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“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”

March 16, 2010

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-godI-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.

What “TiK ToK” initially reminded me of was the LAST jawdroppingly stupid pop song I recall being ambushed by while driving, one parodied thusly by George Saunders in the New Yorker:

          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?

69 Comments leave one →
  1. March 16, 2010 10:15 pm

    Here is another good post by a blogger who is rightly concerned with “The Complicated Influence of Ke$ha on Society,” specifically on 11-year-old girls:

  2. March 16, 2010 11:07 pm

    This is brilliant.

  3. March 17, 2010 5:53 am

    @ K: Thanks for sharing this . . . I will add it to my list of tween-crafted “TiK ToK” videos that are more adroitly executed than the ACTUAL “TiK ToK” video . . . .

    @ Tim: Thanks! Glad you dig it!

    @ everybody else: Please do comment — think of it as a ceremonial demonstration that indicates you reached the top of the mountain, like planting a flag, or discarding an empty air tank — but please be patient if it takes your comment a few days to show up; I’ll be out of town and away from the internet . . .

  4. March 17, 2010 10:51 am

    …still thinking abt this the day after reading. I too had been having a lot of trouble articulating what abt Kesha I found so icky w/o sounding lame and moralistic, but the case you make for her conservatism (and also her flatness vis-a-vis richer, more multivalent mainstream pop artists/songs) helps me make sense of shit. I feel like there are also ways the linkage you explore between Kesha’s product & the more up-with-people-seeming empty platitudes of say, somebody in Nashville can be more broadly applied… makes it more possible, for instance, to talk abt the essential conservatism of the celebutante phenomenon of a couple years back, and maybe also draw a linkage btwn these things and that hollow pursue-your-bliss-type bullshit we constantly hear from famous folks, ie “Oprahisms” — which are equally certain and equally devoid of content.

    This also helps me understand the essential difference between the camp sensibility of folks like Gaga or even Adam Lambert, who, as Sontag might’ve described it, take frivolous things very seriously and make the serious frivolous. Kesha has none of their hyper-earnest theatricality, yeah? Her party is joyless.

    I’m wondering — Do you feel like this conservatism is more one of cynicism or one of complacency?

  5. Travis A. LaRue permalink
    March 17, 2010 12:33 pm


    Typically, when I hear a song on the radio that I don’t enjoy, I change stations.


  6. Allen Lee permalink
    March 18, 2010 10:33 pm

    “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.”

    I admit that I only skimmed your post, and anyway I won’t pretend for an instant that I can discuss its substance with you in a fair fight. But you can’t be serious with this, I’m in the midst of a college scene here and every night at the bars people sing along with Eiffel62 or whatever and I really don’t think they have anything on their minds but party.

  7. Doug Daniels permalink
    March 21, 2010 6:03 pm

    Seconded—this is brilliant work.

  8. March 21, 2010 10:12 pm

    Okay! Back in town!

    @ Tim:

    I can claim only limited exposure to the celebutante phenomenon (I don’t intend that as a veiled reference to anybody’s sex tape) but based on what I DO know, there does seem to be a similar conservatism at work. A similar pandering classism, as well . . . although we should hasten to say that Ke$ha and the celebutantes have very different origin myths. (Though the myths intersect: Sebert and her mom appeared on “The Simple Life;” Sebert has a song about barfing in Paris Hilton’s closet.) I think there are also parallels to be drawn between the specific and deliberate — if unlikely — branding of the celebutantes as aspirational figures for young working-class women and the similar earlier branding of Donald Trump as an aspirational figure for young working-class men . . . but that’s more than I want to try to get into here.

    Good call as well re the conservatism of the various media instructional personalities — basically all of them — although I WILL say that as the leading and paradigm-establishing exemplar, Oprah Winfrey will make an occasional seemingly sincere attempt to transcend the usual modus operandi. (The conservatism may be inherent to the form — or the form a byproduct of the conservatism — and therefore the degree to which she suceeds is subject to debate.)

    So far as Lambert, Gaga, et al. go, I think you’ve ID’ed another super-important distinction between their projects and Sebert’s. They’re able to play with distinctions between surface and depth, frivolity and seriousness, because they’re willing to acknowledge that such distinctions exist in their work AT ALL, something Sebert DOESN’T do. (Barthes: “[T]here is no symbol, no allusion, everything is presented exhaustively.”) Gaga’s project, for instance, is almost ENTIRELY allusive; much of the fun consists of trying to keep up with her. Sebert’s few allusions — “references” is a better word — are never more than shorthand: incidental byproducts of a push toward maximum efficiency. (Her answers in interviews when asked about the dollar sign in her name — which vary, but which always basically amount to “it doesn’t mean anything” — are also indicative of her lack of interest in layering, or ambiguity, or coyness of any kind.)

    I probably ought to take a pass on the cynicism-vs.-complacency question — because of lingering intentional-fallacy-type anxieties, and also because “TiK ToK” is best understood as a product produced by committee, and different members of the committee may have different motivations — but I’ll go out on a limb and vote for cynicism. Nothing about this song seems complacent. Sebert herself comes off as sharp as a freaking tack in every interview I’ve ever seen. As we’ve said, interesting ambiguities certainly don’t seem to have been omitted from “TiK ToK” by ACCIDENT. If this is the product of complacency, it’s a cold and contemptuous complacency that’s worse than cynicism.

    Thanks, Tim! I am grateful and flattered that you’ve spent time with this stuff, and I’m glad you’ve found it rewarding.

    @ Allen:

    Hey man, thanks for stopping by!

    I guaran-goddamn-tee you I am 100% serious about that statement. I will make two points to clarify: 1) Anytime anybody is spending time and money on something from which they directly receive no concrete lasting benefit — such as “partying” — they MUST, at some level, regard what they’re doing as an expression of their values. Partying is an experience that’s defined as much by an awareness of what you’re NOT doing (attending to the orderly progress of your studies and/or career, drinking in moderation, generally acting like a respectable person) than of what you ARE doing. In order to have “party” on your mind, you have to be aware of it as an interruption in your usual nose-to-the-grindstone routine. Partying is therefore an ideological activity. The less thought you put into it, the more ideological it is. Now, sure — being aware of stuff you’re NOT doing while you’re partying isn’t the same thing as being aware of people who’d hate whatever you’re listening to while you’re listening to it, but . . .

    2) I am going to insist that “TiK ToK” is qualitatively different from the kind of party music you’re describing, in that it demands and receives completely different kinds of attention and investment from its listeners. This is not faceless egoless dance-pop, the kind of song everybody can sing along to but nobody can remember who recorded. Sebert clearly isn’t just interested in having a pop hit; she wants to be a pop STAR. Her song doesn’t just want you to bob your head and hum the chorus; it wants you to have an opinion about it. It wants to piss you off.

    This is built into its arrangement, in which Sebert’s voice and the instrumental backing assault us with a sort of good cop / bad cop routine. Note that sometimes the song is INTENTIONALLY UGLY in a way that most disposable innocuous pop would never be, and that its most ugly moments — the abruptly downshifted pitch of Sebert’s voice; her intentionally broken and off-key delivery of the line “the party don’t start till I walk in” — always set us up for the big release of the choruses. (The torture scene in Reservoir Dogs works exactly the same way.)

    Anyway, my point is, the difference between “TiK ToK” and, say, “Blue” by Eiffel 65 is that while “Blue” is typically consumed by its listeners with minimal thought, “TiK ToK” DEMANDS to be consumed with minimal thought. Does that make any sense?

    @ Travis:

    Change stations? Oh, wait . . . is THAT what those buttons do?

    @ Doug:

    Thanks! I appreciate it!

  9. Allen Lee permalink
    March 21, 2010 10:35 pm

    Hey Martin as well–

    “Partying is an experience that’s defined as much by an awareness of what you’re NOT doing (attending to the orderly progress of your studies and/or career, drinking in moderation, generally acting like a respectable person) than of what you ARE doing. In order to have “party” on your mind, you have to be aware of it as an interruption in your usual nose-to-the-grindstone routine. Partying is therefore an ideological activity. The less thought you put into it, the more ideological it is.”

    I think I understand your point, but I also don’t think I agree. But this may just be one of those irreconcilable worldview things — I probably don’t have the philisophical chops to debate it the way I think you might want it debated. By having “party on one’s mind”, of course, I do not mean that anything conceptual or intellectual is on one’s mind at all. I refer to the direct, sensual, visceral experience of being at a “good party”. In this state I think it would not be fair to say that either “party” or “not party” is in the mind at all. Before the party, while getting ready? Even then I don’t really agree. Most respectable people party (even wildly) at times as part of a balanced life, I suppose my point being that one doesn’t really need to attach any ideology or thought to attending or not attending a party or interrupting any routines or anything at all. Isn’t partying part of the routine? Anyway, I have a feeling you will connect the dots for me on this latter point so I will wait for your response on it :O.

    Maybe for some (many? most?) people’s mindsets you may be right. I really don’t know. I’d say you describe a very intellectual experience of life.

    Your last sentence I don’t understand at all, you’ll explain that one to me.

    On the second point, I’m gonna have to go listen to the entire song now :O hahaha

  10. Allen Lee permalink
    March 21, 2010 11:13 pm

    Okay I just listened to the song :O ha ha. Yeah, it’s dumb fo shizz. Onto the analysis

    “I’m going to insist that “TiK ToK” is qualitatively different from the kind of party music you’re describing, in that it demands and receives completely different kinds of attention and investment from its listeners. This is not faceless egoless dance-pop, the kind of song everybody can sing along to but nobody can remember who recorded. Sebert clearly isn’t just interested in having a pop hit; she wants to be a pop STAR. Her song doesn’t just want you to bob your head and hum the chorus; it wants you to have an opinion about it. It wants to piss you off.”

    That may be but how does the biz/econ side of this work? Mybad if you covered all that in your article. If she gets enough play on the radio and in clubs then kids are gonna buy her record just as a matter of marketing. In this sense we have not gone beyond Eiffel65. I’d say this track is at least as good of a party track as Eiffel65 — personally I like it a little more since I find the Eiffel song too clinical and gay-club-dancy.

    “This is built into its arrangement, in which Sebert’s voice and the instrumental backing assault us with a sort of good cop / bad cop routine. Note that sometimes the song is INTENTIONALLY UGLY in a way that most disposable innocuous pop would never be, and that its most ugly moments — the abruptly downshifted pitch of Sebert’s voice; her intentionally broken and off-key delivery of the line “the party don’t start till I walk in” — always set us up for the big release of the choruses. (The torture scene in Reservoir Dogs works exactly the same way.)”

    This is an interesting view. The beastie boys are a good reference. There is a sense in which elements of the song are “intentionally ugly”, like the BB. But as you point out, those elements serve to enhance the pleasure derived from e.g. the choruses. From a purely musical standpoint the “ugliness” serves some legitimate purpose. My brother used to have this big theory about how Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” was very ugly yet he he found it very compelling.

