One morning, a Tenneesee-born girl of moderate talent with the somewhat unique name of Kesha (rhymes with Mesh-a) woke up, signed with this guy Dr. Luke, met with a phalanx of advisers, and then, because she liked having money, or because plain old Kesha might sound too boring, decided to change the ‘S’ in the middle of my name to [GET THIS, THIS IS SO CLEVER, YOU GUYS!] a DOLLAR SIGN. So instead of Kesha it’ll be Ke$ha, get it? You don’t pronounce the dollar sign. And so this year’s newest pop phenomenon was born.
Dr. Luke, often working in collaboration with Swedish producer Max Martin, is responsible for the vast majority of songs that are probably running through your head at any given moment: “Party in the U.S.A.,” Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite,” Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” “California Girls,” and “I Kissed a Girl,” every song of Kelly Clarkston’s ever and Britney’s “Circus.” Britney’s a good comparison here, as Ke$ha is what would happen if Britney climbed in a dumpster, lived there for two weeks, sustaining herself on coffee grinds and used condoms, started going crazy and clawing herself and matting her own hair, and climbed back out again, much skinnier, much dirtier, and with eye makeup that looks a coal and glitter plant exploded all over her face.
Ke$ha first entered the public consciousness as the girl singing on Flo Rida’s ridiculously irresistible “Right Round” — a song that uses the hook from the original “Right Round” and couples it with a few verses of meaningless, innocuous, catchy rap verses. Ke$ha had been hanging out at the studio; they needed a female voice; it sounded good. But they didn’t pay her or put her name on the song title — no “Featuring Ke$ha” — so she refused to be in the video or promote the song in any way, a decision she chalks up to knowing her worth as a potential star. And Ke$ha certainly does think she’s valuable: at some point during this formative period, she snuck onto Prince’s gated compound because she so wanted to give him a demo and convince him to produce her. She was caught and thrown out — and now Prince is touring with Janelle Monae, a woman of clear and distinct talent — but Ke$ha’s big break was yet to come. [Note: I'm being deliberately sketchy on the details of her past, as they haven't really been forwarded nearly as much as those of, say, Britney. Ke$ha seems to have been born as a grown woman dressed in trash, rather without history -- a point I'll come to in a bit.]
“TiK ToK,” the first single from Ke$ha’s first album, was slowly let loose in late 2009. From there it spread….and spread….and spread, infecting all in its path, like an STD on a small college campus. It held the #1 spot for nine weeks straight and, in the process, permanently engrained itself into the minds of any person who happened upon a Top 40 station on the radio dial. Here’s where I took note. I have what I’ll term a “fondness” (some may call it a “weakness”) for Dr. Luke/Max Martin pop songs. I rather loathe Katy Perry, but I could listen to Teenage Dream for the rest of my life. And Britney! Even that Flo Rida song! It’s makes me run REALLY FAST, you guys. I admit, I was initially drawn to this TiK ToK-ness. But here’s the thing: the other Dr. Luke/Max Martin songs are catchy in part because of how innocuous they are. There’s nothing super annoying, cloying, or disgusting about any of them. They’re SMOOTH. But with “TiK ToK,” I knew there was something off. Sure, other pop songs use the weird spelling — Clarkston’s “Since U Been Gone,” for example [It's to appeal to the way that TEENS THINK, get it?] But for every totally innocuous line (I’m talking pedicure on our toes, toes/Trying on all our clothes, clothes/Boys blowing up our phones, phones”) there was a truly ridiculous, nearly non-sensical one to follow. The best two: “Before I leave, brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack/’Cause when I leave for the night, I ain’t coming back” and “The dudes are lining up cause they hear we got swagger/But we kick ‘em to the curb unless they look like Mick Jagger.” Rolling Stone summed up the song as “repulsive, obnoxious and ridiculously catchy.”
