Ke$ha, by all indications, seems to care about many things — glitter, for one, or perhaps alcohol by volume — but decidedly absent from her list is the approval of the smart-aleck public. This is probably wise. It’s not impossible for a pop star, no matter how debauched, vocodered or prone to scandal, to earn their respect. It’s just unpredictable. For everyone like Justin Timberlake or Beyoncé, who ascends from the mundane to Oscar lineups or memetic godhead, or even a Katy Perry, who straddles sisterly role model, pinup pleaser and chart record cutthroat with minimal contempt save a few titters about sparklers, there’s someone like Ke$ha, for whom that contempt is standard. Upon the release of her latest album Warrior, several sites deigned to be contrarian and suggest that maybe Ke$ha took smash-up inspiration from rowdy rockers or made a record where maybe not everything is embarrassing, and commenters were apoplectic for days, suggesting the writers were trolling or momentarily possessed by teenage girls. To hear them talk, Ke$ha’s less a singer than a satyr leading the world’s undiscerning listeners, then by extension the world, to a tacky Dionysian doom.
“To hear them talk, Ke$ha’s less a singer than a satyr leading the world’s undiscerning listeners, then by extension the world, to a tacky Dionysian doom.”
Most Top 40 artists get this from time to time, but few are so often called a stand-in for everything wrong with music. Why Ke$ha, in particular? Partly it’s her voice: steely and nasal and deliberately snotty, like Rugrats’ Angelica Pickles all growed up at her sorority trash bash. Partly it’s the Auto-Tune on that voice, applied as thick and goopy as hair dye, or the way she uses it to tell you off more often than sing. Partly it’s her subject matter — booze, boys, and brattiness in all their least flattering combinations — and how instantly it became infamous; a mere four lines into debut “TiK ToK” and you’ve already passed the P. Diddy and “brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack” memes. Partly it’s her name — would Rose Sebert have earned such derision? — and the dollar sign interrupting it. Largely it’s entrenched name recognition, for the same reason Miley Cyrus attracts Disney derision that her analogue Miranda Cosgrove doesn’t. Partly it’s her style; she’s thin and blonde but refuses to titillate with either trait, and her most famous outfit was a trash bag. Partly it’s how she taunts people concerned with social strata: crashing parties at rich dudes’ houses, sneering at “bougie friends,” paper-bagging booze, swearing up storms, and generally acting out every insult lobbed at lower classes. (This is why Ke$ha’s raunch — which is scarce, compared to some — gets dwelled on constantly, while her constant egalitalitarian, even feminist comments in interviews go mostly un-noted.) It’s equally telling what accusations Ke$ha doesn’t get. Her mother, Pebe Sebert, wrote for Dolly Parton, and Ke$ha was on Paris Hilton’s reality TV show for a while, but few accuse her of nepotism like they do gleefully for Cyrus or Lana Del Rey. Nor is there as much carping about others writing her songs — because Ke$ha’s credited as writing her own top lines (melody and lyrics), and there’s enough continuity (glitter everywhere, YOLO throughout, the same stories about the gold Trans-Am and the Hollywood sign and the same vocal embellishments) that it’s more than a courtesy credit. Which makes sense enough. What people are criticizing isn’t Kesha Sebert, the creator of songs, or even Kesha Sebert, the person, but Ke$ha, the personality. At this point, nothing short of a musical and image overhaul can shake off the synecdoche.
Fortunately for Ke$ha, she’s receptive to at least half of that. Despite her flagrant and frequent spurning of the haters, she would like those haters to know she rocks now. She’s been talking about this for more than a year: in May 2011 at Wango Tango, where she promised “balls-out, irreverent rock ‘n’ roll, in October to the Guardian, who was told she’d be making an “evil dark metal album,” in January to MTV News, which was told she’d resurrect rock, this February to Glamour, which was told the same. (How well these interviews are timed to album delays is left as an exercise to the reader.) Ke$ha put her collaborators where her mouth was, too (perhaps literally); the interim between albums saw her work with Alice Cooper and Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, both of whom made sure to talk her up. Warrior, meanwhile, has appearances by wild child Iggy Pop (who also appeared on Cat Power’s Sun, suggesting his motives were in part financial), the Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney and multiple members of the Strokes. For those who like their rock even more canonized, she covered Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” for a compilation, acoustic, gritty and completely unable to pass a taste test. It’s not a bad time for Ke$ha to try a genre shift, nor is it her first try. She made vague feints at rap, adding Andre 3000 then Wiz Khalifa, Lil Wayne and T.I. to successive remixes of “Sleazy,” but that was about it — probably because, pseudo-rapping aside, her engagement with hip-hop is minimal. Her voice is cutting enough to anchor Guetta-house, but she’d have to lose all the rapping — which would be an option had Nicki Minaj not already done it. She could, and probably will eventually, go country, but that tends to be a mid- to late-career shift. What’s left is rock, and it fits surprisingly well in theory. Ke$ha cusses and rages like a rock star, albeit a tame, focus-grouped one, who asks fans to mail her bloody teeth but less in the name of ferality than Twitter engagement and courts the misfits like a demographic. And sure, lead single “Die Young” was a retread of Flo Rida’s “Good Feeling” (itself a retread of Avicii’s “Levels,” itself a remix of Etta James’ “Something’s Got a Hold on Me”), but plenty of lead singles are unadventurous, the radio chaser for the album they promote. Right?
