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On Being A Mainstream Pop Star In A Lady Gaga World

Illustration for article titled On Being A Mainstream Pop Star In A Lady Gaga World

There was a moment during last night's Saturday Night Live when my disdain for Ke$ha morphed into a kind of distanced pity, and that moment, I believe, was the exact moment that Ke$ha herself was questioning her career's direction:






The moment occurs at about :40 seconds in; after singing an intro to her hit, "TiK ToK," Ke$ha readies herself in front of the microphone and dramatically reveals her American flag cape in a way that plays as if she's expecting a massive response from the audience. The response she received, however, was absolute silence, and you can tell that she's thrown off by the quick glance she throws to someone off stage. It's a look of fear and annoyance, a look that says "Oh shit" and "I told you so." And, perhaps most importantly, it's a look coming from someone who doesn't seem to buy the shit they're selling.

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It is not a look one would see on Lady Gaga's face, though Gaga, like Ke$ha, also "borrows" heavily from other acts and uses extreme showmanship to cover the fact that a great deal of her music isn't exactly groundbreaking. That's not to say that it isn't fun, or it isn't danceable; the same logic can be applied to most pop stars, including Madonna and Britney, who provide the show that elevates an otherwise lackluster song, but I think it's fair to state that a great deal of Gaga's pull is the Gaga experience more than her music: the costumes, the attitude, the art, and the unfailing commitment to her persona.

Ke$ha, meanwhile, is a young pop star in a Gaga world. Like the also-rans who popped up behind Britney and Christina in the 90s, showing up with blonde hair and Max Martin songs and belly shirts (see: Mandy Moore, Willa Ford, Jessica Simpson), there's something definitively b-list and controlled about her style: she is being marketed as the bad girl, and I suppose that works on record and in a carefully orchestrated video, but watching Ke$ha (who is only one year younger than Gaga, by the way) last night was like watching a terrified high school senior try to get through an art school audition: it was all too easy to separate the performer from the persona her record company clearly expects us to buy. Ke$ha: singer, who brushes her teeth with Jack and stays out until the police shut her down, wouldn't have shot a nervous look off stage. She would have yelled "Fuck all of you, y'all don't even know" and would have rocked out with the confidence she attempts to pass off in her records. But Ke$ha, actual human being, reacted the way most of us, I expect, would have reacted, with an "Oh, crap" glance and an attempt to keep going, despite the unenthusiastic audience response.

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This, I suppose, is the danger in being a mainstream pop star: for every Taylor Swift or Lady Gaga, you have a Ke$ha, who so clearly wants us to buy an image but doesn't quite know how to sell it. Moreover, Ke$ha's performances last night speak to the fact that Top 40 pop music is increasingly relying on elaborate costumes and sets to perhaps distract audiences from what are, essentially, really shitty songs. Of course, none of this is anything new, and in fairness, I suppose I'd rather see pop stars dressed like robots and astronauts than reverting to the circa 2002 era of writhing around in leather pants and sexyfacing all over the place, but dressing up like you're heading for an outer space disco doesn't necessarily negate the "TiK ToK" persona you've become famous for. There is a difference between reinvention and a complete disconnect. It's a bit depressing, really, as one gets the sense that Ke$ha is now trapped in a very small box, and doesn't quite know how to get out. Like her early 00s counterpart, Willa Ford, who just wanted to be bad, I suspect Ke$ha will quietly fade from the pop scene. In some ways, I guess, I can't blame her for trying to switch things up last night. But there's nothing sadder than a party girl who clearly hates the scene, but feels like she has to keep acting like she loves it anyway. There aren't enough special effects in the world to cover that up.

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DISCUSSION

I'm really sort of sick of this "but Gaga is just as manufactured" nonsense. No, she isn't. She has a persona, yes, which makes her no different than the likes of David Bowie, but the songs? While hardly innovative, they are still written or co-written by her. The singing? She can actually sing live and sing well. The instrument playing? Her. She puts on a show and does it without breaking character. Do some research into her career. She didn't get lucky and get a hit single on the air out of nowhere, she was writing songs for other hit artists for years before she was noticed, she worked to make Just Dance and Poker Face hits and had them climb up the charts, just look at their chart progression over time. She was performing at clubs and bars all over the place with homemade wacky outfits long before she made it big. She worked to be heard and combined both image and talent to get her big break. With that came experience as a performer and singer. Not only did she bring the wacky outfits, glam and spectacle back into the mainstream after it had been gone for so long, but she also managed to help make electro-pop and euro-pop influenced music hot again, something Ke$ha owes her, as Just Dance paved the way for Tik Tok's success. So yeah, I feel she's a bit more authentic than artists who fell into success because someone else decided they could be the new face of the pop machine. Sue me.