Ke$ha is not an idiot.
So goes the counter-narrative to the knee-jerk reaction that the pop-rapper knowingly incites: those who dismiss the star as stupid, say her supporters, are missing the point of her art. They argue that Ke$ha - the same woman who three years ago introduced herself as a hard-partying hedonist who brushes her teeth with Jack Daniels and who "ain't got a care in the world, but got plenty of beer" - is, in fact, liberated with a spirit as political as it is free.
"Precisely because Ke$ha challenged double standards by seizing male rock's license to misbehave, she became a lightning rod for contempt," Simon Reynolds wrote in the New York Times last month in a feature on Ke$ha's sophomore album, Warrior (out today). Over at The Atlantic, Ashley Fetters described Ke$ha's new photo book/vague memoir, My Crazy Beautiful Life, as "the answer to The Feminine Mystique."
Ke$ha, 25, agrees - whether or not you do. In Life, released last month, she writes that her second single, "Blah Blah Blah," was a conscious move to talk about men like they talked about women. (Sample lyric: "I don't really care where you live at / Just turn around, boy, let me hit that / Don't be a little bitch with your chit chat / Just show me where your dick's at.") Her right to invert the binary—or, to be as piggish as men are—is one of her platforms. "If men can talk about drinking in every awesome rock 'n' roll song and every awesome rap song," she recently wondered aloud to the Financial Times, "why can't a woman?" To the Daily Star, she said, "A man can sit around and talk about sex and they're a rock star. If a woman says it, they sound like a slut. I drink and I bone – so get over it."
Fair enough, I suppose—although just because you can be a douchebag, you shouldn't be a douchebag, regardless of what's in your pants. Reducing feminism to tit-for-tat teasing ("Wham! Bam! Thank you, man!" she chants on the "metaphor for [her] hoo-ha," Warrior's "Gold Trans Am") doesn't strike me as useful on anything but a superficial level, but this is simple pop music we're talking about so maybe superficial is the proper mode. It's also unlikely that a guy could get away with talking about women in 2012 the way that Ke$ha does about men, without at least a shrill Internet backlash – as long as there is Twitter and bored people, no one "gets away" with anything. But none of this bothers me so much because I believe in the importance of sexual expression. If this is sincere expression and not just a way of leveling the playing field by using tools created by men, then good for Ke$ha for being able to get that out to millions of people.
But this idea that Ke$ha's public attitude toward men makes her a revolutionary is absurd. She isn't leading a line; she's part of a human chain. It's a lineage that includes people like Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, who made women's sexuality socially acceptable pop music material. It includes those who came after, who did their own male objectification (especially rappers like Salt-N-Pepa and Missy Elliott). Ke$ha's musical influences fan out from there. Her tart yelp wouldn't resound so commercially if it weren't for Alanis Morissette; her stylization as a purveyor of this era of house music would be unlikely without Lady Gaga; her rap flow conjures the Beastie Boys and JJ Fad. No album this year is as open in its debt to Daft Punk as Warrior. The rock attitude of Marc Bolan and Iggy Pop inspired it (the latter guests on "Dirty Love"). Even at her brashest and most direct – "I'm over it, so suck my dick," in Warrior's "Thinking of You" – she is echoing irony already expressed by her peers Nicki Minaj and Rihanna in those very words.
What is particular to Ke$ha, though, is her open use of vapid superficiality as an aesthetic. "You must realize by this point that I'm in on the joke. I know I sound like a jackass half the time. I do it on purpose," she told the Times. Even Warrior, a more delicate and introspective collection of songs than the last time around, still revels in id, packing in hook after exploding hook that calls to action or is the result of such a call ("War-eee-errrr-eee-errrr-eeee-errrr!" "Let's make the most of the night like we're gonna die young!" "C'mon, c'mon, c'mon!" "I just want your dirty love!" "This is our last goodbye!" "No one's getting out alive!"). Ke$ha assures us that this is a pose or at least a thrust of one part of her personality.
"I think you can be this total maniac onstage and act like a complete idiot, but also be really respectful, really positive and smart," she told Seventeen. "You don't have to be just one thing." Indeed, and the idea of being at once mindless and provocative - of abandon having resonance, as Ke$ha claims when she talks about gender equality - is one that understands a cultural climate in which smart things are being said through and about supposedly dumb entertainment (like, say, reality TV) all the time. The pop culture we consume now comes in packages, and Ke$ha is packaged extremely well.