    Anyway. The song is also ugly of course in other ways, culturally and intellectually. Certainly the song is anti-intellectual. Yes, I do find pleasure in these uglinesses. Why? I don’t think it’s b/c I imagine “guys like you” disliking the song. I like you, personally. Most of my friends would probably hate TT as well. But there is a beauty in the ugliness, the energy, rebellion, insolence. For me it’s similar to the effect of the BB. Note however I have never listened deeply to either or thought much about their music. But would I buy their records? The million dollar Q. With the BB yes I would, if I were in the mood (I never did, but I bought Faith No More once for christ’s sake). If the Kesha’s ridiculous songs kept up to a high enough production standard and I were younger, I dunno, and still owned my convertible, maybe?!

    “Anyway, my point is, the difference between “TiK ToK” and, say, “Blue” by Eiffel 65 is that while “Blue” is typically consumed by its listeners with minimal thought, “TiK ToK” DEMANDS to be consumed with minimal thought. Does that make any sense?”

    S0rt of. These are some thought-provoking views. How can I summarize my reaction to the one little part of your reaction ha ha. Yes, the song is ugly in many ways. Intentionally. But that ugly is sexy in its way. On balance the ugliness adds something to the track. Yes the reason the ugliness is sexy/pleasurable is because it is a reaction against something. But what is that thing? I guess I am back to the original pt, I don’t think it is against “you” or that the ugliness necessarily intends to piss people off. It is a reaction against straight-laced society but that’s inside all of us.

    I guess I should probably read your whole article! haha

  11. Allen Lee permalink
    March 21, 2010 11:37 pm

    Alright yeah clearly I am like way over my head now that I re-skimmed your article in more depth. Ha ha ho ho! Oh well, Martin, that is why you are such a fun and smart guy. You will have to humor the rest of us. I will check in next time for more analysis. Um, some implementation feedback, you’re too smart and your attention span is too long, I will only be able to finish articles of this length one time in twenty. I mean I work(ed) in an office man I went to a lot of powerpoint meetings you know? My senior managers all use step machines to try to trim their guts and they take “performance driving” classes at the racetrack for fun know what I mean?

  12. March 22, 2010 8:19 am

    Allen! Lengthen your attention span, man :)

    A lot of your questions/comments are answered/addressed in the post, especially this one: “But there is a beauty in the ugliness, the energy, rebellion, insolence. For me it’s similar to the effect of the BB. Note however I have never listened deeply to either or thought much about their music.” The “rebellion” thing stuck out to me because that’s one of Martin’s big points: WTF is Ke$ha “rebelling” against? That’s not rhetorical–what do you see her as “fighting”?

    Also, fave quote in all your comments: “You’re too smart and your attention span is too long.” Awesome critical compliment.

  13. March 22, 2010 10:25 pm

    Hey Allen —

    To take your points in approximately reverse order: yeah, I have to confess I’m sort of intentionally missing the point of the internet here. But I will take your one-in-twenty readings, and be grateful for them! (For the record, at my current rate of production, I should be finishing my 20th post in June of 2012.)

    I think your description of how the ugliness in “TiK ToK” — and in “Enter Sandman,” and in music in general — works effectively and achieves a kind of beauty is right on, actually: the use of tension and release (through dissonance and/or suspended rhythm) is a key move in all kinds of music, much of it perfectly honorable. (At the moment I can’t think of a better example of the ugliness -> beauty rollercoaster than the transition from the solo to the bridge in “Sugarcube” by Yo La Tengo, but there are plenty of examples.) There is, as you say, something sort of exciting and sexy about this tension-and-release; I’d argue that the difference between how this works in “Sugarcube” and how it works in “TiK ToK” is analogous to the difference between erotic shenanigans one might perform with one’s partner — life partner, drunken hookup, whatever — versus those one might pay a professional dom to perform. Both activities are sexy, but — as Tim points out above — the latter is sort of joyless and dispiriting. In the former case, everybody gets off; in the latter, somebody gets off while somebody else gets paid.

    Your comment that “TiK ToK” is directed against the “straight-laced society that’s inside all of us” is well-put and well-taken; that’s exactly the impression the song seeks to give. I just don’t think it’s HONEST in its opposition to straight-laced society: I think its proposing a party that’s as regimented and disenchanted as the quotidian world it promises escape from. There’s nothing accidental in “TiK ToK,” but Ira Kaplan’s guitar solo in “Sugarcube” is about 65% random noise. There’s nothing superfluous in “TiK ToK,” but the Hitchcock allusions in Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” are designed to please no one more than Gaga herself. None of the aggression in “TiK ToK” seems genuinely angry — or even dissatisfied — but “Enter Sandman” seems fueled by a sincere gripe against existence. And so on.

    I guess I should clarify that I don’t really think “TiK ToK” and its fans hate me; I just think at some level they’re gratified by knowing that there are people out there who hate the song. Likewise, I get a pretty big kick out of hating it. Everything we consciously do is an opportunity to define ourselves to ourselves: “I am the sort of person who likes doing this thing that I am doing right now.” There’s no unmoving polestar to measure our enjoyments against, so we measure them against others who DON’T enjoy them. Nobody likes anything EVERYBODY likes. Right?

    You’re right, too, that what we may have here is a case of an irreconcilable worldview thing. Whether you buy what I’m saying here probably depends on whether you buy the basic leftist premise that ideology works best when it’s unexamined, and power is most effective when it’s invisible. That’s where I’m calling from.

    Thanks again for the comments!

  14. Allen Lee permalink
    March 23, 2010 4:38 am

    Yeah, so to respond to “what is kesh rebelling against exactly” (Kathy) and “[it’s not an honest opposition to straight society]” (Martin), I def see your points here. I think the reason I didn’t pick that up in the first place is that I don’t really follow pop music at all (and btw Martin, I am totally blown away that you know all this stuff, eg that it’s Eiffel65, I mean who knew?!), so to my ears TT basically just sounds like the BB. This is probably some sort of blasphemy but oh well. There’s no separation of years or cultural context or anything. It’s just some punk kids acting punky. The BB maybe seem a hair smarter but frankly kesh sounds pretty smart to me as well. So I am just getting the superficial level of the music, what the (expertly skilled I’m sure, I am really impressed with these big commercial craftsmen) producer is laying down, and you know basically missing most of the stuff you are talking about :O.

    Basically, I am a big fat bullseye for commercial interests.

    I am most interested in the deeper claim here ie “Everything we consciously do is an opportunity to define ourselves to ourselves: ‘I am the sort of person who likes doing this thing that I am doing right now.'” There is something cynical about this that unsettles me, but it’s a whole ‘nother post I’m sure. Man martin you are a fascinating dude how bout dinner next time I am in Chi? It’s on me, etc

  15. Kay Young permalink
    March 23, 2010 8:35 am

    Great article.

    However, I don’t share your unequivocal adoration of “Single Ladies”. The lines:

    If you like it
    Then you shoulda put a ring on it

    refer to a woman. This woman is reduced to an object, an “it”, a powerless woman to be claimed at will. IMHO, this puts the song back into the category you define as “not remotely empowered or empowering…”

  16. March 23, 2010 1:25 pm

    @Kay–that’s interesting. I’m usually pretty sensitive to that kind of objectification, too, but I do not take the “its” in “Single Ladies” to refer directly to the woman in question. Rather, the former “it” seems to refer to the whole situation, and the latter “it” seems to refer specifically to the ring finger of the single lady’s left hand, accentuated in the video by Beyonce’s badass robot glove.

  17. March 23, 2010 3:55 pm

    @ Allen —

    I will totally take you up on that! Thanks!

    @ Kay —

    Glad you enjoyed it! I AM willing to equivocate my adoration of “Single Ladies” somewhat; there are certainly things about it we might wish different in order that it be a purer articulation of progressive values: its aggressive and unexamined heteronormativity, for instance, along with its disinclination to explore the notion that its protagonist might be able to live happily without pairing off at all. I think you are absolutely right to point that out.

    However, saying that it’s not REMOTELY empowering seems like overstatement. I think “Single Ladies” CAN legitimately claim to have uncovered and defused a coercive social ritual, and that that has SOME empowerment value, even if it leaves other such forms of coercion unchallenged. I confess — and this is a function of my focus here, which is open to challenge — that I am less interested in a work of art’s ethical and conceptual purity than I am in its communicative efficacy, and it seems to me that “Single Ladies” does a hell of a job accomplishing a few tangible practical ends by speaking a language that’s available to and intelligible by EVERYONE. Pop, like politics, is the art of the possible. (For the record, I’m also not particularly pissed at Obama for issuing the executive order that brought in Stupak’s et alia’s votes to ensure passage of the healthcare bill. Disgusted, sure, but not pissed.)

    All that said, I don’t think I’m reading the line “If you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it” the same way you are — or exactly the way my spouse is, either. I think it’s important to remember that the lyrics of “Single Ladies” aren’t being sung to US; they’re addressed by the protagonist to another muted character, and we’re listening in. I hear the line as the protagonist sarcastically turning her ex’s sexist and belittling language back at him: a response to a statement of his that we don’t hear, one that objectifies her by implication. Placed in this context, her response can (and I think should) be construed as only accepting his objectifying premise for the sake of argument: if — again, IF — I am a possession, then I am my OWN possession.

    Regarding what the “it” is, I think there’s some tricky rhetoric going on here, too. The narrator employs synecdoche to suggest that a part — the finger — stands for the whole person . . . but again, this synecdoche is probably best understood as a rebuttal to, and intentional misreading of, an unheard statement of the ex’s, one which probably employed synecdoche suggesting DIFFERENT anatomical features to stand for the whole person. I think the interpretation we’re ultimately led to is that the “it” is the narrator’s body, her embodied self, which in the verses and choruses is made subject to negotiation. Accepting objectified embodiment might amount to a compromise on the narrator’s part — a swapping of a greater for a lesser disempowerment — but it also permits her the opportunity to make an ADDITIONAL rhetorical move in the bridge, wherein love and sex are characterized in terms of transcendence of the physical body, and where the narrator is always an “I” or a “me,” and never an “it.”

    While I like my interpretation, I don’t think there’s anything definitive in the text that confirms that it’s correct, or suggests that your reading isn’t, or that Kathleen’s reading isn’t. The text is ambiguous, and opens itself to a variety of readings. Which, as I’ve said, is another reason it’s better than “TiK ToK.”

  18. March 24, 2010 8:31 am

    Flag planted! Well worth the wait, Martin! I never thought about the Beastie Boys in reference to this song or ever really thought about the song Fight for your Right in the way you did. I too had to read this in a couple sittings, but I don’t mind that because you have it broken down into Beasties, Single Ladies, Wrestling, and finally, perhaps most disturbingly, political/social implications of the song. I love the post!

