Beneath the Glitter: Ke$ha vs. The Culture Industry

 Ke$ha I wrote this essay about Ke$ha for a COMM class. Pretty sure I at least got a C on it.

Beneath the Glitter

Kesha Rose Sebert introduced herself to the world as a curly-haired, glitter-plastered party girl who wakes up in the morning feeling like P. Diddy and brushes her teeth with bottles of Jack Daniels. Her brash lyrics and sexual nature have made her the target of critics who have called her everything from a low-rent Lady Gaga to absolute garbage (Ali, 2010). Maybe it’s the gold tooth or the excessive amount of body glitter she wears that makes people think she’s nothing more than talentless white trash. Maybe it’s the claims she’s made about having sex with a ghost (Spitznagel, 2013) that causes critics to brush her off as a gimmick not worthy of being taken seriously. Beneath the grit and glitter, Ke$ha is a smart and talented woman who may stay within the confines of the Horkheimer and Adorno’s culture industry at times, but also fell largely outside of it when she first came onto the scene back in 2010.

Horkheimer and Adorno believed that the industry molded talented performers long before they displayed them. The conformity promoted by the culture industry spreads beyond those who are associated with it to the audience and even to those who aren’t necessarily fans of people in the industry. This was true for Kesha before she became Ke$ha. Her mother, Pebe Sebert, is an award-winning songwriter who has written songs for country singers like Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash. She found success with the classic “Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You” (Ali, 2010). Kesha was pretty much raised in the music industry. She would go with her mother when she performed and started taking singing lessons at a young age after her mom realized that she actually had a nice set of pipes. She started off playing the guitar and singing acoustic ballads. On her first demo, she sounded a lot like another curly-haired, guitar-playing singer that was popular at the time: Taylor Swift. Kesha’s unreleased song “Feels Like Rain” has been listened to on YouTube thousands of times and almost every comment likens her voice and style to Swift’s. Taylor was fairly new to the industry at the time but the respect her presence already demanded caused Kesha to mold her style after her before she was even displayed to the world.

Adding to the cookie cutter world of the day’s pop stars got Kesha some attention from record labels but she didn’t land a major deal with one of the biggest names in the industry until she broke the mold. She had just finished crooning into the microphone during one of her demo sessions when she decided to start freestyle rapping. This shaking up of the norm is what caught Dr. Luke’s ear and made him decide to add her to his all-star roster that included artists such as Britney Spears, P!nk, and Katy Perry. Rebellion has since then played a key part in Kesha’s “Ke$ha” persona. Ke$ha is not merely a trashy whore who drinks too much and showers too little, she is a representation of America’s young women. She embodies everything deemed immoral in women and shows no remorse. She can be seen as a champion of modern day feminism. She refuses to play into the stereotypes set up for her by the industry and society (although she almost succumbed to them early in her career). Women in the media are constantly being belittled and objectified. Magazines and even the actual news scrutinizes the clothing choices of female celebrities or makes unfounded pregnancy claims if her weight seems to have fluctuated since the last time they plastered her body on our television screens. Ke$ha refuses to conform to industry standards of beauty. She once wore a garbage bag dress to an award show. In an interview with Seventeen Magazine, Ke$ha says, “I think girls need someone to look up to who’s not in high heels and a push-up bra…It’s all about your confidence and having positive energy” (Seventeen Magazine, 2010). Ke$ha also refuses to be objectified but rather does the objectifying. There are multiple instances where her lyrics refer to men merely as sexual objects or as a means to sexual satisfaction. Throughout her song “Blah Blah Blah”, she is basically telling a man that she’s interested in having sex with to shut his mouth and give her what she wants. Her lyrics explicitly say, “Don’t be a little bitch with your chit-chat, just show me where your dick’s at”. This isn’t something you’ll likely here coming from the mouths of Taylor Swift or Kelly Clarkson (maybe P!nk, though). In our society, it is unusual (but becoming less so) for a young woman to run around expressing her sexual urges. Ke$ha refuses to be nonsexual while also refusing to be sexual on demand (Cardenas, 2012). Her song “Dinosaur” delves into the issue of predatory old men. Unlike the songs “Stacy’s Mom” by Fountains of Wayne and “Last Summer” by Garth Brooks where the younger person yearns to have some type of sexual interaction with the older subject, Ke$ha is disgusted by the old man trying to hook up with her. Instead of there being a dominant/submissive aspect, Ke$ha shows her strength by shooting down the advances of the old pervert. She’s not intimidated by him and will not be seen as either a helpless little girl or a sexual object to be used to satisfy an old man’s sick fantasies. Her song “Boots and Boys” is a prime example of her objectifying men. She compares the men in her life to boots. They are no longer humans with an identity but objects meant to complement her appearance. She talks about collecting them and trying them on as if men are just accessories. These qualities are what set Ke$ha apart from the newer pop stars fresh off the assembly line.

