The concert lap dance is something of a recent tradition with female pop stars, a mutation of the “pull a fan out of the audience and see what happens” arena-show ritual. But Britney, Rihanna, and even the outsized Nicki Minaj seem to be made smaller by the act, or at least by the pageview-hungry music press, which never saw a woman getting sexy that it couldn’t salivate over. But then there’s the spin given on it by Ke$ha—the gutter-glitter pop star who has twice ridden to the top of the Hot 100 with a party-at-all-costs attitude, a sneering delivery that echoes the old-school rhymes of L’Trimm, and pop guru Dr. Luke’s endlessly hummable melodies.
Ke$ha is probably closest to Lady Gaga on the current femme-pop spectrum in one crucial way; both revel in their ugliness and shoving it in the faces of their audiences. Instead of the art-at-all-costs attitude espoused by Gaga, though, Ke$ha’s main goal—from her first single, “Tik Tok,” on—has been her own satisfaction, a celebration of recessionary filth that’s equal parts nihilism and carefree abandon, accented by copious amounts of glitter and lip stain in unnatural colors. During her show Saturday at the Nikon Theater at Jones Beach, she put down ex-lovers; she expressed glee over sipping from the dregs of a bar’s abandoned drinks; and she engaged in a pantomime that resulted in one of her dancers being stripped to his bones, after which Ke$ha grabbed the body’s heart and drank lustily from it like a piña colada–holding coconut. This was all done with a sort of Bushwick loft-party aplomb that seemed cannily low-budget, given the crap economic news that had been flowing all week; Ke$ha led the crew from the middle of the stage, on a raised, sampler-laden platform that brought to mind Prince’s video for “Batdance,” while her musicians were stuck in the surrounding scaffolding and her dancers flopped around up front.
Near the end of the show, she offered up a tale of woe. “This is a story about a boy,” she said. “A guy I was going out with—and he was great, he really was . . . great in bed. Until one day, we ran into a little problem. I decided it was sexytime”—here, she grabbed her crotch—”and that I was gonna take him to the bone zone. But he wanted to talk! The fucker wanted to talk. So I did the only respectable thing; I got rid of him and wrote a song about it.”
That song is “Grow A Pear,” a vengeful lament about a “dude with a vag” that also manages to work in a mangina reference. (An achievement in poesy, that.) Not really the most obvious candidate as far as titillation goes, which might be why Ke$ha asked if there were any “boys who like being abused” in the audience. A 19-year-old dude in a porkpie and jeans presented himself; he was summarily duct-taped into a chair that had been brought center stage.
In the hands of another pop star, the “sexytime” that ensued would be played straight; how else to honor the fact that this person had paid good money to get into the position where he currently sat? Ke$ha straddled her prey for a few seconds, yes, but then a dancer in a pear costume—with a dollar sign scribbled on its front—had his chance to engage in a little bit of freaking. The two were eventually joined by someone who Ke$ha squealingly referred to as “Mr. Penis.”
“Mr. Penis” was a man in a big phallus costume, complete with pair of droopy balls dragging on the stage floor. “He’s got his boys, boys and girls!” Ke$ha exclaimed after giving him a hug. And so the balls were slapped against the dude’s face and waved in the air, and had other things done to them that the parents in the audience would probably have to explain during the drive home. Ke$ha did end the song on the guy’s lap, but just as quickly as he was ushered on, he was escorted off by a guy in a Santa suit.
The absurdities framing Ke$ha’s take on this pop-show staple—the larger-than-life phallus, the pear costume, the glitter poured on the fan’s head while Mr. Penis prepared himself for his slap-happiness—underscored the concert lap dance as an absurd trifle to be tossed off before getting back to the good parts. The rest of Ke$ha’s show had her brazenly declaring her right to be happy in a way that seemed like a pop-tarted take on Kathleen Hanna’s 1995 declaration that she believed in “the radical possibilities of pleasure.” This theory was espoused on the Bikini Kill single “I Like Fucking,” which seems like a very Ke$ha-like mantra. Like the current moment in relation to the mid-’90s, though, Ke$ha’s take on female empowerment is both shinier and grimmer than its antecedent, a “girls to the front” attitude that hews a bit too closely to gender norms (if a chick just wanted to cuddle, she might be mocked, but she’d probably still be seen as reliably female) and that boasts hooks more radio-ready than Bikini Kill’s cacophonous snarl. But all night the women in the crowd, which included quite a few mother-daughter pairs, sang along loudly with Ke$ha’s proclamations of engaging their sexuality for its own sake and casting aside those men who didn’t want to play along, turning the venue into a sort of consciousness-raising session that had been given a hasty makeover at a Halloween store having a closeout sale.
As the audience streamed toward the exits I saw the lap dance recipient, porkpie hat intact if a bit askew, a dollar sign—Ke$ha’s symbol—hastily drawn on his cheek. Someone asked him how his onstage experience was. “She was amazing,” he said, with an added emphasis on the second vowel sound. The young woman who appeared to be with him did not look all that amused.