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The Quasi-Marxist Pop Star
“Before I leave, brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack / ‘Cause when I leave for the night I ain’t coming back.” These immortal words introduced Ke$ha to an unsuspecting public in 2008 when they capped off the first verse of her notorious hit ‘TikTok’, an ode to reckless partying slathered in auto-tune and featuring a succession of cringe-worthy lyrics (“Everybody getting crunk, crunk/Boys trying to touch my junk junk”). It wouldn’t be an understatement to call Ke$ha, whose second full album Warrior was released last month, one of the most universally loathed artists of our time. The very mention of her name is a social invocation of talentlessness, vulgarity, and sleaze, and her hits like ‘We R Who We R’ and ‘Blah Blah Blah’ are often described as the antinomy of ‘real music’. A listen to Ke$ha’s body of work however suggests that there is much more going on under the surface than is perhaps apparent at first glance.
The first thing that becomes apparent when listening to Ke$ha’s albums is her ideological and thematic consistency. Compared to the more mercenary likes of Rihanna or Katy Perry, more or less willing to slip between vixen and victim depending upon what’s demanded, Ke$ha’s songs can be boiled down to a recurring group of ideas, with death, violence, and class chief amongst them. The influence of death echoes through her songs: her latest single revolves around the line “Let’s make the most of tonight like we’re gonna die young”, and her hit ‘Blow’ ends with the club literally exploding. In ‘Animal’ she entreats listeners to “love me like we’re gonna die”, and when she isn’t worried about her own mortality, she’s clearly on the hunt for blood herself: “Use your finger to stir my tea, and for dessert I’ll suck your death […] I eat boys up / Breakfast and lunch”, she growls in ‘Cannibal’. There’s clearly something more purposive going on here than in your average Britney record. Even in the humorous ‘Dinosaur’, Ke$ha’s target is someone desperately clinging to lost youth.
Ke$ha’s distaste for materialism and classism is if anything even more prevalent. In ‘Party At A Rich Dude’s House’ she yells “Cigar in the caviar / I’m pissing in the Dom Perignon”, and in the Iggy Pop duet ‘Dirty Love’ it’s declared that “Champagne tastes like piss to me [...] Keep your leopard limousine […] I just want your fucking filthy love!”.Likewise, in ‘VIP’ Ke$ha implores rich, entitled girls to drown in their Martinis, and in the wonderful ‘Sleazy’ she ridicules a rich suitor: “I don’t need you and your brand new Benz, and your bougie friends […] You really think you’re gonna get my rocks off, get my top and socks off, by showing me the dollars in your drop-box?”. In some ways Ke$ha is perhaps the first quasi-Marxist pop star, entreating us to embrace humanity, honesty and other people and abandon bourgeois trappings and private property.
And Ke$ha really does want to start a revolution. The first words listeners to ‘Warrior’ hear are “We were born to break the doors down / Fighting ‘til the end”. So begins the album’s title track, and by the second verse Ke$ha demands of her fans: ”Fight for the fuck-ups / Stand up for true love / We’ll never give up / Live like it’s our last night alive”. At this point it becomes clear what’s going on; whilst nearly all pop stars are personas that are based on but distinct from the people playing them, the persona of Ke$ha (born of an alien and Alice Cooper and blessed with a golden, glittery vagina according to her publicity materials), has been crafted as a Tyler Durden-esque symbol of revolution. More specifically, like Brad Pitt’s Fight Club character, Ke$ha represents a direct rejection of reserved, genteel civilization in favour of an embrace of our innermost and desires and needs. “I am in love with who we are, not what we should be”, she sings in the tender ‘Animal’, and it’s a fitting slogan, though ‘Blah Blah Blah’ provides an alternative “Don’t be a little bitch with your chit-chat, just show me where your dick’s at!”. I’ve heard more eloquent revolutionary calls to arms, but few more forceful.
James Searle is reading for an MPhil in Political Science at St Anne’s College, Oxford.