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

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[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!