Ke$ha - TiK ToK [Animal]
I remember, around the beginning of 2010 (let me dust off the photo album…), during “TiK ToK”’s slightly historical run at the top of the charts, I was taking a class on “urban health”. The class was broken up into groups of four, who would travel together to Baltimore to do some creepy undergraduate investigative work into the healthiness of the city. The class fulfilled a gen. ed. requirement for me, but the rest of my group were kinesiology majors, and, not too surprisingly, fans of living Greek. The drive from the outskirts of D.C. to Baltimore (don’t ask me why we didn’t just go to D.C.) took about an hour with I-95 traffic; reverting back to the boy I was in middle school, I said nothing the entire trip, both ways, all three times. The sorority sister and the frat boy in front spent the entire duration talking about Greek life. Do you know how much lingo was created for that world? I didn’t! He had recently transferred and was thinking twice about joining a new frat because he didn’t want to go through hazing again; she belonged to what was often considered “the ugly sorority,” which she said with a mixture of bitterness and a sort of forced resignation. She resented her sisters. There was always drama, and she wanted to leave. And this is all I remember about her, except for the moment “TiK ToK” came on the radio for the first time and she quickly announced to the car that she is obsessed with this song, that she’s going through a phase with this song, that this song is her life right now. So we listened to it, in silence, and we listened to it every time it came on, which was often, in silence, until the frat boy would change the station a couple minutes in. You could hear in her voice that she felt an emotional connection to it, which is the sort of thing that, unfortunately, made it an awkward thing to blurt out to three acquaintances in a small car.
Because I was a tremendous asshole, I rolled my eyes and thought to myself, of course she likes it. Every time I heard the song I’d replay the same rant in my head: This is Ugg music. This is North Face Music. This is music explicitly created for sorority girls, a demographic that does not need a spokesperson or any additional pandering because they already have Taio Cruz and Katy Perry and Adam Levine and every other vague, expressionless pop singer who doesn’t actually work concrete details or proper nouns into their songs. This “Ke$ha” character is taking things too far!
Of course, I ignored how much of a passionately misogynistic sentiment that was. I ignored the fact that I was getting trolled by a pop singer, which is a worse look for me than it is for her. And I ignored the fact that I was completely wrong about her anyway (K$ is, of course, a high school dropout who would probably never be found wearing Ugg boots). I was intransigent, I was unwilling. But I can’t really blame myself, not too hard; this was Ke$ha’s goal and it was all a part of the promotion cycle. And in this sense, “TiK ToK” was the most ingenious – and only – choice for a lead single. It’s been two years (about two millennia in the pop charts) and the image she and Dr. Luke created and promoted with this song is the one that’s lasted; both the love and the hatred it inspired has, in large part, stuck around. It was magical and disgusting. It appealed to a wide enough audience to become the #1 single of 2010, and it was reviled by a wide enough audience to become the seemingly most-hated song of ever. And that happened because we motherfuckers were fooled; no one on either side of the table really understood what she was doing, what she was about, why she was doing it or where it all came from. “TiK ToK” was paradoxically written with such no-stakes looseness that Ke$ha wanted to rewrite the lyrics completely…
“I thought it was just another song,” Ke$ha says. “I thought it was just like all the other ones I’d written. I didn’t even know if it was very good. I wanted to rewrite the verses, I didn’t think it was funny or clever. I thought it kind of sucked. But everyone else liked it.”
…and with such meticulous engineering that every line is designed to bubble (champagne or vomit, pick yr poison) up a reaction in the listener. You get the sense that this is simply her modus operandi with a lot of the early demos: taking the spirit of an adolescent boy sounding his offense-farts into the Internet, but adding a sense of pop mastery, inner logic and damaged grace. Meaning, even. And it’s not hard to see, in retrospect, how the song was so popular: it’s a success on the dance floor, it fills a pop audience’s ears with new sounds without abandoning the world-ending massiveness and 8-bit obsession that was beginning to dominate the Top 40 in 2010, and it made people laugh. Ke$ha clearly understands the power of reference with her namedrops – Diddy, Jack and Jagger (the song is as strictly gendered as most Romance languages) – and she knows to keep her lyrics sexualized. We could also talk about the sexual empowerment angle, but I don’t think even her hardcore admirers in the masses were confident in jumping to that conclusion at the time – female pop stars sadly have to put in extra work to convince the world that they, not the industry, own their sexuality.
