Ke$ha - Sleazy

You can’t imagine the immensity of the fuck I’m not giving.

Kesha doesn’t need you. Maybe she likes you, maybe she’s gonna come over later if she wants to, if the club plays the right songs and she’s feeling it, but, like she says in “c u next tuesday:” “I don’t need you dude, I’m the shit.”

This is not to say that Kesha doesn’t need anything; actually, I think I might argue that the entirety of Kesha’s discography is predicated on a kind of complex gasping need. But about this she is very clear: she doesn’t need you, or your brand new benz, or your bougie friends. She wants a lot of other things but she wants you to know she doesn’t give a fuck about the markers of a class she didn’t grow up belonging to. The dollar sign in her name started as a joke about how, uncredited and uncompensated, she sang the hook of “Right Round” in 2009, and was on the radio every ten minutes but still didn’t have any money. “I am money,” she explained later. There is an excess and a muchness and a hedonism to Kesha but it has never been one of wealth exactly; in fact, it has often been an explicitly negative reaction to something I might describe vaguely as “modern class relations.”

And it’s not just class, though that’s deeply important. A lot of Kesha is about not giving a fuck, not in the sense of having less to care about but in the sense of having other things to care about, specific things. It’s a rejection of values but not of having values; it proposes an alternative. That can be a very powerful thing. You can’t imagine the immensity of the fuck I’m not giving.

Ke$ha - Tik Tok

I don’t wanna call this song “where it all began” partly because that seems like really bad writing, and partly because it’s not fully true, but this was certainly a song that hit the music scene like a cartoon man crashing straight through a wall and leaving a hole shaped like himself in his wake. This is the song that set up Ke$ha as someone who was never not making a joke, but somehow that message didn’t get through to a lot of people, who treated this song as some kind of deeply serious infringement upon good taste and Music. Then again, that’s totally the point, isn’t it, so good job, Kesha. (A good rule of thumb for people who hate Kesha: she is almost definitely smarter than you.)

But with all the talk about brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack and kick them to the curb unless they look like Mick Jagger and the party don’t start til I walk in—that is, all the talk about how Kesha beautifully characterizes herself as a very specific kind of larger-than-life sleazy joyful party girl—something got lost in the middle. The middle got lost in the middle. I mean, the bridge of this song—it doesn’t have exactly the same tone, does it? We go from the party don’t stop woah woah oh oh to something a little more wistful, almost sad, not really kidding anymore. Something serious.

And that, I think, is the essence of Kesha: an incredible party shot through with a reminder of pain and confusion and sadness, and the idea that one of those things is happening because of the other.

You build me up / you break me down / my heart it pounds yeah you got me / with my hands up / you got me now / you got that sound / yeah you got me. This is not just about having a good time because life sucks; it’s not even really about escapism, exactly. It’s about how a lot of the most beautiful parts of life were created and loved because of the worst parts of life. It’s about how frivolity exists for a reason, and how empty fun is not empty at all. Nothing is ever really empty.

We are made by the things that happen to us, and at the same time we try to make ourselves. These two things are interlocked, and as much control as we have over who we are and what our lives are like, we cannot always have control. The party don’t start til I walk in, but you build me up, you break me down. There can be pain at the heart of any stupid joy. There can be helplessness at the heart of any steely intention. We are buffeted this way and that by even the things we choose; but at least we chose them. We do what we can. We try to be who we want to be.

Ke$ha - Animal

According to my deeply limited understanding, around 13.8 billion years ago, all matter in the universe was contained within a single point, which then exploded like a glitter-cannon outward and is exploding still. After the glitter-cannon fired, everything that exists existed; and now it is all still here, but it is also still exploding. All life and death is contained within the same hurtling set of atoms.

Around twenty-seven years ago, Kesha Rose Sebert was literally born at a party. That is, of course, for a given definition of “born.”

so if it’s just tonight / the animal inside / let it live and die

Death is so present in this song, a looming, inevitable uncertainty that haunts everything. The inescapable presence of an end is what gives the moment Kesha talks about its desperate importance—this is our last chance. But that moment itself is not the end—that’s the point, isn’t it? The end is in the future, but the present is not. We ground ourselves in the molecular actuality of the world; now will never have not happened. We are here. We will always have been here. We will always be here. Give me your hand.

I am in love / with what we are / not what we should be

Kesha, whether she is snarking brattily about preferring a sleazy party to a slick VIP room or breaking down about lost love, maintains this: what we are. This doesn’t mean she doesn’t dwell in fantasy; but it does mean that the world she talks about is one she can dig her fingers into until her nails bleed. There is fantasy, and construction, and exaggeration, and desperate hope, but it is threaded through with the sharp strange undignified pain and beauty of everything that we really, really are.

