Crosstalk: Is Ke$ha the nadir of contemporary pop?
Steven: Because I write about pop culture for a living, which means I get paid to analyze and discuss “low” forms of art like it's life-or-death business, I've tried hard to forcibly remove “guilty pleasure” from my vocabulary. Both as a critic and a regular dude who makes no apologies for owning (and loving) Phil Collins' No Jacket Required, I believe life is too short to feel bad about indulging in enjoyable things that could potentially embarrass you in front of your friends. Besides, I'm a 32-year-old married guy with a mortgage. It's not as if admitting that I like Ke$ha (performing Thursday at the Rave/Eagles Ballroom) is going to kill my street cred; I don't have any street cred to begin with.
Wait, did I just say out loud that I like Ke$ha? Just when I thought I had stabbed the concept of guilty pleasures in the heart, the living embodiment of liking something in spite of your better, nobler impulses has lunged forward and spewed Red Bull-colored vomit all over me. For those who don't know, Ke$ha is a sorta-singer/sorta-rapper who has become the biggest new pop star of 2010. She exploded out of the gates late last year with her first single, “Tik Tok,” which went on to become the longest-running No. 1 debut hit song since Debby Boone's “You Light Up My Life” in 1977. Her album, Animal, came out in January, and has since sold a million copies and been downloaded probably 10 times as many more, spawning subsequent gobs of catchy obnoxiousness like “Blah Blah Blah” and “Your Love Is My Drug.”
Ke$ha has described her personal aesthetic as “garbage chic,” which is another way of saying that she walks, talks, and looks like a proudly vacuous, profoundly awful, and guilelessly trashy person on a never-ending whiskey-'n'-coke binge. Everything about Ke$ha is affected, from the sociopathic sneer of her highly Vocoder-ized vocals to the aggressive soullessness of the lyrics, which take hedonism well past the point of fun and into a dark, dank hell of Facebook catchphrases and bimbo-airhead posturing doubling as female empowerment.
For example, check out some of the lyrics from one of my personal highlights from Animal, “Party At A Rich Dude's House:”
Swimming pool, limousines (C'mon let's do it)
C'mon let's cause a scene (C'mon let's do it)
Cigar in the caviar (C'mon let's do it)
I'm pissin' in the Dom Perignon (C'mon let's do it now)
No, we are not on the list (C'mon lets do it)
No, we don't give a shit (C'mon lets do it)
Dance till your pants come off (C'mon get naked)
Party till the break of dawn (C'mon lets do it now)
Does Ke$ha do anything to make society better? Of course not. Is Animal alluring and dastardly propaganda that encourages young, impressionable people to be massive pieces of shit? You betcha. Have either of these facts impeded my enjoyment of Ke$ha's amoral, brain-dead, and relentlessly hooky singles? Sadly, no. I'm not proud to admit it—yes, you could say I feel guilty about it—but part of the reason I like Ke$ha is because she's awful, superficial, and selfishly invested only in herself, even if this comes at the expense of some poor rich guy's expensive champagne. Maybe I'd be more resistant to Ke$ha's persona if it weren't delivered in ingeniously simple and shamelessly derivative electro-pop packaging. But as it stands I can't stop playing her songs, which for all their tired and winking button-pushing bristle with an endearingly crude, fuck-the-world energy that has pulsed through the heart of vital pop music since the time of double-entendre-laced jazz tunes in the early 20th century, and probably before that, too.
Wow, I almost made Ke$ha sound classy there! Anyway, if anyone were going to have my back on this in A.V. Club land, I'd expect it to be you, Genevieve, since you've written enthusiastically and insightfully about the likes of Lady Gaga and Robyn. But I know you hate Ke$ha, a stance I understand, though knowing your love of brilliantly frivolous pop fluff, I'd think you'd be a little more open to her disreputable charms. But you seem to almost take Ke$ha's popularity personally. C'mon, GK, I know you brush your teeth every morning with a bottle of Jack. Why no love for Ke$ha?
Genevieve: To put it simply, I don't love Ke$ha because I do love pop music. Or rather, I love some of it, and think it can be worthy of something beyond “guilty pleasure” status. It seems your position boils down to the old “so bad it's good” argument: She's “awful, superficial, and selfishly invested only in herself,” wrapped up in “shamelessly derivative” packaging that makes her “bimbo-airhead posturing doubling as female empowerment” go down smooth. It's like you took every criticism ever lobbed at modern pop and turned it into an asset. If that's not ironic enjoyment, than what is? I believe you when you say you find Ke$ha's music catchy—damned if I'm not humming “Tik Tok” to myself, against my will, as I type this—but I feel like your justification for liking her stems from the belief that pop music isn't really capable of being anything more than enjoyable trash, so why not embrace someone who embraces being trash?
