“Ain’t got a care in the world / but got plenty of beer / ain’t got no money in my pocket / but I’m already here”
If you have a car, and that car contains some kind of media-playing device—like a CD player or whatever—then you probably prize that car as one of the few spaces where you can enjoy near-total control over your musical stimuli. Play whatever you want, listen as loud as you want, it’s all good.
My spouse and I have a car that does NOT contain a media-playing device; it contains a radio. Consequently it is, for us, a rare space where we receive musical stimuli over which we enjoy very limited control. This supplies its own ambiguous rewards.
On Saturday, December 5, 2009, at approximately 6 PM Central, K and I were on our way home from a friend’s 30th birthday party, exiting the eastbound Kennedy at Nagle, when a song came through the speakers that we and every other hearing person in the world with routine access to electricity would soon come to know as “TiK ToK,” by an artist called Ke$ha. (As if it needs to be said, sic and sic).
(NOTE: If you click the link above, you will be hearing the song. So just consider that for a second. Is all I’m saying.)
It is difficult to overstate the intensity of our reaction to this event. The analogy that springs to mind is . . . um, okay, you know that scene in Aliens where Ripley and Newt wake up to discover that an alien larva has escaped and is scurrying around in the room with them? It was like that. Whatever this thing is, we thought, it’s dangerous . . . and it’s on the loose!
We hated it, of course—which both is and is not the point. Our visceral negative reaction was organized around two thoughts: 1) wow, the culture has just found another way to get stupider, and 2) this song is going to be HUGE. I daresay we felt—if I may sink a bit further into self-parody—a bit like William Carlos Williams upon encountering the “great catastrophe” of The Waste Land: the crisis here is not how this thing fails but how it succeeds. Deploring it is not enough; it must be campaigned actively against.
My beef with “TiK ToK” is basically this: it is very very easy to hate, but very very hard to hate productively. The dispiriting realization that arrived hot on the heels of my initial oh-my-god–I-freaking-HATE-this reaction was: oh wait—I’m MEANT to hate this. “TiK ToK” depends for its success on its capacity to polarize, and to polarize instantaneously: I would pretty much bet money that anybody who derives pleasure from this song is going to derive at least part of that pleasure by imagining somebody like me recoiling from it. Ergo, if I hate “TiK ToK,” “TiK ToK” wins.
On the other hand, if I DON’T hate “TiK ToK,” “TiK ToK” STILL wins—because, accurately or not, its fans will still imagine me and others like me fleeing the premises with noses upturned whenever it hits the PA system, repairing to our gut-rehabbed condos to salve our fragile sensibilities by dimming the lights and putting cucumber slices over our eyes and listening at moderate volumes to something we impulse-bought at Starbucks: Grizzly Bear, maybe, or Feist. Clearly, ignoring “TiK ToK” is not going to make it go away.
So let’s try to hate this thing right, shall we?
I think it helps to figure out precisely what we’re up against. In her comment on my previous post, Beth Rooney directed our attention to a smart NPR tag-team piece about “TiK ToK” (and Avatar) by Neda Ulaby and Zoe Chace, who basically argue that the song fails because it’s a rote pastiche of material recycled from other songs. Although I don’t completely agree—I don’t think “TiK ToK” is bad, rather, but evil, and although it certainly is a rote pastiche of recycled material, that’s not why I hate it—I DO think that Ulaby and Chace suggest a good spot to begin chipping at the battlements. Where, pray tell, have we heard this before?
The first notable thing we register about “TiK ToK” is also the first sound we hear, namely Kesha Rose Sebert’s voice, multiplied by a chorus effect and liberally salted with Auto-Tune. The voice is not exactly familiar, though it has some obvious progenitors. Sebert has garnered criticism due to the perceived similarity of her hit to Lady Gaga’s breakthrough single, but this gripe strikes me as misplaced for several reasons (some of which we’ll get into later) and symptomatic of nothing so much as the undiagnosed amnesia of most music reviewers.
Hump my hump,
My stumpy lumpy hump!
Hump my dump, you stumpy lumpy dump!
I’ll dump your hump, and then just hump your dump,
You lumpy frumply clump.
But this isn’t quite right, either. Over the years I’ve come to adopt a live-and-let-live attitude toward “My Humps;” I give it a wide berth, but regard it as fairly harmless. Will I eventually come to regard “TiK ToK” the same way? I don’t think so, no. It commits some greater perfidy of which “My Humps” is innocent.
What else does “TiK ToK” remind us of? Well, Avril Lavigne for one—particularly her comparably horrid hit “Girlfriend” and its comparable shoutalong earworm chorus—and this stands to reason, as both it and “TiK ToK” bear the sticky fingerprints of increasingly ubiquitous writer-producer Lucasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald. (Gottwald’s rapsheet also includes such offenses as Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” and a couple of just-marginally-more-restrained Kelly Clarkson hits. Then again, Gottwald ALSO-also worked on Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the U.S.A.,” which—if you forgive its vampirism of Nelly Furtado’s “I’m Like a Bird”—is actually kind of a great song.) Through Lavigne, of course, we can trace the corrupt and diluted genetics of “TiK ToK” back through a whole lineage of ostensible girl-power anthems of wildly variable legitimacy: Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl,” the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe,” Tiffany’s cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now,” Madonna’s “Material Girl,” Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” Toni Basil’s “Mickey,” the Go-Go’s “We Got the Beat,” Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” and the Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back,” to name only an obvious few.
