Family / Parenting

Explaining Katy Perry’s Dark Horse to My Kids

Katy-Perry-Dark-Horse1Last week, as I drove the kids to school, the sun was shining for what felt like the first time in years and the mood in the car matched the cloudless sky and the radio was on and our heads were bopping along to the beat and then I heard the lyrics – really heard them – only a split second before Miguel turned to me and said, “Who’s Jeffrey Dahmer?”

The lyrics in question are from Katy Perry’s song Dark Horse and rapped by Juicy J:

“I call her Karma – she eats your heart out like Jeffrey Dahmer.”

Kids are inundated with messages from pop culture. Even if you keep them from television, movies and pop music, they still get multiple messages about alcohol and drug use, sexuality, and violence. They absorb it through omnipresent advertising and hear about it from kids at school. In a society so driven by media, it feels inevitable.

My kids have access to television and movies, though they also have limits, and I have let them listen to pop music. I say “I” because this is a point on which Luisa and I have never quite agreed. She is not always comfortable with the music I allow but I have always wanted our kids to have competency in pop culture for social reasons and I also believe that I am in the perfect position to teach them to think critically about the messages they get from it.

So, I have used pop music to talk about objectification of women, double standards for men and women with regards to sex and sexuality, and about the use and abuse of drugs and alcohol. I want it to be clear that I have no problem taking on difficult issues and explaining them to my children.

But I was not prepared to explain Jeffrey Dahmer to my kids.

I told them the truth is the simplest way I could – Jeffrey Dahmer killed many people and what he did was horrific and had no place in a pop song.

Later that night, Miguel sat at the dining room table doing his homework while Zeca and I played a game. He does most of his work on the computer and has a tendency to get distracted by Minecraft videos which is why we have him use the computer in a common area – to keep him on task. I took Zeca up to bed and he came upstairs soon after and said, “Mama, I did something I shouldn’t and I don’t want you to be angry because I need your compassion right now.”

He burst into tears and told me that he had Googled Jeffrey Dahmer.

I spent the next hour consoling him while trying to explain the inexplicable. There is a gradual loss of innocence and then there is this – something dark and twisted that steals innocence in an instant. I never imagined that I would have to explain pedophilia, cannibalism and serial killers to my son because of a pop song. My son, who is nearly the same age as some of Dahmer’s victims. I am grateful for small things in this situation – grateful he found no images, grateful that he sought me out to process what he had read. But those are little consolation.

I take responsibility for my part in this. I let my kids listen to pop music. I left my son alone with access to the internet. But it It wasn’t that long ago that Katy Perry told teens they were “fireworks” and encouraged them to “show them what you’re worth.” When did the standards of human decency drop so low that lyrics about a man who raped, murdered and ate parts of his victims are now mainstream? I was forced to explain to my son a world in which that type of horror exists but it’s almost harder to explain a world in which that horror is a punchline.

At the end of our conversation, Miguel asked, “Why? Why would someone put that in a song?” I have no answer to that.



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  1. Poor Miguel! How is he doing now?

  2. Man, talk about a landmine! I, too, listen to pop music around my kids with the same thought as you: “I’d rather them hear it with me.” But I also don’t pay much attention to lyrics and would have been totally dumbfounded if my kids had asked me about this. I’m so sorry Miguel fell down that rabbit hole. But honestly, I still don’t think you should feel any responsibility. Had he been listening to that song with friends or heck, heard it at the mall or wherever, he might have had the same thought “Google Jeffrey Dahmer” but then not come to you out of fear of getting in trouble or something. They are going to be exposed. Thankfully you were there to help him through.

    And screw KP. :/

    • I know. I just want to take responsibility for the fact that I do let my kids listen to pop music. More of a disclaimer so when people say “Well YOU let them listen to the devil’s music…” I’ve already taken my part in it. Ha Ha. It was a rough night and I felt like I wasn’t equipped to explain it all to him. But we got through it…and he did get my compassion rather than anger 😉

  3. Wow! And I agree, wholeheartedly, with Christi. And your conversation with your son afterward was AMAZING. There was a lot of love in that room.

    I am guessing that Katy put that in the song because…. wait for it… it rhymes.