Not saying there isn't a shit-ton of trash on modern pop radio, some of which is pretty damn enjoyable. And if Ke$ha's success was limited to one or two blips on the pop-radio radar—say, her guest vocals on Flo Rida's “Right Round,” a trashy pop song I genuinely love—then I'd be able to shrug her off as a sleazy, third-tier also-ran, a sort of latter-day Willa Ford to Lady Gaga's Britney Spears. But it's her ubiquity that really irks me, because it makes me fear that this is the direction pop music is going: Rather than the ambitious, polished pop artifice of Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, or even Rihanna, we're succumbing to the chintzy, off-brand aesthetic of Ke$ha and whatever terrible imposters will surely emerge in her wake. Say what you will about these artists' calculated images and highly produced sounds—for me, those factors are artistic endeavors in their own right, though I know many people who would bristle at calling something so inauthentic “art”—but at least they pull it off with commitment and flair. With Ke$ha, it feels like she just hot-glued together whatever glitter and feathers she had lying around, called it “garbage chic,” and hoped is would distract from the fact that she can't sing, rap, dance, or provide any sort of entertainment beyond being a trainwreck.
The flimsiness of Ke$ha's shtick was driven home during her laughable performance on Saturday Night Live in April, which had all the ambition and production value of a high-school talent show.
There's a moment after she sings the intro to “Tik Tok,” where she reveals her sad little American flag cape with all the excitement and grandeur of scratching her own ass. When the audience responds appropriately—that is, with complete silence—you can see the panic on her face, the moment where she thinks to herself, “Oh shit, they're on to me.” As for what follows… well, I've put on more exciting performances with a hairbrush-microphone in front of my mirror. You say you like Ke$ha for being pure, unadulterated trash, which I could almost understand—I like Jersey Shore for very similar reasons—if she pulled it off with any sort of panache. As it is, though, she just seems like a bratty 13-year-old who discovered that she can make her parents mad at her by being rude and saying naughty words. I demand more of my pop stars, but from other conversations we've had, Steve, you seem to think this amounts to something akin to “punk rock.” Explain to me again, please, how exactly Ke$ha is punk rock?
Steven: Is this thing on? Can you hear me okay? I feel like we’re not communicating here. How exactly is Ke$ha punk rock? Well, I can’t answer that question, because I don’t believe that. Let me see if I follow you correctly: You don’t love Ke$ha because you love pop music, which means that a Ke$ha lover like me must actually hate pop music, or at least be only capable of enjoying it ironically. Is that your argument? Really? Do you realize how snobby that sounds? Is Ke$ha really so abominable that whether you enjoy her music becomes a referendum on an entire genre? (Can we at least dispense with the “Ke$ha has no talent” talk? She co-wrote every song on her debut record, including “Tik Tok,” a song even you can’t get out of your head.)
Yes, I think pop music is capable of being “more” than “enjoyable trash.” Elvis Presley made pop music. The Beatles made pop music. Motown made pop music. Michael Jackson made pop music. Prince made pop music. Timbaland makes pop music. Shall I continue? Look, I think we’re well past the point in critical circles of having to defend the artistic validity of big beats and shiny melodies. You either get that this stuff can move you emotionally, spiritually, and (last but definitely not least) physically, or you don’t. So let’s not worry about criticism from those that don’t.
Now, if you can set aside the issue of defending the honor of dance pop, which I know is near and dear to your heart, can we also agree that sometimes artistic validity not only doesn’t mean a damn thing in this arena, but that this is, in fact, one of the most glorious things about pop music? Authenticity is nice if you’re a harmonica-slinging folkie, but a pop star’s only concern is delivering pleasure in the highest doses possible. Nothing is off-limits in pop; there’s no such thing as being too over-the-top, too tasteless, too gauche. In fact, feel free to be over-the-top, tasteless, and gauche to the nth degree. Why? Because maybe we haven’t seen anybody do it the way you do it before, and the only thing that matters here is kicks, man!
Pop music will always be one of America’s greatest exports because it’s the best example of one of this country’s core ideals: self-actualization. Whatever you want to be in pop music, all you have to do is say you’re that thing and you can become it. Don’t know how to surf? You can still become The Beach Boys. A shy loner more comfortable in the studio than around people? You can still become Prince. Not a tough guy nor a particularly strong rapper? You can still become Dr. Dre. Want to be “a bratty 13-year-old who discovered that she can make her parents mad at her by being rude and saying naughty words?” You become Ke$ha.
