity being merely a thin overlay on what is fundamentally pre-Christian religion.

  • Michelle Mueller

    This is the link for Katy Perry’s “Ur So Gay” on MTV Unplugged, with her explaining the song about her gay/not-gay ex-boyfriend.
    http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=4NmwFFGX5ag

  • Obsidia

    It is interesting to me that Katy Perry was brought up in a strict Christian religious background: both her parents were Pentecostal Pastors. I’m thinking that the Grammys performance of “Dark Horse” was connected to the “bad girl” image that pop-witchcraft conveys and the connection of fire with sexuality in that context. I think that playing with that imagery gives a subtle thrill of adolescent rebellion that Perry elicits for young girls. Nicki Minaj did a similar performance at the 2012 Grammys when she presented an “exorcism” of a young woman. These are ways that send a “F. U.” to religious authorities, but don’t really delve into real Female Spirituality. Yet, they do contain a seed that may grow if the rebellion is combined with real spiritual knowledge and wisdom.

  • Artor

    Yawn. I find Katy Perry to be banal & tiresome. Having watched Omnia live onstage at Faerieworlds last summer, (I saw Jason lurking backstage, but I wasn’t able to meet him) I have a much higher standard for witchyness in music and theater. I wouldn’t try to read anything deep into Perry’s musical offerings. She’s just trying to be “edgy,” and sell more cd’s.

  • Chris MacDhomnhuill

    Seriously this was a jab at her christian roots and some harmless witch imagery, did every one miss the significants of the scarlet cross on her chest? As for the this isn’t feminism statement your flat wrong feminism is choice not a specific path. I am glad I am heathen cause all I have to worry about is the constant flow of “OMG its Ragnarok” posts from newbs and trolls this week. My suggestion to Wicans is to try to be a little less outraged all the time. I work in a marketing and image consulting field and can say with some certainty that the reaction to these things are not helping your efforts to gain acceptance at all.

    • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

      I have had more than enough of the “OMG it’s Ragnarok!!!” crap, thanks to Jorvik.

    • Miranda M

      Thank. You. God, it’s ridiculous. People run around saying, “I just did MAGIC by making a POTION IN MY CAULDRON!”, and they look like idiots! There’s no way I’D take someone seriously if they said that. The terminology, the hysterical ‘Burning Times’ beliefs…..its dead. The words have changed to mean something else. People need to learn to adapt to change. I agree with you completely.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/sari0009/ Karen A. Scofield

    I saw Katy Perry for the first time and said “Booooobs!”rather loudly…and that’s all I said about her because that’s all she offered. She won’t appeal to anything more mature or truly daring until her audiences want something more substantial. I’m not interested in shooting the messenger; she’s twinkling, roaring eye candy that knows controversy and boobs sell.

    I’m interested in an intellectual and artistic renaissance of our times. It’d be nice if we didn’t have the starving artists on one hand, the mega millions artists on the other hand, and not much in between. It’d be nice if people didn’t want to pay artists worse than slave wages, if they wanted to pay them **at all,** with theft of songs and art online being so rampant. We live in a time in which the visual arts are seriously undervalued but the ear and eye candy of the music world is explosive.

    The arts, **which are also plural,** can lead us into cultural, economic, and intellectual revolution (gross understatement, deep topic).

    As for genocide, US society is in an age of cultural genocide, and literal and cultural genocide have stark common denominators such as seizing power and estates. We’re not routinely burning people at the stake in the literal sense today, true, but we are doing it politically all the time — there is the war between the liberals and the conservatives, between the alcohol drinkers and the pot smokers (I didn’t invent the stupid dichotomy and it’s ridiculous).

    Any drug that can make you question reality (shrooms, pot, DMT…) has been criminalized. I don’t take drugs but I recognize this as a rights issue and (!) as part of cultural genocide. You don’t even have to have any signs of weed about you or any connection to the stuff or any other drugs but if you travel with too high an amount of cash for ***whatever reason,*** the police can seize it and you’re likely never to see it again. In the name of the War on Drugs. If you hold a performance, camp, or fest and someone, unbeknownst to you, sells or uses drugs on the property, they can shut it down and worse. Basically, anything left or “radical” enough can be shut down. Property can be seized, spouses separated, parents taken away from children and children taken away from parents.

    …But you’re free to drink openly and drink yourself to death, for the most part.

    The US has the highest number of people in jail per capital in the world. We have the most toxic political scene divided between largely crypto-theocratic conservatives and the more pluralistic left when we all know, deep down, that pluralism is reality. Predatory, cannibalistic economics surround the 99% at every turn but if we stand up to or screw the one percent then you’ll get ignored, defamed, or convicted rather than handsomely rewarded as the 1% is when they dictate reality to or screw over everyone else.

