She struts, scares parents, and on her new album, Warrior, conveys genuine emotion.
On the frenzied kiss-off "Thinking of You" from her sophomore album Warrior, the self-consciously trashy pop star Ke$ha says in her standard bratty sneer, "Found out you're full of it / I'm over it / So suck my dick."
It's only the latest and most blatant of Ke$ha's many salvos against the rigid gender lines that have defined popular music. Taylor Swift's sometimes pining and sometimes catty guitar-pop, Carly Rae Jepsen's giddy bubblegum, Rihanna's alternately seductive and sullen R&B, and even Lady Gaga's high-camp club stomp all derive from long-standing female pop traditions, from Madonna and Whitney Houston to Dusty Springfield and Diana Ross. Ke$ha can swoon and seduce when she wants to, but her primary persona is made up of of the struts, sneers, and self-possessed sloganeering that have long been the domain of male-dominated rock and roll. Purists will be alarmed, but Ke$ha may well be the last great rock star.
Rock has been undergoing something of an identity crisis in the past several decades. Its position as the dominant sound of youth culture has been usurped by hip-hop and dance music. Its reputation as the voice of rebellion has been co-opted by three generations of advertising and corporate culture. Its claims to righteous authenticity and working-class grittiness have been undermined by a multimillionaire celebrity culture and the rise of of a blue-collar generation that's a lot less white and male than previous ones. It has only managed to retain any cultural capital in the world of indie rock, where its original vulgar aggression and sexual drive has been replaced by the kind of patient sensitivity, faithfulness to tradition, and self-conscious artistry that rock was once a reaction against.
It's hard to imagine anyone being unsettled by what currently passes for rock stars. Historical fetishists like Jack White, anthemic inspirationalists like fun., and rootsy evangelists like Mumford & Sons use the language of rock to express broad emotions in conventional, unsurprising ways. Even in the lingering spaces where old-fashioned cock rock survives, it's much more likely that bloated egotists like Axl Rose, reality-TV stars like Bret Michaels, or media moguls like Chad Kroeger will be pitied, laughed at, or yawned over than that they'll upset or anger anyone. Rock's transgressive, parent-scaring edge was long ago handed over to hip-hop, and in the age of CEO rappers like Jay-Z and Rick Ross, hip-hop is looking less and less dangerous every year.
On the Internet, we call what Ke$ha does trolling. In life, it's more like a dare. How obnoxious can she get and still be hugely popular?
So it's kind of nice that Ke$ha is still able to provoke strong negative reactions. No pop star is more widely hated. There are the usual misogynist accusations of stupidity, sluttiness, and unattractiveness leveled against any woman in the public eye who dares to express a personality that's something other than relentlessly cheerful and game (see also: Kristen Stewart). But there are also slightly more reasonable-sounding complaints that she makes ugly-sounding, artistry-free music made even more obnoxious by its widespread popularity: the same complaints made by parents in every generation about the music their kids are playing too loudly. (There are also legitimate complaints about appropriating Native American culture and insensitivity to transgender issues, which obviously apply much more widely than one pop star.)
But Ke$ha actively courts the dislike. Her voice, flattened and shrilled by the AutoTune software for much of her first album, is often pitched at a deliberately jangling register even when it's not being manipulated. Her lyrics are full of provocative, childish insults and vulgar slang, and her attitude is often less that of a grown woman and more of a hyperactive teenager deliberately scandalizing authority figures. On the Internet, we call that trolling. In life, it has more of the quality of a dare—how obnoxious can she get and still be hugely popular?
Warrior, out this week, only occasionally pushes those limits. To a degree, this is because the two years since her debut album Animal and its inescapable single "TiK ToK" have seen the pop market reshape itself to one degree or another in her image. Her combination of big, dumb dance beats, party-to-death ethos, and glib provocation has been successfully imitated by peers like Katy Perry, LMFAO, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, and Chris Brown, and even by elders like Britney Spears, Pink, Christina Aguilera, Usher, and Enrique Iglesias. But also, it's Ke$ha's "rock" album, and that means that her provocation is being made in the grooves of a far more settled tradition than the drunken-robot ecstasy of "TiK ToK" was.
Relatively speaking, anyway. Iggy Pop referencing Cole Porter and Rick Santorum on the gleefully glammy "Dirty Love" is a far cry from his cameo as the voice of wisdom and comfort on Cat Power's Sun earlier this year. And Ke$ha ending the breakup diss "Thinking of You" with a giggled "teenie weenie" emphasizes how little she cares about rock propriety, undercutting the most hard-rocking song on the album—and one which features a surprisingly beautiful vocoder solo—with a dick joke.
That juvenile sense of humor gets less of an airing on Warrior than on Animal—there's nothing as funny or gleeful as the mocking-the-old-guy-at-the-club "Dinosaur" here—but her forays into heart-on-sleeve earnestness are more effective than before. "Wonderland," a genuinely moving country-pop song nodding to Ke$ha's Nashville roots, has dusty vinyl crackle running through it, and album-proper closer "Love into the Light" uses the big, gated drums of Phil Collins or Peter Gabriel to underscore a sincere anthem about being nice to people.
In fact, although much of Ke$ha's attitude is derived from the '60s—Mick Jagger's gender-ambiguous preening, Bob Dylan's laughing-at-the-universe sneer, the Velvet Underground's noisy senusality—the album takes more cues from mainstream rock's last pre-grunge hurrah, the '80s. Love song "Supernatural" is built on the melody of Nik Kershaw's "Wouldn't It Be Good," second single "C'mon" references Joan Jett's "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" in its first line, and the Strokes' new-wave revivalism is itself revived on "Only Wanna Dance With You."
But one thing Ke$ha remains is philosophically consistent. The title song to Animal began with the words "I am in love with what we are / not what we should be," and that humanist embrace of people in the present tense recurs in the bridge to "C'mon" -- "I don't wanna think about what's gonna be after this / I wanna just live right now." This might be read as nihilism, a refusal to engage with adult responsibility (although "Warrior" suggests that Ke$ha supports climate change legislation and gay marriage), but it's actually hedonism. Her idealism, like most artists', is above all aesthetic. By her ethos, dance resolves all conflict, even those with apocalyptic overtones. Lead single "Die Young" echoes "Till the World Ends," the hit she wrote for Britney Spears -- and partying at the end of the world is a theme even older than rock and roll. As the ancients didn't quite say, "Let us drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die." There are worse ways to go.