This genus of song is defined less by content—which is often not remotely empowered or empowering—and more by tone and attitude, which tend toward confidence, buoyancy, joy, and sass, aimed in the general vicinity of hedonistic first-person-plural tribalism. It is never ever edgy—which means its validity is always being called into question, not only by the surplus testosterone of hip-hop and hard rock, but also by the pensive and/or ironic adventures in (generally masculine) subjectivity that more or less define the output of the ever-shifting “alternative” scene. In eras when such music dominates, girl power recedes, or takes on the techniques of its rivals: think of Alanis Morissette’s post-Cobain rage on “You Oughta Know,” or of Sheryl Crow’s post-Malkmus slacker sneer on “Leaving Las Vegas”—two pop hits that, like “TiK ToK,” introduced new female voices into the collective cultural consciousness. (“LLV” bears some additional similarities to “TiK ToK”: it’s another breakthrough single by a former backup vocalist who’s older than I initially would have guessed, another song that at the time had me wondering how bad is this SUPPOSED to sound?) This trick of spiking the girl-group punch with something bitter can produce enduring anthems—Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” is probably the common ancestor—but it can also produce “Bitch” by Meredith Brooks.
Here’s the thing, though: while a bunch of folks have thought to combine varying degrees of girl-power positivity with post-punk sulk and snarl, surprisingly few have really taken the Y chromosome by the horns and cross-pollinated hard rock and/or rap with cheer-camp espirit de corps, and when they have—“Cherry Bomb” by the Runaways, “Push It” by Salt-n-Pepa—their efforts have not generally been rewarded with blockbusting chart success . . . not, that is, until now. In a New York Times article, Jon Caramanica characterized the sudden omnipresence of “TiK ToK” as indicative of “the complete and painless assimilation of the white female rapper into pop music.” With the possible exceptions of “the,” “of,” and “into,” I am tempted to respond whoa-wait-a-minute to every WORD of Caramanica’s statement—I mean, painless for whom, dude, exactly?—but instead I’d like to come at this from another direction.
In their piece, Ulaby and Chace take Sebert to task for her light-fingered appropriations from other songs; the plain fact, of course, is that everything is derivative of something. That’s not just my world-weariness talking; just about any work of art—no matter how crassly commercial or forbiddingly avant-garde—depends for its success on its intelligibility, which depends in turn on our ability to place it in relation to other works of art. In other words, if it doesn’t resemble something we’ve seen or heard before, we have no idea what to make of it. Ulaby and Chace basically acknowledge this, and go on to suggest that the big problem with “TiK ToK” is that it’s less than the sum of its thefts: Sebert isn’t adding any “personal commentary or insight.” But that’s not quite true, either; her most shameless act of larceny DOES seem plausibly personal, and actually strikes me as kind of clever.
Of all we might say about Sebert’s breakthrough hit, let us put this observation foremost: the song is a deliberate and fairly exacting rewrite of the Beastie Boys’ breakthrough hit, “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!)” from their 1986 debut License to Ill. Sebert—who, it must be said, comes off in interviews as smart and forthright and adept at hitting what she aims at, which is to say she understands the pop intelligibility game—has name-checked the Beasties in interviews, and when you think about it, “Fight for Your Right” is a near-perfect template and Rosetta Stone for her project, such as it is.
Here’s why: uncharitable listeners can be expected to attack the legitimacy of a white female rapper with pop aspirations on three fronts, namely 1) white rappers are a joke, 2) girl rappers are a joke, 3) pop-rap hybrids are a joke. If you’re Sebert, you can partly defuse these critiques by referencing precedent, but you have to be careful: if you cite too few, you’ll be written off as purely derivative; if you cite too many, nobody can figure out where you’re coming from. With respect to precedent, Sebert has plenty of options—the first rap song ever to top the Billboard Hot 100 did, after all, feature a white female vocalist—but her reference to “Fight for Your Right” suggests that she’s read her adversaries’ defenses pretty effectively. The supposed “jokiness” of white rap can easily be turned to one’s advantage—cf. not only the Beasties but also Eminem and Beck—and for perhaps that very reason, white female rappers seem to have had an easier time scoring chart hits than have African-American female rappers. Sure, maybe they aren’t “taken seriously”—but neither has that been a priority, exactly.
Kesha Sebert’s only evident priority seems to be massive chart success—which: check. That’s not as easy to pull off as the indie snobs would have us believe. Contra Ulaby and Chace, you can’t get there just by being derivative and rote; you need a certain element of surprise, and here’s where Sebert finds hers: as she has explicitly stated, her songwriting strategy involves a calculated assumption of the rapacious swagger we’ve come to expect from rap and rock dudes—which in a nutshell is why “Fight for Your Right” is her perfect model. “Fight for Your Right” achieved its crossover success by being both rap AND rock (the rock elements helping to make the rap intelligible and acceptable to white kids; Run–D.M.C.’s cover of “Walk This Way,” another Rick Rubin production, pulls the same move). It’s also a rap performed by white guys during an era when rap hadn’t yet put aside its novelty-act status, a time prior to hip-hop’s commercial ascendancy, after which concerns about race and authenticity could no longer be winked at and glossed over, if only due to the vast amounts of cash changing hands. (It might in fact have been the LAST moment of that era, the event that brought it to an end: the first single off the first rap album ever to top the pop charts.)