  19. March 24, 2010 12:02 pm

    Whether or not “it” refers to the woman herself or her finger, there’s a kind of (reverse?) sexism in the notion that to secure a woman’s affections you have to marry her. #justsayin’

    But I am okay with the broader interpretation, i.e., “If you like it then you shoulda been willing to commit and stuff”

  20. March 24, 2010 1:07 pm

    @Elisa – I don’t think it’s reverse sexism, I think it’s just sexism. It definitely reproduces some troubling and tiresome patriarchal-heteronormative gender constructions wherein women are all about marriage, men all about playing the field, etc, and it’s also hard for me to hear “put a ring on it” without also placing it within the context of Beyonce’s greater oeuvre and its frequent emphasis on the consumption of luxury and material junk.

    That said, apart from content, I really dig and I think agree with everything Martin is saying about its formal and linguistic brilliance. I also agree with this statement–

    “I hear the line as the protagonist sarcastically turning her ex’s sexist and belittling language back at him: a response to a statement of his that we don’t hear, one that objectifies her by implication.”

    I think Martin is also dead-on regarding its cultural impact and its emphasis on the “sisterly realm of cooperative play.” Some examples: Aa prominent figure in local philanthropy and politics, a lesbian of color, had a birthday party this year where a group of her friends, all middle-aged women, performed a choreographed routine to the song. The folk-pop singers Erin McKeown and Jill Sobule have received excellent audience feedback for a mellow acoustic version of the song they’ve been performing as an encore on tour. There’s also the dancing football players on “Glee,” which was maybe the most subversive moment on a show that has otherwise and often been quite heinous from a feminist/Queer/anti-racist/anti-ableist perspective, despite (because of?) being lauded for its representation of diversity.

  21. March 24, 2010 8:43 pm

    @ Beth —

    Thanks for bearing with me, and it! Glad you enjoyed it! I have to confess that prior to hearing “TiK ToK” I hadn’t really put much thought into “Fight for Your Right” either. Guess I owe Ke$ha that.

    @ EG & Tim —

    At this point I will content myself by saying that having Beyoncé sing “if you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it” in a music video while — as Wikipedia helpfully informs me — “flash[ing] her $5 million Lorraine Schwartz wedding ring that camouflages with [sic] her titanium glove, also made by Schwartz” amounts to reinforcing all kinds of shit that I would prefer not to see reinforced. But hey: baby steps! Baby steps!

    Tim, I have to confess a total lack of familiarity with Glee, though I understand it is something educated folk should have informed opinions about. I’ll have to bop it into the queue . . .

  22. March 31, 2010 12:50 am

    howdy martin! well argued case, though i actually enjoy tik tok in the same way i occasionally enjoy strip clubs, gambling, and body shots: with great embarrassment afterwords but utter abandon in the moment.

    i feel like i should point out that her specific conceited-white-girl rapper sound is entirely derivative of two previous very recent artists you don’t mention: Uffie and Robyn.

    Here are some examples:

    So in a way you may be describing a whole new genre of unselfconsciously plastic and cold self-branding white girl commodity-rappers. Uffie is the most interesting of these, not just because she is first, or hottest (she was a french model before being dragged or drugged into a music career), but because she is the most nihilistic. “I’ve groovin’ in the USA/
    Cause my first track is like a commercial for the NRA”

    Anyway, great stuff.

  23. March 31, 2010 10:28 pm

    I’ll step up to defend Robyn.

  24. pootie permalink
    April 1, 2010 6:49 pm

    @pedro uffie was not a french model.

  25. April 1, 2010 7:20 pm

  26. April 1, 2010 8:29 pm

    Wow, fantastically broad and deep analysis. My favourite was the story about Brian Eno:

    “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.”

    It’s all starting to make sense now…

  27. April 1, 2010 10:09 pm

    Like our man Peter Griffin says:

  28. Southern Comfort permalink
    April 1, 2010 11:08 pm

    Martin – don’t recall how I came across this, but quite a fascinating post. I am intrigued by your interpretation of Barthes here – the most interesting part to me is the debate that you and Allen seem to be having about ”authenticity’ in Pop Stars and the sort of calculation that goes into it. Does Kesha, as Allen seems to hold, represent the part of her target-demographic that “just likes to party” as evidence of some sort of lingering distaste for the regulated, segmented chronology of industrial capitalism (everyone likes to party, maaaan – 45 year old I-Bankers wearing shirts that say “Work Sucks, I’m going fishing!” to lounge around St. Moritz or wherever) , or is this perhaps a more insidious manifestation of careful programming by a culture industry, i.e. in a bit of a twist on your phrasing, “I know I am the sort of person being described in this song because this song is describing the things that I like. How do I know that I like these things? Because I’m the sort of person that would like them.”

    I am curious to know what you think about Taylor Swift. Your music knowledge is obviously much more extensive than mine, but I wrote briefly on what I felt like were some of the ideological forces at work in that sort of deliberately authentic/insouciant pop (I think the two are linked) and I would love to hear any comments you might have towards my analysis of Taylor Swift’s “You Belong with Me” (copy pasted here, but feel free to edit or delete if it’s too long or boring):

    “Second, and more important, as I’m going to try and develop a theory about whiny emo-pop out of this, does anyone actually think that any of these things ever happened to Taylor Swift? She claims in an interview she high-fived Jay-Fucking-Z after she sung the national anthem at a pro basketball game – when she was 11. Her grandmother is a professional opera singer and gave her vocal training, her parents are rich and moved their entire family to Nashville when she was 13 so she could become a make-believe country singer. Gosh, Taylor, we have so much in common already. Add to that the fact that you’re a skinny, white, wealthy blonde with no major facial deformities, and I’m less than convinced that you were really that uncool in highschool, as she claimed before a concert performance of the song – not to mention that she never even finished school, as she made 18 million fucking dollars in a year at age 16 and started getting ‘home-schooled’. Oh, and her most recent breakup? She dated one of the fucking Jonas brothers, another collection of hapless dolts trying to convince teenagers that they’re just like them while riding around in limousines. That gives Swift 1 degree of Jonas separation from renowned cultural icon Miley Cyrus, who also dated a Jonas and is perhaps mildly more respectable than Taylor Swift in that at least everyone knows Miley Cyrus is a phony (except maybe Miley Cyrus.)

    Now, all these things would be OK if Swift didn’t try to pretend that she really knows “what it’s like” and is coming at this from an “average girl’s” perspective – the music video screams “ADVERTISING EXECUTIVES WANT YOU TO KNOW THAT THEY UNDERSTAND YOU!” It’s filled with the equivalent of emotional powerchords that’s supposed to make you think that this is the way real people feel and believe. This is perhaps the most insidious part – unlike a number of her competitors for the angsty-teenager market (Lady Gaga perhaps foremost here), Taylor Swift pretends like she has a normal life and these are normal things to feel and does her best to keep making this adorable “Just think – all this happened to little old me!” face. Do note that in the video to Belong With Me, Swift plays both the nerdy girl and the slutty cheerleader; in a bit of embarrassing irony, her idea of making herself look like a nerd is to put on over-sized glasses and a (not joking here) shirt that is a periodic table of elements. Yes, Taylor, this is what being a social outcast is all about: being best friends with football stars and wearing oversize glasses that you promptly remove when you need to look sexy. In one scene, she rotates outfits in front of a mirror from one “nerdy” out-group to another, doing a who’s-who of high-school subcultures (the notable exception from the cast of nerdy looks is people who, well, dress like Taylor Swift dresses herself every day). Yeah, you really get me, Taylor. However, in the dramatic conclusion, she …removes her glasses and is suddenly beautiful. Haven’t I seen this movie, and didn’t it star Freddie Prinz Jr.? Perhaps the most amusing part of this is that in playing both roles, Swift inadvertently reveals that this conflict is an entirely self-generated one; in other words, a struggle between two totally artificial identities.

    Or is it? The difficulty for me is that there is some degree of truth to the sentiments expressed – I don’t think it’s purely chance that these sort of interactions resonate with a whole generation of kids, but I do think that the sort of crap that pop-music and MTV have been spoon-feeding us for the last little while have something to do with it. At some point, the way that we as American youth learned to think our own subjectivity and to construct our life-worlds was in the words distributed to us by people like Taylor Swift – to think that meeting someone with great hair is what life is all about, to think that being nerdy is the same as not being a cheerleader, to think that being young is just a series of heterosexual heartbreaks paving the road to meeting “the one” and growing fat and old together in a double-wide trailer. At some point, pop music had been telling us long enough and loud enough that it was the story of our lives that we started to believe it was really true. Indeed, they’ve successfully turned the youth into target markets well enough that we, for the most part, mimic these behaviors back at them: lower and middle class white-kids listen to pop and country and thing about angsty heartbreak and loving their country, black kids from the suburbs think that Mos Def is singing about them and their struggles to get into the same law school as their fathers, and hipsters are in a frantic race to the bottom to get the most obscure vinyl from the most obscurely ironic band names (Bolivia Newton John, anyone? Brunei-ne Inch Nails? Cameroon 5? I could go all night) and the tightest jeans they can get their pasty little legs in to. Who’s thinking about union-busting and child labor and income inequality and imperialism? No, no, these are not appropriate topics for young people to think or sing about, Bob Dylan was an aberration and Beat poets were all on drugs! Back to your regularly scheduled programming of heart-break and school dances.

    This development is, of course, to be regretted – that we’ve internalized marketing to such an extent that we strive to fit in to markets instead of the other way around – but it is, if nothing else, the truth. As such, when I listen to other teenage-emo like Blink 182 or the Ataris, I understand that to some extent what I’m getting is real, at least in the sense of subjectively real – this is the (encrypted) cry of a generation that has been taught to think like that, and these are people who DID think like that but want OUT; if there’s a beauty in their music, it’s that it’s not a studio cookie-cutter but a generational cookie-cutter. It’s indicative of a malaise that we’re all trapped in, and the failure of the music to reach outside of that is precisely where it succeeds in holding up the mirror for us to look into and realize how fucking shallow we really are.

    That’s my primary beef with Taylor Swift: she ought to know better. The world she portrays is not her world, nor is it a desirable one – she turned down an RCA contract at 13, for Christ’s sake, and can’t think of anything better to do with her time than sing about how she was always an outcast in high school? Sorry, Taylor, but unlike you I’ve been to high school. Pretty blond girls with recording contracts aren’t outcasts, and no matter how many times your label (incidentally, named “Big Machine Records,” which suggests just as well as anything else that she’s a cog in cultural-capitalism) tells you that you need to make your audience identify with you, I know that you are nothing like me or my friends. Perhaps Taylor Swift’s biggest crime is that she ran with the trend that began in 16 Candles and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (the song) and expanded it; namely that of taking the stupid and silly things you write in your diary and making them not only available to the public but glamorizing them. Taylor Swift is the Reality TV of music, and just like the people in reality shows, she’s an actress pretending that this is real life and that this is what real people do. It isn’t and it shouldn’t be; these are the lukewarm dregs of the human condition, and they are not to be celebrated and sold to us as “art.” I can’t wait for her clothing line.

