American party music has turned the club into an idyllic, even antiseptic place. In the club that's collectively illustrated by modern hits, which pair European electro with this country's long tradition of pandering pop, drinking too much is just a telltale sign of how much fun is being had. It rarely leads to bad vibes or vomiting. No one cries when they're all caught up in their feelings in this club, and going home with some dude is a momentary fairy tale, not a fun-ugly hook-up.
This bacchanalia has no backlash.
But the bacchanalia does have Ke$ha, a Nashville-raised, Los Angeles-mutated songwriter, singer and warts-and-all spokeswoman who serves as a gut check to the carefree cavorting. Ke$ha once boasted that she threw up in Paris Hilton's closet. She actually has a song called "Dancing with Tears in My Eyes." Her "Take It Off," in which she sings about liquor-fueled group sex without regret, is kind of nasty and surreal. It's also honest.
Ke$ha is a big, black fly in the pristine, pre-packaged pop ointment. She drank her own urine on her 2011 reality show, My Crazy Beautiful Life. She is an ordained minister and performed a commitment ceremony for a lesbian couple. She has worked with Iggy Pop and, more recently, with The Flaming Lips; they are scheduled to release a collaborative album, Lipsha, later this year. A segment of her live shows even features a giant penis, which smacks the face of a male in the audience. Here, she flips the customary R&B conceit in which a woman gets grinded upon by, say, Usher and is supposed to cherish the moment into old age.
Ke$ha wages something like class warfare on bottle-service-reppin' party people, too; her 2009 debut, Animal, includes "Party at a Rich Dude's House," an implicit reminder that she is, or at least was, not rich. On "Sleazy," from 2010's Cannibal EP, she bleats, "I don't need you or your brand new Benz/Or your bougie friends." Her friends, meanwhile, swipe the drinks discarded by the sort of patron that wastes Patrón. On last year's Warrior, she merged the dirtbag, backwoods aesthetic of Guns N' Roses' Izzy Stradlin to catchy, guitar-crunching, sex-positive, feminist pop. In Ke$ha's worldview, the club is not meant to be cosmopolitan or polite.
This isn't bad for the singer who, only four years ago, was the mostly anonymous voice behind Flo Rida's hard-thumping, oral-sex request "Right Round." It might be initially difficult to perceive any difference between pap like that and Ke$ha's sly 2009 introductory hit, "Tik Tok." Within that pulsing piece of danceable rap, though, the then-23-year-old Ms. Kesha Rose Sebert compared herself to P. Diddy before daring the cops to shut down the party. On 2012's "Die Young," the philosophy of YOLO goes too far, pop triumph slamming headlong into fatalism. The edge is unavoidable.
The differences speak directly to Ke$ha's ability to dismantle modern pop by using the same tools that built it. She works closely with producer Dr. Luke, who has made hits with Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus and Pitbull. She bends those sounds just a little bit, however, adding nihilistic Berlin techno simplicity to her big beats. Auto-Tune is decadently slathered across her vocals, making them sound slurred and demented, as though she's had too much to drink and too little daylight.
Ke$ha also raps. She spits (not particularly well, but that's hardly the point of most proper rap right now) in an over-the-top yodel that wheezes and giggles. Ke$ha pairs the old-school, slap-you swagger of J.J. Fad or Salt-n-Pepa with the hear-me-roar vocalizing of riot woman Kathleen Hanna, adding the say-anything-and-make-it-slang ridiculousness of recent radio rap. She rhymes "Kosher" with "for sure" and sells it.
This awkward embrace of hip-hop is key to Ke$ha's subversion. Sure, she is in part pandering to tweens by putting the vague coolness of hip-hop in the mouth of a relateable white girl. But she also understands hip-hop's desire for "real talk." This isn't Public Enemy or even Kanye West-style agitprop, but Ke$ha uses radio-friendly club beats to describe a realistic, attainable, two-sided picture. What's more, she pairs it with a distinctly female sense of pleasure-seeking on songs played in clubs that don't really play rap music.
Ke$ha's mom was a Nashville songwriter. Before Animal hit it big, Ke$ha even worked as a back-up singer and songwriter. She threw up in Paris' closet because she sang on the Hilton heiress' album; she wrote Britney Spears' "Till the World Ends." This pedigree affords her an innate understanding of when and how to pull listeners' heartstrings. More pleasantly paced near-ballads such as "Animal" (a never-give-up anthem) and "Hungover" (yes, about being hungover) are conventionally beautiful and prom-ready, save for their earthy titles. They quietly display her vocal talents, too—always an issue for Luddites who still kvetch about Auto-Tune. The emotions at stake in her music are especially palpable on these slower tracks because you've experienced, through song at least, this person that's drunk and stumbling on the floor or crying so hard in the club. You feel like you know Ke$ha because she keeps bleating TMI, while the rest of our pop stars, including Beyoncé and Rihanna, remain aloof and untouchable.
Ke$ha, then, is the rapping white girl who can write, comfortably sing somewhere between heavy rock and light country, party hard and be happy to tell you about it all the next day. She is Lady Gaga minus the performance-arts pomp and turned up to 11. She is Rihanna if she ditched the faux #DGAF attitude that mars so many of her songs. And she is, at the moment, our strangest pop star.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The real wild one."