What Beyoncé Could Learn From Ke$ha: How to Actually Humanize a Pop Star

Ke$ha's new MTV documentary My Crazy Beautiful Life shows its subject doing something Beyoncé's video autobiography Life Is but a Dream never did: failing.
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HBO; MTV

In an interview promoting My Crazy Beautiful Life, the new six-part MTV docu-series about the glittery adventures of hard-partying pop star Ke$ha, the singer told USA Today this week that, "There are lots of things in this TV show that I don't think most people would want out there of themselves, honestly."

As the first episode unfolded, I couldn't help but think back to the last pop-music nonfiction film that got people talking: Beyoncé's Life Is but a Dream. And I suddenly understood just how right Ke$ha was.

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Beyoncé's movie is produced, directed, narrated, and starred in by the Queen Bey herself (who's famously insistent on maintaining air-tight image control), while Ke$ha's is directed by her affectionate but keenly observant older brother Lagan, a former video journalist for the Financial Times. Maybe it has everything to do with that. But My Crazy Beautiful Life unflinchingly explores a universal phenomenon Life Is but a Dream didn't dare touch: failure. Life Is but a Dream depicts its subject as a well-oiled machine of a human who's always the most powerful person in the room. My Crazy Beautiful Life, though, doesn't turn its gaze away from Ke$ha at the moments when she feels rejected, humiliated, ashamed, targeted, or powerless—and so far, it's a braver, more believable documentary for it.

Beyoncé and Ke$ha are, of course, different personalities with vastly different aesthetics—Beyoncé poised, regal, and diligently gracious, Ke$ha spontaneous and bawdy. But Life is But a Dream and what we've seen thus far of My Crazy Beautiful Life find them doing many of the same things: traveling, rehearsing, performing, primping, giving interviews, and talking (sometimes embarrassingly melodramatically) about making music, being in relationships, and the nature of celebrity.

Life Is but a Dream depicts Beyoncé doing all of these things with grace, generosity, and overwhelmingly successful results—a combination that feels at best heartwarming and at worst smug. Nauseated, first-trimester-pregnant Beyoncé makes it through 48 straight hours of rehearsals without complaining and apparently doesn't miss a step, then steals the show at the Billboard Music Awards. Heartbroken Beyoncé overcomes the tragedy of a miscarriage by stepping into the studio, singing from her heart, and laying down what she calls the best song she's ever written. Tabloid-maligned Beyoncé disapproves of the fact that celebrity pregnancies are gossip fodder, but she's risen above it. And when bad things happen to Beyoncé, they are never Beyoncé's fault. They are, without fail, external disturbances that Beyoncé can and does overcome with her trademark I'm-a-survivor fortitude.

It's not that Beyoncé's moments of triumph aren't inspiring. They are. But without any visual evidence that sometimes Beyoncé fails, or flubs up, or says something she'll regret, or isn't the wisest, most noble person in the room, her glowing win-after-win montage starts to blur into one megawatt superhuman highlight reel of a life that's too victorious to bear any resemblance to those of her mere mortal fans'.

My Crazy Beautiful Life, on the other hand, makes clear early (and often) that Ke$ha wins some, loses some, and doesn't always take the high road.

Sometimes, Ke$ha's failures are the kinds she laughs at. In the first five minutes of the premiere, Ke$ha attempts a cartwheel onstage and botches it spectacularly. She then loses her balance and flails to the ground again while merrily retelling the story backstage, then snorts at the memory when she reads about her tumble in a New York Times review the next morning. Later, she shares an oh-poor-us chuckle with a friend when a hot guy whose eye they've been trying to catch fails to notice them.

Other not-so-proud moments aren't as cute, or as easily laughed off. Upon returning to her old neighborhood in Los Angeles, Ke$ha insists on taking a stealthy night drive past the home of her ex-boyfriend Harold. She makes a vomiting noise as she explains bitterly that Harold lives there with his new girlfriend, expresses dread that he's making out with her right there inside the house, and sighs, "Well, that was unsuccessful," while driving away. She's failed to move on—a humiliating, sadly familiar experience that unites us all.

Ke$ha insists on taking a stealthy night drive past the home of her ex-boyfriend Harold; she makes a vomiting noise as she explains bitterly that Harold lives there with his new girlfriend. She's failed to move on.

Ke$ha's personal insecurities aren't a secret on My Crazy Beautiful Life, either. "Is it nice or is it mean?" she asks her brother apprehensively when he asks if she'd like to see the Times review of her show. She tears up when she talks about the barrage of criticism she's endured at the hands of blogger Perez Hilton, and even when it looks like Hilton's had a change of heart, she remains indignant about keeping him out of her life. There's no magnanimous "I'm over it" here: "I don't want him at my party," she tells her management flatly.

And yet there's also ample footage of Ke$ha charming radio DJs, electrifying audiences onstage, moving some fans to tears, and getting affectionate with a handsome guy in a bar after a show.

So it's not all losing for Ke$ha, but it's not all winning, either.

Where Beyoncé's documentary clings to the narrative that Beyoncé has pushed through her struggles and emerged triumphant, globally beloved, and spiritually at peace, My Crazy Beautiful Life looks like it has thus far resisted the urge to tie a tidy happy ending onto the story of Ke$ha finally becoming a star. And as a result, Lagan Sebert's documentary looks less like a dreamy, sugary fairy tale and more like, well, a real (crazy, beautiful) life.

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Ashley Fetters is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers entertainment.

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