Category Archives: Chart Pop

2010 In The Rearview

There is nothing left to say. So this is me saying it.

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To recap:

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’sThe 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 elegantlydeconstructed, 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 Cannibalthe 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$ha, her uncomplicated odes to acceptable female sexuality (lipstick lesbianism,feminine inconstancybikini modelingplaying underage virgin for some guy) free of the aggression, flippancy, and callousness which marks Ke$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.

THIS YEAR’S REMIX WITH THE FUTURE SOUND: 52 True Statements About “United State Of Pop 2009 (Blame It On The Pop)” by DJ Earworm

[flashvideo file=video/blameitonthepop.flv /]

1. The mp3 runs 4:38 minutes long.

2. The Youtube video runs seven seconds longer due to the splash screen inserted at the beginning and end giving title and attribution.

3. It is a mashup, a new audio file created by extracting elements from pre-existing recordings and manipulating them digitally in order to fit together in pitch, rhythm and dynamics.

4. It is composed entirely of audio elements from the twenty-five songs named the most popular of 2009 by Billboard.

5. It was created by a fellow who goes by the name “DJ Earworm.”

6. It is the third such mashup he has created in as many years; if three is enough for a tradition, one of the greatest new year-end traditions is the United State of Pop mashup.

7. A representative comment left on DJ Earworm’s site is “That’s AWESOMEeeeeeee!!! Loveeeee it !!”

8. A representative comment left on a popular snarky online pop-culture magazine is “I am happy to say that I have never heard any of those songs on purpose.”

9. My own reaction to it can be gauged from the fact that it is by a wide margin the single song I have listened to most since January 1st.

10. This is only partly attributable to the fact that I quite like most (though not all) of the constituent songs that went into it.

11. (For example, I can quite easily imagine a mashup made out of those twenty-five songs that would totally suck.)

12. But this is a very different beast from the pop songs that make it up.

13. Structurally, it’s extremely different, being pieced together out of unequal parts; while there is a chorus (or choruses) of a sort, the “verses” don’t conform to any particular pattern.

14. In fact it’s structurally closer to twentieth-century art song than to the average pop song.

15. Which doesn’t make it not-pop — in fact I can think of few songs that would be more awesome for the cast ofGlee to tackle, especially if they keep the super-fast arrangement and trade off the vocals the same way.

16. Admittedly that wouldn’t be nearly as awesome as having all the original artists come out and sing it at say the Grammys, which would make the Grammys awesome for the first time ever.

17. Anyway, my deepest darkest fantasies aside.

18. DJ Earworm’s brief statement about the song on his website is: “This year in the charts, so many of the pop songs this year seem to tell the same story: Yeah, we’ve been through a lot, but right now we’re gonna celebrate with music and dance, and it’s gonna be ok.”

19. It’s that thematic coherence which makes “Blame It On The Pop” one of the greatest mashups of all time, far outpacing even Earworm’s earlier United State of Pop summaries.

20. So for the rest of this piece I will treat it as a coherent work of let’s-say-art, ignoring the piecing-together process which you can look up elsewhere.

21. It starts with a statement of intent: I know you want Pop/Dance/Rock & Roll/Symphonic Soul/Rockin Electronic Club Beats/Hip-Hop Music with the Future Flow.

22. (A later interation of this sequence interpolates Rumba, which is an entirely separate essay.)

23. The question of whether “we” want these things or not is a function of our response to DJ Earworm’s project; the world of the song, like all great pop, assumes that we do.

24. And the question of whether the song actually offers us rock & roll, or symphonic soul, or rumba (the rest are fairly indisputable) is beside the point: certainly the appearance of the All-American Rejects, the Fray, and Kings of Leon cheek-by-jowl with Miley Cyrus and Drake and the Black Eyed Peas supports the song’s claim of inclusivity.

25. That kind of inclusivity is at the heart of a certain kind of pop utopianism, the kind which expresses nostalgia about a Top 40 which “played everything,” or expresses glee about the Shuffle feature equally playing “everything” back to back to back.

26. But neither radio and Shuffle can go as far as DJ Earworm does, because they are constricted by the laws of time and space to only playing one song at a time.

27. (Or rather by the laws of copyright and listener-friendliness. You take my meaning.)

28. That one-song-at-a-time aesthetic, the means by which the vast majority of music is inevitably consumed, is like a library in which books are lined up in a row; they may be wildly different books embracing every genre, idea, or personality possible, but they are separate, each compacted into its own unique self.

