In case you missed it, Simon Reynolds wrote a great article about Ke$ha’s new album over in Sunday’s NYTimes, and it quotes yrs truly on a few points. Simon and I had a good conversation about Ke$ha’s work, especially as it relates to neoliberalism. I want to flesh out a few things I said in the article, and remark on a few things Simon and I discussed, but which don’t exactly make great fodder for Times articles.
Basically, I don’t think you can understand Ke$ha apart from neoliberalism: from the YOLO/apocalypse aesthetic, to the way her name represents the logic of intensity (not just Kesha, but Ke$ha, the “s” intensified into an “$”) and finance capital (M-M, as opposed to M-C-M, as a Marxist would say), to her reconfigured white femininity, Ke$ha is a 21st century white pop diva.
One I talked a bit about neoliberalism in the article, in the quote on the second page of the online version. Basically, planning for the future is a classically liberal/enlightenment concern. For example, Freud talks about the role that delayed gratification and sublimation play in “civilization” and subject-formation. Similarly, the social contract requires us to suspend or defer desire for immediate gratification (e.g., “melt they face away,” as TI sings in “Live Your Life”) in order to preserve higher-order needs/desires (civil society, security, the protection of private property and property in the person, etc.). You defer gratification today in order to progress toward some future goal. This is also the premise behind tonal harmony: there are intermediate stops/cadences marking the way toward and preparing for the full-on resolution at the end of the piece. (McClary talks extensively about tonality and delayed gratification in Feminine Endings).
Anyway, Ke$ha’s “die young”/YOLO/”world ends” aesthetic is distinctively neoliberal. It participates in what Steven Shaviro calls the “just-in-time” logic of neoliberal/post-cinematic society. There is no overarching telos, no future goal toward which to orient ourselves. If we’re all teetering on the edge of precarity, it’s because there’s no social contract guaranteeing us security, and thus no reason to defer gratification.
a. Contrast the YOLO aesthetic with Ke$ha’s actual work ethic, as cited in the closing paragraph of the article. Ke$ha has the privilege of actually having a future to plan for; she’s not actually part of the precariat. The Ke$ha persona plays at it, but Kesha Sebert is doing pretty well for herself. She is, as she says, totally in on the joke; the joke, however, may be on us.
b. The “die young”/no future aesthetic is TOTALLY a co-optation of gay male musical and subcultural practices from the late 20th century. This is part of neoliberalism’s more general strategy of co-opting and domesticating queer and black critical practices. It takes subcultural conventions that were developed to counter classically liberal white heteropatriarchy, and tweaks them so they feed, augment, and intensify the hegemonies they were designed to counter and critique.
c. Reynolds talks about her stated desire to blend EDM/contemporary dance-pop with more trad white rock styles from the 70s. Is this the other, perhaps more femme, pop, and less “harcore” version of brostep’s blend of dubstep and metal?
Two Race. We really need to talk about race—well, mainly whiteness—here. Ke$ha’s gender politics are also about race. Micha Cardenas does a good job talking about the potential queer femme reads of Ke$ha, and I generally like her JPMS article on Ke$ha. But any good analysis of Ke$ha’s gender & sexual politics needs to address how her ferocious, animalistic, almost cock-rocky messiness is both (a) made possible by her whiteness, and (b) a sort of meta-commentary on whiteness.
a. Messy, irrational feminism is a white woman’s feminism. Or, to use Jack Halberstam’s terms, gaga feminism is by, for, and about white women. Neoliberalism is, in some ways about the end of a certain type or structure of white heteromasculine privilege; privilege now works differently, so that just being phenotypically white and anatomically male do not automatically, by themselves, grant access to the same kind and degree of privilege that they used to guarantee (think about Halberstam’s older analysis of The Full Monty: deindustrialization means working-class white European men no longer have guaranteed inclusion in the economy, nor do they have guaranteed protection from sexual objectification, etc.). “Other” groups can access these privileges (e.g., via homonationalist normalization), and, in the case of college-educated white women, are required to assume responsibility for the things that used to be guaranteed by white heteromasculinity. College-educated white women, as those bromance/stoner/Apatow films so clearly reveal, have to “wear the pants”: they have to be prudential, responsible, etc. They can’t live for the now because they’re the ones burdened with taking care of themselves and their dependents tomorrow. College-educated white women have to achieve, achieve, achieve. So this idea of YOLO-partying, going gaga, etc., sounds like a liberation from the demands placed on college-educated white women. In the same way that the right to work outside the home might not have been a meaningful struggle for twentieth-century black women, “going gaga” might not be a meaningful release or rebellion if you’re already stereotyped as pretty gaga or blah-blah-blah to begin with (Sapphire, Jezebel, ho/trick/bitch, etc.). Moreover, the right to go gaga is a right reserved for otherwise-privileged pop divas. You get one “strike,” –be it racial non-whiteness, queerness, country/working-class manners, etc. One strike makes you exotic, but two strikes makes you, well, too unruly. Just think about the differing pop stature between Ke$ha and Gaga, on the one hand, and Nicki Minaj on the other. Minaj definitely does princessy-dance-pop (“Starships” is the prime example here), and she has a legion of little white girls who are her fans. But Minaj’s stardom is always presented as a “problem” (where does she belong? Did she sell out?), a symptom of creative schizophrenia, almost, and not as, you know, an accomplishment. So, for a number of reasons, messy feminism is a white woman’s feminism.
b. Is Ke$ha giving us some metacommentary on whiteness? I think maybe she is. Consider her cock-rocky playfulness. Shouldn’t we think this together with the Shop Boyz “Party Like a Rock Star?” Maybe Ke$ha is testing the hypothesis this song suggests—namely, holy shit, white people are ridiculous…(and they say we’re crazy and unruly)?
You could also think of Ke$ha’s parody of white masculinity as a form of kinging—she’s revealing the absurdity and constructedness of “regular” white musical masculinities. In a way, that’s what’s Peaches does (e.g., in the COS “We Don’t Play Guitar” track that I talk about in my Hypatia article)…maybe Ke$ha is the mainstream translation of some of Peaches’ and Princess Superstar’s work from 5-10 years ago?
c. Also: Ke$ha’s “Die Young” video clearly calls on the animal vibe from both Kelis’s “Acapella” and Shakira’s “She Wolf.” Add to this that she’s clearly the only white white (i.e., blonde) woman in the video; she’s surrounded by darker, more ‘native’ backup dancers. What’s going on with whiteness and racial appropriation (or, postmillennial hipness) in this video?
 I’m very deeply sympathetic to Cardenas’s call to “tak[e] femmes seriously” (177), and I like to think of my own work on the feminized popular as doing just this. However, I do think it is important to draw more explicit connections between what Cardenas calls Ke$ha’s “post-rational politics in which producing agency occurs within the moment” (177) and neoliberal logics…because what Cardenas describes here is an equally accurate description of these neoliberal logics as they are of Ke$ha’s queer femme disturbances. So I think Cardenas is right in framing the problem as “not addressing whether or not [Ke$ha] attempts to disrupt norms, but asking instead how she inhabits them…creating new norms within existing networks of power” (180). I want to push Cardenas’s analysis further, and ask: in neoliberalism, is “creating new norms within existing networks of power” the only, or the primary, possibility/opportunity for subversion/resistance/critique? With the domestication of transgression and the ever-more-rapid co-optation of counter-movements, is this how we should understand critical practice in neoliberalism?