    Edit: This will be a part 1, with another piece tomorrow to look at some more effective (read: self-aware) music videos from other bands. Also, amusingly, a google search confirms that 20 days ago Swift launched a clothing line to be sold at Walmart. This is like a scratch-and-sniff sticker for the apocalypse.”

  29. dhj permalink
    April 2, 2010 12:01 am

    way to shotgun the goldfish. the palin stab at the end just doesn’t approximate the insidious problem… or, gee, was that a kabuki round-a-bout to the wrestling discussions. could have done without the conservative v. liberal mania 2012 analysis capper.

  30. Alexander permalink
    April 2, 2010 3:49 am

    1) I reject the idea that anything about the appeal of “TiK ToK” has to do with an underlying knowledge that a certain group of people will react to it negatively. I am a huge fan of the song, and I know precisely why: her drunken drawl is intoxicating, the punchlines are stupid enough to be funny, the production is unbelievable. It’s energetic and it makes me feel good when I’m driving around town. I also understand the reasons one would hate it. I just opt for choosing to embrace the positive aspects of the song, because that makes my life more pleasant.

    2) I’d like to hear your explanation on why “Party in the U.S.A.” is actually a pretty great song. Isn’t it professing exactly the same insidious fallacies as “TiK ToK?” She’s nervous, for some unexplainable reason — she is exactly one of the people she’s going to meet, she has been for most of her life — and then an anonymous DJ puts on ‘her song,’ which is everyone’s song – the whole country listens to Jay-Z and Britney Spears – and suddenly all problems in the world are vanquished. She also implies that Nashville and Hollywood are not even in the same country, which is just beyond me.

    3) the “Lord woke me up”/”I woke up”/”You woke up”/”I wake up” bit was fascinating. Thanks.

    4) It’s interesting what you point out about DJs being forced to play “single ladies” every time they initiate a single ladies-dance in a club, but I’m not sure it’s true. Most people are simply not as thoughtful as you. I suspect mostly it is a simple segue, which makes their job easier, or perhaps even the opposite — DJs telling the single ladies to put their hands up more frequently as an excuse to play the wildly popular song.

    5) You state your analysis of country music – which is, I might add, articulate and accurate – as if there’s something wrong with it. It’s only bad if it’s a form of manipulation and control, whereas it’s actually more like a warm blanket. It’s not telling people anything they don’t already believe, what it’s doing is assuring people that they do know how it is. It’s less Huxley’s Soma and more of a lullaby or a children’s story. Perhaps it’s wrong to convince people the world is so simple, but I’m far from convinced they’d believe anything else even without the pressure of media.

    6) “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.”

    I disagree. I don’t see “TiK ToK” as anything of the sort. You’re seeing it as cynical, but I see it as defensive. I think the song assumes that you have serious problems in your life as a base point. The realistic aspect of the song isn’t that people go out and party and don’t think and so on, the realistic aspect is that people have serious problems that they aren’t emotionally equipped to deal with, and thus they party to run from them. This is emphatically a partying song, and as such is a sort of escapism. Perhaps these personal spectres are what Ke$sha is going to “fight ’til she sees the sunlight.” Certainly, if one is drinking ’til dawn with any regularity, one has spectres one needs to be fighting.

    Your point that she is presenting her reality as ‘as good as it gets’ is perhaps a valid complaint, and agrees to an extent with what I said, but I don’t think it’s nefarious. I think that sometimes the kind of sick abandon of “TiK ToK” is as good as it gets. As a persistent worldview, that becomes wrong and damaging, but as a momentary pop song, I think it’s more liberating than evil.

    Anyway, I enjoyed the post very much. Good thinking!

  31. April 2, 2010 7:16 am

    *Plants flag on the mountaintop*

    Martin. Astounding. For the length (which I took respite from by reading the Suskind article :P ) and for the insight into the psyche of Pop-Culture-as-a-culture.

    Brief comments:

    Your thesis, I believe, can be summarized as this: You don’t like TikTok because it obscures complex reality with a sugary shell of “Easy Certainty” (the last line from Suskind’s article).

    Agreed. Except that earlier you argued for the “Bright Red” perfume theory: a foul stench is necessary to grab attention on behalf of subtler, but satisfying and pleasurable, scents. Exhibit A: Nabakov’s Lolita. A maculate core ensconced in exquisite prose.

    To which I’d also say, yes, Agreed. It’s both, but the two seem to contradict each other. One is for obliviating reality with a univocal “Easy Certainty”; the other for holding tightly to that reality as an anchor for the top notes.

    Thankfully we have Whitman to free us from Aristotle: “I contain multitudes.” We can allow the contradiction, and we should, and here is why: Ernest Hemingway.

    The act of obliviating complex, ambiguous reality is the stench component to Kesha’s vanilla perfume — she is making perfume, but inadvertently. The fact that she’s preaching a univocal faith to obsolete reality IS the stench (and, I’m about to argue, IS the reality).

    She’s speaking for the Lost Generation, Redux. She’s insisting that the “Easy Certainty” of professional wrestling has left the category of Escape-from-Reality to enter the category “Reality”. Reality is no longer complex. It is very simple: it is nothing. Reality is irrelevant because it doesn’t carry consequence. Birth to death is a long walk to the worm bin.

    It’s the same realization that Hemingway and his generation drank away following the devastation of the first world war. The generation that invented cocktails — bootleg liquor so vile, they covered it with candy, anything to incapacitate the incessant radio chatter: Nothing nothing NOOOTHING nothingnothingnothingnothing. The plot of the Sun Also Rises and the plot of Tik Tok are both characterizations of popular acquiescence to the debilitating realization that humans are not next to angels, but are animated dirt.

    So here’s what Tik Tok is: it’s The Sun Also Rises, set to music. Same plot, same candyshell topnotes, same anagnorsis to serve as stench. And, the same significance.

  32. sophi permalink
    April 2, 2010 1:09 pm

    single ladies seems to follow the same feminist flavor as my humps… if the analysis here and the analysis i read of my humps are accurate…. by which i mean that the feminist messaging in both of them looks exactly like misogyny if you don’t take the time to analyze the lyrics.

    when i saw the my humps video all i saw was a generic rap/hip-hop song about how a lady is using her body to get something from the men. but apparently it was about how the men who objectify her and only want her body can’t have it… or something… totally missed that but a feminist said it was there.

    the same thing is going on with single ladies…. the only portion of the song i can really make out is “if you like it, you should have put a ring on it.” which to me sounds like “if you like the object, or women if you wanna be pc, you should have claimed it, or her again if you’re gonna be pc.” to me the song sounds like it’s about how women are objects and if you like one fuckin’ buy it already. than she’s your property.

    and in general i find all these pop songs boring as hell… the music wants to be techno… but not enough to be interesting…. and the vocals are too prominent…. and are kinda monotone…. so they’re not interesting to listen to for what they say or how the voice sounds.

  33. Elizabeth Hildreth permalink
    April 3, 2010 12:52 pm


    I told Kathleen, “But it has to be ironic, right?” Kathleen said, “Nope, don’t think so.”

    You gawt me, Kathleen.

    Just read her interview and watched the video during which she stuck out her tongue party devil-style while hanging out of the top of a car!

    She is so real–like a ball of white bread between your teef.

    TIK TOK. Time to hear more from S$ay soon.


  34. bradluen permalink
    April 4, 2010 2:29 am

    Martin, I think you’ve found the correct reasons to hate “TiK ToK” (and I do hate it) but I think Alexander, above, is much closer to a useful framework for thinking about popular culture. I have no idea how to reconcile these viewpoints, though an attempt would begin with a rejection of any suggestion that the song is realist — as Jonathan Bogart pointed out, no one actually brushes their teeth with Jack, and nobody who’s tasted the stuff believes that Ke$ha does — and a clarification of “realistic”. If I ever work out what I’m talking about I’ll let you know.

  35. April 5, 2010 12:26 pm

    Thanks for this article. I would like to borrow some of it for upcoming sermon fodder if you don’t mind. (With appropriate credit given of course.)

    I appreciate your wit and the dislike of an unambiguous “reality”.

    Keep up the good work.


  36. April 5, 2010 9:31 pm

    Tik Tok derives heavily from Justice & Uffie’s tune “the party”… (, especially in vocal delivery. there’s like a billion remixes of that tune, and some sound a lot more like the production of tik tok… while i think your beastie boys comparison is apt, it’s a bit less clear source of derivation (to me anyway).

    I kind of like tik tok a bit: as a deejay, it’s a useful tune (fills a certain niche), but it doesn’t do THAT much for me. neither does justice, for the record… or most pop (or most toothless electro :)

  37. April 6, 2010 1:53 am

    Hey gang, sorry for the slow response, and a warm if belated welcome to those of you lured in by my recent surprise appearance on Metafilter. Responding to comments from people I’ve never met = weirder than I would have supposed.

    First things first, though: congratulations to commentor Tim Jones-Yelvington for his performance Thursday night at Chicago’s Literary Death Match, where he achieved what I feel safe in describing as a decisive moral victory. Tim, you rocked.

    @ pedro –

    Thanks for the kind words. Glad you enjoyed it!

    As enamored as I am of your phrase “unselfconsciously plastic and cold self-branding white girl commodity-rappers,” I gotta be honest, so far as the comparisons to Robyn and Uffie go—comparisons that a BUNCH of people will totally back you up on—I don’t really hear it. I mean, sure, there ARE similarities—at least to the extent that these songs feature female vocalists rapping in breathy, bratty voices—but I suspect that tons of OTHER songs answering to this rough description have been released over the past couple of decades and were immediately ignored or gradually forgotten. (I’m thinking now of songs by Peaches, L’Trimm, and even Blondie, all of which I think resemble “TiK ToK” as or more closely than these three do.) As “TiK ToK” has gone nova in the public consciousness, a couple of adjacent songs have seemed to glow in its reflected radiance, but I think this is due more to their temporal proximity than to any deeply-rooted kinship.

    Basically, I’m saying that correlation is not causation. If Sebert were to state in an interview that she’s never heard a song by Jay-Z . . . whoops, excuse me, that she’s never heard a song by Uffie or Robyn, I would 100% believe her. (If Dr. Luke said the same thing in an interview, I would probably 80% believe HIM.) My reasoning here is pretty simple, and goes like this: if “TiK ToK” were influenced even a little by these artists’ work, it would be substantially better.