The use Sebert makes of “Fight for Your Right” is canny and not unsubtle: she’s smart enough to substitute Dr. Luke’s Jäger-shot synth stabs—very au-courant-as-of-fifteen-minutes-ago—for Rubin’s ungracefully-aged monsters-of-rock guitar riffs, while stealing only what she needs: the song’s ostensible ethnic ambidexterity (as sugarhigh! points out, in the current climate “post-racial” means “post-racial for white people”) and the insouciant obnoxiousness of Adam Horovitz’s voice. Although almost everything else about “TiK ToK” is upside-the-head overt, the borrowings from “Fight for Your Right” are so fundamental as to be hidden, deeply coded in tone and attitude . . . yet signaled unmistakably in the song’s opening line.
And here, I will now argue, is the loose thread that begins to unravel “TiK ToK”: the gap between “Wake up in the morning feeling like P. Diddy” and “You wake up late for school, man, you don’t wanna go.” The Beasties’ original line is, of course, not original: it’s a sly and self-aware evocation of the blues singer’s standard opening “I woke up this morning,” which always introduces a catalogue of woes (and which is itself a reference to the gospel singer’s opening, “The Lord woke me up this morning,” the crucial difference being that the blues singer wakes up alone, in a godless universe). Sure enough, in “Fight for Your Right,” a catalogue of woes does ensue—but they’re self-evidently insubstantial and juvenile, minor-league frustrations of middle-class punk kids. With that blink-and-you-missed-it nod to the blues, the Beasties simultaneously acknowledge awareness of and respect for serious African-American musical traditions, and then essentially pledge not to trespass on that territory. They perform a couple of other slight but significant lyrical alterations, too: shifting the verb tense from the quaint anecdotal past to the vivid televisual present, and switching the point of view from first person to second.
That last modification is important: our first major clue at what the Beasties are up to. Often when a singer addresses a “you,” the singer really means “one”—e.g. oftentimes one wakes up late for school, and in such instances one does not then typically want to go—and therefore really-really means “I.” In “Fight for Your Right” this is NOT the case, although we’re allowed to think that it might be, right up till the end of the final verse: “Your mom busted in and said ‘What’s that noise?’ / Aw, Mom, you’re just jealous, it’s the Beastie Boys.” Yauch, Diamond, and Horovitz each shout a syllable of their group’s name, and the lyric places them unmistakably outside the song; we now understand it as a story they are telling to, and about, their fans. It’s affectionate, sure, but also sneering, and a little barbed: an older brother’s putdown of a younger sibling’s puerile concerns. It’s a hint that when the Beastie Boys insist we have to fight for our right to party, they are maybe not 100% serious.
The pop marketplace, of course, missed the joke—and missed it big, to the tune of nine million copies of License to Ill sold. The Beasties have spoken often about how appalled they were by Rubin’s cheeseball, radio-ready studio treatment of the song, and how uncomfortable they were with the fact that precisely the people they intended it to lampoon ended up as its biggest fans. This is a pattern that repeats: let’s call it the “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” phenomenon, after the Timbuk3 hit that—despite its scathing depiction of the entire K-thru-Ph.D. educational system as a headlong lemming-march toward nuclear annihilation—ended up getting picked as the 1986 senior class song at seemingly every high school in America. (1986, evidently, was a great year for missing the point.) When millions of people take your song to mean something very different than, even entirely opposed to, what YOU think it means, you maybe have to consider that you screwed up somewhere, and that they’re right and you’re wrong. This seems to be more or less what the Beasties have concluded; “Fight for Your Right” appears on their 1999 Sounds of Science compilation accompanied by what amounts to a written apology for its existence: “We decided to include this song,” Yauch’s liner note explains, “because it sucks.” This statement is presented as a joke but isn’t, just like the song itself: “Fight for Your Right” became a hit not despite but because of its artists’ miscalculation and failure of execution—and everything the Beastie Boys have done since has been made possible by those errors. Therefore they can never really be free of it. In their attempt to tiptoe along Spinal Tap’s canonical line between stupid and clever, they slipped, and landed heavily and spectacularly on the side of stupid.
Although “TiK ToK” contains stupidity—in much the same way that a Twinkie contains high fructose corn syrup—it is anything but a stupid song. Unlike three decades’ worth of kegstanding fratboys, Sebert misses the point of “Fight for Your Right” deliberately: she interprets the Beasties’ (limited and unsuccessful) attempts at irony and connotive suggestion as amounting to no more than inefficiency, and as such she excises them. Rather than “personal commentary or insight,” I think what Ulaby and Chace are really missing in “TiK ToK” is playfulness and self-indulgence—which in fact are the very qualities that made “Fight for Your Right” susceptible to misinterpretation. You are perhaps elevating a skeptical brow at the suggestion that any song which depicts its singer/protagonist dampening her Oral-B with Tennessee whiskey and dancing till dawn could be anything other than self-indulgent, yet that is exactly what I am going to argue: the problem with “TiK ToK” is that once you strip away its hedonistic veneer, it becomes apparent that the song actually operates with all the devil-may-care flippancy of a SWAT team clearing a building.
