October 2, 2013

RAINIS | Ke$ha: ‘A Weird, Benign STD’

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By JAMES RAINIS

I’m still covered in glitter. Well, I suppose not covered. But there’s no doubt that, even three days after Ke$ha’s triumphantly trashy Barton Hall performance on Sunday night, I’m still finding the shiny stuff all over my body (yes, Ke$ha, in kinky places, too). Even throughout campus, there are trails of glitter that persist, shining like fool’s gold in the (surprisingly hot) October sun. Like a weird, benign STD, Ke$ha has found a way to leave behind a physical manifestation of her presence.

It wasn’t just the persistence of the arts and crafts herpes that made this show memorable: Ke$ha’s performance was the most profoundly odd show I’ve witnessed since Sufjan Steven’s “Surfjohn Stevens Christmas Sing-A-Long: Seasonal Affective Disorder Yuletide Disaster Pageant on Ice.” There were drag dancers, guys in animal costumes, a random dude in a Santa hat trying to get the crowd amped up, an inflatable set of legs straight from the set of an AC/DC tour and, of course, her mother wearing a penis costume. It was a celebration of outcasts, sex and, most importantly, outcasts having sex. Ke$ha prowled around stage in an assortment of skintight leotards, spitting champagne into the crowd and casting sensual looks in the direction of her many revelers. Typical pulpy pop musician stuff, right?

However, I believe that Ke$ha knows what she’s doing. She’s whip-smart — she was slated to attend prestigious Barnard College before the whole pop star thing happened — and she knows what sells. When she released her platinum-selling debut single “Tik-Tok,” public outrage at her dental hygiene practices and sexual misconduct made her into nothing less than a sensation. Through her music, videos and reality show (My Crazy Beautiful Life), she has carefully maintained this image of a glitter-loving party girl.

Despite the sleazy persona, Ke$ha seems to have her shit together. You never hear of Ke$ha falling out of a limo with her vulva showing, or getting arrested for drug possession or anything else remotely off-color. She’s a vocal advocate for LGBT and animal rights. She is credited for co-writing songs for artists from Alice Cooper to Nickelodeon’s Miranda Cosgrove. All in all, she’s a reasonably productive human being. The trashy image is just a heavily calculated and astoundingly well-managed scheme to keep her audience engaged. Hell, I bet it was Ke$ha who spread the rumor that she was going to be partying at Pixel following the concert.

Ke$ha is not the only female pop artist leveraging scandal to her advantage: Miley Cyrus, too, is showing that she has a savvy marketing mind that would make even Don Draper jealous. The MTV documentary Miley Cyrus: The Movement revealed that her absurdist videos and explicit interactions with Robin Thicke’s crotch were all part of a devious plan to take America by storm.

The best moment in the documentary comes from Cyrus’ interactions with idol Britney Spears. Cyrus talks about Spears’ own VMA scandal — her salacious, but obviously staged, kiss with Madonna — and its influence on her decision to become a musician. “You’re not gonna be topless on stage, right?” an embarrassed Spears asks. “I tried!” Cyrus responds, prefacing her own world-conquering moment.

Cyrus and Ke$ha want to be bona fide pop stars, the sort of monolithic entities that pop culture enthusiasts revolve around whether they want to or not. By employing their sexuality (along with some ridiculous histrionics), they’ve found a way to, as Cyrus puts it, make the public “talk for two weeks instead of two seconds.” And while I don’t want to criticize them for embracing and exploring sex, it has its consequences for other female artists.

Earlier this week, Lauren Mayberry, lead singer of hotly tipped synth-pop act CHVRCHES, penned an editorial for The Guardian that discusses her daily bouts with online misogyny. She points to some ludicrously crude comments (“I have your address and I will come round to your house and give u anal and you will love it you twat lol”) that get directed at her via the band’s Facebook. Mayberry is not some sort of sex kitten sauntering about the stage in her underwear while making sex eyes to her audience. Hell, on Later … With Jools Holland she wore a grandma-approved white sweater! And still, men threaten her with anal rape on the regular, like it’s no big deal (not that wearing a mini-skirt or something invites this sort of behavior, but she’s not even throwing these douchebags that bone).

While it would be extreme and highly inaccurate to say that Ke$ha (who, under the right lens, could be considered an outright feminist) and Miley Cyrus are to blame, their embrace of the over-sexualized female singer stereotype forces artists working outside of that frame of mind to face ludicrous criticisms, comparisons and threats. Being an attractive pop singer can involve an exploration of sexuality; some amazing songs — Kelis’s “Milkshake” comes to mind — are about hyper-sexualization. Even if it’s all just an act — and, in the case of both Ke$ha and Cyrus, it obviously is — we must be conscious of the kind of expectations this kind of sexual exhibitionism places on all female public figures. In a world where even Hillary Clinton faces scrutiny for looking “unattractive,” it becomes somewhat of a crutch to rely on sex, however intentionally, to sell your music.

James Rainis is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Science. He can be reached at jrainis@cornellsun.com. Irresponsible Listening runs alternate Thursdays this semester.