Kesha Rose Sebert, who put a dollar sign in her name because she thought it would be funny, has been the unequivocal teenpop sensation of 2010. Every single she’s released has gone at least Top Ten, and she’s released five to date, not counting two features (one, with 3OH!3, returned the “Blah Blah Blah” favor; the other, with Taio Cruz, is as boring as everything else he does), and her debut “TiK ToK” is a front-runner for Billboard’s Single of the Year, as measured by sales, downloads, and airplay. (It will probably lose to Katy Perry’s “California Gurls,” which was produced by the same team, and sounds like it.)
“TiK ToK,” along with the rest of Ke$ha’s debut album, Animal, is electro-hedonism gone feral, the vocal-processing software AutoTune used not towards the distancing, robot-the-pain away ends of Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreaks, nor for the future-party of the Black-Eyed Peas’ The E.N.D., nor to create an effortless glide as in Cher’s “Believe” and Chris Brown’s “Forever,” but in the goofy, jackal-scavenging fashion of Lil Wayne, not to correct but to emphasize mistakes, make strange little runs, and clown around. Her persona is equal parts reckless party-girl and gleeful antisocial force of destruction, her set expression in countless publicity photos neither the dead-eyed come-hither gaze or the welcoming smile which are both traditional in pop, but an off-putting smartass smirk. She doesn’t lure; she baits. She could even be said to troll, and very successfully; parents, teachers, school administrators, older siblings, and people who think of themselves as having good taste all hate her.
Perhaps the most cutting dismissal, of the many that have been flung at her over the past year or so, is the one that goes she’s just Lady Gaga Lite, a dancey attempt to shock without the visual imagination or the aesthetic chutzpah of the original. This, I think, misses the point by a large margin; while it’s true that “TiK ToK” shares quite a bit of Eurobosh DNA with “Just Dance,” Ke$ha’s lyrics push much farther into a sort of cosmological Will-to-Party, and with a greater comic specificity, than Gaga’s ever have. (“But we kick them to the curb unless they look like Mick Jagger,” whatever you may think of the sentiment, could have been delivered by no one else on the charts or off.) And while Gaga’s aesthetic changes with every song, every show, every smash-cut, Ke$ha’s has remained remarkably consistent, a bricolage of postcolonial high-fashion referentiality, homeless-teen scrounging, and little-girl dress-up.
Glitter is a key signifier for her — it’s tacky but arresting, cheap and universally applicable, and sticks irritatingly around for ages — and much in the same way that a fastidious dresser doesn’t want to get too near an energetic dancer covered in glitter, people whose musical taste is delicately and immaculately curated, with carefully ordered pantheons and not a microgenre out of place, recoil from her blurting, thumping, irresistibly gauche music as though personally offended. Which is fun to watch, but only incidental to the larger social point of her music, which is to create mental and physical spaces in which girls — especially young girls — can try on identities, attitudes, and postures which are not generally encouraged by their elders or the society in which they are trying to orient themselves. This has been true of most pop music, of course, especially in the many dialectics in which “pop” is opposed to some other kind of music, something Real, True, Artistic (and not incidentally Masculine). Ke$ha is very much heir to the tradition of the Shangri-Las, ABBA, Blondie, Madonna, Britney, Xtina and Gaga, but even their champions have sometimes had difficulty following her out onto her particular ledge. Gleeful dumbness, after all, has historically been an exclusively male privilege.
I HAVE A HEART I SWEAR I DO
She has a new album out. The label’s term is “companion album,” and various other sources are calling an EP; its most obvious antecedent is Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster, which was released just over a year after her debut The Fame, with a more compact running time and more willfully strange, more insistently Gaga, whatever that may have turned out to be. Cannibal does not look, on first encounter, as though it will produce a “Bad Romance” which will justify the ways of Ke$ha to man; she is for the most part doubling down instead of blossoming out. Which is fine; if “We R Who We R” doesn’t tell us anything new (but see below), it still tells us something interesting (but see below).
But I said for the most part. The album (or EP, but I like short albums and will call it one) marks her first faltering steps away from the Max Martin/Dr. Luke/Benny Blanco triumvirate which has had a benevolent stranglehold on pop throughout 2010. Not that she steps far — even when one of the Trinity isn’t involved, one of their in-house producers is — but two songs in particular, the spare, rhythm-heavy “Sleazy” and the lushly synthesized, even pretty “C U Next Tuesday” are new sounds for her, and represent a willingness to play around with form and self-presentation that wasn’t entirely apparent on her debut, despite the electronic gauziness of “Stephen” and the indie-rock surge of “Animal,” neither of which are particularly followed up on here.