29. The aesthetic of “Blame It On The Pop,” on the other hand, is that of some Borgesian ur-text, a book which contains all other books, a world which contains all other worlds: to use the terminology of a separate but analogous pop field, a multiverse.

30. That s. b. a. pop field being of course superhero comics.

31. And the all-inclusivity of “Blame It On The Pop” is best analogized not to “This month’s guest-star: Superman!” but to something like Crisis On Infinite Earths, where every corner of the multiverse however unlikely or silly is engaged in the same story.

32. But of course superhero comics, requiring conflict and danger and stakes-raising, are the opposite of utopian (except in brief flashes); pop, requiring only emotional narratives rather than physical/character-based ones, can be inclusive without positing existential threats.

33. Except, again, for emotional ones; thus the recurrence of the “down, down, down” line: the song is about ability of music to lift the spirit out of depression — and get down down down in the dancefloor sense.

34. Which is a familiar enough trope in pop, especially pop with dancefloor pretensions; perhaps the ur-text in this field is Martha & the Vandellas’ “Dancing In The Streets.”

35. But the utopianism of “Dancing In The Streets” is merely universal, encouraging merely everyone around the world to join them in the dance.

36. The utopianism of “Blame It On The Pop,” by incorporating the many universes represented by many different songs, each slightly (or immensely) different, is on the other hand multiversal: every possible person in every possible world is invited to get down down down.

37. Which is merely to insist on the necessity of interiority to pop: every great pop song involves every listener in a specific, individual emotional narrative.

38. The result is that the multiplying “I”s of “Blame It On The Pop” form a coherent self, engaged in a coherent narrative, for the sympathetic listener.

39. (The unsympathetic listener has probably not made it this far.)

40. But to be more specific about the narrative the song tells.

41. It opens with multiversal utopianism — I got pop, I got dance, etc. — and moves into encouraging uplift — baby don’t worry, it’s alright a-alright when it knocks you down — which works to posit the depression the song works to combat.

42. Then Beyoncé and Miley duet on the theme of self-actualization, capped by the ironic chipmunk-voiced All-American Rejects line “with a big smile on my face/and it never seems out of place” — this is followed by a call to blame this emotionalism on the pop, dance, etc. and a further acknowledgement of depression.

43. On the second break, Justin Timberlake pushes the theme of self-actualization further: “The old me’s dead and gone,” followed by the music dropping out; will.i.am’s got a feeling (woo hoo, remarks Fergie both ironically and spiritually) and the dude from the Fray has found God…

44. IN THE POP, DANCE, ETC. The music bangs, the “chorus” (different every time) explodes, and high priestess of the dance Fergie calls us to put our hands in the air (Beyoncé agrees), and Gaga mocks self-seriousnes as a “po-po-po-po-poker face.”

45. The celebration lasts for the next several choruses, until the music dies again and will.i.am again has a feeling (Beyoncé never had a doubt) that tonight’s gonna be a good night (hasn’t it been already? Is there more than this?), and Drake acknowledges the repetitiveness of the theme, but, Caleb Folowill admits, “I could use somebody.” (Woo hoo, agrees Fergie.)

46. Personal connection, it turns out, is the point of the utopianist dance, as Jason Mraz explains: “look into your heart and you’ll find love love love,” the triple repetition acting as a counterweight to the earlier “down down down.”

47. (Stepping outside that narrative, I want to admire DJ Earworm’s work in rescuing “I’m Yours” — the worst original song on the list by quite some distance — and positioning it as the utopian turn in an already utopian song.)

48. Stop stop stop feeling down down down, the chorus rebukes itself, and then the crystal-beautiful voice of Taylor Swift, held in abeyance till now, breaks in: “Can’t you see [love], Isn’t this easy [feeling love].”

49. With this, Taylor’s own rise in the (external-to-the-song) pop universe is explained not as a blonde, virginal corrective to the ethnic unwholesomeness of the rest of the chart, but as a sudden piercing restatement of pop’s original theme.

50. The Beyoncé/Miley duet returns, Taylor adds in a call not to be afraid, Gaga has had a little bit too much feeling down down down, and on to the fadeout, in which Taylor again has the last word: We’ll make it out of this mess, baby just say yes (pitch-shifted to sound equally similar to “no,” ambiguously enough.)

51. There’s so much going on in the song — not to mention the video, which I haven’t even mentioned but is posted above for your edification — that it rewards close and repeated listening as much as any pop song has ever done.