    I’ll elaborate. I think from listening to “TiK ToK” we can get a pretty good sense of what Sebert-&-Co.’s aims are in composing the song, and I just don’t think there’s very much they can steal from Uffie or Robyn that’s relevant to the pursuit of those aims. Ke$ha wanted a hit, and she got one. The three links you provided are all pretty great songs, but they’re not shoulda-been hits. In “TiK ToK,” Sebert’s personality—well, her persona, anyway—is foregrounded: you may hate it, but you can’t ignore it. In Robyn’s and Uffie’s work the vocals are cool and relaxed, whereas in “TiK ToK” they’re amped up, in your face, impossible to ignore. I am not an expert in such things, but I feel pretty safe in guessing that “TiK ToK” is mixed loud, emphasizing the midrange, with the vocal way up front; that’s how you mix something people will listen to on radios and handheld devices. Robyn and Uffie AREN’T mixed loud, and DON’T emphasize the midrange; they’re designed to be heard in clubs. This is a hugely important distinction, and the fact that it’s hidden in plain sight just emphasizes its importance. (Note too that the vocoder in “Pop the Glock,” mutes and abstracts Uffie’s voice, whereas the Auto-Tune in “TiK ToK” surrounds Sebert’s voice with glittering barbed wire.) I probably had every word of “TiK ToK” involuntarily memorized by about the third time I heard it, but I’d have to spend some serious time with these three links (and possibly a lyrics sheet) to be sure I’m not missing stuff in Uffie and Robyn. Finally, if I had these Uffie and Robyn songs playing at low volume in my apartment while making dinner or whatever, I might miss their choruses entirely; their priority seems to be maintaining a groove and a flow. “TiK ToK,” by contrast, is all about its chorus. You don’t hire Dr. Luke if you don’t want a huge chorus; that’s what the guy does, and pretty much ALL he does, near as I can figure.

    Basically, what I enjoy about these Robyn and Effie songs is that the artists 1) don’t seem to give much of a damn whether they hit big or not, and 2) seem to be having fun with what they’re doing. Neither quality is discernable in “TiK ToK.” As Tim says above, Ke$ha’s party is joyless. Uffie’s party may be nihilistic, as you’ve said—dissipated and a little evil—but it damn sure isn’t joyless. Ke$ha seems about as nihilistic as Ayn Rand.

    I’m not really going to get into it here, but I DO think it’s important to note that “TiK ToK” uses as its gravitational center its singer’s obnoxious personality, while Uffie and Robyn seem to be playing in legitimately dangerous territory where we’re led to doubt whether their narrators can claim any stable selfhood AT ALL. This, more than anything else, is why they’re good, and “TiK ToK” isn’t. The fact that Lady Gaga has managed to achieve global celebrity without ever defusing the self-destructing “I” that narrates her songs is yet another indicator—as if we needed one—that she’s the most significant pop-musical figure to emerge from America since Kurt Cobain.

    All that said, it IS interesting to look at “TiK ToK” in the light of its contemporaneous releases—which is something that music journalists are really good at doing and which I, not being one, am not. So I will defer to the expertise of others here.

    @ pootie –

    I can claim access to no reliable intel regarding Uffie’s résumé. But thanks for weighing in!

    @ . –

    Quite a find. Thanks!

    @ Mister Manager –

    That’s a great story, isn’t it? (Sadly, I like the story better than the album; Big Science and Mister Heartbreak are where it’s at for me, Laurie-Anderson-wise.) Thanks for stopping by!

    @ Ken –

    Good clip. Suggesting an equivalency between The Godfather and “TiK ToK” does not make me super-comfortable, but “it insists upon itself” is indeed relevant to the matter at hand. Thanks!

    @ Southern Comfort –

    I have not yet made up my mind about Taylor Swift—mostly b/c most of her music strikes me as so generic as to be invisible to my ears. (I DO remember hearing “Tim McGraw” when it came out—mostly b/c I’m trying to maintain a list of songs with famous people’s full names as their titles—and thinking that it seemed basically honorable, and has a pretty melody.) Checking the somewhat dusty “Taylor Swift” container in my brain, I find the sentence: “I buy her as basically sincere.” Even as I type that, I realize that that sentence is utterly meaningless when applied to an entertainer—not that entertainers can’t be sincere, but that such judgments are impossible for us, the listening public, to make. And yet we do it all the time: sincerity, more than anything else, is what Taylor Swift is peddling.

    (This reminds me a little of the old adage about campaign finance reform: you don’t give politicians money to convince them to vote the way you want; you go out and buy yourself politicians who REALLY BELIEVE what you want them to believe. I get a strong sense that to the extent she is peddling delusions to her audience, Swift is just as deluded, or more so. On the other hand, I also recall Greil Marcus’s old line about Eddie Vedder, re the fact that Pearl Jam is super-derivative of 70’s rock that definitely dead-ended before he hit puberty: it doesn’t matter that rock ’n’ roll has been through all this before; Pearl Jam and its fans have never been through it before. So here we go again.)

    I like your reading of Swift a lot. A couple of things you should maybe look at, if you haven’t already: sugarhigh! has a prescient post from 2007 about both Swift and Cyrus that’s worth reading in this context. And for a couple of years now I’ve had a book on my to-get-but-not-yet-gotten list that gets at a bunch of these issues: Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music by Yuval Taylor and Hugh Barker. (There’s evidently a blog, as well, though it seems to have been neglected of late.) If you get to it before I do, let me know what you think.

    Thanks for chiming in!

    @ dhj –

    To the extent that I understand what you mean, yes, that WAS a kabuki roundabout to the wrestling discussion. I feel a little guilty for shotgunning the goldfish, but the goldfish was between me and my actual target, which unfortunately was the “conservative v. liberal mania 2012 analysis capper” that you could have done without. Thanks for playing!

    @ Alexander –

    Thanks for the great comments, which I’ll take one at a time:

    1) Having not quite succeeded (by my own estimation) in defending this point to Allen earlier in the comments section, I should probably just withdraw my assertion that fans of “TiK ToK” derive part of their enjoyment from imagining the discomfort it visits upon others; I am, however, not quite ready to do that, at least not completely. You say your enjoyment of the song is not tainted by schadenfreude or sadism; I would be a jerk to doubt you, and I am not a jerk. I suspect, therefore, that I have committed an overstatement.

    However . . . I stand by the point I made to Allen above, which is that enjoyment of “TiK ToK” has GOT to be value-expressive, and that the values that that enjoyment expresses can and should be made subject to critique. As a quality, stupidity is a net negative, but you cite—accurately—the stupidity of Sebert’s punchlines as a mark in the song’s favor. The assertion that stupidity is good sometimes—much like your choice to “embrace the positive aspects of the song”—ARE expressions of value, and they are not thoughtless expressions. So you’re in ideological territory. That’s not a bad thing. I would just like to make that ideology visible AS ideology, and then to see what happens when we tug on that thread.

    Most folks do not roll this way, and that is as it should be, I suppose.

    2) Fortunately for you (har har har), I have a recent post which briefly addresses why I think “Party in the U.S.A.” is a “pretty great song.” In a nutshell, I think it’s better than “TiK ToK” because it possesses an actual melody, whereas “TiK ToK” just sports a couple of monster hooks. I think the form of “Party” is pleasing—impressively conceived, adroitly executed—and if it had better lyrics it might well rank with songs like “Umbrella” and “Irreplaceable,” songs we’ll all still be listening to fifty years from now. (Thought experiment: imagine “TiK ToK” sung by someone accompanying herself on piano or acoustic guitar. Now try it with “Party.” The hook in the latter is delivered by the melody; the hook in the former is delivered by the production.)

    Lyrics-wise, “Party” IS committing some insidious fallacies, but they’re not the same fallacies that “TiK ToK” commits. Unlike “TiK ToK,” “Party” is willing to broadcast different messages to different constituencies within its prospective audience. In fact, that’s its entire project: to win over mainstream pop fans without giving offense to Cyrus’s core fanbase of homeschooled tweens. As you astutely point out, it makes no sense that Cyrus would be nervous about fitting in in Hollywood; what she’s nervous about is her C&W fans NOTICING that she fits in there perfectly, and always has. (In a much larger sense, she’s nervous about her country fans and her pop fans BOTH recognizing that Nashville and Hollywood are the same place: identical nowheres. A recognition of that sort would be a disaster for more people than Miley.) The same old rule applies to “Party” as applies to virtually all other rhetoric: simple truths tend to be clear without needing to be spoken; ergo, when you hear someone loudly proclaiming what seems to be a simple truth, you are safe in assuming that you are being lied to.

    Cyrus’s fake nervousness, however—which is approximately analogous to Fergie’s feigned innocence in “My Humps,” which we’ll get to in a minute—STILL evinces more depth than does “TiK ToK,” and is therefore, imho, better, or at least less bad.

    3) Thanks! I picked up the gospel thing while researching the origin of the blues opening. News to me, too.

    4) I’m not sure DJs are really obliged to play “Single Ladies” when they initiate a single-ladies dance; I just suspect they’ll seem dim or cloddish to a certain portion of their audiences if they don’t avail themselves of the opportunity. Even if they DON’T play the song, my guess is that most clubgoers will at least THINK of it fleetingly when they hear the words “single ladies” spoken over the PA, and that’s already an improvement: simply HAVING HEARD the song reduces the coercive force of the ritual single-ladies dance, whether it’s actually played or not. And I didn’t mean to suggest—I hope I DIDN’T suggest—that DJs consciously set out to coerce and objectify single ladies when they call for single-ladies dances; I think most of them just think they’re helping lonely women find love . . . or, failing that, they’re just hoping to get a good tip and maybe a few referrals. When social coercion is really functioning effectively, there’s nobody you can point to and say, “He’s the bad guy.”

    This is also why I think “Single Ladies” is really effective at defusing such coercion: it routes us around it without ever even acknowledging that it exists. You are probably absolutely correct in saying that “Single Ladies” has caused a ton more single-ladies dances to be called . . . but provided “Single Ladies” defines the terms under which those dances happen, I don’t think any harm is being done.

    5) I see where you’re coming from, but if you can tell me where a clear line between warm blankets and manipulation and control can be drawn, I will be very interested to see it. These are moving targets in a contested cultural space, serving a range of public and private interests that are often at odds, and I think it behooves us to be a little wary of such things. Once a lullaby becomes a consumer product, something significant has changed, even if every note of it remains the same.

    I absolutely agree with you that country songs are “not telling people anything they don’t already believe, [but rather] assuring people that they do know how it is” . . . and this is precisely my objection to them. Because people do NOT know how it is. Or if they DO know, then they do not need to be told repeatedly, as I said re Cyrus above. Lullabies are for kids, and maybe occasionally for people who have had really shitty days; they should not be playing constantly in our homes and workplaces. (And honestly, I’m less worried about lullabies than I am about fight songs.) You may be absolutely correct that people can’t be talked out of their simplified views of the world, but I don’t think this means that artists should therefore set out to make simplified worldviews easier and more comfortable for people to maintain (although there are certainly big financial rewards for doing so).