But to begin at the beginning. Not with the first song on the album, which we’ll get to as a more general statement of purpose, but with the first song most of us heard from the album, the advance single sent out to prepare the ground, to reestablish her on the radio (though she’s never completely left; the fourth single off Animal, “Take It Off,” was still in rotation), and (as the advance publicity made clear) to jump on the bandwagon of the It Gets Better campaign, to which she was one of the first pop-star contributors (a comparison of her self-effacing video with that of Nicki Minaj, which Norman Brannon has elegantly deconstructed, is instructive). “We R Who We R” doesn’t at all live up to Ke$ha’s own hype as a statement of liberation and identity for marginalized gay, lesbian, trans, etc. teens, unless you squint very hard — “we’ll be forever young yuh-yuh-yuh-yuh-young” is a particularly sour note in light of gay suicide, violence, and AIDS — but of course anyone can claim anything as an anthem, and if its existence makes one person’s life easier that’s justification enough.
The song is essentially a rewrite of “TiK ToK,” even more so than the degree to which some people believe all her songs are (but when the Ramones did it it was called having a signature sound, ahem), with her comic overstatement of an “I” being replaced by an equally comic, equally overstated, but for all that empowering “we.” In place of whisky-for-toothpaste cred-proving, she’s more interested in what she’s wearing — “got Jesus on my neck-a-lace-uss-uss” could carry a whole courseload of semiotic unpacking, and neither heartland conservatives who hear it as a religious dogwhistle nor dogmatic atheists who hear it as a belittling of religion (or more likely, vice versa) would ever be proved right —hardly uncommon for a second album. And where the middle eight of “TiK ToK” reached for a sort of dancefloor transcendence, as she surrenders woozily to the DJ, and her vocal is AutoTuned out of human range, “We R Who We R” takes that upscaling vocal to (comically) cosmic heights. And lows, although the parody of a male voice she gets by downtuning her vocal was first unveiled on “Dinosaur,” the easiest-to-love song on Animal.
In fact much of Cannibal refers back to Animal, in a constructive, continuity-laced way that suggests she’s less interested in trying out new identities (ever since Madonna a major imperative of the successful pop star) than in fleshing out the world she’s already created — or in unveiling its next level. But fantasy novelists and video-game designers are only metaphors: what she’s actually doing is using the method of classical composers, repeating and developing themes. (She’s hardly alone in this, of course; it’s one of the basic tools in the kit of anyone who performs more than one song, but it’s rarely talked about, perhaps because it’s so obvious as to not be worth mentioning.)
Nowhere does she do this more thrillingly so than on the bravura “Cannibal,” where she takes the wordless run at the end of “TiK Tok”’s chorus — you remember, “tick tock on the clock, but the party don’t stop, no woah-oh-uh-oh, woah-oh-uh-oh” — and refashioning it into a sort of high-drama cri de coeur, a surprisingly haunting performance that made me think of avant-garde classical vocalist Cathy Berberian, even if she only means to imitate Dolores O’Riordan out of the Cranberries. (Katy Perry’s gleeful Tarzan cries in the “California Gurls” chorus, close cousin to that of “TiK ToK,” may also have been an influence, but for a more in-depth discussion of the Katy Perry Question, see below.)
“Cannibal” is her best song qua song (that is, in terms of lyrical ingenuity and structure) to date: a relentless exploration of the woman-as-maneater conceit, followed through with black wit, juvenile scatology, and a sort of frenzied gusto that makes Hall & Oates’ previously definitive take on the theme an unconvincing, washed-out sketch by comparison. Much of Ke$ha’s power, in terms of self-presentation, comes from her use of tropes that would be not only ordinary but tiresome coming from male rockers but read as novel and antagonizing when sung by a careless-sounding twenty-three-year-old white girl; what would be a rote cautionary tale about the dangers of female sexuality if sung by a man in the third person is instead an intentionally unsettling (in the cartoon-horror pop idiom of “Thriller” and “Disturbia”) declaration that she actually is what misogynistic nightmares have always accused women of being, from the vampires, witches, and succubi of folklore to the domineering horrors in Thurber and Nathanael West to the Female Voids of small-press cartoonists’ rantings.