Laurie Anderson tells a story that when her album Bright Red came out, Brian Eno—who co-produced it—took journalists to his perfume factory (dude has a perfume factory) and explained to them that the secret to an effective perfume and the secret to an effective pop song are basically the same. At the center of a good perfume, Eno said, is a big stink; you cover it up with pleasing odors, but it’s still there: the thing that catches people’s attention. (EG, that analogy was for you.) On Bright Red the stink is Anderson’s voice, way up in the mix where the snare drum usually hangs out; the music accompanying the voice is spooky and spare, and the effect is unsettling and interesting. On “TiK ToK,” Sebert’s voice—harsh, bratty, calculatedly obnoxious—performs a similar function, but Dr. Luke’s production and the moon / June / spoon artlessness of the lyrics pile on flower and spice by the bushel: rather than slowing down our perceptions and heightening our awareness of what’s going on (a process which Russian formalist Victor Shklovsky identifies as the basic function of art), “TiK ToK” seeks to accomplish nothing beyond demanding our notice and then sticking in our heads forever. It’s a streamlined pop drone, a perfect predator of our attention.
Yet even THAT isn’t why I hate it. For a particular sort of listener, of which I am one, it is tempting to deplore “TiK ToK” simply for being such a full-on commercial product, for having no greater aspiration than to earn a ton of money for the folks who made and distributed it. Although I think this is a valid gripe, I want to be a little cautious with it—if only because at some level “TiK ToK” practically DARES us to hate it simply for succeeding, for actually becoming the hit it was clearly designed to be. That critique, of course, puts us right back where we started: we’re the snobs who don’t understand how to lighten up and have a good time. “TiK ToK” wins again.
The truth is, some pretty great art can be and is made within the hyper-restrictive confines of the contemporary pop hit. If we need proof of this—which we probably shouldn’t—we need look no further than here:
Yo Ke$ha, I’m real happy for you and I’mma let you finish, but I believe a close examination of “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”—composed by Beyoncé Knowles, Terius “The-Dream” Nash, Thaddis “Kuk” Harrell, and Christopher “Tricky” Stewart—will, if only by contrast, make your inexcusable offenses abundantly clear.
Before proceeding I should probably confess that I—indie snob that I am—was not immediately taken with “Single Ladies.” When I first heard it, it struck me as a ringtone trying to pass itself off as a song. This isn’t an exaggerated or implausible accusation; there’s a bunch of money to be earned in ringtones nowadays, and not much in album sales, and this fact has not been missed by the people who cause pop records to be made. Major-label audio production has lately tended to emphasize qualities that sound good emitted in bursts from tiny handheld speakers: I’m talking brief, bright melodic phrases squarely in the acoustic midrange. (No subwoofers on an iPhone, dig?) “Single Ladies” ought to be, and probably is, the poster child for this ringtone-as-pop-hit trend; I mean, damn: it’s even got the word “ring” in its chorus.
But hold up a sec: there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with delivering music in a format compatible with your audience’s preferred mode of listening to it. (Among the people of my tribe, this would fall under the general category of “dancin’ with them what brung ya.”) The practice isn’t praiseworthy, maybe, but neither is it shameful—provided you’re still able to supply that ineffable little-something-extra that our NPR friends Ulaby and Chace are looking for.
“Single Ladies,” I will now argue, delivers the je ne sais quoi in high quality and heavy volume. When you’ve got a melody that’s as much of an inexorable earworm as this one is—built, as I mentioned, out of short, mobile-phone-friendly phrases—you automatically have certain advantages and disadvantages. On the downside, your capacity to create drama through harmonic movement is pretty limited: I am guessing that no one has ever gotten all misty and throat-lumpy due to an unexpected shift in the warning tone of a distant car alarm, and the melody of “Single Ladies” isn’t much more sophisticated than that. On the upside, if you were to record this joint with nothing but a couple of a cappella voices and some handclaps, it wouldn’t be much less catchy than the version we’ve come to know—which is to say that Knowles and her studio team have a hell of a lot of latitude to add whatever bells and whistles they care to.
The critical thing to note is that the production of “Single Ladies” is precisely NOT designed to make it catchier; it’s designed instead to address the aforementioned lack-of-drama problem by packing the recording with as much urgency as it can manage. To accomplish this (revisiting Eno’s metaphor) the arrangement introduces all manner of stink—but rather than one central noxious odor doused in honey and flowers, here we have a more intricate pungency: take, for instance, the weird ascending hyper-speed woodwind sample that chatters arhythmically throughout the song, evoking (as my wife pointed out) nothing so much as the experience of standing amid busy slot machines. This noise—and noise is exactly what it is—pushes hard against the song’s headlong rhythm and tips its harmonic balance, suggesting a labyrinth of potential melodic detours that Knowles’ lead vocal sails steadily past. Other aspects of the surrounding auditory filigree—hints of tonal ambiguity in the synth accents and harmony vocals, the quick syncopated acoustic piano chord we first hear at 0:42, the bass guitar that plays a single telegraphically-repeated note in its upper range—all perform the same destabilizing function. The result is that every moment of this very straightforward song feels laden with potential and charged with uncertainty, which is where the sense of overriding urgency comes from.