Not really. Warrior is many things, but it is not a rock album. Blame megaproducer Dr. Luke, probably; according to a New York Times profile, either he and the label steered Ke$ha back toward more palatable pop or Ke$ha steered alongside him. Aside from raucous Iggy indulgence “Dirty Love” and shunted-to-the-bonus-tracks “Gold Trans Am,” little evolves sonically from Animal or its re-release Cannibal. You could still technically call this sound rock — it’s no more a stretch than Mumford and Sons, who dominate the actual rock charts — but nobody said that about Ke$ha’s music the first go-round. What “rock” means here, mainly, is that guitars are allowed now. This is rather convenient for Ke$ha, as it allows her access to the quick-strum acoustic tracks that are in vogue now: the aforementioned “Good Feeling,” say, or Flo Rida’s follow-up “Whistle.” Whistling’s on Warrior too, leading “Crazy Kids,” and the sonic trends continue: Dr. Luke’s trademark harsh, steady throb like fluorescent strobe lights, rat-a-tat-tat percussion beneath most of Ke$ha’s verses, Rihanna-like patois whenever confidence is called for, occasional interruptions for chopping and screwing, a blown-out sheen throughout. Ke$ha might blast metal in her spare time, but on Warrior, the references are all radio pop (explicitly radio pop, on “Thinking About You,” and if you argue she could mean rock radio, there’s the Mumford issue again.) There’s a track that sounds like Katy Perry’s “The One That Got Away” (next single “C’Mon,”) and a guitar-boosted version of “Call Me Maybe” (“Only Wanna Dance With You,” where Ke$ha’s got a crush on the interjections from “California Gurls.”) Will.i.am is on the credits, as is fun.’s Nate Ruess and P!nk and Kelly Clarkson’s sonic architect Greg Kurstin — ironically enough the closest Ke$ha comes to engaging with saleable pop-rock, though despite the promisingly ominous verses of “Love into the Light,” he lets her sound nothing like herself. Much of Warrior comes off like, as Rich Juzwiak wrote, “best-case scenario Karmin.”
But that’s not the problem with Warrior, though, unless you consider pop a unilateral pejorative (and if so, nothing else Ke$ha could release would have swayed you.) Nor is the PR misdirection the problem; album PR, particularly early incarnations, doesn’t always resemble the music attached, and the set of people who genuinely expected a full-on, career-slaughtering rock album is, as Ke$ha would say, teenie-weenie. The problem is how little Ke$ha engages with the material she’s stuck with. The things she gets criticized for — brashness, crudeness, singsong rap — are in fact her added value (the opposite, then, of Karmin), and the weakest moments on Warrior come when she steps aside: the choruses of “Crazy Kids” and “Thinking of You,” which are pretty in a way Ke$ha normally abhors, or at least subverts; the anodyne “Wherever You Are,” a tween swoon that’s as if someone took Funny or Die sketch “Disney’s Princess Ke$ha” at its title; or the apathetic “All That Matters” (which turns out to be “the beautiful life,” which, again, Ke$ha would piss on.) She’s so much more engaged when tearing into Iggy’s metaphorical flesh, or calling for revolution and rhyming “saber-toothed tiger” with “Budweiser” on “Warrior,” or bratting it up, stomping publicly on terrible player dudes and winning dick-measuring contests on the other halves of “Crazy Kids” and “Thinking of You,” or slinging catchphrases; there’s zip and detail to lines like “cut the bullshit out with a dagger (“Warrior”) or “stripping down to dirty socks” (“Die Young”) that can only come from a skilled writer, ear attuned to rhythm and mind keen on impact. If that statement upset you, meanwhile, try “Wonderland,” a lull for nostalgic pop-country that’s reminiscent of, of all things, Kacey Musgraves’ “Merry Go Round.” Either of these — bratty dervish or respectable grown-up — could be viable, even triumphant moves for Ke$ha. Unfortunately, what Warrior demonstrates is that staying in the middle of the road is the least rock move of all.