By Bob Ruggiero
By Hilary Hughes
By Peter Gerstenzang
By David R. Adler
By Devon Maloney
By Brian McManus
By Jessica Hopper
By Harley Oliver Brown
After a decade-long hibernation, the Lilith Fair is set to spread some sweet double-x vibes once again in 2010, with veterans Sarah McLachlan, Sheryl Crow, and the Indigo Girls standing alongside such logical progeny as Sara Bareilles and Colbie Caillat. So far, so Bed Bath & Beyond soundtrack. But then there's Ke$ha (sounds like "ketchup"), a rather blunt 22-year-old singer/rapper who dresses like a trailer-trash superheroine and, on her debut album, Animal, dismisses a philandering boyfriend with the following: "You're acting like a chick/Why bother?" Elsewhere, the L.A.-via-Nashville pop party-crasher chews out both shit-talking girlfriends and chatty bar hounds: "Don't be a little bitch with your chit-chat/Just show me where your dick's at!" Jewel this ain't.
Ke$ha's thematically dicey Lilith pass probably has something to do with the fact that her electro-shock lead single, "TiK ToK," just toppled Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind" from the top spot on Billboard's Hot 100. And while the invite may seem opportunistic and out of place, it's also a savvy acknowledgment of post–Lily Allen girl pop. Like Lily and Katy Perry before her, Ke$ha makes frank and funny mass-appeal songs that are alternately risqué, vulnerable, and utterly shameless. Her personal mission is to "cover the world in glitter one country at a time," which sounds girlie—and Napoleonic—enough.
But it's not just about sparkles that get stuck in your hair. This new, absurdist brand of "empowerment" involves acting like a License to Ill lout, boomeranging typical rock chauvinism with a fuck-all wink. On Animal, girls are pimps and guys are sluts—not necessarily a new approach, but it's still tricky. Like how the Nancy Sinatra stepchild "Boots & Boys" flips "Under My Thumb" tropes by equating dudes to mere accessories, but then, on "TiK ToK," the would-be rebel threatens to boot potential suitors "unless they look like Mick Jagger." And though many would casually lump her in with The Hills' bimbo squad, Ke$ha has derided Heidi & Co. as "the epitome of what's wrong with the country." Still, a couple of her songs have already been used to soundtrack contrived, noxious melodrama on, um, The Hills.
This Jack Daniel's–infused feminist worldview may be dicey, but Animal, pieced together by proven pop-godhead hitmakers (Max Martin, Benny Blanco, and especially Dr. Luke), is startlingly bulletproof, winning big by streamlining the frenetic, ADD dance sounds of France's Ed Banger Records (home to Auto-Tuned potty-mouth Uffie, who has been trying and failing to craft something as irrefutable as "TiK ToK" for years). Almost every song is pulled along by an immense, Euro-style four-four beat—even the introspective hangover tracks pump Red Bull—while Ke$ha's voice is digitally manipulated with a futurist, almost maniacal zeal.
You'd think such expensive sonic finery would completely overwhelm her newbie personality, but she's gifted with a unique, forever-tipsy half-rap cadence and a magnetically obnoxious singing voice; furthermore, she co-wrote all 14 tracks on Animal, thanks, perhaps, to her country-songwriter mom, who herself earns a writing credit on three of the album's best songs. (The "Show me where your dick's at" track is not one of them.) Distinguishing a Ke$ha song from one by Katy Perry (or Britney, or Kelly, or Lily) is surprisingly easy.
Such a bizarre spin on the sexed-up pop-artist racket seems worthy of more than just one fluke hit. Her wildlife-themed website shows Ke$ha riding a narwhal with a glowing, unicorn-like tusk; Animal club bruiser "Take It Off" is about being turned on by transvestites and employs a sinister vocal effect à la synth-goth freaks the Knife. Plus her lovesick ode "Stephen" comes off like a giddily perverse parody of Taylor Swift's oh-so-sweet "Hey Stephen"—when she offers to "wrap you up in my love forever" with that woozy lilt, you get very concerned for Steve's well-being. No less than three songs on Animal feature Ke$ha's stoner giggle, the sound of someone excited about stamping their name on the pop map. It's a good laugh.