But enough of that positivity – it’s the revulsion that “TiK ToK” inspired that interests me. Seriously, homegirl broke ground in the trolling game here. I think I remember hearing about the mysterious case of fans of The National spontaneously combusting upon first hearing it. (Only their sweatervests remained.) Let’s take this line by line and examine the genius:
Wake up in the morning feelin’ like P. Diddy
No buildup, no setup, nothing. This is where we start. The autotune makes it sound like she’s underwater or she has vomit gurgling in the back of her throat. When I first heard it, my only thought was “What. That doesn’t even make sense. What does Diddy feel like in the morning? I imagine he feels groggy.” Of course, this line was what started it all – supposedly, she woke up one day in her Californian hippie commune surrounded by “ten of the most beautiful women you’ve ever seen” and decided that her morning had to have been most similar to that of Sean Combs. She writes the song, Dr. Luke invites Diddy over, and four hours later she has the musical blessing of a rap legend. A star is born.
Before I leave, brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack
Ke$ha, in no way is this hygienic. Why are you doing this.
Cause when I leave for the night I ain’t coming back
“Oh, eww, she probably has STDs! slutslutslutslut” ~ Men (and women) everywhere, 2010.
(I’m talkin’) pedicures on our toes (toes)
Tryin’ on all our clothes (clothes)
Boys blowin’ up our phones (phones)
This is important, maybe the most important six seconds of the song with regard to how she was initially characterized. With these lines, she uses a faux-Valley Girl accent that will never reappear in any of her songs (to the best of my knowledge). It’s obvious parody, but only sixteen seconds into the first solo track anyone’s ever heard from her, and I think it affected who we thought she really was. After all, no one really knew she was playing a character in a mega-amplified universe, let alone that her character was playing a character within it. I hated it. The sweatervests hated it. You may have hated it.
Drop-toppin’, playin’ our favorite CDs
Pullin’ up to the parties
Tryna get a little bit tipsy…
Oh, and perfect. She ends the verse with a line that gets garbled up by autotune. Despite the fact that the line clearly ends up in the top right corner of Tom Ewing’s autotune matrix, if you didn’t hate Ke$ha by the end of this verse you probably never would.
But if you kept going, you were introduced to more verses no different by comparison. There’s mention of “crunk,” “swagger” and “po-po,” three words that, along with the dollar sign in her name, seemed only to exist so she can give us the played-out white-girl-acting-black meme that was common in every sorority house that I imagined in my brain because I’d never been in one. “Po-po” specifically filled me with lava. She rhymes “swagger” with “Jagger”, a combination that would become nigh-unavoidable for years afterwards. And as K. St. Asaph points out in that article, it elicited the “But Mick Jagger is a pile of bones with raggedy skin hanging off” thought-to-be-snarky response from everyone who has ever heard someone else joke about how old he is (including myself at the time). Of course, this was some time before we learned that Mick is the main deity of the Ke$ha religion and no iteration of him will ever be unbangable.
At the time, I ignored the chorus as generic pap. The beat upgrades into that massive production sound that would dominate 2010, and which I eventually came to associate with the apocalypse narratives that also dominated the year; maximalist music sounds like the end of the world, as though we’ve reached the end of art and the only path left is to pile all the sounds on top of each other and listen as the meteors/nukes/rising sea levels consume us. Taio and Usher and Enrique all temporarily ruled the charts with that sound. But “TiK ToK” doesn’t quite enter that level of ridiculousness, because it still has levels; her voice still rules over the sound and the sound itself actually sounds like things – like television static, like the turning of an old radio dial. The difference is small but significant.
Also significant is the fact that I never once listened to the sweet, emotional middle eight until I came around to the rest of her music. I just never made it that far. How many of the haters did? The frat boy always switched the station by the time we’d get there, though who knows if it would’ve changed anything. But when I did find it, I was so surprised to find this loving ode to a DJ plopped in the middle of everything. Its inclusion was smart: a sign of things to come, perhaps, a sign that our heroine has some depth worth looking into, and a sign that the musical tastes of sorority girls deserve respect, asshole.