    But the eye candy roars on and media-led society keeps on trying to sweep the elephants in the room under the rug…

  • damonleff

    Comments and criticism of witch-hunts below aside… I do wish Pagans globally would pay more attention to the fact that witch-hunts never really stopped occurring in the real world. Today’s victims of accusation and violence are not Witches, rarely healers, and never guilty of the allegations of maleficum leveled at them by their accusers. For those of you who are actually interested in the subject, please take a look at the following .pdf document. Those of us struggling to end very real witch-hunts in our own country’s would appreciate your support.

    Witch-hunts in South Africa
    Advocacy against human rights abuses committed as a result of accusations of witchcraft and violent witch-hunts (2014)
    by Damon Leff

    Download the complete document in.pdf format (1.82 MB)
    http://www.paganrightsalliance.org/witch-hunts-in-south-africa-2014/

    • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

      Aren’t a lot of these African “witch hunts” tacitly funded by American and British (Evangelical) Christians?

      • damonleff

        In my country, South Africa, most accusations of witchcraft that lead to violence are started by ordinary people on the ground who seriously believe that someone in their community or family is responsible for misfortune, sudden illness or death. We have found no evidence of either direct or indirect international influence.

        • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

          So the Evangelicals are funding operations north of your border, I guess.

          Well, that’s something.

          • damonleff

            There is some evidence that suggests evangelical ministries from the U.S. have been influential in certain African countries, but that influence has manifested largely against LGBTI communities. I would not dismiss the suggestion that said ministries have also contributed to the rise of evangelical ministries in Africa.

  • Mary Elise Switras

    I hadn’t even bothered watching the Grammys – no interest. I was more interested in the censored speech from Lorde than in Katy Perry prancing about like a tall Stevie Nicks. Conspiracy Theorists are all over the music industry – the first video that came up after watching the link to “Dark Horse” was from some CT who believes that the Grammys are an excuse to perform public Illuminati rituals. I really have trouble taking all this seriously – I’m more concerned about the people who DO take it seriously.

    • http://www.paganawareness.net.au Gavin Andrew

      Sorry to say, but the “censored” speech by Lorde is an internet spoof that got taken seriously with conspiracy theorists and hasn’t touched the ground since.

  • http://www.paganawareness.net.au Gavin Andrew

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned the fuel Katy Perry has thrown on the fire for the conspiracy-theory crowd – that she is an Illuminati priestess, that she’s part of the OTO through her (former) relationship with Russell Brand, that the performance was a real, actual ritual invoking dark forces etc.

    She has ensured that her next recording release will be listened to feverishly by many, many conspiracists hoping to decode her lyrics and gain further insight into the plans of the NWO. If it was a marketing strategy, it didn’t suck.

    • Miranda M

      If I was a pop performer, I’d do my research and make my things so “illuminati”, I’d hit national news.

  • Miranda M

    Honestly….if you listen to the lyrics, the whole song is about a woman who isn’t going to take shit. She’s herself, she’s sexy, she’s powerful, and she doesn’t need you. I felt that when she was on the broom while flames came up, she was saying, “You can burn me. You can knock me down. You can hurt me, but I am who I am until the very end.” I actually thought it was VERY poignant. All of “Roar” is about empowerment. I personally felt very connected to that last scene.

    • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

      If I ignore everything else, I have to take exception to the term “Roar”, in connection to Katy Perry’s stuff and pop music in general. You want to hear a woman roar? Listen to Arch Enemy. Angela Gossow can roar!

  • Ivo Dominguez Jr.

    I have no strong feelings either way about Katy Perry’s music or this video. As an Elder of the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel I will say that I do have a concern with it being characterized that Wiccans had a particular problem with is video. I also own a metaphysical shop and customers commentary (if any) on the video were all over the board and not correlated to their path. I am also queer and also recognize that any time that there is a representation of the LGBT community in the media there are many opinions on fairness, accuracy, etc. The Pagan/Magickal/Fill In The Blank community will also struggle with how we are referenced in mainstream media.

  • Lucy

    The things she specifies in her song ‘Ur so gay’ sounds to me like she’s talking about Russell Brand in that song. Not that it makes it right to make fun of anyone who doesn’t conform to gender stereotypes, but perhaps it’s her version of a ‘revenge’ song.

  • Kim Martin Bannerman

    I enjoyed the performance, and I like the song a lot. It has a witchy feel to it, but I don’t see this at Katy Perry giving any of us a bad name/or trivializing the burning times. If anything, she shows that she can survive whatever is thrown at her via an artistic performance (fire, etc.). I’m Wiccan, and agree our community still tends to be way overly sensitive. Let’s take issue with blatant negativity aimed at Wiccans and Pagans, which this clearly was not an example of that.

  • Kim “Belisama” B

    Here’s a take on the actual video for “Dark Horse”, which is Egyptian themed:

    http://entertainment.time.com/2014/02/21/katy-perry-dark-horse-egypt/