Not that “Cannibal” is in any way an up-with-womyn tract on reversing male oppression (but for more on Ke$ha’s feminist failings, see below) — it is, after all, meant to be funny, which is probably the single fact about Ke$ha and her music that needs bearing in mind at all times. She’s an entertainer in a very old tradition, and if her sense of humor doesn’t precisely map onto that of a thirtysomething music critic who can pull feminist theory (not to mention Thurber and Nathanael West) out of his ass, that’s as it should be. Even if “whut it was a joke” doesn’t cover the multitude of sins authority-baiting teenagers would like it to, it’s important to recognize that her medium is as much comedy (of a sort) as it is pop, if only to be able to point out when her jokes aren’t funny.
THE IMMENSITY OF THE FUCK I’M NOT GIVING
In addition to “Cannibal” and “We R Who We R,” Ke$ha (and/or her label) released two other songs as iTunes downloads in the weeks before Cannibal the album was released. Both of them extend her persona a bit more into new territories, cheat codes granting access to unseen corridors.
I’ve said elsewhere that “Sleazy” bears the marks of acts which are more attuned to rhythm than Ke$ha has hitherto (specifically Far East Movement’s “Like A G6,” where Dev’s disaffected female voice seems to owe something to her, and Sleigh Bells, who are similarly vulgar and loud), but that may just be the result of a rare outside producer (Bangladesh, best known for Lil Wayne’s “A Milli”) applying his loop-rhythm touch to the Ke$ha formula. The result is her best, or at least nimblest rapping to date; which deserves a moment of consideration on its own. Because although she doesn’t make hip-hop, she does rap, and has ever since the vocal she laid down as a goof for “TiK ToK” became the final track. This is a problem, according to the strict constructionists on every side of the hip-hop/pop dialogue, not only because she’s not “good” at rapping (she’s not an MC, and doesn’t craft rhymes; she just delivers her pop lines in a sing-song flow), but because she’s entirely divorced from the culture and ethic of hip-hop — not only is she not street (read: black), she doesn’t even act like she wants to be.
Again, she’s not a trailblazer in this: Fergie’s been rapping, even as the Black Eyed Peas have mutated away from hip-hop into their own electro-thump hybrid, for years, and off the charts we’ve had Uffie, Princess Superstar, and on into obscurity. (As a side note: people who have been accusing Ke$ha of ripping off Uffie have been making the classic mistake of thinking European club music matters at all to American pop; like the rest of us, she’d never heard of Uffie until a music critic brought her up.) But even though it’s not a hip-hop song (except in the elastic sense in which all modern pop is produced using hip-hop techniques), “Sleazy” is a response of sorts to the kind of hip-hop/R&B song in which a man brags about purchasing power as sexual prowess, Gucci bags as a stand-in for (and, especially in The-Dream, transubstantiated to) erotic achievement. Ke$ha rejects the come-on as bougie, and brags instead about money-saving devices like ganking half-full bottles from deserted tables. She’ll get sleazy, but it will be on her terms; phat beats, not bankrolls, will make her come. (“To your place,” she amends, fooling no one.)
She has a man in “Sleazy” (but would be willing to ditch him for those phat beats), but it’s her girls that really count; the We of “We R Who We R” branching out to mean We Who Have A Good Time and Won’t Put Up With Yr Shit. “We runnin this town just like a club,” she boasted on that leadoff single, and on “Blow” she elaborates on what that means: something between a grand-vault heist, taking hostages, and Bond villainy, basically. For someone so ostensibly associated with decadence, you’d think she might be tempted to work a fellatio or cocaine pun into the title, but no, this song is pure action-movie and she sticks to the script, every explosion in place.
It is perhaps the most straightforward song on the album, and therefore the dullest, but it’s also (for that reason) the most viscerally exciting, the long cut-in, cut-out vowels of the chorus staggered in classic drum ’n’ bass patterns and the screwed up tension on the spoken-word “we are taking … over” sounding as excited, even as breathless, as a small child having so much fun she almost can’t stand it. If nothing else, she will have a productive future as a dancefloor belter; but her personality and comic lyric sensibility are (for the present) too obtrusive to let her be as anonymous as dance could wish.
So much for the first half of the album, the songs which will be pulled for singles (and all of which were released in advance); the second half is less thrilling but possibly more suggestive, either of roads she may take or experiments she won’t pursue.