    6) I want in all sincerity to believe that “TiK ToK” will support the reading of it that you supply here, but I’m just not seeing it. It could be that I’m not looking hard enough, but I’ve looked pretty hard. I just don’t see any acknowledgement in the song of the kind of serious problems you reference—although maybe it shouldn’t be necessary to reference them, maybe they can be assumed. Or maybe they CAN’T be referenced in the song in order for it to be effectively escapist. (I don’t think I have an intrinsic gripe with escapism—although I AM skeptical of escapism that causes us to take our eyes off the thing we’re escaping, prompting us to run like startled deer till we collide with a fence and rush back into oncoming traffic.)

    In any event, I hope my post didn’t suggest that no reasonable person possessed of intelligence and empathy can derive pleasure from “TiK ToK.” The fact that you’ve provided these comments should be sufficient proof to the contrary, and I am grateful for them.

    @ Galen –

    Glad you enjoyed the post, and thanks for the comments. The Suskind article—which isn’t brief either!—is certainly worth spending time with.

    Your association of the complex reality that I accuse “TiK ToK” of obscuring with the attention-getting stench that animates certain works of art is compelling, and certainly has merit: the sensation we get from these stenches—be they olfactory, auditory, visual, whatever—is generally the sense that some form of protective mediation that we’re used to having between ourselves and the world has been stripped away. That’s a really good observation; I hadn’t thought of that. I do not, however, buy them as equivalents, and I think the distinction that can be drawn between them is important. The stench FEELS like reality, but it’s rhetoric: a whiff of cold fact—resistant to comfortable placement into a narrative—that an artist deploys strategically to give the sense that she or he is being frank and direct, telling it like it is. This is basically the claw hammer in the truthiness toolbox: it EVOKES reality while having no special purchase on it, being just another signifier.

    I’m also fond of your comparison between “TiK ToK” and The Sun Also Rises, although here too a distinction ought to be drawn: in Hemingway—and this is a function of the era, and the historical freshness of the disenchantment that his generation encountered—we have a vivid sense not only of the “nada y pues nada” (of “A Clean Well-Lighted Place”) but a sense of the painful loss that the opening of this gulf occasioned for those who experienced it. There’s no comparable sense of loss in “TiK ToK;” neither is there the sense of gleeful preapocalyptic release that one might hear in, say, the Sex Pistols. There is only the smug satisfaction of expectations being dialed down to zero.

    Beyond those quibbles, this is good stuff. Thanks!

    @ sophi –

    Thanks for the comments . . . I would not be in a big hurry to ID either “My Humps” or “Single Ladies” as feminist. I don’t think “Single Ladies” is ANY kind of –ist, in that it seems to have abandoned any attempt at articulating a consistent system of values as part of the price of being really freaking effective. There are plenty of great songs that manage to rock out while keeping their theoretical underpinnings intact—Gang of Four, Ani DiFranco, pick yr fave—but their value (which is substantial) lies in motivating the believers and helping them fine-tune their critical faculties, not in actually changing opinions. What’s interesting to me about “Single Ladies” is that its implicit values are DEEPLY compromised, but—and, I suspect, as a result—it’s effectual as hell, winning hearts and minds so successfully that listeners don’t even realize they have been the site of ideological contest. My feelings about this are mixed, which—as I mentioned to Kay above—is another indication that this is kind of a great song. The older I get, the less interested I am in pleasures that are not at least somewhat guilty.

    I am also not convinced that “Ladies” and “Humps” belong in the same phylum. “Single Ladies” seems to me to be a classic example of the girl-power pop I mention early in the post; “My Humps,” on the other hand, seems firmly rooted in burlesque, and in vaudeville blues . . . but I could probably be convinced otherwise.

    @ Liz –

    Hey, thanks for stopping by! The video’s awful, ain’t it? The Wonder-Bread-in-the-teeth metaphor is particularly apt when one considers the amount of processing that that bread must have been subjected to . . .

    @ bradluen –

    Good lord, somebody ELSE has a lengthy Ke$ha post? And his post is actually ABOUT Ke$ha?

    Great link, and great comment! I’m interested in the approach you and Alexander suggest, but still not convinced . . . mostly because I think it’s vital to maintain focus on the slippage between the realistic and the “fantasy of realism” that we see in “TiK ToK.” What we perceive here is Sebert’s recourse—no doubt made consciously—to a rhetorical position pioneered back in the day by 2 Live Crew and “Cop Killer”-era Ice-T: you say my lyrics are violent and sensationalistic, but I’m just keepin’ it real, man, just tellin’ it like it is.

    I’ll mention again the simple present tense in which “TiK ToK” is delivered: I absolutely believe that Sebert—or some former housemate of Sebert’s, or maybe somebody who Sebert’s former housemate used to date, or whatever, but SOMEBODY—did at some point splash a toothbrush with a bottle of Jack. (The toothbrush was probably somebody else’s; the Jack was probably intended as an antiseptic, cuz who wants to get like hepatitis or some shit from somebody else’s skeevy-ass toothbrush? Not me, man.) Because this happened once, brushing teeth with whiskey is something that really happens. Therefore, in Sebert’s simple present tense, it’s something that happens all the time, something that’s always happening. This isn’t deception so much as the calculated adoption of stripped-down language that makes precise accounts pointless and impossible. This is the sort of reasoning that also gave us smash hits like “Because one guy once tried to blow up an airplane with his shoe, we all must remove our shoes at airport security,” and “Because people sometimes successfully submit fraudulent Medicare claims, the federal government needs to keep its hands off our healthcare.” This is the fantasy of realism, and this—this specifically—is the problem with “TiK ToK.” I’m sticking to my guns.

    But if you DO come up with anything else you’d like to say about this, by all means hit me back. Thanks!

    @ Gil –

    By all means, Pastor! Belated happy Easter!

    @ james –

    Unfortunately, my life is not presently structured in such a way that permits me to respond to this sudden—and appreciated!—influx of comments as quickly as I’d like, by which I mean that yours posted even as I was addressing Uffie-vs.-Ke$ha in response to pedro’s comment above. Rather than repeating myself, I will at this point say only this: 1) thank you for your comments, and for the link, which does indeed sound a little more like “TiK ToK” than “Pop the Glock” does, but which doesn’t lead me to reassess my statements to pedro, possibly because at this point I am very tired, and 2) you have an awesome name.

    Thanks again to everyone. The internet, dude! It’s crazy!

  38. Alexander permalink
    April 7, 2010 12:31 am


    Hey, thanks for the response, it was interesting.

    1) I agree entirely that it is ideological. The majority of my actions, as with most everyone’s, are ideological or value-expressive. I spend a lot of time wondering if I like the sort of music I do because I like it or because I’ve decided I want to be the sort of person who likes it, or if I just continue liking it because i decided that a while ago, and similar questions. I find that life is more pleasant if I mostly don’t worry about these questions, and only let them interfere when they lead to growth, rather than just unnecessary discomfort about opinions I am largely powerless to change.

    2) I reject the idea that having a melody is intrinsically superior to not having a melody. I suspect you forgot to get to some ideas you had, but I don’t see that Cyrus’ depth is more valuable than Kesha’s shallowness, since the only depth you evidenced finding in “Party” was her fear that her customers might realize how shallow she is. Also, you never got to “My Humps,” and the link to your article on “Party” was broken :(

    4) I can pretty much concede your argument on this one.

    5) I agree that the line between comfort and manipulation is hard – if not impossible – to draw, but I don’t agree that that matters. I object to the standard intellectual viewpoint that people should lead examined, complex lives. Certainly the world needs such people, but I think that, in general, people do not need to examine their lives, and for these people – the sort of intellectually soft type that have posters that say things like “dance like no one is looking” all about their houses, who believe in platitudes and simplicity – dull country songs espousing how it is and how it used to be in vague terms are sufficient. These people are easy to manipulate, but, in general, the manipulation causes no one any harm, and a lot of people a lot of benefit – it makes the listeners happier, the musicians and producers and so on richer, and the world a slightly pleasanter place in which to live.

    There are harmful sides to being easily manipulable, of course — one can bring up extreme examples of corruption like fascism, if one is taking up a stand. I contend that these evils are countered by the fact that most people doing good are being manipulated into that, too, and that, in general, manipulation is harmless.
    To give you an idea of the sort of brick wall you’re arguing against here, I’ll tell you that I read “Brave New World” and thought it was a good idea.

    6) I don’t think a textual reading of “TiK ToK” can possibly reveal my reading of it, but I think that a sort of New Historicist reading can. Pop music is at this point split pretty evenly between dance music and mawkish love ballads, and I think the dance music is intended as escapism and the love ballads in the way they’ve always been meant, which I don’t pretend to be able to categorize neatly, but which isn’t particularly important for the sake of this argument. As “TiK ToK” fits neatly in the paradigm of escapist dance-floor music, I think we can safely assume it is meant as escapism.
    And perhaps, of course, it is escaping from more trivial problems than should be run from, but I think that even the most trivial problems deserve a night alone now and again while their owner drinks and parties.

    Meh, I’m sleepy, and I’m sure this comment won’t be as interesting as the last one was, sorry. Glad you responded though :)

  39. April 7, 2010 8:14 am

    @ Alexander —

    I’m on my way to a conference that’s going to eat the rest of my week, but very briefly: thanks for the response, which I need to spend some more time with. Thanks too for pointing out the bad link–fixed!–and for catching the points I meant to address and didn’t. (I get back to “My Humps” in my response to sophi a little further down the chain, but I’m not sure I said what I meant to say.) Although I wind up with “TiK ToK” stuck in my head every time I come back here, I WILL return to this subject when I get back home; we’re probably talking next week, though . . . thanks!

  40. Daniel Kaszor permalink
    April 9, 2010 3:34 am

    Hi Martin,

    I loved this post and it got me thinking about pop music in ways that I haven’t in quite a while. (I’d love to hear you talk about why you think the VIDEO for Single Ladies works.)

    I do have one little foible with your thesis though, which was the hook on wrestling in the middle. I think that your analysis of why people like wrestling is right on. And I think that the inherent “truthiness” of it is what makes the majority of fans show up (just as I think the majority of Ke$ha’s fans show up for the same reason).

    However, there is a significant portion of the wrestiling audience (not a majority by any means, but significant) that love it for it’s absurdity. They aren’t there because it feels true, they are there because it DOESN’T. They are there for the almost orchestral unreality in front of them.

    You can see this in different styles of wrestlers. For example Brett “The Hitman” Heart was in the “truthiness” category. His personal narrative was that of hardship, sweat and betrayal (real and fake) and his signature move was the sharpshooter submission hold. Something that could really work (and could break your leg).