As far as I’m concerned, acting like (and appealing to) the bratty 13-year-old inside of all of us is exactly what pop music should be about. You say you want more? What exactly do you mean by “more?” I have to say I’m bemused by how quickly Lady Gaga has become some kind of sacrosanct standard that’s spawned a legion of “chintzy, off-brand” knockoffs. Was it really so long ago that Gaga herself was seen as a low-rent Madonna wannabe pilloried for craven, publicity-seeking moves on Saturday Night Live like the infamous “catfight with Madge” skit?
I’m not trying to knock Lady Gaga; I like Lady Gaga for the same overriding reason I like Ke$ha: She’s fun. Do you remember laughter, my dearest GK? Or am I totally off base here? Please enlighten me: If Ke$ha represents what’s wrong with pop music—rather than simply not appealing to your personal taste—what’s supposedly right?
Genevieve: Whoa, whoa, whoa, let’s take a few deep breaths here, Steve, and remember that we’re talking about Ke$ha. Let’s not let our friendship be torn asunder by a dirty-faced weirdo in a glittery unitard. First, we need to sort out a semantics issue: When we’re talking “pop” here, we’re not talking about The Beatles or Elvis or Prince. We’re talking about modern, dance-oriented pop music, so comparing them in style, message, or impact to popular rock ’n’ roll or R&B from decades past isn’t really playing fair. And perhaps you think we’ve reached a critical acceptance of “big beats and shiny melodies”—because critical acceptance is all that really matters in music appreciation, right?—but from where I’m sitting, getting routinely ribbed by coworkers and outright mocked by commenters for my pop sensibility, that’s not the case. (Remember, you were shocked because I didn’t like Ke$ha, because you assumed if it’s poppy “fluff,” I must like it.) Am I being defensive? Sure. But it’s because I love the idea, more so than the execution, of pop music—because today’s Lady Gagas and Jonases could be the Madonna or Beatles of tomorrowland—that I feel the need to shrilly defend its reputation and sanctity, dancing shoes on and disco stick in hand. Think of it this way: You’re a classic rock 'n' roll guy. How would you feel if someone told you how much he loves Buckcherry, because the band’s proud trashiness encompasses what rock 'n' roll is all about, and suggesting otherwise makes you a snobby elitist? Feeling defensive yet?
Secondly, I wasn’t aware that my job here was to empirically and scientifically prove that Ke$ha is the definitive low point in pop music. Of course my argument boils down to personal taste; that’s what criticism is, personal taste, hopefully buttressed by a healthy knowledge of and context for the thing you’re criticizing. I can’t prove that Ke$ha is The Worst, no more than you can prove she isn’t, and if you think otherwise, you have a frustrating career ahead of you. What I can do is repeat and stand by my earlier point: In terms of being a pop star, as opposed to a radio-friendly blip, Ke$ha is not good enough. She is not polished enough, she is not inspirational enough, and, most importantly, she is not interesting enough. She’s a rough draft that’s somehow skipped through the editing process right to the front page.
So she writes her own songs. So does pretty much every modern pop starlet (with the aid of a battalion of co-songwriters, of course). And, as you’ve shown with that helpful transcription above, just because you can write lyrics doesn’t mean you can write good lyrics. Not that pop needs to have good lyrics—Katy Perry co-wrote every forehead-slapping lyric on her last album, which I bestowed with the lowest grade I’ve ever given an album, but I don’t begrudge her her title of “pop star.” She’s certainly not my cup of tea—though “California Gurls” is the only song that will get “Tik Tok” out of my brain—but I can at least understand the appeal and recognize that some real thought and effort has been put into her music and image. Ke$ha seems to have stumbled ass-backwards into pop stardom after brushing her teeth with too many bottles of Jack, and what you see as glorious rebellion, I see as tired half-assedness.
In the end, this all boils down to what we expect out of our pop stars, and we expect different things. So let’s end on a positive note: You asked me earlier, if Ke$ha’s what’s wrong with pop music, what’s supposedly right? Well, I may not be able to prove that Ke$ha is what’s wrong with pop, but I can propose an alternative in the music of Robyn, which is a dance-pop exemplar in terms of concept, execution, and, most importantly, performance (because she can actually sing). You can have your “Blah Blah Blah,” Steve, I’ll be over here dancing to “Dancing On My Own.”