Style has been eliminated and thus personal creativity and expression according to Horkheimer and Adorno. Individual freedom has been replaced with a generic set of qualities one must possess to garner any attention. Ke$ha was the face of resistance when she first came on the scene. Jay-Z may have declared the death of autotune, but Ke$ha brought about its resurrection. Her over-the-top use of the voice modification software coupled with her hypersexualized lyrics and electronic beats gave her a style that was unique at the time. People were hard pressed to compare her to Lady Gaga but eventually settled on calling her the anti-Gaga (Ali, 2010). Her style may be way out there like Gaga’s but it’s at least relatable. Girls could connect more with Ke$ha’s style because she acted like a regular party girl and didn’t dress like a spaceship. Ke$ha’s style was allowed to bleed through in her first album, Animal. She had a lot of creative control and actually wrote every song on the album (Seventeen Magazine, 2010). There was a mixture of party songs such as “Tik Tok” and “Your Love is My Drug” and emotional songs such as “Hungover” and the title track, “Animal”. Her control over the style and artistic expression on her second album was limited, though. Compared to her first album, Warrior was riddled with profanity and brought back the same electronic type beats with less clever lyrics. Ke$ha claims she was forced to release the album. On her show My Crazy Beautiful Life, she expresses her frustration with her producer, Dr. Luke, by saying she can’t just sing party songs for the rest of her life. She wants some songs with substance. When asked in an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine how much control she has over the creative process, she explains, “What’s been put out as singles have just perpetuated a particular image that may or may not be entirely accurate. I’d like to show the world other sides of my personality. I don’t want to just continue putting out the same song and becoming a parody myself.” She had a unique style but that’s been eliminated and replaced solely with the parts of her style that sells.

In their culture industry essay, Horkheimer and Adorno write about how commercial cultural production has shifted from trying to appeal to mass audiences to niche audiences with specific likes, dislikes, and desires that other groups might not possess. Ke$ha can be seen as appealing to a niche audience. I doubt she is trying to gain a following of the middle-aged and elderly. The niche she reaches is the young party-goer whose identity might be suppressed by uptight parents. She speaks to anyone who’s afraid of being themselves and tells them its alright to unapologetically show the world who they truly are. In the music video for “Tik Tok” she’s seen leaving her straight-laced, white collar family to go out in skimpy clothes and drink and party all night. The words “Tik Tok” signify that time is running out and she needs to party and live as much as she can while she still can. This is a common theme throughout most of her songs. It’s especially apparent in her song “Die Young”. She is literally saying to make the most of the night like you’re going to die young. She contributes to the YOLO mindset or the “do whatever you want and worry about it later” mindset of today’s American youth.

If there is any sort of resistance or challenge to the status quo, Horkheimer and Adorno assure us that those resistances will become incorporated into the status quo by being sold back to us. This definitely happened with Ke$ha’s style. Most artists used autotune sparingly just to help their voices out a little bit, but Ke$ha used it in a way that you knew it was being used. That was unique at the time, but since then you’ve got artists like Dev and Jason DeRulo who have no intention of hiding their autotune use and it’s actually a huge part of their style. Ke$ha’s resistance has been copied, repackaged, and sold back to the masses. Ke$ha’s fans fall into this trap of making resistance the norm. They take her glitter and trashiness as an expression of herself and want to express themselves in the same way. They think they’re being unique individuals but they’re actually just jumping onto the latest trend, copying a fad that may or may not last. They’re wearing trashbags and glitter and drawing dollar signs on their bodies to express themselves but they’re all expressing themselves uniquely in the exact same way. Their resistance has become a part of the norm they’re trying to escape. By resisting, they’re actually conforming to what everyone around them is doing. It’s not resistance anymore if everyone’s doing it.

There’s been a shift from multidirection, horizontal communication such as people talking to each other on the telephone to a more unidirectional, vertical style of communication such as radio and TV. The culture industry capitalizes on this according to Horkheimer and Adorno. However, more types of horizontal communication are sprouting up to challenge this. In Ke$ha’s case, it’s social media. When she first came out, people either loved her or hated her. They loved her party music or hated her trashiness. People hit up her Twitter handle (then @keshasuxx) with all sorts of comments ranging from praise to hate. She decided based on that feedback to ramp up the trashiness. Then people heard her unreleased songs like “Feels Like Rain” and realized she could actually sing and reached out to her on social media. They told her how talented they really thought she was and that she should try and make more songs like that. This led to her trying to get more songs like that on her upcoming album but being rejected. Social media also got her to try and break her contract with Dr. Luke. Ke$ha went to rehab and accused him of drugging her, sexually assaulting her, and forcing her to perform songs that she didn’t want to. Fans felt like he was holding her hostage and controlling her like a puppet so they started an online campaign to free her from him. The petition gained over twelve thousand signatures. This wouldn’t have happened if Ke$ha was just another voice we heard on the radio from time to time. Her availability to fans has helped shaped her career and even her life in ways that might not have been possible twenty or thirty years ago.

There is no doubt that Ke$ha has been a driving force in the music industry for the past couple of years. She’s churned out hits not only for herself but she’s written chart-toppers for artists such as Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus. She’s spawned a generation of “Warriors” who will continue to fight for freedom of expression and shake up the norms of society. Beneath the glitter, Kesha Rose Sebert is a unique and talented person who has become a victim of the culture industry. Time will tell whether she can break free from the stream of new standards set forth by society and the culture industry since her arrival or if she’ll stop trying to go against the grain and eventually conform.

Works Cited

Ali, Lorraine. “The Anti-Gaga.” Newsweek. Oct 18 2010. ProQuest. Web. 7 May 2015

Cárdenas, M. (2012), Blah, Blah, Blah: Ke$ha Feminism?. Journal of Popular Music Studies, 24: 176–195. doi: 10.1111/j.1533-1598.2012.01324.x
“Meet “Tik Tok” Singer Ke$ha.” Seventeen. Seventeen Magazine, 11 Jan. 2010. Web. 07 May 2015.

Spitznagel, Eric. “Ke$ha Talks Vaginal Exorcism and Dr. Luke Controversy.” Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone Magazine, 24 Oct. 2013. Web. 07 May 2015.

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