From Carrie Underwood to Ke$ha, Why Are Pop Stars So Confused About Sex?

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A conversation between Atlantic correspondent Alyssa Rosenberg and Fleshbot editor Lux Alptraum on the conflicting messages about sex and romance in contemporary pop music.

Read the first two parts of the discussion, "Who Knocked Up Lady Gaga?" and "Understanding Lady Gaga's 'Virgin Birth'."

LadyGagaSex_Alyssa_post.jpg

Reuters


Hi Lux,

I think you're on to something with the idea that Lady Gaga wants to be desired by her audience, while making sure that desire remains unconsummated. In "Alejandro," which you singled out as an implicit anthem to sexual freedom, it's always sounded to me like Gaga's asking for freedom from sex, rather than the right to do whatever she wants with whomever she pleases. "Don't call my name," she tells her imaginary lover, "I'm not your babe. Don't want to kiss, don't want to touch." Gaga doesn't want the prelude or the prologue to sex.

There would be something spectacularly bizarre about the biggest star in pop, a genre that starts with hand-holding and ends in bed, building her rise on sexual anxiety. Except Lady Gaga's not remotely alone in expressing ambivalence about sex.

David Brooks, in a slightly hilarious 2007 column, dubbed singers ranging from Carrie Underwood to Pink "iPhone Lone Rangers" for writing justifiably angry songs about how they didn't want to be cheated on or harassed, whether it's Underwood taking revenge in "Before He Cheats," or Pink blowing off guys in the club in "U + Ur Hand." But all of the artists he named also have love songs in their arsenals—Pink's "Who Knew?" is an aching expression of romantic yearning, and Underwood first hit the top of the charts with the swooning "Inside Your Heaven." In other words, their songs suggest they have some very conflicted feelings about sex and romance.

Four years later, this ambivalence is even sharper. Take Ke$ha, a heavily auto-tuned 24-year-old known mostly for her party anthems and a general state of grubbiness. In her breakout hit, "Tik Tok," she made the slightly confounding claim that she and her friends "kick [guys] to the curb unless they look like Mick Jagger," declared that she brushes her teeth with Jack Daniels, and in the video for it, canoodled with a goofy-looking dude with a sad little Fu Manchu. In "We R Who We R," she and her girlfriends "make the hipsters fall in love," but then forget about actually interacting with guys for the rest of the night. And in her one, outright sentimental love song, "Your Love Is My Drug," Ke$ha's simultaneously adolescent, asking "do you want to have a slumber party in my basement," and deliberately off-putting, comparing herself to a crack addict. One of the sweetest things about the song may be the relatively ordinary-looking guy along for the ride in the video. Ke$ha, in her caked-on eye shadow and ratty-looking hair, deliberately messes with what we're supposed to find attractive in women—she's a deliberate combination of attraction and repulsion. And the guys she holds up as romantic ideals aren't marquee idols either.

In stark contrast, we've got Robyn, the semi-androgynous Swedish indie-pop goddess who seems to exist in a hyperbaric chamber, she's so cool and isolated. When she reinvented herself as an indie star in 2005, she did it with a series of songs that were sharp elbows to exes, songs with titles like "Bum Like You." Since then, she's been sexually abandoned by a robot in a collaboration with Royksopp and released a three-volume EP cycle charting her emotional evolution from spurned lover, to defiantly single girl, to someone willing to love again. I was almost disappointed when she turned to rapturous love, not because those songs weren't great, but because she's been such an articulate troubadour of loneliness for the past half-decade. But even then, in her video for "Indestructible," as couples lose themselves in sex, Robyn's by herself, off to the side, in a clean, white room.

Lady Gaga is vastly more famous than either Ke$ha or Robyn. And interestingly, her music is much more emotionally fraught about sex than either one of them. Gaga's rejected physical contact, faked orgasm, and been date-raped in her songs, which remain enormously catchy party anthems independent of their lyrical context. Is there something weird about Gaga, for putting these emotions out there and disguising these bitter pills as candy? Or did she just recognize and bring out something weird and anxious in us?

Cheers,
Alyssa

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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