    On the other side you have Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Johnson always talked with a sense of detached third person narcissism (“The Rock says”). He was supposed to be a villain, but since he played his role with such silly charisma, pushing the boundaries of believability even within the heightened absurdity of pro-wrestling, the people loved him even more because they were in on the joke. You could see this in his signature move as well: He would turn to the crowd, raise his “People’s Eyebrow” (signaling the ridiculousness in front of him) and do “The People’s Elbow”—which only worked if another wrestler was prone exactly in the centre of the ring. The Elbow worked by having The Rock pull of one of his elbow pads and throw it into the crowd. He would then run to one side of the ring and hit the ropes and then run to the other and bounce of the ropes. Returning to the centre of the ring he would proceed to do a simple elbow drop on is victim. A move that was clearly almost meaningless in the context of the match. All of this was a very clear signal to the audience: This is clearly not real, and more than that the fake bits are simply more fun than the real bits.

    Some wrestling fans HATED The Rock because his entire performance was about breaking kayfabe* (ie pulling back the curtain), but he wasn’t the first. Arguably the most famous wrestler of the modern era, Hulk Hogan, had a similar shtick (the Hogan Leg drop couldn’t hurt someone at all) albeit in a less pronounced way.

    In this way wrestling serves two audiences: the ones that embrace the truthiness and the ones that laugh at it. And it does this intentionally. Of course it’s difficult to be both Colbert and Glen Beck at the same time and wrestling often fails to appeal to both audiences. For example the 80s were like the Rock, while the early- to mid- 90s were more like Brett Hart. The late 90s went back to being like the Rock (I’m not sure what it’s like now, I haven’t watched in about 10 years).

    This attempt to appeal to both audiences at once doesn’t just appear in wrestling. 24 is a perfect example of it. Conservatives see it as a blueprint for running the nation; liberals see it as a rather hilarious edification that conservative fear mongering is absurd.

    Of course, it isn’t always an even split. I would say that both wrestling and 24 have about a 70% truthiness to 30% laughability ratio.

    In Tik Tok, I would say that the truthiness quotient is the dominant aspect of the song and is so intentionally. However, I would not discount the fact that Ke$ha is not also gaming for the audience of people who see her performance as absurd and revel in the fact that her character is assertively annoying and pathetic. Much like how The Rock was supposed to be a bad guy, but won the audience over. She is allowing for both interpretations with a “y’all know how it is,” however, unlike Toby Keith I don’t think a single interpretation is implicit from the artist’s outspoken worldview.

    In all, I think Ke$ha is being like the Beastie Boys in “Fight For Your Right,” only where the BB intended the ironic interpretation, Ke$ha doesn’t care which one you take. She just wants the largest audience possible and to be a rock star by 2012.

    Hope that made sense.

    *BTW wrestlers break kayfabe all the time now, although they didn’t really before The Rock became popular in 1998/99.

  41. Tim permalink
    April 9, 2010 3:35 am

    Just wanted to say that when I first started this article I scrolled down and was not really feeling the total length due to the time at night during which it was being read but I decided to give it a shot and shortly after you had my complete attention for the entire time. Fascinating stuff that describes a multitude of pop-culture occurrences accurately and in an in-depth but easy to follow way. Finally, in no small way, have you helped to me to finally be able to articulate the difference between bad pop (which I loathe) and good pop (which I don’t necessarily care for, but nonetheless respect for what it accomplishes). I aspire to fight against ignorance and bad taste whenever I can, but it appears you’re on a another level in this fight. For this I salute you sir. I can also confidently say that I look forward to reading whatever else you may have wrote, for this is the first of your writing which I’ve had the privilege of taking in. I’m sure they won’t disappoint.

    @Alexander –

    I feel compelled to address you on part of your most recent comment. Given the length of your response and multiple comments I find no fault in assuming your up for some intelligent debate. After also describing yourself as a “brick wall” I have no expectations of you changing your mind. You argue in 5) that the intellectual idea that people should lead complex and examined lives is not necessarily right for many people. While I see your very open to this being the course of action for many people (myself included), you argue that many people don’t need or even want to be like this so that they can focus more on “enjoying the simple things”.

    First of all, I believe that this simply reiterates the “fantasy of realism” that is outlined in the article. Many of these people have simply given up on trying to understand things in a more complex or deep way only because they have become complacent with the “way things are and always have been”. The problem with deep examination and probing is that sometimes we don’t always like what we find. That doesn’t mean we should give up on our capacity to understand more fully and question. To me it seems as if you’ve created a dichotomy where people are either fundamentally intellectual or fundamentally simple. I use the term simple here not in the derogatory sense but for lack of a better word. In fact, I don’t even believe this separation to be true. I believe that all humans are basically intellectual in nature, just some have chosen to repress many aspects of it. I don’t think you could even extinguish the spirit of human curiosity and the desire to learn and wonder. Just look that the eagerness of toddlers to question or the propensity for babies to look at, feel, and even taste everything they come into contact with. Its a basic human trait and is one that should be embraced by all, for understanding only serves to make the world a better place.

    Secondly, I wish to directly oppose your idea that intellectualism and simplicity are mutually exclusive. As mentioned before, I consider myself very much an intellectual and yet your quote to describe a possible mantra of simpler folk , “dance like no one is listening”, is one that I hold near and dear to my heart. To tackle the dancing part head on, to dance like no one is listening isn’t simply an escape. It’s an affirmation of my self-expression and my ability to be completely unique all while being completely confident and satisfied with myself as a human and as an individual. As for the general idea I’m trying to make, as one who enjoys the complexity of certain things and understanding the inner workings of whatever I can, it only comes natural that I find great solace in other things that work on a very simple level. The pleasures of the simpler things are only heightened by the knowledge that it’s rather hard for things to be explained so easily in many circumstances and because of that I find that I can more deeply appreciate the common pleasures of dancing, enjoying a great meal, or having a wonderful conversation. By keeping these things in perspective I find myself with a greater sense of awe and wonderment towards life and the human experience.

    I only hope is that this comment has inspired some sort of thoughts our possibly inner conversation. I always have to remind myself that it’s not anyone’s place to tell others what to believe, but that all I can do is explain my opinions and my reasons behind them. That being said, I also always enjoy different opinions that cause me to reflect as I have tonight. For that I’m thankful for both your comments and, as mentioned earlier, this article.

    Whooo, that was long.

  42. April 13, 2010 3:09 pm

    Wow, Martin. I am not even remotely close to the end here to comment, but this is really brilliant stuff. I doubt Ke$ha ever thought her ridiculous song would create such a stir!

    As I am not finished with reading this yet, I don’t know if you cover it, but I want to write it down in case I forget later. One of the main things about this song that annoys me is Ke$ha’s voice- the way she slurs her words and makes it sound like she is either drunk or the victim of a roofie. It’s not so much the words, but the way she reminds me of those girls who are so wasted that they stand up on tables and dance and then fall down and get concussions and then their friends have the spend the rest of the night in the emergency room (total buzz kill).

    When one combines the slurred speech to the fact that she finds Mick Jagger attractive and brushes her teeth with Jack Daniels, it begins to sound like she’s one of those girls that gets assaulted and is then told that she should have “known better” than to go out dressed provocatively and get drunk and then fall off a table so that any guy can just take her home. Which is really upsetting because I can feel MYSELF becoming that person saying “God, maybe if she didn’t do X, then she would still be healthy and ok right now.” And I don’t want to be that person. But Ke$ha, perhaps, is so idiotic and ridiculous that I can see why people start blaming the girl in these situations.

    All that anger from just slightly slurred speech!

    Ok, going to read some more of this now :-)

  43. April 19, 2010 4:58 pm

    Hi Martin, thanks for making my head explode with mad analytic skills! I’m chagrined that I never noticed that slot machine noise in Single Ladies before, and will now be listening to pop songs looking for the itchy trappings of greatness.

    (Came here via the Hathor Legacy I think).

  44. April 20, 2010 7:09 pm

    Hi Martin, I apologise for being late to the, erm, party as I’ve only just finished your essay. It is a brilliant read, but I disagree with you on the apparent inherent evil conservativeness of “TiK ToK”. You admit in your second-to-last paragraph to not completely understanding the song. I think I do. I think it’s about the adolescent narrator trying with all her might to—while the clock is ticking—postpone the moment where she will have to be an adult and bear responsibilities. Fight until that dawn inevitably comes, and she will the sunlight. “TiK ToK”‘s aims may be limited, but they’re perfectly acceptable. The world is a very hard and difficult place to live in, so I feel very sympathetic to any kid that’s hesitant to fully enter it. The fact that Ke$ha was 21 or 22 years old when she recorded it, is beside the point. She invokes a metaphorical teenage world that has populated rock ‘n’ roll from the start.

    Please note, first, that I haven’t read any of the comments yet (I will, I promise, it’s just that your 8000+ words will do, for the moment, also, I need to go to bed) and, second, that English is not my first language so my grammar may be a bit clunky.

  45. April 20, 2010 7:14 pm

    …will see the sunlight. I forgot a word there.

  46. April 24, 2010 5:33 pm

    @ Alexander –

    First of all, welcome back to the comments section! I appreciate your bearing with me on my response time, which is glacial by internet standards.

    I’m going to take your points out of order, beginning with “Party in the U.S.A.” You are absolutely correct to call me on me on my careless suggestion that a song with a complex melody is intrinsically better than one without, which is of course not the case: “Single Ladies,” for instance, has a very simple melody, and is in my estimation approximately one million times better than “Party.” What I SHOULD have said is this: given that “TiK ToK” and “Party” are both crass and opportunistic (albeit entertaining) attention-poachers with no aspiration greater that earning increased celebrity for their artists and revenue for their various investors, I prefer the one that I can actually hum along to.

    Or—to be less flip, and more accurate—I’ll take the one that rewards closer attention. “Party,” at least, gives me stuff to DO: even if I’m repulsed by the cynicism with which it broadcasts semi-coded messages to different audiences, I can at least appreciate the sophistication with which it operates. In some ways, the fact that Cyrus had NO involvement with its composition—while Sebert was clearly a major creative force behind “TiK ToK”—makes it EASIER for me to appreciate, as I can more readily write off the personality of the artist as ancillary to the matter at hand (or as more of a problem to be solved than an asset to be exploited) and focus on the purely formal aspects of the song. “Party” sets out to do something more complicated than “TiK ToK” does: while “TiK ToK” wants to make its artist a star—and as such is just a delivery device for her emergent celebrity persona—the artist of “Party” is ALREADY a star; the song wants to make her into a DIFFERENT kind of star, partly against her own expressed inclinations and wishes. (See the US Weekly article Christen links to in her comment on the “Party” post.) When I say “Party” is better than “TiK ToK,” I don’t mean it’s less evil; I just mean it’s more nuanced. And I don’t suppose it’s accurate to say it possesses more depth, exactly; both of these songs are birdbath-shallow. There’s just more going on with respect to its aims and methods.