52. But for all that, it’s admirably simple too: its emotional effectiveness is not in its theoretical play or unexpected combinations, but in the big, broad dynamics that you can call either obvious or universal depending on how you want to spin them, but which it’s disingenuous to call anything but effective.

 kesha.png

We are in the second week of the third month of 2010, and if the pop charts are any kind of measure, then the most important woman in the pop year to date is Kesha Rose Sebert, a twenty-three year old singer born in the San Fernando Valley and mostly raised in Nashville, who calls herself Ke$ha and pronounces the first syllable of her name to rhyme with bleah, or meh.

The reaction to her slow-bursting fame has been predictably varied. Her debut single, “TiK ToK,” hit the top of the Billboard Hot 100 just as the new year turned, which seems like it should be significant, the way all random synchronicity does, and various voices have been raised suggesting that a) she represents the bottoming-out of popular culture, a new low beyond which we cannot go, b) her witless, party-all-the-time persona is yet another cruel blow to the self-respect and potential self-determination of a generation of young women, c) she’s a dumb whore and should be punished for it (and incidentally for inflicting knowledge of her existence on us), and d) hey shut up her music is fun to dance to and you’re the stupid one you big jerkface.

All of these (even c) have their place, and indeed are integral to what for lack of a better phrase I’ll call the Ke$ha Project. But this isn’t a reportorial piece: I’m not interested here in what the Ke$ha Project’s intentional goals are (I assume they don’t go much further than making Ke$ha a star and her producers, songwriters, managers, and record label a lot of money, and to the extent there’s more involved it’s standard-issue self-delusion), but what its cultural, aesthetic, and ideological implications are.

Buckle in. This gone get long.

ERRBODY GETTIN CRUNK CRUNK

Let’s start with “TiK ToK,” because that’s where she first came to most of our notice. I heard it in the early fall just after it was released, because I was downloading and listening to everything the Singles Jukebox covered, but I heard it a few days after reading about it and had forgotten which one she was and the first time I listened to it I thought she might be British and/or black. (I wasn’t listening to the vocals so much as I was responding to the thick, twisty blurt of the music under her; I could hear it coming from the land of Aphex Twin and Dizzee Rascal.) When, around Christmastime, I heard it on the radio, I got a little excited: wow, this weird underground pop song I’d mentally filed away as “not horrible” was making inroads into the mainstream.

And then of course I looked her up and saw that she had never been as underground as I’d thought, that she’d sung the hook for Flo Rida’s “Right Round” and was produced by Max Martin and Dr. Luke, and I made a seamless transition from being mildly interested in her weird bitchy noises to totally fucking rocking out in the car whenever this stupid awesome fizzy-candy song came on the radio. (My relationship with pop radio can basically be summed up as that of a thirteen year old boy to superhero comics: I don’t care how unlikely any of it is as long as I get that fix of eye-bleeding color, abstract sexuality, and stylized violence.)

“TiK ToK” is Ke$ha’s original statement of purpose, so fully and completely representative of her aesthetic that it ends up sounding a little washed-out and pointless on Animal, the subsequent full-length, because it only reinforces the entire message of the album and takes no developing turns into psychotic balladry or maudlin self-pity or aspirational indie rock. Its jocking beats and buzzing, squelchy synths back up a vocal that goes out of its way to annoy anyone with a more settled pair of ears than the thirteen-year-old to whom it is pitched, to sound bratty and clumsy and full of entitlement. It hovers just on the edge of being characterless, and its most thrilling trills and melismas are entirely the product of electronic manipulation.

(Which, if I may go big-picture for a bit, is actually rescuing pop vocals from the contentless affectations of the “soul” diva still much imitated on American Idol, which is always several years behind: those electronic melismas, precisely because they’re unachievable by the human voice, divorce the undeniable thrill of the sound from the ability of the performer, leaving the singer free to focus on the emotion at the heart of the song rather than showboating for showboating’s sake. Yes, I’m about to make a claim that Ke$ha’s affectless snottiness gets to the emotion at the heart of her songs.)

But Ke$ha’s affectless snottiness, the quality in her vocal delivery which irritates even practiced pop listeners unaccustomed to think of themselves as irritable, has a purpose beyond merely dog-whistling this is music which your parents and teachers will HATE. She is playing a character here, and the degree to which the character matches up with the details of her biography is essentially unimportant: what matters is the fidelity of the portrait. The reason it’s easy to hate Ke$ha is that it’s easy to hate the girl she’s playing, the entitled white skank with dead eyes and an aggressive, bottomless need for attention, the feminine equivalent of what in the modern taxonomy of youth culture is commonly called the Douchebag. (A point only underscored by the fact that 3OH!3, the avant-garde heroes of Douchebag Pop, guest on her second single.)

