One of the words most commonly associated with Ke$ha’s music is “dumb.” You can straight up just rip the “dumb” entry out of your thesaurus, because Ke$ha reviews will always have you covered; same goes for “filthy” and “juvenile.” The notices for Cannibal, a mini-album companion to last spring’s Animal LP, are full of this stuff: The album is, allegedly, all “dumbness” and “unrepentant filthiness.” As for our singer, she “didn’t really set the bar for intellectual heft” and “you’d never know she had a brain” and “as a human being Ke$ha is a terrible failure.”
These are reasonably positive reviews I’m quoting, too. It’s generally considered okay to say these things about Ke$ha records, because the records don’t exactly have pretensions toward being anything more impressive. As for the word “dumb,” Ke$ha uses it herself, in a positive sense: The chorus of “We R Who We R,” Cannibal’s big single, talks about “dancing like we’re dumb / our bodies going numb.” And if you happen to find the song’s triumphant, trance pop appealing — which, for the record, I totally do — then this isn’t boneheaded, oafish dumbness she’s talking about. It’s more like the hollowed-out, free-of-yourself feeling people find in lots of places: brute animal experience, religious transport, drug use, dancing to giant buzzy synth sounds, wherever. It always sounds a bit high-flown when you say it, especially about a crude pop star like Ke$ha, but electronic dance music has spent decades poking at feelings that are almost spiritual, that sense of being subsumed and out-of-body.
Granted, that doesn’t exactly happen a lot on Cannibal, most of which is just Ke$ha preening, wisecracking, and trash-talking. Ke$ha loves trash so much she showed up to this year’s Video Music Awards in a dress made of garbage bags. She tends to look ragtag and feral, like she hails from one of those postapocalyptic scavenger communities you see in Mad Max or Tank Girl — some blasted-out landfill of a future. And while she’s dedicated to the topic of partying, she always makes it sound more like a pitched battle than a good time: On her records, partying is a Nietzschean test of will, something done in desperation, and facing dire consequences for failure. Even in the relatively cheery “TiK ToK,” her first smash single, partying is a “fight” to make it until dawn — and her singles are always best when they hone in on the dark and slightly desperate edge of that feeling, getting more and more sweat-stained and mechanical. They recommend partying more, and harder, and longer, and more violently, to that point of dumb numbness, as if there’s something important to be proved by doing it.
So what’s being proved? In a few interviews and lyrics, she connects all this with being an outsider. “We R Who We R” was allegedly inspired by a drag show, though Ke$ha later claimed it was a response to the bullying of gay teens. More often, she talks about not having money, suggesting that the ragtag look, and the garbage-bag chic, and all the lines about carrying her booze around in a water bottle, are a kind of resistance — all the party-hard stamina is a way of proving you can be glamorous and “pop” without any advantages backing you up. Ke$ha’s not the best at suggesting this — if I were going to split a gas-station water bottle of cheap liquor with any pop star, it’d be Pink — but sometimes it works. It brings to mind the kind of sentiment we’re used to hearing from punks, not pop stars: If everything collapses, there will always be ragtag youth ready to slam-dance on the junkyard of our wreckage. Ke$ha just happens to make that sound like a point of glamour and personal empowerment, not a cultural threat. The feral teenagers in her songs don’t have much of an agenda beyond running the party and covering themselves in glitter.
This is sort of an interesting thing, for an American — the U.S. has always been great at making young-and-drunk feelings sound beautiful, not filthy. We’re the place that’s spent decades dominating the world with rosy images of frat parties, teenage rebels, letter jackets, keggers, drive-ins, beach parties, grain alcohol, subpar sexual education, spring break, body shots, suburban skinny-dipping, bikini movies, lower-back tattoos immaculately framed by hiked-up thongs, and so on. And while America may be struggling with a lot of the things we used to do well, there is always this: We still have the party. We still have Daisy Dukes, beer bongs, credit-card debt, and pop culture that tells us how amazing it is to be a teenager. Our auto industry may not be what it once was, but give us some margarita mix and a radio and we shine.
That’s the side of the party Ke$ha’s main counterpart, Katy Perry, seems to come from. Everything about Perry seems to hark back to some golden age of American triumph; she looks and dresses like she should be painted on the nose of a World War Two bomber, or an extra in an early-sixties beach movie, or framed as a piece of Pop Art. Her singles dominated much of this past summer, and the album that followed, Teenage Dream, made being young, drunk, and starry-eyed sound incredibly wholesome — as if Girls Gone Wild videos long ago joined baseball, apple pie, water parks, and early Mellencamp in the canon of Americana.
One of the record’s best songs, “Last Friday Night,” is mostly just a list of drunken high-jinks, both legal and not. And yet somehow it manages to make threesomes sound as cheerily, innocuously fun as, say, a co-worker’s baby shower. The list of drunken excesses even involves maxing out credit cards, which is a pretty charming form of being “naughty” — a reminder that partying hard can be a healthy, all-American part of an earnest and fiscally prudent young lady’s life. The album’s title track has the 26-year-old Perry reborn as a teenager, brought back to the first innocent flushes of love; she just happens to be there during a time when the sweetness and turmoil of teen romance takes place not just in the Tastee-Freez parking lot, but possibly via stripping on webcam. Perry’s great achievement is how easily she reconciles that: On Teenage Dream she’s earnest and dreamy as often as she’s coy and brash, and in the latter case she’s usually winking anyway; her weakness for broad double-entendres is the sort you’d sooner expect from an elderly comedian.
I’m guessing that for a lot of teenagers, deciding which of these two singers to relate to is pretty simple: Perry’s the popular girl, and Ke$ha’s the ratty upstart, and what teenager doesn’t already have feelings about that dynamic? I can’t help thinking of them in terms of something larger, though, something about our national mood. The great fear floating around every modern American recession is that it could somehow be the final one, the moment where we slip from dominating the globe and actually become a grim, absurd, postapocalyptic mess. (And make no mistake: For many Americans, the thought of living in anything less than an exceptionally successful nation is a fundamentally apocalyptic notion — either We’re Number One or the world is over.) This makes me wish I liked Ke$ha more than I actually do; she’s well built for that environment.
But it turns out I always roundly prefer Perry — her cartoonish image, her squishy American nostalgia, her teenage dreaminess. Maybe that’s because I’m maudlin, or because I’m middle-class, or because I have the alcohol tolerance of a very cheap date, and wouldn’t last a weekend in the world of a Ke$ha song. But if Perry’s records seem to conjure a place where everything will remain as it was — where young middle-class Americans will happily continue to skinny-dip and max out their credit cards and buy bikinis and get pedicures and get alcohol poisoning and fall in love and so forth — well, is enjoying that a form of denial, or escapism, or just optimism and faith?