A word, too, about the lyrics. Much like, say, Dylan’s “Positively Fourth Street,” “Single Ladies” is a song that hangs on a kissoff line—the difference being that Dylan’s line comes at the end of his last verse, which gives him nearly four minutes to set us up for it. Knowles’s kissoff arrives with her chorus, which means she’s got thirty seconds—sixty-five syllables—to set the stage: i.e. to explain who is telling whom that he should’ve put a ring on it, and why. For that reason, the first verse of “Single Ladies” strikes me as a small marvel of narrative economy:
Up in the club,
we just broke up,
I’m doin’ my own li’l thing.
You decided to dip,
but now you wanna trip
cuz another brother noticed me.
I’m up on him,
he up on me—
don’t pay him any attention.
Cuz I cried my tears
for three good years—
you can’t be mad at me.
Sure, if you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it doesn’t really require a lot of context to make sense of—neither, for that matter, does you’d know what a drag it is to see you—but the line is richer if we understand the situation in which it’s being delivered. By the time it arrives in “Single Ladies,” we know we’re in a nightclub where a freshly-single woman, happier to be on her own than she might have expected, has crossed paths with her ex; he’s jealous of the attention she’s getting from another guy, and she’s putting him in his place. We know that the exes were together for three years, and we know that he’s the one who broke it off: he “dipped”—which means “left abruptly,” and which generally connotes leaving somebody else behind. “Dip” can also refer to a person with whom one regularly has no-strings-attached sex; that’s not how it’s being used here, but the word’s appearance still introduces the specters of infidelity and lack of commitment: the possibility that the song’s addressee was being unfaithful to the speaker, or, worse, that he never regarded their relationship as anything more than a convenience. The point is that by the time the chorus drops, we’re able to imagine the dialogue in specific dramatic circumstances.
Then there’s the way the meaning of the refrain—all the single ladies, put your hands up—blurs and broadens as the song proceeds. The line is of course lifted from standard-issue Friday-night club-DJ patter: an ostensibly playful exhortation for eligible women to identify themselves as such. This moment in a DJ set always comes off as icky, anything but playful, a moment of peak social coercion; it suggests that single women are to be regarded as public property, or that they have (or are) a problem that needs to be solved, or even that they’re simply present (Ladies’ Night!) as prospective quarry for the hapless prowling menfolk who by this point in the evening can’t be trusted to take aim at appropriate targets without a little help. “Single Ladies” sets out to divert and defuse the line’s coercive function, not so much by recontextualizing it through wit or double-entendre—a trick which can only work within the fictional world of the song—but instead by repurposing it along with the gesture it prescribes: we’re asked to see the single ladies’ hand-raising not as an act of acquiescence to or participation in a social ritual that objectifies them, but instead as a celebratory assertion of individual and collective agency.
Although Knowles makes it seem easy, this is a tricky move to pull off, if only because the coercion that the song opposes is hidden: something supposedly fun that’s really hurtful and manipulative. If “Single Ladies” were simply to point this out, it would merely be of diagnostic value: it wouldn’t be particularly empowering. What it does instead is demand that the DJ’s rhetoric play fair, that it make good on its implicit promise—in other words (specifically in George Michael’s valuable formulation) “Single Ladies” sets out to take those lies and make them true. To do this, it encodes its message so deeply in its lyrics and structure as to undercut contrary interpretations; note, for instance, the persistent sense of rising-above suggested by the repetition (and shifting connotations) of the word “up”: “up in the club, / we just broke up,” “I’m up on him / he up on me,” “acting up,” and, of course, “put your hands up.” Note too the handclaps that run steadily through the song, underpinning all other sonic events, dropping out only for the brief cadenza-like conclusion of the bridge; these claps, and the swing-time interplay of Knowles’ voice with them, establish the song’s fundamental rhythmic character. It is surely no accident that this interlocking rhythm will recall for many if not most listeners the traditional clapping games played by children, particularly by female children; thus “Single Ladies” posits as a comforting and readily-intelligible alternative to the byzantine nightclub world the guileless egalitarian domain of the preadolescent playground; it also suggests that refuge from grown-up anxieties can be sought and found in the sisterly realm of cooperative play.
The degree to which “Single Ladies” has succeeded in accomplishing its implicit aims is, I humbly submit to you, pretty freaking extraordinary. Let’s set aside for a moment the VMAs and the Grammys, the globe-spanning dance craze, the millions in revenue from album and single and download sales, and consider a single achievement: it is now next to impossible for any DJ anywhere to unselfconsciously command all single ladies within earshot to put their hands up—at least not without the DJ then immediately playing Knowles’s hit, which will proceed to reassure those single ladies that everything is all good, that they have nothing to worry about, and that they should pay no mind to the drunk jerks and enjoy spending time with their girlfriends. This is one of those rare cultural phenomena that can legitimately claim solid practical value: the differences between it and, say, Lincoln’s second inaugural address are not those of quality but of scale. “Single Ladies” is a work of art and a feat of rhetoric that has made the world concretely better.