But let’s back up and take a closer look at two words I used to describe the character she play in “TiK ToK.” “White skank” would probably be a pretty uncontroversial description of that character, at least among people for whom the word “skank” is a stable descriptor of something that exists in the world (as opposed to a statement about the state of mind of the person who says it). But we’ll get to that. First let’s unpack “white.”

Since Ke$ha has been in the public eye she’s very much played up her whiteness, cultivating an shaggy blonde mane and choosing publicity photos that accent the pale freckles across her face; but her first (anonymous) introduction to most ears came as the singer of a hook on a hip-hop song, and in the “Right Round” video her presence is only suggested by a black model. She doesn’t sound particularly black; but neither does she sound particularly white, at least when singing hooks. (The party-girl half-talk-half-rap delivery of verses, however… see below.)

Which is nothing new; if you’ve been paying attention to pop music at all over the last ten years, you know that it’s impossible to demarcate where pop ends and hip-hop begins, especially in terms of production technique. Ke$ha is only the latest instance of the slow merge of black and white, from Em+Dre to Timbalake to the rainbow PCD — in fact several observers would probably mock me for even bringing up the old-fashioned idea that there’s any distinction in 2010 between “white music” and “black music.” And certainly Ke$ha’s use of bog-standard hip-hop tropes like phones blowing up, getting crunk, having swagger, etc. isn’t terribly remarkable; except I keep looking at her and thinking it is.

(Theory for later development: is the reemergence of country as a powerhouse pop form e.g. Taylor Swift a way for white people uncomfortable with all this blackness to rope off a pop preserve unindebted to hip-hop norms, Darius Rucker being the token redshirt so we can claim non-racism?)

Of course, race is always complicated by class in America. Hip-hop or not, Ke$ha’s music is intentionally, gloriously vulgar, full of hard, jacking beats, shiny synths and excessive, tacky AutoTune — which it shares with the emerging up-from-the-depths agenda of (pop) hip-hop as set by Soulja Boy, Kid Cudi and Lil Wayne. The elegant excess of Beyoncé and the highbrow madness of Lady Gaga are equally beyond her reach; Ke$ha is without their poise and so decides that her clumsy obviousness isn’t a bug, but a feature.

Which brings us to “skank,” a word that connotes as much a class slur as a gender one. Skanks are not only easy, they’re cheap — anyone from any social stratum can be a whore or a bitch or a slut, but a skank is judged not only for her promiscuity but for her low intelligence, offensive person and poor taste. To call Ke$ha (or, properly, her persona) a skank is to imply that she has no value on any level, a brainless aggregate of bad impulses void of self-respect who therefore (for some reason) deserves none from us. “Us” being the implicated listener, we who are called to sit in judgment on this woman for being a skank.

There are more misogynist, classist, racist, and nihilist implications in the common use of the word than can easily (or briefly) be teased out here; enough to say that the Ke$ha Project, without ever using the word or as far as I know caring one way or the other about its use, reclaims skankiness as a positive attribute in much the same way that 90s feminists did with words like bitch, by turning the concept from one of other-focused moral judgment to one of self-focused strength.

Yes, the lyrics to “TiK ToK” are ridiculous; no one with functioning taste buds brushes their teeth with a bottle of Jack, no one with a sense of self-preservation declares so blithely that when they leave for the night they’re not coming back. And nobody born after 1960 thinks Mick Jagger is any ideal of hotness. That’s not the point; the point is that by naming these things as possible in the world of the song (all songs create sub-universes in which they are true, just like stories; didn’t you know?), she basically turns herself into a superhero, a woman whose appetite for alcohol, sex and dance is so strong that she’s basically indestructible. (Can you think of an image more terrifying to what feminism with such enviable economy calls the patriarchy?) The only moment of vulnerability, appropriately enough for a story told in song, is when the DJ addressed in the second person plays music, when she’s out the dancefloor that is the object of her heroine’s quest, where she raises her hands in the classic image of surrender, and at the end of the bridge, has what I can only describe as an electronic orgasm.