There have been all sorts of parodies of these lyrics — people doing a literal interpretation; others cussing Ke$ha for being stupid enough to brush her teeth with whiskey — but what really got to me was the fact that these aren’t even FANTASY or EVOCATIVE lyrics. I have no mental picture. These are just RHYMING lyrics. What are we going to rhyme with “coming back?” Oh, “Bottle of Jack!” What about “Hear we got swagger?” MICK F-ING JAGGER! But again, this makes no logical sense: even if you’re a binge drinking young woman, as Ke$ha purports herself to be, you wouldn’t brush your teeth with the Jack, you would DRINK it. And are you telling me that Ke$ha only goes for guys over 70? These songs have been big hits overseas — in part because the beat works just as well when you have NO IDEA WHAT SHE’S SAYING. The words are meaningless.
Okay, I get it, not all pop songs make sense. But this was only the beginning of the weird disconnect. When she dances, it’s like something’s off — she’s a half second behind the beat, her dancers aren’t all in unison, the sets are low-budget, her eyes don’t seem to be tracking correctly, her costume seems like she’s the opening act at a college talent show. A year ago, The Awl made the very astute observation that Ke$ha’s performances look like sorority rush skits, and I could not agree more. The Awl also points out that “thanks to the Internet, and the whole “death of shame” trend to which it is both handmaiden and accelerant, the separation between famous people and people who really want to be famous has gotten as narrow as Keira Knightley standing sideways.” And that’s part of what it is with Ke$ha — she really shouldn’t be a famous person. She could maybe be the Homecoming Queen at my high school, but she lacks that certain something that makes mediocre talents, like Britney, into superstars. When people have charisma, whether they’re Obama or Britney or Brad Pitt or Kanye, you don’t begrudge them their success and fame. They are special; they have talent, even if it’s just talent at embodying a particular brand of sex, and they deserve it. But Ke$ha, like so many other pop stars before her, is the result of a smart producer taking a pretty face, a modicum of talent, and catchy music and packaging it into a highly edible yet calorie-free piece of candy. But you know what happens when you eat calorie-free candy? You get diarrhea.
So where does this feeling of upset stomach come from? An overabundance of something that Lainey Gossip is fond of referring to as “try.” This girl (and her management team) is trying really, really hard to be something — slutty? sexy? wacky? — but the problem is that she’s aiming for all types at once. Her attempts at being unique and odd all come off as something just off the mark: her style, for example, which she calls “garbage chic,” features the aforementioned matted hair, smudgy make-up, lots of glitter and face paint, and, in her words, “embracing imperfection rather than hiding her flaws.” But the TRY in this “garbage chic” is way too evident. I know that you’re trying to make a joke about the fact that your image is rooted in a certain “white trash” aesthetic and sexuality, and “owning” that by actually manifesting the “trash” on your body and face, but the seams in that trash dress are showing, girl, and your perfectly derelict make-up is melting off your face, but not really in the way that you want it to. Sure, Lady Gaga wears crazy shit, and her effort in attempting to be weird and potentially transgressive is certainly apparent. But then again, she actually is weird. Oh, you didn’t think that wearing cigarette glasses was weird? Well what about THIS MEAT DRESS. [Ke$ha tried to out-do the meat dress at the American Music Awards a few weeks ago, showing up in a dress made entirely of VHS "innards." With a VHS tape in hand, just in case you didn't get it.] Point being: Ke$ha is trying hard to be weird — she even wrote a philosophy and coined a name for her style — but really she’s just using derelict clothes as a way of showing more skin. In fact, that’s what she looks like — part of the “Derilicte” fashion collection in Zoolander.
