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Admit it: The first time you heard Ke$ha's breakout hit "Tik Tok," you were interested.
You might've found it repulsive, catchy, stupid, annoying, bewildering, dazzling or offensive to your otherwise refined ear. But "Tik Tok" most definitely made you sit up and listen. First, there's the pulsating, strobe-light beat that erupts into a full-on electro-trash shout-along chorus. Then there are the lyrics — the kind you can't believe someone actually wrote — in which Ke$ha half-raps about the nonstop party that we're supposed to believe is her life. She wakes up in the morning "feeling like P. Diddy," brushes her teeth with Jack Daniel's and pretty soon hits the club with her friends, where she prick-teases all the boys "tryin' to touch [her] junk, junk." Finally, there's the voice delivering those rhymes — a somewhat grating-yet-amusing nasal drip that sounds like a teenage Alanis Morrissette drunk on Auto-Tune.
It's all so void of depth that listening to it makes you feel dumb. And you love it, don't you?
"Her songs are just so unabashedly trashy and catchy," says Keith Caulfield, associate director of charts for Billboard. "It's the kind of thing where you hear it for the first time and go 'What is this?' and after a couple times you go 'God, I love it!'"
For the most part, that which appears dumb in the pop world is fueled by a stroke of genius.
When she splashed onto the scene in 2009, she arrived looking like a Barbie doll who'd been up all night, with Mötley Crüe-disheveled blonde hair, torn fishnet stockings, heavy bracelets on her wrists and the same sultry/pouty face you see on every teenage girl's Facebook page nationwide. During interviews, Ke$ha even acted like a Sunset Strip rocker, drinking beer and bragging about how hard she'd partied the night before. She burped heartily, referred to her BlackBerry as her "DoucheBerry," and offered no apologies for doing so.
But here's the thing: The persona is there to match the music.
"Ke$ha's particular spin is that she acts like a guy," says Ann Powers, pop critic for the Los Angeles Times and author of several insightful reviews of Ke$ha's work. "She embodies certain qualities that are stereotypically male. She's overindulgent and aggressive. She puts herself first; she doesn't care about being polite or pretty, yet she's not androgynous the way Patti Smith was."
Ke$ha's not the first to have dabbled in this arena. Lil' Kim turned the tables on rap by embracing the genre's aggressive sexuality. Crass public behavior has been an on-again/off-again theme for Madonna for 30 years. One could even hear women like Ethel Waters singing openly suggestive numbers in Harlem nightclubs in the '20s and '30s. While it's still not the norm, sexual frankness among women is certainly not so shocking in the 21st century. The particular freshness Ke$ha has brought to the table backs up the attitude displayed in her music with a very believable public persona.
"While most female pop stars merely put on its costumes and masks, Ke$ha fully embodies the character," Powers says. "She is very consistent in the way she presents herself."
"She's like a squeaky-clean Peaches," Caulfield says. "Or a dirty Britney Spears."
Impressively, she's managed to sustain the momentum of her 2010 debut, Animal, with Cannibal, a nine-song EP. Cannibal's text-speak-titled single, "We R Who We R," gave Ke$ha her fifth consecutive No. 1 hit. But as times change and attention spans grow shorter, one has to question her staying power. Already, she's hinted at future musical directions by citing David Bowie, the Flaming Lips, the Beastie Boys and Prince as her influences.
"I'm interested to see how Ke$ha evolves," Powers says. "She's obviously smart. She will have to adapt her character over time, but that's common in pop."
And that — adaptation — will be the key to Ke$ha's staying power, Caulfield says.
"Everyone was writing off Madonna early in her career," he says. "When she first came out, everyone thought Cyndi Lauper was the great artist and Madonna was the trampy slut."