Followed by “Now the party don’t start till I walk in,” which is simply than a statement of fact. This song is Ke$ha’s world, bought and paid for; nothing in it has existence without her.

FIGHT TILL WE DO IT RIGHT

That was a long way to go just to talk about one song. The lady has thirteen more to her name so far; but not all of them are created equally.

As I’ve said, “TiK ToK” lays out Ke$ha’s party-past-the-point-of-fun agenda. What happens past that point depends on the song, or even on the moment in the song; ecstasy, regret, psychosis, depression, and a mystic oneness with the universe (and more) are all on offer on Animal. This is an unusual pop-star album for a couple of reasons: first, despite being entirely produced under the supervision of the Max Martin/Dr. Luke factory, it’s oddly schizophrenic in its sound. Aside from Ke$ha’s own wasted drawl (when she’s not submitting to the Zen discipline of AutoTune), there’s nothing to tie the songs together sonically, unless Frank Kogan’s formulation of Kat Stevens’ “bosh” is it. (Those massive, brain-numbing Eurodance beats, basically.) The other reason it’s odd is that it’s incredibly coherent lyrically. Ke$ha is listed as the principle songwriter on every track in the album, which helps — but she repeats herself, slipping the same themes and even the same phrases into song after song.

Perhaps the least-analyzed (that I’ve seen) line in the chorus of “TiK ToK” is “Imma fight till we see the sunlight,” in itself an admirably concise distillation of the party-as-ritual (and not necessarily an enjoyable one) ethos of the album. Bodies wear out, brains fry, but Ke$ha promises not to give up on the party; she will push past her own exhaustion, boredom, whatever, to achieve its transcendence. But “fight” has other meanings too, of course.

The chorus of “Party At A Rich Dude’s House” contains the line “We’re gonna fight till we do it right” (in the middle of a very “Kids In America” mass singalong; note that for later). Again the implication is that partying is a discipline which must be practiced to be perfected; but the verses bring out the destructive, violent connotations of the phrase. It’s in this song that she promises to piss in the Dom Perignon, throw up in the closet, and in short act like the worst nightmare of the rich dude in question.

Which brings up class again: Ke$ha identifies herself as “young and broke” in the bridge, and it’s easy to see her trashing of the place as a pathetic attempt to take revenge on the inequities of the social structure. Which I’m all for, don’t get me wrong! but she encourages this view by giving us no information at all about the rich dude. He’s rich, and that’s enough of a reason. (Apparently at least some of these lyrics are based on incidents at Paris Hilton’s place. Which matters more for Hilton’s symbolic status as the culture-wide whipping girl for unearned privilege than for the truthfulness of the anecdote.)

But class solidarity is never stable in America, and Ke$ha’s destructive glee turns just as easily on her young and broke peers as on the rich dudes and dudettes of Hollywood. “Backstabber” is a snotty kiss-off to gossiping friends (she inconsistently — but it’s perfectly consistent with the character! — accuses her friends of making her private life public when she does nothing else over the course of the album). It’s a solid little Lily Allenesque character piece with a punchy phased horn sample and a lyric that repeats words so many times that they become a recursive echo. In fact the echo is laid so heavily on the song that I can’t help wondering whether it’s all taking place in her head. My cue was that she rambles towards the end into the line “you’re looking like a lunatic” — but hold that thought.

After rich dudes and so-called friends, who’s left to fight with? Boyfriends, of course, which she manages in two different ways (well, three, but the last one’s a special case; see below). “Kiss & Tell” suffers from an over-obvious chorus, but is otherwise satisfyingly nasty, making fine distinctions between “baller” and “tool,” calling the cheating bastard “a chick” and ending a verse dismissively “I hope you cry.” That’s bad feminism, of course, using gendered referents to imply weakness and pitifulness; but who expected feminism from the Ke$ha Project? Anyway the real feminist point is that Ke$ha, far from being a victim of the entrenched double standard in which guys play the field while girls are either virgins or sluts, is the one enforcing her own standards. Again she’s a superhero, a larger-than-life fantasy figure dishing out revenge on behalf of the girls branded sluts everywhere. In the crude terminology of dick-measuring contests, hers is bigger than his.

The same is true of the other boyfriend kiss-off on the album, “Blind.” This time it takes something out of her: she admits to feeling low, but even more so the music is darkly dramatic, a sobbing emotional backdrop suitable for a post-Brown Rihanna ballad. But in Ke$ha’s hands the darkness turns again to revenge: she’s not going to cry, he’s the one who’ll miss her till the day he dies. Death and blindness are the overriding images of the chorus, but they don’t apply to her. This is the destructive impulses of “Party At A Rich Dude’s House” taken to operatic extremes; she’s snuffing out a life for cheating on her.