In that movie, the collection was a way of harpooning the fashion industry’s tendency to create fashion so ridiculous as to be laughable, all in the name of attracting attention. Now, if Ke$ha actually understood herself — and her image — as a critique of the rest of the pop industry, we might have ourselves something. While I don’t find Gaga to be as emancipatory or transgressive as some others do, I do think that she very much understands the aspects of pop culture that she’s satirizing, parodying, or blowing out of the water. Ke$ha, on the other hand, is so entrenched in pop culture that any potential trangression of “garbage chic” was co-opted before it even whispered critique. She’s Britney/Gaga/Madonna Lite — all signifier, zero substance. Her ahistorical-ness stems from the fact that she could have been programmed by a computer — a “sexy robot” meant to arouse prurient and pop desires. In this way, she is the embodiment of what the postmodernists warned us about; the culmination of late stage capitalism, where economic imperatives (make money by getting teenagers to buy ring tones!) hollows out all meaning, the spectacle that distracts us from the fact that nothing — no politics, no soul, not even charisma — lies beneath. In short: THERE IS NO THERE, THERE.
Evidence to this fact abounds — in the way that she looks on her album cover (Is she Shakira or Britney? Sexy or dirty? Homeless or on heroin? In the jungle or the garbage can?) In other pictures, she’s snarling at the camera, making herself look as unattractive, mean, blase, or spunky as possible — but isn’t she just posing? And isn’t a pose no more than putting your body in a shape that evokes a feeling…..rather than actually conveying the feeling itself?
See this at work in the new-ish video for “We R Who We R,” in which she boasts “got that glitter on my eyes/stockings ripped all up the sides/looking sick and sexified….”
Now take a look at the way that she looks in this video: is she pretty? Well, not exactly. She has all the signifiers of what our culture takes as pretty — tan skin, slightly emaciated body, long blond hair, blue eyes — but again, there’s something off, and it’s not just the fact that she’s put faux jewels all over her eyebrows. She’s not sexy; she’s sexified. My partner-in-crime (and past contributor to this blog) Alaina insists that it looks like she’s on drugs — not the “fun” kind of drugs, but the serious anti-depressant-type drugs, the kind that Britney was obviously on when she made her disastrous “come-back” appearance at the VMAs several years ago.
A certain hollowness to the eyes, which you can see in full effect below, as she takes viewers to her favorite “hang” in Los Angeles — a strip club.
Or take a look at her Tweets, which are meaningless, empty evocations of sex, and confusion:
Maybe Ke$ha is like a stripper: she has all the parts that should make her hot, sexy, popular, etc., but really, when you get down to it, it just makes you sad that this is what it takes for a woman to make money these days.
The funny thing is, the critical mass seems to subconsciously realize this, but comes up with other ways of talking about it. The New York Times did a feature on her back in the early halcyon weeks of TiK ToK and spent a full article marveling at the fact that a white girl could, in their words, “rap.” [I don't actually think she's rapping in her songs so much as TALKING.] For the Times, Ke$ha’s “sass-rap” is “all part of the continuing deracination of the act of rapping, which used to be inscribed as a specifically black act, but which has been appropriated so frequently and with such ease that it’s been, in some cases, re-racinated. The very existence of the casually rapping white girl reflects decreasingly stringent ideas about race and gender.” Or, as Ke$ha puts it, “Rap in general has never been my steez, but I like it.” In other words: this girl, and the popularity of her “sass-rap,” underlines the fact that the vast majority of rap and/or hip-hop has been evacuated of politics, transgressiveness, and racial specificity, leaving white girls talking about their cell phones and pedicures as evidence of the sad shell that remains.
I don’t think pop music has gone over to the dark side, or in some way signifies the implosion of culture. For every Ke$ha, there’s a Gaga, a Robyn, a Rihanna, even a Taylor Swift, proving that pop music may be anchored on popular images and catchy choruses, but it doesn’t have to be empty. In a few years, Ke$ha will be forgotten. She touches no nerves; she treads no new ground. Her songs don’t speak to anyone because they don’t speak at all. They pulse, they make people dance, but they don’t stick. Which is why she’ll evaporate so painlessly from pubic consciousness in five to fifty years: a soulless image leaves no trace.