Hey, dudes with beards, and also other people! I’m Sam Lansky, pop scholar and longtime fan of the inimitable Kesha Rose Sebert (better known to the listening universe as Ke$ha), and this is my column, Pop Think, where I do stuff like try to convince you that a singer famous for claiming to brush her teeth with a bottle of Jack Daniels is actually a musical genius. (But really, she is!)
Detractors have directed shade at Ke$ha for her party-animal persona, liberal use of Auto-Tune and eccentric style, but those criticisms ignore her enormous talent, both as a vocalist and as a songwriter. This week, I’m taking a look at how Ke$ha’s artistic craft shines through in her music — and how her ballads showcase her surprising depth.
I’ve been following Ke$ha’s career for a long time, since the rowdy chanteuse’s buzz track “Backstabber” — which later appeared on her debut album, 2010’s Animal — was used on MTV’s show “The Hills” way back in 2008. There was something interesting, exciting and fresh about Ke$ha, a mysterious L.A. girl with a distinctive, tangy voice who lived in a Laurel Canyon mansion with a rock-and-roll pedigree (The Eagles recorded Hotel California there!), had zany stories about puking in Paris Hilton‘s closet and breaking into Prince‘s house, and hung out with cool L.A. cats like Katy Perry and Bonnie McKee. (The former, of course, would go on to become a massive global superstar, while Bonnie went on to write several of the best pop songs of the last few years — clearly, these girls were doing something right.)
Of course, Ke$ha already had a reputation as a promising young talent in the industry; she had been doing backup work for artists like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, and cowrote Australian pop duo The Veronicas‘ brilliant 2007 single, “This Love.” Her early work showed serious promise, from the sharp pop of catchy “Run Devil Run” (eventually made famous by K-pop superstars Girls’ Generation) and the winking, self-conscious “Disgusting” (which was ultimately cut by Miranda Cosgrove for her debut album) to lesser-heard demos like the lonely dirge “While You Were Sleeping” and the twangy “I’m the One,” which evokes early Shakira. Ke$ha claimed writing credits on all of her songs, a stark contrast to so many of her contemporaries; she seemed incredibly prismatic, an artist who was capable of crafting superb pop melodies while remaining funny, charming and honest in her lyrics. (Of course, she’s continued songwriting well into her career, including penning Britney’s smash “Till the World Ends.”)
That voice was never abandoned, but it has shifted pretty dramatically over time as she recorded her debut and the follow-up with super-hitmakers like Dr. Luke and Benny Blanco. The song that put her on the map, “TiK ToK,” set the stage for everything that has followed. It made her an artist famous for singing about living hard, more so than for the vulnerability of which she’s undeniably capable. “TiK ToK” celebrates how “the party won’t stop”; “We R Who We R” announces that K$ and her friends are “dancing like we’re dumb.” Then there’s that one about the club that’s “about to Blow.” (Maybe you’ve heard it.) This has narrowed the road for Ke$ha, I think. Such a heartfelt ballad, like the ones she actually does masterfully, would feel like a surprising directional shift.
+ Read more about Ke$ha’s songwriting prowess after the jump.
But her ballads are still amazing, even if they’ve become more slickly produced and sonically sophisticated than those early demos. The ballads on her debut, Animal, like “Hungover” and “Dancing With Tears in My Eyes” are glitchily hook-driven melodramatic pop but maintain a sadness that’s supremely compelling. The best track on Cannibal, her follow-up EP, was probably “The Harold Song,” which is remarkably lachrymose given how radio-friendly it still is. “I can’t handle it when I turn out my nightlight,” she croons over softly plinking pianos before launching into a huge, gorgeous chorus built around the repeated line, “I would give it all to not be sleeping alone,” which stands out in my memory as one of the saddest pop lines in recent memory.
Ke$ha wanted “The Harold Song” to serve as a single from Cannibal. Late in 2011, she tweeted “Harold song on the radio??? Thank u animals… That makes my night. I love u guysxx,” then followed up with a note explaining “That’s my fave song off of cannibal. Request it pleeze! Its so special to me xx.” And though the song failed to get an official release, it’s not hard to see why Ke$ha and her fans (myself included) love it so much. Whereas so many of her songs feel like they’re about using the fun and frivolous to distract from feelings — heartbreak or financial insecurity or identity confusion — “The Harold Song” is about facing emotion in all its raw discomfort.
And I’ve heard few songs more blisteringly raw than her cover of Bob Dylan‘s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” a stripped-down rendition that’s haunting and bruised, her voice a tear-soaked rasp over chilling ambient noise. Even though it’s one song that she didn’t help write, her capacity to imbue Dylan’s words with emotion is undeniable. It’s simply an extraordinary recording, one that’s well worth a listen and should silence any naysayers who have ever claimed that her vocal talents or artistry are limited.
Ke$ha told MTV a few weeks back that though she loves the “unapologetic and irreverent” tone of her debut, she’s realized that “vulnerability can also be a strength.” And while she says it won’t be an “acoustic, sad entire record,” the Dylan cover inspired her to diversify on her next album. She’s back in the studio with Dr. Luke and is hoping for a May 2012 release of her next album. The vulnerability she’s been willing to show off has been dazzling and irresistible. I just want her to show the world more of it: The results are far too impressive to go unnoticed.