If “TiK ToK” gave us the best-case scenario for the Party — dancefloor ecstasy — these other fighting songs give us other options: class warfare, girlfights, emasculation, death. None of these are the party done right; but they’re also not particularly original topics for pop. Ke$ha can go weirder.

EVIL GIRLY GAMES

Two phrases that she employs with some regularity throughout the album are “hot mess” (surely non-coincidentally the title of a recent Cobra Starship album) and “sick obsession.” The first is a tidy encapsulation of the persona she’s putting forward; the second hints at darker, or at least less usual, themes.

Partying past fun can land in ecstasy, or in the banality of Jerry Springer relationships. But it can also end in weirder places. Of course Ke$ha is very far from being the first pop star to claim to be a freak; in fact her most blatant “I’m a freaky girl watch out” song, “Take It Off” is one of the least inspired on the album, a conventional riff on the “there’s a place I know” theme not helped by borrowing the hook off “The Streets Of Cairo” (better known on playgrounds, or it was in my day, as “All The Girls In France”). There’s more destruction and violence in the verses, but for the most part it tells rather than shows. This doesn’t apply, by the way, to the buzzy, gothy music behind her rote choruses — there’s a dark sparkle to the production that almost convinces that Ke$ha’s partying has a more sinister edge than the booze-sex-dance trivium we’ve seen. But ultimately the pathology of “Take It Off” is theatrical, played rather for campy kicks than as anything serious.

“Your Love Is My Drug” goes more or less the same route, a bunch of winking references to drug use and addiction covering up one of the shallower love songs in recent memory (not only is it a poor introduction to the album, it’s not even as good as the Puffy AmiYumi song of the same name, let alone Roxy Music’s epic cathedral). But as the standard bosh of the chorus winds down, Ke$ha’s personality peeps through, singing short phrases at irregular intervals (probably to give Dr. Luke AutoTune fodder), cracking up at herself, and then ending in a mocking gurgle, “I like your beard.”

The pathology of drug addiction was just a pretense for a love song; but that muttered phrase points to other possibilities. She sounds like a teenager trying to get a rise out of an authority figure, phrasing her mockery in the form of a compliment in order to say “whut I said I liked it” and cackle with her friends when he goes predictably off. The fake freakiness of “Take It Off” isn’t Ke$ha (or even her character) — but the infuriatingly charming brat who picks and pecks, finds an annoyance and rides it, is.

And then there’s the real freakiness.

“Stephen” has become my favorite song on Animal, and I hate it. Well, that’s not quite fair. I would probably have hated it, or even been afraid of it, when I was younger; but the tempered judgment that comes with age appreciates its craft and the elegance of its misdirection. I can’t listen to it often, though, or not without being seriously creeped out, because far more than “Every Breath You Take” or “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” or “You Belong With Me,” this is a perfect encapsulation of stalkerdom as actually practiced by young, insane women who think they’re cute.

The production is far lighter than on the rest of the album, giving her an almost Caribbean setting for her voice, which she deploys within a narrow range high in her register. Throughout the rest of the album when she hits the chorus she goes all out in a foghorn blast, pushing the needle into the red and the dynamic range past the edge of coherence, but on “Stephen” she uses a voice synthesizer and drags her phrases out into curlicues and simpers, throwing every silly affectation she can think of into the performance. If you’re the kind of guy whose nerves grate when girls play up the ultrafeminine eyelash-batting cute squeak (I am), this is already kind of off-putting. But then the lyrics start twisting.

It starts out ordinarily enough: she likes this guy’s ass, she thinks his girlfriend’s a bitch, and wants him for herself. So far so Ke$ha. Then she calls him her sick obsession. She’s feeling pathetic, she can’t take rejection. This isn’t the Ke$ha who stomped a guy’s balls for being a slut — and then the bridge comes in. She’s doing the little-girl thing on purpose: “I’ve got guys waiting in a line/For me to play my evil girly games with all their minds/Just watch me, got it down to a simple art/Just bat my eyes like this and there’s a broken heart.” (To cap it off she pronounces “eyes” with the New York accent of Helen Kane, whose voice Betty Boop was originally a parody of.) Delusional, confident; this is more like our Ke$ha. Then “I’m thinking that maybe you think I’m crazy.” Well, there’s crazy and then there’s crazy. “Don’t you think I’m… pretty,” she simpers, and alarm bells go off. (Really, it’s a masterpiece of pronunciation.)