Back to Ke$ha. To reiterate: I don’t hate “TiK ToK” because it fails to pull off what “Single Ladies” pulls off; not too many pop songs will hold up to that standard. Nor do I hate it for its refusal to even try to operate the way “Single Ladies” operates—although it IS significant and worthy of note that in this regard it falls short even of the other frankly superficial hits to which it is customarily compared: “My Humps,” for example, dumb as it is, at least provides an opportunity to consider the unreliable faux-naïf narration of its hump-endowed protagonist. “Just Dance” by Lady Gaga is a good deal trickier yet, featuring a narrator whose stable selfhood is compromised by various competing drives, and whose message is made all the more urgent by the contradictions it contains. By clear contrast, the most remarkable quality of “TiK ToK” is its one-dimensionality: its staunch refusal to play, to keep anything hidden, to hold anything in reserve. The closer you listen, the less interesting it gets. This isn’t a quality acquired by accident or oversight. In a nutshell, I hate “TiK ToK” because it sets out to accomplish exactly the opposite of what “Single Ladies” does.
After months of having my consciousness periodically invaded by this monstrosity—and yet being frustrated in my efforts to pin down exactly what about “TiK ToK” I find so objectionable—I finally figured out what it reminds me of, and where I have perceived its particular horror before. My mistake, of course, had been in limiting my comparisons to other pop songs. If we broaden our focus, it becomes clear in a hurry that the apt parallel resides in a different pop-cultural domain entirely.
In a celebrated 1957 essay, Roland Barthes argues that people who scoff at the peculiar entertainment that we contemporary Americans have come to know as “professional wrestling”—scoffing, e.g., because it’s not a legitimate competition, because its outcomes are fixed, whatever—entirely misconstrue its basic appeal. “The public,” Barthes writes, “is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences: what matters is not what it thinks but what it sees.” Criteria that we might apply to watching conventional sports—to assess athletes’ technical prowess, to understand the strategies that might be utilized, to try to predict the contest’s outcome—must be set aside when we watch pro wrestling if it is to make any sense at all. Barthes compares wrestling to commedia dell’arte: its performers employ outsize gestures, portray cartoonish characters, and present their dramas with absolute clarity. Pro wrestlers are skilled athletes, and often talented actors, but their skills and talents are always demonstrated overtly. Closer examination doesn’t provide additional meanings or resonances; it just exposes the rather uninspired stitching of a scripted plot.
With “TiK ToK,” it’s exactly the same deal. We have no trouble ascertaining the motives and concerns of the song’s narrator because they’re openly declared; we suffer no anxiety about situating her desires in a biographical context because there is no context. Unlike “Single Ladies” or “Just Dance”—which depict particular incidents—the action in “TiK ToK” occurs not in the cinematic present tense but the simple present of habit and routine. (As usual, I awake feeling like P. Diddy.) Weak coquettish demurrals à la Stacy Ferguson are not forthcoming in “TiK ToK”: the narrator is matter-of-fact about and accepting of her status as a hard target for intoxicated horndogs. Neither is Lady Gaga’s loose-cannon confusion at all in evidence: it’s been cut off at the bar, ushered into a cab. And of course the Beastie Boys’ ironic winks between Jell-O shots—which nobody really caught anyway—aren’t even being attempted. “TiK ToK” pointedly refuses to broadcast different messages to different constituencies within its audience; it is—as we say in the post-Rumsfeld parlance of our time—what it is. Maybe you love it, maybe you hate it, but you are damn sure not gonna miss anything.
Here’s Barthes again:
A wrestler can irritate or disgust, he never disappoints, for he always accomplishes completely, by a progressive solidification of signs, what the public expects of him. In wrestling, nothing exists except in the absolute, there is no symbol, no allusion, everything is presented exhaustively. Leaving nothing in the shade, each action discards all parasitic meanings and ceremonially offers to the public a pure and full signification, rounded like Nature. This grandiloquence is nothing but the popular and age-old image of the perfect intelligibility of reality. What is portrayed by wrestling is therefore an ideal understanding of things; it is the euphoria of men raised for a while above the constitutive ambiguity of everyday situations and placed before the panoramic view of a univocal Nature, in which signs at last correspond to causes, without obstacle, without evasion, without contradiction.
Pro wrestling isn’t real; everybody knows that. It is, however, somehow about reality—a fact reflected in its major defining quality, namely its steadfast refusal (and/or the refusal of its audience) to acknowledge its status as theater. Pro wrestling is often snidely described as “soap operas for men,” and although that’s not entirely offbase, it misses a crucial distinction: Susan Lucci doesn’t typically make public appearances as Erica Kane, but James George Janos has never in his entire public life—as wrestler, actor, or governor of Minnesota—broken character as Jesse “The Body” Ventura. I’m not going to get into it in depth here, but I’d argue pretty strenuously that any fiction that won’t admit to being a fiction ceases to operate as fiction at all: a hugely important aspect of basic fictional processes involves an initial signal to the audience that a bunch of criteria by which we typically evaluate communication—i.e. is this statement accurate? do I agree with this proposition? etc.—ought to be suspended, and our attention directed elsewhere. Any contrived performance done without this acknowledgement becomes something else. If an effort is made to conceal or misrepresent the contrivance—à la James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces—it’s a trick, a con, or a hoax. If NO such effort is made, then we find ourselves in considerably weirder territory: somewhere in the vicinity of the assertion of Real Presence in the Eucharist.