IN THE LIMELIGHT I PLAY IT OFF FINE
“The Harold Song” is the first slackening of tempo we’ve had, and as a ballad (co-)writer and performer Ke$ha’s better than she was on Animal, where the ballads were easily the low point of the album. If this is a highlight of Cannibal, it’s because she dares to be as specific as she is in her dance numbers — and recalling “the time we jumped the fence when the Stones were playing and we were too broke to get in” marks the second reference to the Greatest Rock & Roll Band In The World (1969 edition of the world) in as many albums, which is deeply significant; far more than Liz Phair ever was, Ke$ha is the true female response to the Rolling Stones. As crass, as boorish, as unkempt, and as obnoxious to all right-thinking people as Mick Jagger was in his heyday, she’s also as fascinating, as skillful with a turned phrase or artful juxtaposition, and as eager to exploit her talent and that of those around her for maximum gain.
Which is where Katy Perry comes in, as the Beatles to her Stones. Katy, with her winking references to a glamorous past, her goofy sense of humor (which never tips over into the antisocial), her fondness for playing dress-up, and her archly twee approach to image-curating, is the safe alternative to Ke$ha, her uncomplicated odes to acceptable female sexuality (lipstick lesbianism, feminine inconstancy, bikini modeling, playing underage virgin for some guy) free of the aggression, flippancy, and callousness which marks Ke$ha’s contributions to the canon.
This song is a helpful comparison between the two: Ke$ha seems to have adopted some of Katy’s mannerisms for the space of the song (or rather they both borrowed them from British vocalists like Kate Nash and Marina Diamandis; there are vowel shapes in there which are quite foreign to American speech), but the specificity of her images, as well as her willingness to portray herself as not just vulnerable but messed up — “I would give it all to not be sleeping alone” isn’t the kind of confession the eternally self-possessed Perry would dream of making, even if she does want to make sure everyone knows she’s okay with having sex — lends a much greater level of authenticity to her self-pity than the airbrushed vapidity of “The One That Got Away,” Perry’s similar nostalgic ballad, complete with matching references to long-irrelevant rock & roll icons.
I should mention here that I’m not entirely dismissive of Katy Perry; “Teenage Dream,” apart from or even perhaps because of the skin-crawling sexual politics, is one of the great singles of its era, and “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” is a fantastic alternate-universe Ke$ha song. But that’s another essay. Also, in re: my deployal of the authenticity-word, I should stress that for all I know Harold is the name of a record exec who told Ke$ha the album needed a slowie; reading biography into lyrics is nearly always fatal.
Though sometimes it’s inevitable. “Crazy Beautiful Life” is Ke$ha taking stock of her position after what must have been, from her perspective, a complete revolution in modes, methods, and manners of living. Fame and sudden success can force strange perspectives on a person (though not nearly as strange as prolonged success), and her insistence on keeping the party going, of even finding a degree of authenticity (that word again) there which is nowhere else to be found in her life, is admirable both for its consistency — the song is yet another “TiK ToK” descendant — and for the singleness of purpose it reveals; once more she’s conceiving of the party as a fight, exhilarating perhaps but disciplined as well. And it’s conceived as a We: again she’s moving from a sort of superheroic solitude to an action-team inclusiveness.
But the song also reveals that she’s been listening to people with a nimbler rhythmic sense than she’s hitherto betrayed; the half-step rhythm of “try dodgin all the douchebag guys” even gestures towards a ragtime-like syncopation after the fashion of Lily Allen’s “Smile.” Who knows; she might even develop flow.
IF I EVER GET DESPERATE
We move on to the album’s final two new songs (there is one more track, a wholly unnecessary remix of Animal’s title track which resamples the pitch and removes its impressive forward motion in favor of slurred, undanceable dub, and which I will probably delete from my iPod as soon as I’ve finished writing about the album), and the different ways in which they deal with one of the major through-lines of Ke$ha’s body of work: disappointing men.
I mean, of course, men who are disappointing (she’s far too comically invincible to worry about the other syntactic path). Animal contained five songs directed at such men, at varying levels of vituperation, and on Cannibal, the title track and “Sleazy” have already dismissed guys who can’t measure up, both more wittily than anything that was on the debut. So it’s disappointing in its own right to hear “Grow A Pear” return to the same gender-shaming well of “Kiss N Tell” — and in fact to double down on it. “I just can’t date a dude with a vadge” scalds with its rigidly gendered dismissiveness where “you’re actin like a chick why bother” was merely fair-play turnabout.
The transsexual community will no doubt find it offensive, as is their right; but even beyond that, it’s sheer bullying, the sort of thing you say not to explain but to wound. I’d applaud her for her willingness to let the song make her look ugly, but I’m not sure she realizes it does; she’s repeated the sentiment in interviews and seems to be unaware that it’s kind of regressive. Which is of course all in keeping with her Jagger-for-the-2010s persona (the man who sang “Back Street Girl” and “Under My Thumb” was similarly unconcerned with sexual politics except as a weapon), but in light of her vocal support for the It Gets Better movement, it’s a little disconcerting, like hearing someone who has a sibling with Down Syndrome call the unpopular kid a retard to make their lunch table laugh.