    And I’m really glad that you wrote a post about this, because it’s an important reminder to not take lightly or be glib about horrific human acts. And you also set a majorly awesome example of good parenting with your response and communication with your son. Beautiful, Vikki.

  4. My partner and I, too, disagree on the importance if culturally literacy. I fall in your camp because of my memories of secretly listening to the radio under the covers after my high school eight o’clock bedtime.

    That is a big conversation for a pop song to open up, though. What a testament to your parenting that he came to you so honestly.

    • 8 o’clock bedtime in high school? Whoa. I had completely unrestricted access to all things pop culture growing up. We’re trying to take a more measure approach with our kids but yeah. And kids really do talk about all this stuff at school. Part of my conversation with Miguel though was that he could NOT tell kids at school.

  5. We listen to pop music in the car and enjoy a lot of Katy Perry sing-alongs, and I am right there with you in terms of wanting Claire to be pop culture literate and know its something we share. Since she’s only seven, she mostly mumbles along enthusiastically and only remembers every 10th word or something, but every now and then she’ll hit on a particularly sexual lyric and I cringe. I started turning the radio down on songs that made me uncomfortable, and am not ashamed to admit that we have quite a few Kidz Bop CDs. I pretty much had unfettered access as a kid, too – except horror movies, because I got nightmares – and I always thought I’d be that way as a parent. But then your seven year old starts singing the Christina Aguilera solo on “Moves Like Jagger” and something clicks, you know? I’m trying to set the groundwork for the kind of conversation you had with Miguel, and am so grateful that you were willing to share. You give me hope that it will turn out okay when it happens, and a good template to work from.

  6. I distinctly remember being a young girl and bopping around in the back seat of my parents’ Chevy Vega singing every word to “Afternoon Delight” with no idea what “skyrockets in flight” might be alluding to.

    I also remember being shocked as a teenager when Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” was on the radio…for just ANYONE to hear.

    Now, as a parent of teenagers, I’ve stopped being surprised. Saddened sometimes, but not surprised.

    And sometimes, I’m actually pleased with how far lyrics have come in terms of inspiration, tolerance, kindness. (Sadly, this isn’t as often, but still. Progress?!?)

    It’s hard to gauge what our children are ready for. Certainly not cannibalism. But it sounds to me like you’re doing the best (and I do mean BEST) to keep the lines of communication open with your kids. And when you wrote of your son telling you he needed compassion….

    Well. I knew you were doing something right. A LOT right.

    Maybe someone should tell Katy Perry that “Dharma” rhymes with karma, too.

  7. Oh man, that just broke my heart. I’m glad to hear he is doing better now.

  8. It is sobering to think that by the time a child turns 12, he or she has probably witnessed 1500 murders on television. I know that my wife and I strictly monitored and limited our son’s television access.

  9. My nomination for worst current pop lyrics: from the song “Drunk in Love”

    “I’m Ike Turner, turn up, baby, no, I don’t play
    Now eat the cake, Anna Mae said, ‘Eat the cake, Anna Mae!'”

    Just disgusting, and makes me nostalgic for the amazing days of “99 Problems.” That said we listen to a lot of inappropriate music in our house. I do think that listening and talking, and being forced to listen to your mother’s feminist rant, is more powerful than silence.

    I once taught a class in which we analyzed the Rolling Stones “Under my Thumb” an the Women’s Liberation Rock Band’s “Papa, Don’t Lay that Shit on Me.” The students really wrestled with the fact that they both like the RS song (some of them) AND they found the lyrics disturbingly sexist. I like to think that they brought that critique to the other forms of pop culture they encounter every day.

    And I’m really sick of that Jeffrey Dahmer rhyme, which I’ve heard in multiple songs.

  10. Wow… Im taken aback by the sympathy you all feel and the obvious lack of education regarding medias influenc on your children…

    “Oh, but i just want little Susy to be popular, so I let my 7 yr old listen to Katy Perry”

    RUFS?! Wow…

    My kid can adore satanic “pop stars” because all the other kids do… but Jeffrey Dahmer. OH MY GAWD!

    Please. Stop whining about Perrys lyrics and start questioning your parenting limits. What if everyome thought Dahmer was cool and all the popular kids liked Manson, would you let them admire those guys too… u know, because pop culture is so gawdammed important?