Given its origin as a midway sham, pro wrestling originally exhibited the former sort of contrivance; more recently—as its status as a scripted entertainment has become roundly accepted without ever really being acknowledged—its contrivance has seemed more the latter type. What has shifted is not the nature of wrestling itself but rather the use to which it is put by its audience: the key appeal of professional wrestling, Barthes suggests, lies in its comforting and satisfying presentation of a “reality” that is absolutely clear, devoid of moral uncertainty, untainted by “the constitutive ambiguity of everyday situations.” To be a little more precise, what’s appealing isn’t the particular reality that wrestling conjures—a world of sweaty grimacing men in Spandex—but simply the suggestion that any reality can ever be as uncomplicated and as readily intelligible as the one portrayed in the wrestling ring. Barthes (writing, let’s remember, in the mid-1950s) is not unsympathetic to the desire for such a portrayal of reality. To the extent that our expectations for the fulfillment of that desire is confined to the realm of certain peculiar forms of entertainment, I don’t think Barthes’ sympathy is misplaced.
But here’s the bad news. A quick scan of the last, I dunno, fifty years of American cultural history indicates pretty strongly that wrestling’s conception of “reality” isn’t confined to anything: it has long since spread throughout just about every kind of pop entertainment you can think of—including (and especially) those that pass themselves off as “journalism” and “politics.” People who like to speculate about such things might well speculate that as our culture’s capacity to generate, store, sort, and distribute information has expanded—and done so at a rate that far outstrips our capacity to come up with plausible-sounding narratives that make sense of it all—such entertainments have perforce become more and more enticing as a refuge from the anxieties the unchecked flood of data brings on. That may be true; I have no idea. All I’m saying is, when I take a look around, it seems like everything has turned into pro wrestling. I will try to resist listing specific examples for fear that I won’t be able to stop.
I will point out—just for the sake of context—that wrestling’s reliance on its audience’s pronounced disinterest in peeking behind the curtain rhymes pretty conspicuously with a mode of discourse that contemporary philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt identified in a 1986 essay as bullshit. Wrestling neither deceives its audience nor asks it to suspend its disbelief; it and its fans simply proceed as if issues of authenticity and artifice are of no interest and no consequence whatsoever. What it resembles even more closely is the mode of discourse identified by even more contemporary philosopher Stephen Colbert as truthiness. Bullshit establishes authority solely through glibness: it’s accepted as true because it sounds true. Truthiness establishes authority solely through passion: it’s accepted true because it feels true. (Barthes: “It is obvious that at such a pitch, it no longer matters whether the passion is genuine or not. What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself.”) The crucial point to remember is that bullshit and truthiness don’t really convince anybody of anything; like the wrestlers’ audience, we simply accept these invitations to imagine ourselves resident in realms of pure situational clarity, rather than adrift in the miasmal confusion of our quotidian lives, beset by an unending tempest of facts. We buy it because buying it is comfortable—fun, even—and certainly easier than arguing with each other.
The employers of bullshit and truthiness generally portray themselves as speaking from the heart, shooting from the hip, calling it like they see it from the no-spin zone . . . which is of course a dead giveaway that their utterances are ideological to the core. Credit Colbert with helping to demonstrate that truthiness was the default rhetorical mode of the second Bush administration (and not a mode adopted innocently or without calculation, as Ron Suskind’s infamous unnamed source made clear)—but note too that these modes of discourse (and the ideologies they reflect and promulgate) are suffused throughout the culture, busily doing their work, probably more effectively in areas that aren’t perceived as sites of political contest. They’re obvious, for instance, in the talking-point media gamesmanship conducted by commentators both right and ostensibly left, but also evident in low-intensity flame wars touched off in the comments section of blogs of all stripes. They’re apparent in the concept and format of “reality TV” programs, but also and more insidiously in the unscripted behavior of those shows’ cast members. (As Nancy Franklin observes in a recent New Yorker, “Like all reality-show participants,” the personalities of Jersey Shore “speak in categorical certainties. They know things for sure, then those things blow up in their faces, then they hate those things and take about three seconds to find new things to believe in.”) Now these species of discourse are making speedy headway through the pop charts.
They’ve already been there awhile, to be sure, having established a stable beachhead in Nashville some time ago. You think I’m talking about Toby Keith, but I’m not. I’m talking about virtually everything in country music—at least in radio-ready, major-label country: an endlessly iterated cavalcade of smug platitudes, served up in crisp formulaic arrangements, directly and twangily delivered with greater or lesser degrees of sentiment and smirk. It hurts to lose someone, but you gotta be strong. When times get tough, I remember what my daddy said. It’s the simple things in life that count. You know how men are. You know how women are. A good pickup truck will get you through anything. Regardless of the specifics, the content is always the same: y’all know how it is. Which means: y’all know how everybody always says it is. The less politicized a song seems to be—the more heartfelt, the less subject to debate—the more successful it is at promoting its ideology.
