Epitomizing all that is so wrong and still so right about 21st-century radio pop
Is she totally out-of-control, or totally calculated? These are the questions that both define and dog the career of Ke$ha, a pop star so thoroughly of our moment that she seems from a distance more like the virtual manifestation of a marketing campaign than an actual human being. The dance-pop answer to cock rock, the Los Angeles-born, Nashville-raised upstart singer/rapper dwells on themes of partying and self-empowerment – and, especially, partying as self-empowerment – that’s to Ke$ha what blunts are to Snoop Dogg; her lifeblood – if she slipped and cut herself while in burlesque gyration, she’d probably bleed glitter. Having scored seven Top 10 hits and a couple more equally successful cameos in just three years, Kesha Sebert is who she is; what she is not is apologetic.
“I’m sorry but I am just not sorry” is but one of many Ke$ha-isms on parade in Warrior, her second and against-all-odds excellent album. If you’re not favorably disposed to stadium-sized Europop synth riffs and beats, you might not immediately come to the same conclusion: An acoustic guitar opening on “Crazy Kids” and some patches where the drums drop out for a few dubstep diversions only partially disguise the fact that the first six tracks have more or less the same BPMs, same party-like-it’s-the-last-night-of-our-lives desperation, same Auto-tuned choruses alternating with suburban sass-rapped verses, and same swag of her Animal debut and Cannibal EP ramped up one woo-hoo notch higher. As her 100 percent-OTT-in-an-almost-John-Waters-kinda-way video for “Die Young” proves – complete with upside down crosses and Illuminati semiotics – Sebert takes dance-pop cacophony to a new level of blatancy. Complaining that she’s crass is like suggesting that the Ramones should’ve used a fourth chord.
But she nevertheless plays with the formula on Warrior‘s alternately even wilder – and at times actually reflective – second half. “Dirty Love” may become your resistance-is-futile moment with this garish hellcat: She introduces Iggy Pop as if marking the greatest moment of her 25 years, who in turn announces Ke$ha with an eye-rolling awareness of the ridiculousness and perfection of this pairing; the result suggests the White Stripes jamming with glam-rock giants like Slade or Sweet, but with Ke$ha in the Jack White role. Pop’s line about Afghani “rug merchants” sure ain’t PC, but little here is. On the other side of the spectrum, the ballads “Wonderland” and “Love Into the Light” reveal that Sebert devoid of beats, vocal processing, and posturing is essentially Alanis Morrissette.
The four final tracks on Warrior‘s deluxe version continue both the deviations from and further amplification of Ke$ha’s rockin’-in-a-Hefty-bag aesthetics: “Last Goodbye” sails into Mumford & Sons sing-along sea shanty territory, while the final slow jam, “Past Lives,” a Ben Folds co-write and duet with the Flaming Lips, recalls Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” The gem here “Gold Trans Am,” a “We Will Rock You” rhythm-driven, Southern rock-rap track that celebrates Ke$ha’s coochie with what is barely a single entendre. Like several cuts, it’s co-written by, among many others, Ke$ha and her mom.
Warrior ultimately works because the production, courtesy mostly of Europop honchos Dr. Luke, Cirkut, Max Martin and Benny Blanco, is so cheerily pummeling, and the songwriting, courtesy of the aforementioned plus the usual song doctors, is so unrelentingly catchy. Epitomizing all that is so wrong and still so right about 21st-century radio pop, Ke$ha’s own grating party girl presence is like the dissonant note in a jazz chord – the bitter that makes the sugar more delectably sweet.