    Trust me when I tell you the messages, imagery an occult involved with Jeffery Dahmer is the exact sam satanic occult behind the likes of all the Katy Perrys, Miley Cyruses and Chris Browns of the pop world you so brainlessly adore…

    Read up on the illuminati imagery that the this very exact song your just so up in arms about is riddled with… then, please–for the sake of your children–make better choices about the “pop media” you think your kids should look to…

    It find it humorous that you brag about not being afraid to take “the tough issues” head on, but cant explain Jeffery Dahmer. I think you are dilusional if you think pop media either has no significant influence on your child or that Katy Pery, Miley Cyrus and the rest of the former Disney girl trainwrecks are in anyway appropriate for children… Disney got your kids hooked on them early, mainveined their works into your kids brain… and now look at these pop icons. The drink, smoke, have sex amd promotesdamn near every singl wrong thing imaginable to your children… YOUR children… who started looking up these kids amd very young ages. “HEY KIDS LOOK AT ME, IM ALL CUTE AND FUNNY WHEM IM 12, but now that im 17 i pretty much do everything your parents told you not to… an look, im fine, im pretty and people like me. Dont you wanna grow up an be just like me?

    As the father of teen, i can tell youthat while you may think youre always be the most important am influential people in your childs lives, its not reality. Your influence wanes an guess what? All that childhood nostalgia your kids feels for allthose “disney great” as a kid works beautifully as a well inocculated seed.

    Your so dam worried about your kids being popular that you actually decided tha Katy Perry NEEDS TO BE a part of your childs life?

    WTF? I mean thats like letting your kid smoke weed so that you can then talk about how bad weed is…

    WoW… Im at a loss for you all.

  11. Steve Smith says:

    Song writers some times don’t think about this stuff. I think it is an outrage that they mention that killer. But, what do they care? They’re making bank! They should have thought of all those victims families. I think it’s time to inform every website that mentions this topic in this song, especially that dirt bag killer.

  12. Pingback: How to Talk to Your Kids About the Super Bowl - VillageQ

  13. I see how in no way the standards of human decency have dropped because someone put what they wanted into their song (or at least Katy’s studio execs did). I understand your anger because your son found out about Dahmer but there are ways to turn that into a positive. Explain to him the failing standards of mental health treatment and understanding and hostility towards homosexuality that were factors in Dahmer’s life leading to his murders. Also, if that’s what you and your son have to fear… lucky you. That song is primarily bubblewrapped and covered in safety tape. There’s music much more vulgar and much more graphic in lyrics and subject matter than that song and it doesn’t immediately make it bad.

    I think what really needs to be done is you need to sit back and consider your parenting skills.

  14. I rather not say my name says:

    I’m a 13 year old girl and I know all about Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, Richard Ramirez, and etc. I don’t think it will mess up your sons life it may be scary to him but I would just try and teach him from this experience. Make sure he knows right from wrong and this is the time to enforce the “don’t talk t strangers” rule that all parents have. I know if may seem odd that I am 13 years of age and a female but I am interested in learning about these people so, I know what I’m talking about. I would appreciate it if you don’t say “Your just a kid” thanks.

    • This is all good advice. I do find it helpful to get a perspective from someone like you who sees things from a different angle than I do as a worried parent. Thank you.

  15. Your welcome glad I can help your thinking be more at ease

  16. Im so glad your addressed this and wrote about it, it doesn’t seem to have gotten as much attention as I had thought it would (or shock and horror) for these depraved lyrics. Katy used to be someone i let my kids listen to and now she is simply boycotted in our house. that she would lend herself to such low depraved lyrics killed any buzz we had for her.

  17. So cruel. I can’t imagine this. The lyrical content in some of these songs. It broke my heart to hear about the kid. 🙁

  18. Steve Cameron says:

    I wasn’t sure I had heard the lyrics correctly – so I googled the song….

    I find it shameful that Katie Perry would use Dahmer as a lyric in a pop song – what was she thinking – and believe me – she was thinking.

    I am not a prude, nor am I against profanity – I recall my mother walking in on me and group of friends as the opening of Plaistow Patricia blared out of our family stereo… (googlel that!) – but this is totally unjustifiable.
    Katie Perry – you should be ashamed of yourself.

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