(Okay, maybe it is worth mentioning Toby Keith—if only because he demonstrates that even country songs that present themselves as overly political can still find ways to entirely foreclose debate; his recent hit “American Ride,” for instance, rattles off a bunch of hot-button issues that his audience is certain to have opinions about without ever actually stating what the narrator’s opinion of them is, except that you “gotta love” everything he mentions: some listeners will hear that phrase as sarcasm, others as grim and flinty patriotism, and nobody will find anything to contradict either interpretation. Does “both ends of the ozone burnin’ / funny how the world keeps turnin’” mean the narrator is ruefully shaking his head at environmental alarmists, or at himself and his fellow head-in-the-sand, one-to-a-car commuters? Who can say? But, in any event, y’all know how it is.)
Our buddy Kesha Sebert grew up in Nashville, where her mother Pebe worked in the music industry; Dolly Parton had a hit with one of her songs. Sebert has been widely quoted as saying that she’d like to record country music herself someday. This strikes me as funny, since for all functional purposes “TiK ToK” is already country music: not the tear-jerkin’, flag-wavin’, God-fearin’ kind, obviously, but rather the hard-rockin’, hard-drinkin’, good-ol’-boy kind. (“American Ride” is from an adjacent branch of the country-music tree, though it clearly landed closer to the trunk.) When you scrape your way down to the kernel of “TiK ToK”—minus the club rhythms, minus the hip-hop references—you will find a smug knowingness that any industry player in Music City USA will immediately recognize, as will any World Wrestling Entertainment scriptwriter, as will any political campaign consultant. The subject of “TiK ToK” is accommodating oneself to reduced circumstances; its advice is to stay positive, take advantage wherever you can find it, and don’t think too much. You’re broke, but somewhere in this town there’s a party to crash. Guys are gonna hassle you, but they’ll also buy you drinks. You’re not sure how you’re going to eat tomorrow, but it’ll work itself out. All of this is not only tolerable but great. Y’all know how it is. You gotta love it. As Sebert herself explains:
We’re all young and broke and it doesn’t matter. We can find clothes on the side of the street and go out and look fantastic, and kill it. If we don’t have a car[,] that doesn’t stop us, because we’ll take the bus. If we can’t afford drinks, we’ll bring a bottle in our purse. It’s just about not letting anything bring you down.
This is the soundtrack to American conservatism. Naturally, conservatives won’t claim “TiK ToK” as an anthem—many will profess to be appropriately scandalized by it—but nevertheless it articulates the conservative worldview as well as anything I can presently point at. (As if it needs to be stated, the worldview I’m talking about here is much larger than—and not coextensive with—the membership of the Republican Party.) The key thing about “TiK ToK” is that it’s ostensibly positive and empowering but absolutely NOT idealistic: everything it values is concrete, easily conceived, and readily achievable; anything that isn’t is by implication suspect, silly, pathetic, embarrassing. It’s worth noting what in “TiK Tok” is conspicuous by its absence: anger about the present, concern about the future, the desire for peace of mind or for emotional connection (Don’t treat me to the things of this world, Beyoncé Knowles sings: I’m not that kind of girl. Your love is what I prefer, what I deserve . . .), any attempt at imaginative engagement with the experience of being alive. None of this makes any sense in the utterly disenchanted world of “TiK ToK.” In fact, “TiK ToK” presents disenchantment as a positive value, a shedding of childish things. If called on this, I’m guessing most defenders of the song would respond first by saying I’m making a big deal out of nothing—don’t think too much—and then by maybe saying that the worldview that “TiK ToK” espouses is simply realistic.
It is not realistic. It is a sterling example of what a number of commentators—I’ll refer you to k-punk—have characterized as the fantasy of realism: an expedient and comfortable confusion of what is politically difficult with what is physically impossible. (Strictly enforced global controls on speculative investments and carbon emissions will never be enforceable, says conventional wisdom. There’s no way the federal government could ever administer a single-payer healthcare plan effectively. It’s just not realistic. All available evidence, of course, indicates that it’s our refusal to give these initiatives serious consideration that isn’t realistic, as our present circumstances are not sustainable and not addressable by half-measures.) This kind of “realism” offers something even more desirable than a clear-eyed assessment of your current circumstances, namely the feeling that you’ve made such an assessment, and that you’ve come away with the conclusion that this is as good as it gets. (“I was just hoping to become a pop star before the world ends in 2012,” Sebert tells Rolling Stone.) This is professional wrestling again: the comforting notion that you know what you need to know, that everything is clear. “TiK ToK” essentially amounts to a Language 30 audio guide to the new economy: it provides a few useful phrases—enough to get by—and no real understanding of the underlying grammar.
For something designed to be utterly depthless, however, “TiK ToK” does leave us with a couple of nagging questions if we take a close look at its contents. The first involves the conspicuously intransitive verb in its chorus: what is it, exactly, that Kesha’s-a fight till she sees the sunlight? It’s not difficult for us to imagine targets worth fighting—for or against—but “TiK ToK,” it seems, can’t name them, or won’t.
The second question is more basic and more troubling. Since the events described in the song are apparently ongoing, cyclical, without beginning or end . . . what, pray tell, is “TiK ToK” counting down to?