I don’t want the concrete / I am alive / comes with the tragic

Almost as often as Kesha talks about death, she talks about living forever. It’s strange, though, because something about the intonation of those things makes them seem like they’re not at odds. Sometimes I honestly forget which songs are about dying young and which songs are about how we’re all going to live forever because somehow it seems like she’s saying the same thing. Eternity, I guess, is not necessarily a function of time. Just tonight is not not the same thing as forever.

like everything inside / let it live and die

Everything ends. Nothing ever ends.

Greetings, friends!

The first thing I have to say to you is that there has already been one week about Kesha, and it’s brilliant and you should absolutely go read it immediately. The second thing I have to say to you is this: I think there’s a reason that Kesha should get two separate weeks, and it’s not just because I love her a lot. Kesha is a popstar who is about glitter and sleaziness and laughing and partying until the end of time, but, as we will explore in the coming week, Kesha is also a grand postulate about that nature of time, and life, and everything. Kesha is about death; Kesha is about life; Kesha is about rebirth. This Kesha is not the same Kesha (or should I say, the same Ke$ha) that we encountered two years ago, though that Ke$ha is not gone.

This all sounds very silly and that’s okay because it is. Everything is very silly. Everything, just like Kesha, is very silly, and very important, and very complicated. Let’s go look at it.

Coming up: Kesha

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Thank you, Geoffrey!

Now, our sophomore students here at Rock ‘n’ Roll Community College will already have received their passing grades for attending J. Bogart scholar Zach Lyon’s series of lectures on his foundational research in the fields of Ke$ha studies. But given all the recent scientific breakthroughs in Kesha-ology, we thought we’d put a refresher course on the curriculum for all you incoming freshmen out there…

This week’s Kesha course will be headed by the esteemed Elisabeth Sanders, Assistant Professor in the Department of Pop Music, Ghosts, and Talking (Room 1D; Office hours here; Contact details here), who earlier this year was awarded some kind of medal for developing a generalized theory of the ontological brilliance of Little Mix.

Class begins in ten, get your laptops ready!

Video: Frida Hyvönen – “Gold” (To The Soul, 2012)

I’ll have to wrap up To The Soul quickly. It’s all worthy of your attention, but here are a few things I’ve alluded to or promised:

1. “Gas Station”

Anyone who misjudged the opening of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories as pure ostentation will likely find parts of Frida Hyvönen’s “Gas Station” similarly ludicrous—the splashing cymbals and rumbling piano that introduce the song, the evenly matched synth and vocal that pierce the verses where the chorus should be. The listener, if he’s still carrying around that nagging narrative that stretches all the way back through Hyvönen’s discography, better just dispense with it now. No sound is off limits.

Those chorus placeholders are the products of fantastic, overwhelming joy, as Hyvönen navigates the complex history of a social space, and the sudden obscenity of her musical language (foul, indeed) is both awesome and appropriate. “There were boys and they knew how to dance,” she sings before one of the song’s crescendos, extending the last word into a heavenly sigh. Between those peaks, too, every sound is calculated for dramatic effect. Even the piano is just a tool in her kit, low, sustained notes punctuating the verses along with drum pad hits and a bed of crackling effects. It’s difficult, but not impossible, to imagine her playing this song in a solo piano arrangement. But why bother? “Gas Station” is not the end result of steady musical evolution, but another fine example of singular artistic choice.

2. The full story of Hyvönen crossing paths with a former member of ABBA

There’s not much to it: She recorded To The Soul at Benny Andersson’s studio and played with him on “Postcard,” one of the album’s most modest and charming songs.

3. Increasingly bold exploits with the malleability of the word “come”

On “In Every Crowd,” Hyvönen plays around with near-homophones the way Deerhunter once did (“comfort/come for/cum for”). She opts for “command/come and”; seconds later, a well placed pause separates a crucial, adverbial “up” from its intended phrase. None of these things obscure her clear demands, but I barely know how to transcribe the resulting moment. Perhaps:

Command: fuck me
Up
With your wicked love.

4. “Gold”

To The Soul’s closing track is the main reason I wanted people to be listening to the album upon its initial release, simply because Hyvönen’s tale of a European in India, interlacing faintly exotic imagery with a beguiling sense of ambivalence and self-awareness, warranted some new kind of conversation about songwriting. That old question—“Who do you belong to?”—echoes everywhere, for herself, for her strange surroundings. Perhaps it’s too late now to do anything but find beauty here, both in the music (impossibly rich, with a subtly distorted peace, an album finale in the manner of R.E.M.’s “Find the River”) and the words (“My first walk alone in India,” etc.).

