The thing about Ke$ha is that she’s kind of a hot mess. But isn’t that the whole point? We expect our pop stars to be perfectly prim, coiffed, blonde, and dressed to the nines. The pressures of being constantly visible to and dissected by an omniscient media means that celebrities always need to serve us their best face, even if it’s all an act. But this is what makes someone like Ke$ha so interesting, a gifted musician who emerged as an unfinished antidote to the perfectly polished Lady Gaga. Ke$ha gives us the illusion of trash instead of glamour, semen instead of glitter, and dirt in the place of blush.
Pop stars are not born, they’re manufactured. That much we know. But what we may not realize is what an old idea that is, so old that it was promoted as early as the 1940s by the Marxist critics Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in an influential essay titled “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” If you read the article, one thing becomes clear: Adorno and Horkheimer hate popular culture.
They hate popular music, they hate cinema, they hate the radio. They were just a couple of very unhappy dudes. But think about why they had such negative things to say about popular culture. First, they see popular culture as created in the careless way things are manufactured in a factory, maybe along a conveyor belt where the overall process is automated and the parts are completely interchangeable. We know that cars and iPhones are created this way, but what does it mean to think about cultural things like music created using a similar formula? Does it matter, for instance, whether the blonde girl singing the song is Britney Spears, Ke$ha, or some other fill-in?
Second, Adorno and Horkheimer believe popular culture, in all of its forms, is directly tied to the business of selling. If the thing isn’t proven to sell, if it doesn’t attract eyeballs, sell records, attract viewers, bring in ratings, the authors found, that particular thing gets avoided at all costs in favor of things that do.
And this leads to the third reason Adorno and Horkheimer hated popular culture: because it prefers a share of the market over art, talent, and creativity. Pop culture is created not for the art, but to be consumed by an audience. Pop culture is created so that it might be purchased by a market. Focusing on the market rather than the art leads to what the authors call an infecting “reproduction of sameness” where everything is the same. The effect of this “reproduction of sameness” is that when we do take in popular culture:
the spectator must need no thoughts of his own: the product prescribes each reaction, not through any actual coherence – which collapses once exposed to thought – but through signals. Any logical connection presupposing mental capacity is scrupulously avoided (Dialectic of Enlightenment, 109).
You don’t even need your own ideas when you approach a pop cultural text, because the entire content of the thing has already been spelled out for you directly and in plain letters. That’s why we know how a Jennifer Aniston movie will end before we see it. That’s why we joke that a pop song only has three notes in it because, in fact, recent studies show that pop music has actually gotten dumber.
But this is what makes Ke$ha so interesting. Her autotuned voice, the yodeling and the mechanized singing proves that she’s completely manufactured, created as if in a pop music laboratory. But the hot mess aesthetics actually undoes the sheen of production to a certain point. Pop stars are supposed to be perfect, not messy, poised, not uncouth, because the standard, mechanized path of pop stardom is to be tucked in two to three pairs of Spanx, fabulous, weaved out, and gendered. For Ke$ha to be manufactured at the same time that she gives us the studied pretense of being unmanufactured is to undo the “reproduction of sameness” that Adorno and Horkheimer rallied against.
Ke$ha is not the first artist to play with messiness as a way of breaking up the monotony of pop stardom. “Firsts” are not really that interesting, anyway. But what is compelling is how Ke$ha emerged in the wake of Lady Gaga, an artist who is all image, all the time, showing that not every pop singer is doomed to play the role of the perfect pop tart just to sell records.