Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Kim Kardashian West (screenshots from the making of "Jam (Turn It Up)")

“Jam (Turn It Up)” is the strangest relic of Kim Kardashian’s career

Kim Kardashian West (screenshots from the making of "Jam (Turn It Up)")
Graphic: Natalie Peeples (In-House Art)

Kim Kardashian West’s 2011 non-hit single “Jam (Turn It Up)” sounds like it slipped out of a nightmare universe: autotuned dystopian electro-pop, with her robotic nasal drawl repeating “Turn me, turn me, turn me up” so much that the passage of time ceases to make sense. As she chants “they playin’ my jam,” my brain slides into blessed jelly. The song is almost unlistenable, but I listen to it all the time. Check my Spotify account: “Jam (Turn It Up)” has appeared on my most-played tracks every year since 2016. I would pay someone to cross-stitch the line “Feeling good, feeling great, just got paid.”

As Keeping Up With The Kardashians comes to an end after 13 years on E!, I’ve been thinking about the song often. Because in the decade spent building reality TV fame into a global brand, Kim has one major regret—this very track. “If there is one thing in my life I wish I didn’t do…,” she confessed in a 2014 episode of Watch What Happens Live. “Jam (Turn It Up)” is one of the strangest relics of Kim’s rise to fame. Abandoned by its star and largely forgotten by fans, it hovers at roughly two million Spotify plays. The music video, which reportedly involved Kanye West in the days before the pair publicly dated, never saw the light of day, though you can see a 15-second behind-the-scenes clip in a #TBT upload on Kardashian West’s YouTube page from 2015.

Now, after 20 seasons, KUWTK is set end on June 10. Since its 2007 launch, the show has followed the family on their ascent, shaping reality TV and modern fame along the way. Over time, the plot lines shifted from chasing fame to being famous. The final episodes feel like a eulogy. The family visits Lake Tahoe to wax nostalgic about their on-air years; they build a time capsule to commemorate the show. Meanwhile, Kim studies to be a lawyer and struggles in her marriage.

In 2021, Kim is a mother and a mogul. But back in 2011, “Jam (Turn It Up)” pinpointed a specific moment in Kim’s trajectory—the evolution from reality TV star to cultural icon. The song feels like a lark, only possible in that narrow window before Kardashian West clawed her way out of the D-list to the top of the celebrity heap. The first thing to know about “Jam (Turn It Up)” is that Kim never really wanted to record it. A 2011 episode of KUWTK spin-off Kourtney And Kim Take New York follows a reluctant Kim to the recording studio. There, she meets producer The-Dream, whose other credits include Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” and Rihanna’s “Umbrella.” From the start, she’s insistent: One song, no album, proceeds to charity. (“Cancer,” she says vaguely in the episode.)

Like a lot of pop songs, “Jam (Turn It Up)” was written for no one: It was ultimately just given to Kim. The plot of the song is simple: You are at the club, and the DJ is playing your jam, and you want them to turn it up. All Kim has to do is sing the lyrics and let autotune do the rest. But she’s nervous at the mic. At one point, she flees the room, and Kourtney cajoles her back. In classic Kardashian fashion, the episode wraps with a tidy moral. (The episode’s B-plot is that Scott Disick is accessorizing with a $3,500 walking stick, and Kourtney must learn to accept him. Incredible.) Kim is glad she put herself out there. “I love my song,” she says in a confessional, a tinge of Stockholm Syndrome in her voice. “It sounds so amazing.”

Of course, “Jam (Turn It Up)” wasn’t Kim’s only foray outside of the reality TV screen. In 2021, Kim has long outgrown any need for KUWTK. She is a mogul, an icon, a whole-ass brand. Her name appears on makeup, fragrances, waist trainers, and signature emojis. (And yes, I once shattered an iPhone while using a Kimoji case). Her app Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, in which you play a wannabe celebrity with Kim as your cartoon mentor, was named one of the 100 best games of the decade by Polygon. Her SKIMS brand of shapewear, loungewear, and underwear was recently valued at $1.6 billion.

The building of the Kim Kardashian brand comes with controversy, of course. Accusations of blackface while promoting the KKW Beauty. A disastrous attempt at trademarking the word “Kimono.” The general building of the Kardashian name and fortune by appropriating Black culture. This feels like an extension of toxic #GirlBoss culture: When your name is literally a brand, you believe it’s okay to absorb anything you need to make it stronger.

All of these products—the app, the clothes, the cosmetics—were created by someone else, then stamped with Kim’s approval. Sure, she invests and guides and markets, but she’s not mixing perfumes in glass vials or hunching over a laptop to code an app. Maybe that’s why “Jam (Turn It Up)” sits so uncomfortably in her history. If you criticize the song, you’re criticizing her actual efforts. The media was not kind to her foray into pop music. Jim Farber of The Daily News called her the “worst singer in the reality TV universe.” A 2015 Billboard article on the song’s history and lack of impact was a bit kinder: “It’s actually a pretty great The-Dream song,” writes Jason Lipshutz.

There’s an earnestness to the song that feels bygone, an era of Kim never to be repeated, when her fame felt malleable and vulnerable. A bid for pop success wasn’t absurd at the time. Her buddy Paris Hilton’s 2006 “Stars Are Blind” became a cult classic, thanks largely to the fact that the song is an actual bop. But “Jam (Turn It Up)” shares more of a pedigree with another bizarre bubblegum pop monstrosity: Rebecca Black’s “Friday,” also released in 2011. Both songs seem to ignore common musical conventions. They are uncomfortable to listen to, like they were created by an algorithm that had a virus. They get stuck in your head like a bad idea. In some ways, these tracks were ahead of their time. This brand of overproduced, uncanny pop would go on to inspire the hyperpop genre, which, incidentally, Rebecca Black now calls home—she just released a “Friday” remix featuring Dorian Electra, Big Freedia, and 3OH!3. What I’m getting at here is that 100 gecs should absolutely cover “Jam (Turn It Up).”

In one of my favorite photographs of Kim, snapped in 2010, she stands between two Charmin toilet paper bears to officially “open” a public restroom in New York City. These humble celebrity beginnings show that she truly put in the work. Two years later, she would go public with Kanye West. A year after that, she appeared on his arm at the Met Gala, the ultimate arbiter of A-list fame. (Though it was rumored Anna Wintour wasn’t thrilled at the time.) In between shilling for Charmin and appearing on the world’s hottest red carpet, Kim recorded a little song. She’s about to reach another milestone in her career: After June 10, she will no longer be an active reality TV star. KUWTK has functioned as a safety blanket for a long time, anyway. As the family shifted to mega-stardom, the plot lines took some strange and alienating turns. In the final season, Kanye gives Kim a hologram of her dead father for her birthday—an uncanny valley ghost delivering someone else’s script. The official @KUWTK Twitter account called this horror story the “most incredible birthday gift ever.”

With Kim moving on to her next era, how will the show be remembered? As a stepping stone to something bigger, deeper, richer, stranger—just like all of Kim’s endeavors, whether she regrets them or not. Though Kim would prefer we forget her Billboard charts failure, “Jam (Turn It Up)” deserves to be lauded. It’s as iconic as her Mugler Met Gala gown or the photos of her crawling in the desert taken by Kanye. When you hit Kim’s level of global fame, even your failures gain a legendary sheen. “Jam (Turn It Up)” could never happen today, and that’s what makes it so special. It stands out like a misshapen thumbtack on the timeline of her life, one that somehow pins everything together. But Kim—and the world—should embrace this accidental pop masterpiece, the unplanned marker of the “before” and “after” of the Kardashian brand.