Bringing a transparency to playing dumb may be playing dumb's final frontier, and it certainly creates a more lifelike image than we are accustomed to getting from pop stars. In Life, Ke$ha describes herself as "messy and imperfect" and returns to the idea a few times. Going against the grain is just a matter of being slightly unkempt, and because media training has a way of ironing and starching the personality out of the pop star (see Katy Perry or, to a certain extent, Gaga), Ke$ha is able to stick out in her field.
The problem, though, is that she must explicitly remind us of this because there is little indication that she is actually smart in her music – book smart, that is, as she claims she was in the international baccalaureate program before dropping out of high school to pursue her music career. Her intelligence is mostly felt in retrospect, when she pulls back the crumpled curtain to reveal a fairly thoughtful person behind it. Certainly, the lyrics of Warrior's second single "C'Mon," which plays like best-case-scenario Karmin, speak for themselves ("Feeling like I'm a high school…er/Sipping on a warm wine cool…er/Hot 'cause the party don't stop/I'm in a crop top/Like I'm working at Hooters"), but they don't bespeak a level of operation higher than the ability to rhyme and have fun. She pronounces "degenerates" on the title track to that it rhymes with "thee generics." It's for effect and the sake of meter, but still. Sometimes her music is wise – framing the deeply sad "Last Goodbye" as a jubilantly strummed, sung-along recollection of a finished relationship is a beautiful way of paying homage to what made it worth singing about in the first place – but even at its wisest, it's only implicitly so.
Ke$ha is a supposedly normal girl who spreads lore all over her like glitter. She got a 1500 on her SATs and rejected acceptance letters to college ("I was going to go to Columbia University and study psychology," she's claimed.) She was conceived basically by a game of Button Button Who's Got the Button played in her mom's womb. Her mom's songwriting inspired her own and she began composing at a very early age. She came up with the idea to put a dollar sign in her name after doing a tequila shot she bought with savaged change. She vomited in Paris Hilton's closet.
The open fostering of a pop-star image is a sign of a time that values full disclosure (or, failing that, the illusion of it). But all the explaining begins to undo Ke$ha. Last year, a man stepped forward to counter the oft-told story that she never knew her dad – Bob Chamberlain said he was in fact her father and gave Star photo evidence that he had indeed been a part of her life. She dismissed this claim with a single tweet and neither publicly spoke of it again, from what I can tell. Furthermore, instead of achieving the dumb-smart multi-dimensionality she strives for in individual songs, her various explanations of the idea behind Warrior just sound contradictory. On one hand, she told The Sun, "I have a lot of gay and lesbian fans and they said how my music had helped them deal with bullying, so I wanted to write a record that's about love and acceptance." On the other, she told The Hollywood Reporter, "I wanted to give the finger to anybody who thought I was a one-trick pony." One for you, many for me, fine, but please let's not confuse a pop album with activism, especially when it boils down to, "The underlying theme of this next record is warrior, with the positive message being that everyone has a warrior inside." That's just Mariah Carey's most treacly anthem, "Hero," rewritten in neon war paint.
In her book, Ke$ha writes, "I'm still a misfit and I will always stand up for people who feel they don't fit in." But then a few pages later, there's this: "Coming back to the West Coast and selling out huge amphitheaters makes me see that I have realized my dreams." Those dreams were of mass acceptance, of fitting in writ large enough to make her part of the cultural fabric. And the price you pay for being an accepted misfit is all over Warrior. Ke$ha has openly admitted to altering her vision — that thing that makes her the misfit she claims to be — for the sake of popularity: "I really wanted to bring as much rock 'n' roll as I could to this record, but after a from-the-business-standpoint conversation with my producer [her mentor Lukasz 'Dr Luke' Gottwald], he was like, if you want to have a successful record you can't just abandon that sound." So she didn't. She chose fame and relative conformity.
And so what we are left with is a gentle freak, someone who can maybe work within the system to promote her seemingly benevolent ideals while not exactly acknowledging that self-conscious weirdness and individuality are all the rage and were they not, Ke$ha and her raggedy spin on them wouldn't be nearly as visible. Her music works in the moment — Warrior is far superior to the album and EP that preceded it. Here, her nonstop joy is infectious, her hooks are undeniable and her production has a wider range of textures than your typical radio EDM. But #YOLO and lasting depth are opposing forces that Ke$ha cannot yet reconcile.
As much as she reveals, as disarming as her honesty can seem, make no mistake: we are not dealing with an iconoclast. What we have on our hands is the picture of a modern pop star. Ke$ha herself said it best: we r who we r.