In 2013 Katy Perry’s song “Dark Horse” tore up the Billboard charts reaching a peak of #1. You’ve probably heard this song on the top 40 radio, but what you might not have realized is that the song has many references to US presidents. Some people claim that the song is about something Satanic, others say it’s an anti-drug song, and a small minority claim it’s just about a horse, but the evidence is clear. Katy Perry’s song “Dark Horse” is actually about the fourteenth United States president, Franklin Pierce.
Everybody who has learned anything about US history knows that a dark horse is a candidate for an office who is not the frontrunner. Urban Dictionary’s #1 definition for this term reflects this common knowledge, and Perry being a California gurl is likely to recognize this fact. The presidents recognized as dark horses by Wikipedia include Polk, Pierce, Lincoln, Hayes, Garfield, Harding, Carter, and Obama (Dark Horse. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved November 27, 2015, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dark_horse). With this we have already narrowed down the song’s meaning to being about one of 8 United States presidents.
Next, we can turn to the chorus. The climax of the song comes with the following lyrics:
Are you ready for, ready for
A perfect storm, perfect storm
Cause once you’re mine, once you’re mine
There’s no going back (Perry, Katy. “Dark Horse.” Prism. 2013. Spotify)
The perfect storm is clearly talking about the conditions during the pre-Civil War era that would end up leading to all-out war. During Polk’s term, the country had remained true to the Missouri Compromise, banning slavery north of the 36°30′ parallel excepting the state of Missouri. It wasn’t until the following term of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore that lawmakers started to demand further compromises on the issue of slavery. Thus, we can eliminate James K. Polk as a possibility.
The second part of the statement refers to the United States’ position that they would assert control over all of the states and not recognize secession as a valid legal act. During Buchanan’s term, several of the states seceded, so it would not make sense to say that those states were “mine” from the perspective of Lincoln. Thus we are left with Pierce through the process of elimination.
In the rap section of the song, Juicy J proclaims, “That fairy tale ending with a knight in shining armor. She can be my sleeping beauty, I’m gon’ put her in a coma” (Perry, 2013). This reflects Pierce’s attempts to put the issue of slavery to rest by promoting Stephen Douglas’ idea of popular sovereignty through the Kansas-Nebraska Act. As we all know, the Kansas-Nebraska act ended in disaster as fighting raged between free-soil and slavery supporters, just like putting Sleeping Beauty in a coma ends in a disaster when the knight in shining armor saves the day (Disney, Walt (producer), & Geronimi, Clyde (director). 1959. Sleeping Beauty [motion picture]. USA: Walt Disney Productions). J through comparing Pierce to the soporific Maleficent, also suggests that he does not share Perry’s appreciation of the second half of the first half of American presidents. Given J’s feelings about Pierce, I wouldn’t even want to hear what he would have to say about President Buchanan.
Perry calls to attention the southern sympathies that caused Pierce, who was from New Hampshire, to be regarded as a doughface, with these lyrics:
Mark my words
This love will make you levitate
Like a bird
Like a bird without a cage
But down to earth
If you choose to walk away, don’t walk away (Perry, 2013)
At face value, this verse reflects Pierce’s intent to reduce the legal burdens on slavery through a little presidential love, in an attempt to keep the South from seceding. Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan all took this political strategy, perhaps because they believed that it would win them elections; however, it wasn’t without moral burden. In her simile about a bird and a cage though, Perry calls to attention the irony of reducing burdens on slaveholders; in doing so, these presidents enabled them to cause greater burden to the people they regarded as their property. It’s clear from this verse that although Perry appreciates Pierce enough to write a song dedicated to him, she doesn’t sympathize with his views regarding slavery.
It’s good to see pop superstars use their celebrity to promote the understanding of US history, no matter how subtle the references are. Next time we will examine the Katy Perry song “Firework” and analyze its connection to the War of 1812.