That same impulse towards immaturity is evident only in the title of “C U Next Tuesday” — if you don’t see the joke, abbreviate it — which is otherwise the loveliest, most delicate thing she’s ever done. (Thanks be to David Gamson, who worked a similar magic on Scritti Politti’s equally lush mid-80s work.) The juvenile joke of the title makes this a one-upping of Britney Spears’ “If You Seek Amy,” but the actual song sounds more like the synth-strobing “Unusual You,” an album track buried deep on Circus which is the best thing La Brit has done since “Toxic.” Ke$ha’s song is another dismissal, but this time there’s emotion behind it: she would give in (and still might; catch her in the right mood), but the dude’s fronting like he hasn’t got a girlfriend and she’s not going to let him cheat on a sister. The careless, reckless, self-inebriated party girl we were introduced to in “TiK ToK” has developed something like a conscience — or, perhaps, a sense of community — which dovetails with the suspended, frictionless sound of the track: it doesn’t come down one way or the other because she is facing a genuine moral crisis, which lends an ache to her vocal and makes the AutoTune flutter helplessly as the lines fade. She’ll scabrously call him a cunt, but there’s regret as well as a faint possibility of hope — after all, maybe she will see him next Tuesday — which will make his inevitable disappointment all the more satisfying. After all, despite the prettiness she’s still in the business of comedy, and setting up a stooge for a downfall is one of the most reliable laugh-getters there is.
Still, it’s a marker of how far her craft has developed that she easily plays both sides, the comic and the heartfelt, without sacrificing one to the other. She’s still Ke$ha, avenger of Girls Who Think They Got Swagger, but she can operate under deep cover too, which makes me all the more interested to see what further developments the future may hold.
I AM IN LOVE WITH EVERYTHING
I wanted to finish this, my second long essay about Ke$ha in ten months, with a personal reflection. I’ve spent more time thinking and writing about Ke$ha than I have on any other subject this year and maybe in my entire life. I’m not quite sure why. That is, I know why I’ve done it — because I found the subject interesting, had something to say, and people I respect have encouraged me at it — but I don’t know why I haven’t really pursued the same extensive course on other subjects. Although my major strength as a researcher and writer is in pop history, Ke$ha hardly represents the limit of my engagement with modern pop, and in a lot of ways she seems to offer a smaller canvas on which to present my thoughts about celebrity, pop identity, and the aesthetics of technology than people like Kanye West, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, or Justin Bieber might. She’s after all a fairly minor figure in the current pop constellation, and could easily disappear after this one annus mirabilis without much comment or surprise. (Hey, remember Ke$ha? That was weird.) I hope she doesn’t, if only for selfish reasons; I’d like to continue to write about her!
But I’m not sure why I’m drawn to write about her in ways that I’m not about Katy Perry, who has a lot in common with her (not least of which is the Martin/Luke/Blanco production team), or B.o.B. or Nicki Minaj or Taylor Swift, who have all also had very good years. I don’t identify with her more (if anything, she’s the least sympathetic person on the charts as far as my temperament and habits are concerned), but in some way I feel like she’s the key to understanding something important about pop in this year, at this time, in this moment of our lives — which means she’s key to understanding something important about the world. Perhaps it’s only that Ke$ha is the current expression of the barbaric yawp which is always an undercurrent in American pop, a giddy, nasty, gleeful symbol of antisocial destructiveness which has found expression before in jazz, blues, honky tonk, rock & roll, funk, punk, metal, and hip-hop and which, now that every microgenre and regional scene is exhaustively documented and studied for signs of life, has no choice but to bubble up right in the plain light of day on the pop charts, where nobody much cares what happens as long as it moves.
Or maybe I’m just contrary, and like to take up the least likely causes to champion. Anyone hated as much as Ke$ha must be doing something right, after all. Maybe it’s true what I’ve sometimes said, that there’s no such thing as bad music, just music that isn’t listened to with the proper ears, and this is my way of arguing it in this specific case, of trying to give you the proper ears for this music.
Or maybe I’m just perseverating (the Asperger-spectrum word for obsessing) on the topic. Wouldn’t be the first time. Probably won’t be the last, either. Your patience — no, your kind indulgence — is much appreciated.
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