The tension between the narrator’s ostensibly perfect happiness and her creeping loneliness gives the song a great deal of its power. She’s engaged to wed, and might be that same not-quite-satisfied non-marrying kind from “My Cousin”:

I never thought that I would marry
What’s gotten into me lately?

But through force of will, she can dispel her hesitance. I mentioned before the way Hyvönen seems embarrassed by the plainness of one of her rhymes—“On the inside of the ring it says we got married in the spring”—hitting a sudden, breaking high note on “spring.” But I failed to mention what happens when she returns to this line at the end of the song, imbued with the momentum of confession, giving the words a deliberate, deep-voiced resonance. After that, it’s the story of “I love you,” with all that can mean.

Epilogue (Sisters)

That’s all, folks. Thank you for reading, and thank you to my sisters, who got me here. So much of the music of my life has been hand-me-down; the rest wouldn’t have been possible without the initial volley of musical passion my sisters demonstrated to me as a kid.

The examples are endless. I particularly remember Tori Amos’ Little Earthquakes being a huge part of my childhood for years, and then returning in an infinitely more personal way when I was 21.

The turn-around time has shrunk for newer artists. Emily loved Frida Hyvönen’s Silence Is Wild just a few years before I did, fully. Still, her enthusiasm was a clear signal that I was missing out on something important.

When I approach Hyvönen on my own, I often feel I understand only a small part of what she’s communicating, and identify with an even smaller part, but this strikes me as an appropriate case for love. Do I seem certain? I hope not. What I respond to, mostly, is the artist’s struggle and willingness to make herself known, and in that way I hear Hyvönen as an unrivaled performer in recent music.

Death Comes (from the archives, pt. 2)

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Second, an excerpt from my 2012 top ten albums list:

[1] Frida Hyvönen – To The Soul

[2] Perfume Genius – Put Your Back N 2 It

[3] Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city

[1-3]

The mystery of life and death; radical honesty.

1. “Earthling, earthling, when you die part of you goes like the fruit on the ground. Part of you live on through memory or blood but what happens to the soul?” One of the greatest pop songwriters since her countrymen Andersson and Ulvaeus, but less indebted to a disco beat.

2. “I am done with it.” The album that scared me most, so beautiful I could sometimes hardly bear to listen to it, as if to look away was to preserve it.

3. “I’m not sure why I’m infatuated with death.” Someone my age is thinking about his own, but not in any way that’s tragic, self-fulfilling, depressed, or anything. Instead he’s imaginative, expansive when he holds his dream of death and wonders how he’ll perceive himself at the moment it finally already comes. “Am I worth it? Did I put enough work in?”

The first two albums share Lamar’s infatuation with death, but Put Your Back N 2 It doesn’t undertake the same kind of expansive autobiographical project as the other two. To The Soul and good kid, m.A.A.d city have obvious intertextual possibilities, though, and there’s a great project to be assembled from putting their most potent lines in dialogue with each other. For example, Lamar might answer Hyvönen’s question about legacy and afterlife, quoted above, with his own, or with another moment from “Sing About Me”:

Gunshots. Later, Lamar says he’ll never fade away, and then the song (cruel and forgiving, like the shot in My Life to Live where the camera pans down from a body on the street) fades him out! Latent death briefly forgotten, then triggered by a statement of its impossibility.

Or, after Hyvönen resurrects the history of the dance palace, where rock ‘n’ roll arrived in 1958 and made young women twist like ants, in “Gas Station,” Lamar might say, “It’s deep-rooted, the music of being young and dumb.”

These imagined echoes are especially intriguing given the easily measurable distance between the two albums: thousands of miles, ten years, the degree to which life is threatened by violence. I think the age difference speaks most eloquently. On To The Soul, Hyvönen is entering her mid-30s, not her mid-20s, so the songs might be the last vantage on death from the luxury of youth. A luxury that eludes Lamar for much different reasons.

Death Comes (from the archives, pt. 1)

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At last we arrive at Frida Hyvönen’s To The Soul. While I work on some new material, please spend some time pondering the above image, which is very odd and could possibly be ranked among iconic cover shots simply because the human form has never taken such a peculiar angle on an album cover before, and then enjoy a couple items from the archives. To The Soul was my favorite album of 2012, so I’ve had a lot to say about it.

