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Kesha's 'Tik Tok' Is the Soundtrack of American Conservatism

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Fri, Apr 2, 2010 at 10:37 AM

Writer Martin Seay has written a long (and we do mean loooooong) essay about pop gadfly Ke$ha and her nefarious influence on pop culture and the psyche of young girls. He posted it on his website New Strategies for Invisibility and you really should read the whole thing.

Eggheads have been trying to "explain" pop culture for decades, pretty much since some German and French intellectuals (see Kracauer's The Mass Ornament or Roland Barthes' Mythologies, which Seay quotes) made it OK for them to do so (American intellectuals generally don't wipe their own asses unless German and French intellectuals first tell them it's OK to do so).

Though he could have said the same things in half the space, Seay does make some very interesting points, which we have digested for you. And he does make a solid case for Ke$ha's "Tik Tok" being "the soundtrack of American conservatism" [emphasis added]:

"TiK ToK" is already country music: not the tear-jerkin', flag-wavin', God-fearin' kind, obviously, but rather the hard-rockin', hard-drinkin', good-ol'-boy kind. [...] When you scrape your way down to the kernel of "TiK ToK"--minus the club rhythms, minus the hip-hop references--you will find a smug knowingness that any industry player in Music City USA will immediately recognize, as will any World Wrestling Entertainment scriptwriter, as will any political campaign consultant. The subject of "TiK ToK" is accommodating oneself to reduced circumstances; its advice is to stay positive, take advantage wherever you can find it, and don't think too much. You're broke, but somewhere in this town there's a party to crash. Guys are gonna hassle you, but they'll also buy you drinks. You're not sure how you're going to eat tomorrow, but it'll work itself out. All of this is not only tolerable but great. Y'all know how it is. You gotta love it.

click to enlarge kesha.jpg

Here are some highlights of Seay's lengthy essay, entitled "Ain't got a care in the world / but got plenty of beer / ain't got no money in my pocket / but I'm already here":

[Seay's wife's car doesn't have a CD player, so they were forced to listen to the radio, wherein they encountered Ke$ha's Tik Tok for the first time.] We hated it, of course--which both is and is not the point. Our visceral negative reaction was organized around two thoughts: 1) wow, the culture has just found another way to get stupider, and 2) this song is going to be HUGE. I daresay we felt--if I may sink a bit further into self-parody--a bit like William Carlos Williams upon encountering the "great catastrophe" of The Waste Land: the crisis here is not how this thing fails but how it succeeds. Deploring it is not enough; it must be campaigned actively against.

My beef with "TiK ToK" is basically this: it is very very easy to hate, but very very hard to hate productively. The dispiriting realization that arrived hot on the heels of my initial oh-my-god-I-freaking-HATE-this reaction was: oh wait--I'm MEANT to hate this. "TiK ToK" depends for its success on its capacity to polarize, and to polarize instantaneously: I would pretty much bet money that anybody who derives pleasure from this song is going to derive at least part of that pleasure by imagining somebody like me recoiling from it. Ergo, if I hate "TiK ToK," "TiK ToK" wins.

On the other hand, if I DON'T hate "TiK ToK," "TiK ToK" STILL wins--because, accurately or not, its fans will still imagine me and others like me fleeing the premises with noses upturned whenever it hits the PA system, repairing to our gut-rehabbed condos to salve our fragile sensibilities by dimming the lights and putting cucumber slices over our eyes and listening at moderate volumes to something we impulse-bought at Starbucks: Grizzly Bear, maybe, or Feist. Clearly, ignoring "TiK ToK" is not going to make it go away.

[Tik Tok reminds Seay of the Black Eyed Peas' "My Humps."] What else does "TiK ToK" remind us of? Well, Avril Lavigne for one--particularly her comparably horrid hit "Girlfriend" and its comparable shoutalong earworm chorus--and this stands to reason, as both it and "TiK ToK" bear the sticky fingerprints of increasingly ubiquitous writer-producer Lucasz "Dr. Luke" Gottwald. (Gottwald's rapsheet also includes such offenses as Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl" and a couple of just-marginally-more-restrained Kelly Clarkson hits. Then again, Gottwald ALSO-also worked on Miley Cyrus's "Party in the U.S.A.," which--if you forgive its vampirism of Nelly Furtado's "I'm Like a Bird"--is actually kind of a great song.) Through Lavigne, of course, we can trace the corrupt and diluted genetics of "TiK ToK" back through a whole lineage of ostensible girl-power anthems of wildly variable legitimacy: Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl," the Spice Girls' "Wannabe," Tiffany's cover of "I Think We're Alone Now," Madonna's "Material Girl," Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," Toni Basil's "Mickey," the Go-Go's "We Got the Beat," Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'," and the Angels' "My Boyfriend's Back," to name only an obvious few.

the song is a deliberate and fairly exacting rewrite of the Beastie Boys' breakthrough hit, "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!)" from their 1986 debut License to Ill. Sebert--who, it must be said, comes off in interviews as smart and forthright and adept at hitting what she aims at, which is to say she understands the pop intelligibility game--has name-checked the Beasties in interviews,

[Notice] the gap between [Ke$ha's] "Wake up in the morning feeling like P. Diddy" and [the Beastie Boys'] "You wake up late for school, man, you don't wanna go." The Beasties' original line is, of course, not original: it's a sly and self-aware evocation of the blues singer's standard opening "I woke up this morning," which always introduces a catalogue of woes (and which is itself a reference to the gospel singer's opening, "The Lord woke me up this morning," the crucial difference being that the blues singer wakes up alone, in a godless universe).

Although "TiK ToK" contains stupidity--in much the same way that a Twinkie contains high fructose corn syrup--it is anything but a stupid song. Unlike three decades' worth of kegstanding fratboys, Sebert misses the point of "Fight for Your Right" deliberately: she interprets the Beasties' (limited and unsuccessful) attempts at irony and connotive suggestion as amounting to no more than inefficiency, and as such she excises them. [...] You are perhaps elevating a skeptical brow at the suggestion that any song which depicts its singer/protagonist dampening her Oral-B with Tennessee whiskey and dancing till dawn could be anything other than self-indulgent, yet that is exactly what I am going to argue: the problem with "TiK ToK" is that once you strip away its hedonistic veneer, it becomes apparent that the song actually operates with all the devil-may-care flippancy of a SWAT team clearing a building.

[Ke$ha says:] "We're all young and broke and it doesn't matter. We can find clothes on the side of the street and go out and look fantastic, and kill it. If we don't have a car[,] that doesn't stop us, because we'll take the bus. If we can't afford drinks, we'll bring a bottle in our purse. It's just about not letting anything bring you down."

This is the soundtrack to American conservatism. Naturally, conservatives won't claim "TiK ToK" as an anthem--many will profess to be appropriately scandalized by it--but nevertheless it articulates the conservative worldview as well as anything I can presently point at. (As if it needs to be stated, the worldview I'm talking about here is much larger than--and not coextensive with--the membership of the Republican Party.) The key thing about "TiK ToK" is that it's ostensibly positive and empowering but absolutely NOT idealistic: everything it values is concrete, easily conceived, and readily achievable; anything that isn't is by implication suspect, silly, pathetic, embarrassing.

It's worth noting what in "TiK Tok" is conspicuous by its absence: anger about the present, concern about the future, the desire for peace of mind or for emotional connection (Don't treat me to the things of this world, Beyoncé Knowles sings: I'm not that kind of girl. Your love is what I prefer, what I deserve . . .), any attempt at imaginative engagement with the experience of being alive. None of this makes any sense in the utterly disenchanted world of "TiK ToK."

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