The Reification of Orientalism in Katy Perry’s ‘Dark Horse’
Depictions of Egyptian culture in popular culture.
‘Dark Horse’ a song recorded by well-known American artist, Katy Perry, was released on September 17, 2013. The song came to be a commercial success in the United States, Canada and Europe. Although the song itself seemed to be a success, the accompanying music video has invited mixed reactions from the public. The music video has accumulated approximately 2.5 billion views on YouTube to date. The video depicts Perry as a strong, female Egyptian pharaoh, which she has named ‘Katy Patra,’ being courted by (coloured) men, attempting to win her heart. The video features various symbols, clothing, jewellery and backgrounds of Egyptian culture. Although popular culture today supports the need for being provocative to instill excitement, the Dark Horse music video has received a lot of criticism for its derogatory depiction of Egyptian culture and metaphorical ‘destruction’ of men of colour. The Dark Horse video, is an artifact of popular culture which engages in reification of orientalist attitudes geared towards a Western consumption of foreign cultures. This notion is contextualized through the approach of religion in popular culture. This analysis examines the production of the ‘Dark Horse’ video, followed by a close reading of the scenes depicting the men courting Perry, as well as a discussion of the reception and consumption by the public in order to address this reification process.
The video’s director is Mathew Cullen, who has worked with Katy Perry on numerous videos. The video was edited by Douglas Crise and includes a verse by rapper Juicy J. The production company for the music video was Motion Theory, which is an internationally known company. The distributors of the video and song was Capitol Records, to which Katy Perry is signed. The song was originally written by Perry and Sarah Hudson, a colleague.
The website IMDB references an ‘alternate versions,’ of the video which states, “Originally, “King Diamond” (the first visitor) is shown wearing a pendant with the Arabic name for Allah before getting turned to sand at 1 minute and 15 seconds. After a petition on Change.org accusing Perry of blasphemy received 65.000, the pendant was digitally removed on February 26, 2014.” It is possible that there was some line to be drawn between the mere depiction of Egyptian culture and the destruction of a religious symbol, with which there was physical action taken for it to be removed. This success of the music video is reflected in its statistics, as IMDB notes it was the, “first music video by a female artist to reach 1 billion views on Vevo/YouTube.”
The video starts with a shot of Perry floating in the middle of the ocean on a throne-like bed. Moving to the main spectacle of men courting Perry, the setting is moved to Perry sitting on a gold throne, with numerous ‘subjects’ around her. Here is where the first man walks up with an extremely large diamond, attempting to win the Perry’s heart over. Perry excitedly takes it and with a powerful beam of light, she turns the man into dust, and a piece of jewelry is left in his place, which she wears as a ‘grill’ in her mouth.
Quickly, the second man walks up with sweets and spicy Cheetos for Perry. After eating something too spicy, Perry is enraged and turns this man also into dust however, this time, a glass of water is left in his place for her to drink. The third man comes in right behind this scene.
This man presents a gold sarcophagus in a gold carriage which bounces along with the music and subsequently, Perry gets up to dance as well. This man is also shot with the laser beam and turned into large gold dice. The next man that approaches reveals his face to Perry, which ends up being the face of a gold crocodile. This man is turned into a gold crocodile purse. The last man that approaches comes with a large gold tower, which Perry is awed by. This man however, is also turned into dust, however leaves behind a small dog wearing a Nemes crown.
Through this examination one can see that all the men are of colour, having olive and or tanned complexions, as stereotypes of Egyptian and Arab men suggest. Additionally, their clothing consists of ‘Egyptian clothing’ i.e., gold, chains, Nemes crown etc. The reification of orientalist attitudes is depicted through the men walking toward the Western, female pharaoh, with intentions of charming and offering goods, leading to Perry subordinating and subsequently destroying them when she is not pleased. This notion is written on by Pennington (2016), which states “Perry’s character in Dark Horse…reproduce[s] a centuries old discourse which frames the culture, people, and objects coming out of the East as things to be possessed, consumed, and tamed by those in the West.” (112). This type of orientalism is specifically ‘soft,’ as it uses aspects of the Egyptian culture in pursuing the discourse of consumption Pennington refers to.
Consumption and Reception
Some artists such as Juicy J who happened to be apart of the song, have gone on to applaud Perry for her ‘artistic genius.’ Whereas others have become uneasy with the orientalism and or Perry’s ‘cultural appropriation.’ There also has been scholarly work done both on Perry’s problematic music video and also, orientalism and the depiction of ‘other,’ ‘exotic,’ bodies in many other popular music videos such as those by artists such as Nicki Minaj and Avril Lavine.
The reification process enforced in Perry’s video refers to the ability of Westerners to consume cultures of the ‘other,’ in this case, Egypt, and metaphorically destroy it as they please. This notion has been written on by several authors who argue “this consumption was quite political in that it was designed to ‘contain the threat posed by the colonized and reinvent the Western Self through consumption of the non-Western Other.’” (Pennington 2016, 113). Furthermore, with the destruction of the men it is suggested, “Perry has dissolved the other into herself, in this instance by turning the other into an accessory to be worn, and later one imagines, discarded.” (Pennington 2016, 119). This reification is specifically harmful in normalizing the disrespectful consumption and ‘discarding,’ of foreign cultures by Western individuals. Saglia (2002) also discusses this by stating “A consideration of the Romantic appropriation of artefacts in the Egyptian style should make us wary of treating orientalist luxury as a reflection or modification of an idea of eighteenth-century cosmopolitan assimilationism, a sign of Western cultural strength and elastic expansiveness” (329). When Perry turns these men into dust it can be seen as the ‘sign of Western cultural strength,’ referred to here.
There have additionally been numerous blog posts written on Dark Horse, such as one titled ‘Consuming Ancient Egypt in Katy Perry’s Dark Horse,” written on Wordpress. Another blog post entitled “We Need to Talk About Katy Perry,” written on Howlround also touches on the importance of addressing orientalism in popular culture. It becomes evident that Perry’s music video was for many individuals, troubling.
Popular culture today continues to produce music videos similar to ‘Dark Horse.’ That is, full of explicit and implicit orientalist attitudes geared towards consuming foreign cultures. The ‘Dark Horse’ music video has received a large amount of criticism for its reification of orientalist attitudes in consuming Egyptian culture and the underlying message which some scholars have identified with Westerners ‘consuming’ and later ‘discarding,’ Egyptian culture. It is important to be aware of the ways in popular culture artifacts like the Dark Horse music video globalize orientalism. With all the exposure and billions of YouTube views Dark Horse has received, it has effectively reiterated exaggerated stereotypes of Egyptian culture to viewers all over the world.
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3. Oh, David C. ““Turning Japanese”: Deconstructive Criticism of White Women, the Western Imagination, and Popular Music.” Communication, Culture & Critique 10.2 (2016): 365–381.
4. Pennington, Rosemary. “Dissolving the Other: Orientalism, Consumption, and Katy Perry’s Insatiable Dark Horse.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 40.2 (2016): 111–127.
5. Saglia, Diego. “Consuming Egypt: Appropriation and the cultural modalities of romantic luxury.” Nineteenth-Century Contexts 24.3 (2002): 317–332.
6. Katy Perry Feat. Juicy J: Dark Horse, Imdb, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3998324/, (accessed 03/13/2019).