First, my original review, which could likely use a thorough edit, to remove tacky turns of phrase and ideas I’ve already introduced elsewhere on the site this week. But here it is, uncut:

The first thing to know about the music of Frida Hyvönen, or the thing that always strikes me first, anyway, is that her lyrics are structured like they maybe ought to rhyme, but they don’t, mostly. This has generally had the effect of a fanciful gloss on the everyday, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg relocated to present-day Sweden, but the style of her lyrics, to be boring about it, is the result of a practical consideration: Hyvönen’s train of thought is too highly associative to be forced into a rhyme scheme. Someone reminds her of Diane Keaton, so she must name her at the very moment; the gas station reminds her of the site’s former dance palace, where women discovered rock ‘n’ roll in 1958 and lost their heads and danced; etc. This is the implied subject of all her songs, women in raptures over music, and To The Soul’s most straightforward exploration of that theme, the spectacular opener “Gas Station” (a historical survey), also contains the album’s first and most memorable exception to the non-rhyming rule: “They sighed and they screamed, they twisted like ants. They walked around in their underpants.” An orchestral swell greets each of the young women’s rock ‘n’ roll epiphanies, each surrender to dancing.

Hyvönen’s frequent emphasis on the ecstasy of dancing (“Dirty Dancing” was the name of the opening track on her previous album, 2008’s Silence Is Wild) casts her as a lifelong music lover, but the seeming spontaneity of her poetry forces us to ask whether we understand her as a musician first. She often brings to mind a young Patti Smith, in the early years when she’d assembled her band and was surprised by how good the music was turning out to be, word and performance having been the initial premises of the enterprise. But unlike Smith, who kept clear spaces on her early albums for the performance of her poetry, Hyvönen is always backed by some strain of popular song, and the backing is always either the thing that inspires her, or the thing that must restrain her so she can break free from it, subtly disrupt its meter. And somehow I’m always surprised, like Smith in thrall to her new project, by the power of Hyvönen’s music, by its completeness unto itself.

When Hyvönen’s in the grip of that music, she will sometimes honor it with a rhyme. To The Soul is, among other things, a catalog of those moments. On “The Wild Bali Nights,” as the stray, emotional beats of the drum search for a method of organization, she offers a brief image, a suggestion that sound needs no method:

Rising from the ground
Was a clicking, sucking sound.

On “California,” she rhymes the title place with “social media,” stepping into Jens Lekman’s domain of charmingly awkward topicality. She writes love (and other) songs with the kind of specificity that most don’t dare. And finally, on magnificent album closer “Gold,” she tells the story of a wedding ring, and a marriage in the spring, and as if embarrassed by the plainness of her rhyme, as if by calling attention to it she can apologize for it, she delivers the rhyming word, “spring,” on a high, fragile note. Maybe she’s simply trying to steady herself for the long tale she has to tell. The plain rhyme is the point of no return. I won’t ruin its twists and turns, but in its attention to story, character, place, “Gold” is on par with Silence Is Wild’s masterpieces of orchestrated thought like “Dirty Dancing” and “London!”

“Gold” has plenty of sadness in it, but it’s warm and it floats, and the entire album, absent the sometimes cavernous and lonely spaces of Silence Is Wild, is much lighter on its surface. Even the dirge track “Enchanted” wears its title appropriately. Hyvönen remains haunted, though, this time by her place in a lineage of women. She sings about the hands of her mother, on “Hands,” and the death of her grandmother, on “Farmor.” On that epic rumination, the woman is as delicately arranged and strangely beautiful in her casket as the swabbed and peaceful Clutters of In Cold Blood: “In a snow white coffin her dead body lies, a thin ivory skin with freckles, woven hands, bundles of flowers and a fine pearl necklace.” Hyvönen goes on to confront the mysteries of ages, imagining her grandmother’s youth and her own old age. Much of the album plays as a tribute to grandmother and the world she inhabited, ticking along with the slow momentum of a vanished, bustling past, rich with the kind of ethereal luxury found on Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs. If To The Soul is light, it’s light with ghosts.

There was swirl of imaginative pop music coming out of Sweden in the middle of the last decade, and it could be hard to separate the momentarily diverting from the truly inspired. In hindsight, it seems obvious to me that the two greatest songwriters to emerge there in the past decade are Sarah Assbring, better known as El Perro Del Mar, and Hyvönen. Assbring announced a new album last year, which with its audacious title, Pale Fire, and proposed conceptual ambition, promises to be something. It’s still forthcoming, hopefully not for long, but in the meantime, To The Soul can stand as this year’s most luminous pop album. “What happens to the soul?” Hyvönen asks on “Picking Apples,” completing the album’s title, and the answer, for lucky ones like her at least, is that it goes through all kinds of crazy contortions for love (“Command distract me, command interact with me, command fuck me up with your wicked love,” helplessly demanded late on the album) but always retains its basic shape.