“Cause you’re my object of affection, my drug of choice,” she sings again, “my sick obsession/I want to keep you as my pet to play with and hide under my bed/Forever.” Okay; this is Kathy Bates with a sledgehammer stuff, and once I realized that I got chills every time I heard that line, as well as the subsequent “I’ll knit you a sweater [WHAT not Ke$ha], I want to wrap you up in my love forever/I will never let you go.”

Maybe I’m a commitment-phobe. Maybe I’ve heard one too many comedy sketches where Casey Wilson plays a psychotic obsessive ex-girlfriend. But if Stephen isn’t running his legs off to get away from this girl, he’s a doomed man.

Which is of course awesome. This is the song that most thoroughly breaks with the party ethic of the album, and it’s interesting to speculate on why. Is this the girl Ke$ha would be if she didn’t have the release of partying? (Since she admits to being wasted in the first verse, unlikely.) Is it another in our maze of choose-your-own-adventure endings to the party, ending in psychosis and whimpering, dehumanizing need? Is it (more frighteningly) a real song to a real person?

And then I thought about it and I can’t name a single other song written by a woman to a man that uses the man’s name like this one does. Men, of course, sing women’s names all the time: Alison, Amie, Angie, Billie Jean, Caroline, Cecilia, Gloria, and on and on. But outside of conscious gender-benders like Tori Amos, there aren’t too many songs of direct address sung by young females. Which fits with the conventional gender roles reinforced by pop, of course: men are direct and confrontational and specific, women are indirect and deflective and general. Except Ke$ha’s in ur gender roles redrawin the lines.

I’M ABOUT TO BARF SERIOUSLY

I brought up Casey Wilson not just because I’m a comedy nerd and happened to hear her recently on the Comedy Death-Ray podcast, but because one of the unremarked engines of the Ke$ha Project is comedy.

Not comedy in the organized, semi-official industry sense — there are no jokes in her music, no setups and punchlines, and it would be shitty if there were, we don’t need a distaff Weird Al — but in the sense that her approach to her music contains the anarchic sensibilities that are also present in a great deal of modern comedy. The “I like your beard” interjection (and the decision to retain it), the over-the-top delivery of so many lines on the album from “oh my god I think I’m still drunk” to “I can find someone way hotter, with a bigger… well”  are meant to provoke laughter — or at least they do provoke laughter in the sample group of one which is my only research instrument.

Of course the most comic song on the album, and therefore the most deliriously awesome, is “D.I.N.O.S.A.U.R.,” which has drawn comparisons with Daphne & Celeste, L’Trimm, and Northern State (and I’d throw Fannypack, Toni Basil, and Aqua into the mix). It’s a one-joke song, bagging on the old guy who thinks he’s still cool enough to hang out with Ke$ha’s (character’s) young-and-broke crowd, and while none of the actual put-downs are terribly amusing in themselves, there’s an infectious energy to the chant — plus a stroke of loopy production genius, a sample of a giggle that pans all over the stereo space while shifting up and down in pitch — and one line that always makes me laugh, which is in bold at the top of this section. (It’s the delivery.)

Speaking of barfing, I haven’t done an exhaustive study or anything but I have to imagine this album has one of the highest ratios of vomit to love song in pop history. This is of course another comic trope — a particularly juvenile one, but as Dave Holmes pointed out Ke$ha’s persona is a thirteen-year-old’s idea of an adult, when vomit is still funny as well as gross instead of just an indicator of having made poor choices.

Bagging on old people and authority figures: also popular with middle schoolers. The only two people I’ve ever heard sing a Ke$ha song in public came out of the women’s restroom giggling hysterically and were collectively not old enough to drink.

WITH EVERY MOVE I DIE

But of course Ke$ha is not thirteen; she’s twenty-three, and there are still a couple of options unexplored in the maze.

“Hung Over” and “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes” are, as far as I can make out a consensus, the least-liked songs on Animal, ballads (even power ballads) where she turns a) regretful and b) suicidal, respectively. As character pieces, they suffer from being standard-issue and maudlin; if I liked emo better or had more of a tolerance for self-pity in any form, I might have more to say about them; I’ll only say that they’re entirely consistent with her character: if “TiK ToK” is about the preparation for the party and the excelsis during it, “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes” is the maudlin aftermath — or a maudlin aftermath. There are always more options, which is why the record doesn’t end there.

