She may be the perfect pop-culture koan.
Image from Flickr via NicoleAbalde
A palimpsest written in glitter pen, she evokes Janis Joplin, early Madonna—and Liberace. A pop star who could only exist in the post-pop-star era, Ke$ha is what comes after Fergie’s lady lumps and Britney’s breakdown. On the spectrum of YOLO—with Rihanna the nihilist, and Taylor Swift the prig—Ke$ha is an auteur: a hot blonde from Nashville by way of Van Nuys who makes songs with beats from Radio-Disney and lyrics worthy of Hustler. Macbeth may have summed up the “you only live once” motto when he said, “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” But Kesha, unlike some of her counterparts, is more fun than fury.
The tale told in 25-year-old Kesha Rose Sebert’s new memoir, My Crazy Beautiful Life, is a familiar one. Oversized and shiny, the book belongs to a canon of elaborately designed celebrity biographies that rely heavily on photos and song lyrics to tell the truncated story of an artist’s rise to fame and explain their creative process. Kesha’s book is, as Jon Caramanica describes MIA and Pharrell Williams’ forthcoming literary endeavors, “beautiful and indulgent, more a record of fame than an analysis of it.” If you are amused by Kesha, you will likely be amused by her book, filled as it is with blunt observations on booze, bands, and dudes with beards. If you fall into the camp that despises Kesha, that finds her vulgar/sleazy or manufactured/untalented (I profoundly disagree with the latter assessment; with regard to the former, well, that’s kind of her thing) then it will likely cause you to bemoan the state of music, the publishing industry, and, finally, a culture in decline.
Is she a third-wave feminist or some kind of terrible digital chimera created by the music industry? Most importantly, is it okay for me to like Kesha so much?
Why is there all this hate for Kesha, anyway? What is it about, as the New York Times recently put it, Kesha’s challenging of “double standards by seizing male rock’s license to misbehave” that makes her such a “lightning rod”? If it is simply the reappropriation of typically male themes like heavy drinking and one-night-stands for her own nefarious talk-rap purposes, why is she so much more despised than a similarly drunk and rowdy Lady Gaga? Is it just the silly dollar sign in her name? Or could it have something to do with her slurring and wobbling her way so deeply into our collective unconscious that “Tik-Tok” will now be played at every wedding you attend for years to come? Listen for it right after “Celebration.”
The book, structured like a college application essay (introduction, accomplishments, hopes and dreams), while lacking the lasting power of Kesha’s songs, does help explain them. It opens with her perched on a rock in the Galapagos Islands, empty notebook in hand, pondering the success of her first album, Animal, and the direction of her upcoming one, Warrior. Like Animal, Warrior is filled with diabolically catchy songs that get lodged in your brain like the tropes of a recurring dream—the details may change, but the central ideas—Jack Daniels, partying as the preeminent expression of life—remain the same. As Rob Sheffield writes in Rolling Stone, “Kesha is hardly the first rock star to discover that her crudest, cheapest, cheesiest ideas are her best. In fact, that’s how you can tell she’s a true rock & roll child.”
The best stuff of her songs, that winking, self congratulatory and trashy candor, informs the substance of the book. In photo after photo, Kesha snarls playfully for the camera, gold tooth gleaming. She writes of working and performing with her idols (Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop) as well as her abiding love for glitter and free tacos. We learn that Kesha is, quite literally, of no man: “Before I was born, my mom wanted to have another child, but she didn’t want to be in a relationship. Because some sperm banks had reportedly been infected with HIV, my mom decided to ask some of her friends to try to get her pregnant. I’ve never known for sure who my father is, and I don’t want to know.” On the use of symbolism in “Gold Trans Am” she simply says, “It’s a metaphor for my hoo-ha.”
There are lots of alienated teen girls who dress weird and listen to T-Rex, but few of them grow up to be pop stars.
All this speaks to the mystery of Kesha’s existence as a pop star, and a truly great one at that. She is sparkly and pretty but she posts pictures of herself peeing in the street. She is sexy but never kittenish. She is likely, at this point, very rich, but her most flashy possesion is a vintage car. Is she a third-wave feminist or some kind of terrible digital chimera created by the music industry? Most importantly, is it okay for me to like Kesha so much?
While her memoir doesn’t answer these questions or allay these fears it does provide some context for her popularity. Lest you think Kesha has stumbled blindly on her success, there are telling bits here about her savvy side. There are lots of alienated teen girls who dress weird and listen to T-Rex, but few of them grow up to be pop stars. “In less than three years,” she summarizes, “I’ve gone from being the worst waitress in L.A. to living out my childhood dreams of singing my songs for people all over the world.” Her songwriting team boasts talent including Dr. Luke, the producer behind, among many other pop pleasures, what may be the best song of all time: Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone.” Concerned that the use of autotune on Animal provided ammunition to critics who believed she lacked any natural singing ability, she reiterates that Warrior is a conscious effort to move away from drum machines and digitization, all without alienating her core audience. Business sense and self awarness aside, Kesha’s first-person narrative betrays a young woman who seems to be, almost in spite of herself, immensely likable and a team player who cherishes friends and family, listens closely to praise and criticism, and clamors, always, for the next experience.
So, my suggestion for people who think Kesha is the worst: Meditate on her contradictions. Focus on that koan. Or just turn “Tik-Tok” up real loud and dance around with your cat.
Leah Carroll is a writer living in Brooklyn.