Flogging a Dark Horse?

As Katy Perry takes her neon beats to the Brits, Steph Kretowicz traces the history of trap and pop

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Katy Perry Brits 2014 Dark Horse

Behold, cultural chameleon Katy Perry in her latest guise: “Katy Patra”. At the Brits, she pranced around to the trap-tinged, pitch-shifting (and US chart-topping) “Dark Horse” in cosmic Empress chic, all the while mixing and matching her ancient historical allusions, from her “make me your Aphrodite” lyric, to a blinding neon chariot pulled by Spartan soldiers and a closing pose evoking multi-limbed Hindu goddess, Durga. I wondered if anyone in the ocean of oglers is screaming, ‘Hey Katy, you’re mixing up your cultural references!’ Maybe that was just on Twitter.

I love "Dark Horse". I love it as much as "I Kissed a Girl" and "Peacock" and I love it more than "Teenage Dream". I might love it even more than Visionist’s "Pain". Let’s face it, the London post-grime MC’s 2013 track and the US pop star’s PRISM hit sound pretty similar. One exception is that Perry’s own vocals are presumably pitch-shifted, while Visionist mangles Destiny’s Child’s "Emotions" to flicker across the unhinged song structure of "Pain". Beyond that, one sounds kind of depressing and the other one doesn’t. No points for guessing which.

“Dark Horse” is a great pop song that happens to draw from trap music, the style with roots in early noughties Southern hip hop and the “trap houses” of the US region’s margins. That’s before it was popularised by T.I.’s appropriately titled Trap Muzik, drawing the sound out to a wider audience, before Lex Luger made it ripe for the picking via Rick Ross, Waka Flocka Flame and Kanye West. Eventually it mutated into the syncopated beats, hi-hats and bowel-stirring dance drops of most things on Diplo’s Mad Decent label, Hudson Mohawke’s TNGHT and Flosstradamus among them. Thus, ‘EDM trap’ was born.

In January 2013 I was at the Stattbad in Berlin, when UZ turned up to perform before Mykki Blanco. The pinging, bounding, beating melody of “Trap Shit V9” bobbed on top of a churning low-end, punctured by icy drum machine beats and I was besotted. That was way after Nicki Minaj and 2 Chainz released “Beez in the Trap” in 2012. But pretty much immediately after I saw UZ for the first time at that CTM show in Germany, Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” became a meme, sending YouTube and the world into a frenzy of awkward home videos of people dancing to its tune until the Today Show caught wind and eventually killed it. 

After that it became a bit embarrassing to like Flosstradamus. Yet, the honking beat of TNGHT’s “Higher Ground” still ended up on Kanye West’s “Blood on the Leaves” from Yeezus (via Hudson Mohawke). Miley Cyrus cut all her hair off and released the Mike WiLL Made It-produced “We Can’t Stop” around the same time, before twerking her way into cultural criticism’s hit list at the VMAs and making the ‘Dirty South’ sound a style that was well-and-truly ‘of the now’. In October, Rihanna released the video for the bassy, minimal Mike WiLL production “Pour it Up” , where she licked her dollar bills and stared defiantly at the camera.

All this was running through my mind while sat watching ITV, on SkyTV, through a Samsung flat screen, as “Katy Patra” grins proudly at the end of her "Dark Horse" performance, flanked by dancers and an enormous LED ring resembling the Stargate. I’ve got that same dizzy feeling of pleasure and revulsion that I get when listening to Juicy J whooping “slob on my knob” from Three 6 Mafia's 1999 single. He raps some nice things about a girl and falling in love on the studio version of “Dark Horse”, but he’s not there for Katy Perry’s performance at the Brit Awards. I embrace the spectacle despite that, feeling sick, excited and little bit depressed. As the lyrics of "Dark Horse" go, "there's no going back" – trap is here to stay in the charts, at least until the next pop trend comes along. 

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