“Animal” is the last song on Animal, and it’s a complete gear shift. (At least until the chorus kicks in; there’s the bosh.) Ke$ha sings the verses in an exaggerated indie croon, which people have compared to Feist and Kate Bush, but I mostly hear as Dolores O’Riordan. Regardless, it’s right out of the Arcade Fire wing of inspirational indie: world ending, last chance to connect, truly be alive, in love with everything. She does it well — at least whenever the jackhammer disco thumps leave her alone — and I’m caught between thinking she’s devaluing the rest of her album by comparing it to this Real Serious Music, and believing that she’s elevating the tropes of inspirational indie by incorporating them into her own weird, pulsing, trashily alive hot mess.

BABY SHUT UP HEARD ENOUGH

Well, that, as far as I can work it out, is the Ke$ha Project. I don’t think it’s entirely successful, but it’s a first album and the Martin/Luke factory isn’t really known for its quality control. I wanted to spend the rest of my wordcount talking about what else I heard in the record, what I jotted down as “influences and reminiscences.” Influences you’d have to read interviews and do some biographical work to find out about; but of whom do I find her reminiscent? I thought you’d never ask.

It struck me as I was marvelling at the weird mind games of “Stephen” for the fourth or fifth time this week that Ke$ha may be the first pop star to grow up with two Courtney Loves as a role model, both the angry, sarcastic feminist of Live Through This, and the desperate party-hound of the past decade. In fact her publicity shots are sometimes startlingly like the cover image of Live Through This. I have no idea, obviously, how feminist (or not) Ke$ha herself is; but the worlds she builds in her songs don’t map very well onto the standard patriarchal narratives, especially the ones about sluts and skanks.

One of the benefits of the half-talk-half-rap delivery she uses for many of her verses is that it’s infinitely plastic; she can adopt any tone, apply any level of sarcasm or referentiality. At various times throughout the album I thought I heard Kim Gordon, Moon Unit Zappa, Johnnette Napolitano, Debora Iyall (Romeo Void), Deborah Evans-Stickland (Flying Lizards), Kathleen Hanna, and Laurie Anderson. Which if you’re trying to make a list of feminist forebears is about as good as you can hope for, and I hope I’m not just hallucinating the similarities. (Definitely not with Laurie Anderson.)

There are two songs I haven’t covered. “Blah Blah Blah” is the current single, featuring 3OH!3 in a marvelous Skank & Douchebag Power! gesture of solidarity — perhaps the only way the Ke$ha character could find satisfaction with a guy is if he’s just as much an invulnerable, selfish dick as she is — and “Boots & Boys” is resisting my efforts to nail it down. Something about the rubbery synth makes me want to pull in comparisons with mid-90s Blur, and there’s something about how the tightly-wound crescendo in the middle eight mirrors the vocal orgasm in “TiK ToK,” but it’s not coming together and it’s already far too late.

I’m not going to post this immediately, but if I read it over and decide to let it go, then this is what you’re stuck with. I’m not writing more than 5,000(!) words on Ke$ha. Until she puts out another record, this is my definitive take.

When Sexy Black Robots

Conquer The World,

Will Anyone Notice?

My Summer Of Pop

by  Jonathan Bogart


This summer I did something I haven’t done in a long, long, time, not since I was just out of high school and celebrating my newfound freedom by driving my grandfather’s hand-me-down Chevy, becoming the guy who drove people places just in order to glide over the smooth, broad highways of Phoenix, while listening to Third Eye Blind and Sixpence None The Richer and the Goo Goo Dolls and Santana feat. Rob Thomas. Within a year I would discover Napster and the Beatles and Led Zeppelin and the Clash and Bob Dylan and I would become that most socially-acceptable form of geek, a music geek. In the next eight years, I would get into arguments about what constitutes proper country music, about the point of rock & roll in a post-rap world, about whether Phil Spector or Brian Wilson was the greatest pop producer ever; I would order out-of-print psych-folk 45s and funk-jazz LPs over the Internet; I would burrow so deep into the further recesses of 70s German electronic rock that I would come out in 1980s France; I would become able to enumerate with some confidence the differences between Ghanian highlife and Nigerian joromi. I would write what amounted to a short book about early jazz, pop, and vernacular music in the 1920s.

But this summer was different. This summer I turned the radio back on in my car.

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