    Our disagreement has been headed toward the marshes of individual temperament and personal preference for a while now, and I think I hear the ground squishing under my feet. Of course one can’t any more prove nuance intrinsically better than simplicity than one can prove long melodic lines intrinsically better than short ones—or a digital fabricator better than a sledgehammer, or etc. The question is always: what’s the right tool for the job? (As rhetorician Wayne Booth points out, Captain Ahab is a “flat” character and Emma Bovary is a “round” one, but can you really argue that one is clearly BETTER than the other?) I’m only inclined to express a preference here because “Party” and “TiK ToK” are otherwise so similar in their attitudes; ceteris being pretty much paribus, I’ll take the song that seems to be thinking harder about how to sell me stuff. Similarly, I prefer Dracula to Godzilla. The point is, they’re both monsters.

    So far as “My Humps” goes, I think I just forgot to connect a couple of dots. I think of Fergie’s performance as essentially a vaudeville act: she’s clearly playing a character, taking on a persona that has no existence outside of the song, pretending to be dumber and shallower than she actually is . . . or, maybe more interestingly, she’s playing a CHARACTER who’s pretending to be dumber and shallower than she actually is, as part of a routine she employs to get men to pay for stuff. (Imagine, by comparison, a typical burlesque striptease in which the performer “accidentally” keeps losing various garments and miming mortification while in fact—as we know, as she knows we know—her disrobing is deliberate and precise.) I’d prefer not to say that “My Humps” has depth, as that suggests a judgment about its content that I’m not disposed to make; let me say instead that it has LAYERS, and that its rhetoric functions by anticipating the reactions of its audience, and trying to stay out in front of those reactions. In this sense, it qualifies as a fiction: it’s playing with us.

    By contrast, “Party in the U.S.A.” just flat-out LIES to us, by trying to convince us—to its commercial advantage—that its artist/protagonist is something she’s not. It isn’t very convincing, but at least it bothers to cook up a story; its ornate arrangement and melodic richness are probably analogous to the sweaty and twitchy overexplaining somebody does when they’ve been caught with a hand in the cookie jar. “TiK ToK” doesn’t even bother to lie; it just bullshits. As Harry Frankfurt suggests in his essay, a bullshitter is in many ways WORSE than a liar, since the liar at least recognizes that there’s a basis of fact that she or he is seeking to obscure; the bullshitter could care less about fact and fiction, and is only interested in what sounds good or feels right.

    (Maoist auto-critique time: probably the main reason that I’m able to kind of enjoy “Party” is that, while it’s deceptive, it isn’t trying to deceive ME. It KNOWS I could give one hot damn whether Miley Cyrus is sincerely worried about feeling like a hick in L.A.; it’s the aging Disney Channel kids whom it has set out to snow, and therefore its deception seems somehow harmless, forgivable, akin to perpetuating a child’s belief in the Easter Bunny. Also, while musicians who inhabit smaller niches—Joanna Newsom, Rufus Wainwright—probably discard tunes this good on a regular basis, I want to emphasize that the melody of “Party” seems to me almost RIDICULOUSLY extravagant for a pop song: maybe the best one I’ve heard since “I Try” by Macy Gray.)

    So far as a new-historicist reading of “TiK ToK” goes . . . yeah, okay, I’ll admit that you can probably get to a sympathetic reading of the song’s cultural circumstances (and those of its fans, and maybe even those of its artist) by historicizing it, and I’m not entirely hostile to that idea . . . but neither is that a trip I am especially well-packed for, since my theoretical orientation (to the extent that I have one) is pretty much formalist-slash-structuralist. I suspect that even a new-historicist reading that argues for the song as an OPENLY fantastic assertion of counter-myth to the various forms of o-(and de-)pression to which its audience is subject must conclude—as it seems all such readings conclude—by finding that the efficacy of this counter-myth is pretty dubious, as it (I’m ripping from Wikipedia now) uses the tools that it condemns and participates in the economy that it describes. But you aren’t arguing for efficacy; you’re arguing for intent. I don’t know Sebert personally, so I will remain good-naturedly agnostic on this point.

    Regarding your frank and gutsy apologia for manipulation . . . unapologetic Obama voter that I am, I’m way more sympathetic to this idea than you might expect—particularly to your statement that “most people doing good are being manipulated into that, too.” (I haven’t read Thaler’s & Sunstein’s recent book Nudge, but it’s on my list, and this seems to be its starting premise.) To say much more re the advisability of fretting about the downside of partying will probably just land me in the aforementioned marsh of individual temperament, so I’ll close with this: 1) although I am less concerned with manipulation that leads people to do something than manipulation that leads them to do NOTHING, your point is well-taken; 2) while I have accepted that throwing wet blankets atop frothy pop songs seems to be the role that my particular cell is meant to perform in the larger social organism, I don’t remotely expect, or hope, that everybody will roll the same way; and 3) “the sort of intellectually soft type that have posters that say things like ‘dance like no one is looking’ all about their houses” is a particulary evocative and hilarious phrase, and I am very glad that it has come to alight here.

    Thanks again!

    @ Daniel –

    Thanks for the compliment and the comments! An early draft of the “TiK ToK” post got into a discussion of kayfabe (then I was like: whoa, this is getting LONG), so I’m very glad you brought it up, as it’s a fascinating concept. (I’ll refer interested readers to a useful summary here.) I defer completely to your analysis of the way it operates (or doesn’t) in pro wrestling, and should mention that my own exposure to the “sport” was long ago—Hulkamania era—and pretty cursory. I WILL say that something about wrestling’s appeal, even to those who appreciate its fakeness, still strikes me as deeply weird—somewhat akin to that of stage magicians, or acrobats at Renaissance Faires: these are performances that flaunt their anti-psychological fakeness while emphasizing the realness and present-ness of action which doesn’t rely on stunt work or camera tricks. Even if we accept that there are devoted wrestling fans who enjoy the artifice, why aren’t they just watching fictional TV and/or movies, and appreciating THAT artifice? Is the appeal their suspicion that they’ve figured something out that some probably imaginary, completely clueless segment of the audience hasn’t? Or are they savoring the performances as some sort of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt-type thing?

    It occurs to me that wrestling may experience swings toward and away from the appearance of authenticity in much the same way that pop music does—from the (real) Sex Pistols to (fake) Duran Duran to (real) Kurt Cobain to (fake) Lady Gaga—but you are more qualified to speak to this point than am I. My exposure to 24 is also limited—I watched the first season on DVD, and just remember thinking that the cycle of reversals and betrayals seemed to be determined by some sort of algorithm, and also that his wife died at the end or something?—but based on what I know, your comparison seems entirely plausible and well-applied. I should probably have a more informed opinion about this series, but at this point I feel like that ship may have pretty much sailed. Pity me! I’m only one man! Hell, I saw Citizen Kane for the first time just last Saturday! (It was good!)

    It is entirely possible that I accidentally said someplace up there that the video for “TiK ToK” works, but I hope I didn’t. I think it kind of sucks—but not in a compelling way, like the song itself sucks; just in a way that suggests nobody put much thought or effort into it. (However, the sense that nobody put much thought or effort into it is probably not accidental, and consistent with the song’s message or attitude: what kind of loser cares, or tries?) The one thing I kind of like about it is the scene where she comes downstairs and sees the family and the shocked mom drops the pancakes or whatever; it took me a second to figure out: oh, it’s not her house. (There’s a bunch of family pictures; Ke$ha’s not in any of them.) That’s kind of cute. And are we to believe that Sebert sleeps exclusively in tubs? Very odd.

    In any event, nice work! Thanks!

    @ Tim –

    Hey, thanks for the kind words! Your points regarding the possibility of forging a middle path between critical hyperawareness and unselfconscious abandon are well-taken. This is a balancing act which gets tricky in a hurry, and as Alexander suggests, there’s a pretty substantial and excruciating gap between gaining awareness of coercive forces that act upon us and achieving any capacity to actually avoid those forces. (Among the many observations to this effect, I like to quote the Berlin Dadaist Richard Huelsenbeck, who described most ostensibly revolutionary art as a “moral safety valve”: we’re oppressed, so we go see a play or hear a song that expresses our anger at being oppressed, and at the end of the evening we feel like we’ve DONE something, and we go home and go to work the next day feeling a little better. The art which is supposed to inspire us to change the world just causes us to blow off steam, and nothing ever actually changes.)

    Hope you’ll weigh in again at some point!

    @ Aarti –

    Thanks for stopping by, and for working your way through the post! I think you’ve zeroed in—from a different angle than I did—on the thing that’s most upsetting about “TiK ToK,” which is that even our DISLIKE of it seems subject to manipulation: the song seems somehow able to force us to manifest our irritation in ways we don’t mean for it to be manifested, such as snobbery in my case, and sexism in yours. To make matters worse, our misdirected hate doesn’t even connect with its intended target: while “TiK ToK” evokes the figure of the girl who “should have known better,” the girl who “deserved what she got,” it’s clear that in the world of the song, nothing’s going to happen to the out-of-control girl, and OUTSIDE of the song, Sebert is pretty much the opposite of out-of-control. If you take this shot at “TiK ToK,” you miss, and some girl with a fake ID puking behind a Dumpster is the one who winds up catching the bullet. (Compare to superficially similar songs by Lady Gaga, who sympathetically evokes and convincingly embodies the figure of the girl out of control—in such a manner as to make us critically aware of the nature of the control that she’s out of.)

    Oh, I meant to tell you . . . at some point, ideally soon, I hope to put together a sort-of-semi-response to your great post about racism in fantasy fiction. I’m not sure it’ll still be recognizable as such once it’s actually written . . . but in the meantime, I’ll encourage anybody who’s made it this far to check your post out.

    Thanks for the comments!

    @ [dave] –

    I appreciate it! I wasn’t familiar w/ the Hathor Legacy till they linked to me; great site!

    @ Job –

    First, thanks very much for the great comments! Second, your English grammar seems solid to me, and certainly far outstrips my nonexistent Nederlands.

    Third—oh man, I am now squirming a little, because you are taking issue with my reading of “TiK ToK” from a position with which I am ABUNDANTLY sympathetic. This is something that my spouse and I (she more than I, really) have been trying to sort out for the past few months: the idea that adolescence provides a valuable perspective—maybe THE most valuable perspective—from which to identify and critique various forms of social coercion inflicted upon adults. (I seem to find this concept everywhere I look these days, most recently in the work of poets associated with Muumuu House, in recent writing by Arielle Greenberg and others on the “gurlesque,” and in Dominic Fox’s new book about “militant dysphoria.”) You are absolutely right about the appeal of the metaphorical teenage world that “TiK ToK” evokes, and you are right to assert its value.

    I am not, however, convinced that it applies in this case—or if it DOES apply, it’s because it has been MADE to apply by smart interventionist readings such as the one you’ve offered; I don’t think it arises from the song as self-evident. You can find it there if you bring it there. (I don’t mean that as a criticism of your reading; I think any worthwhile interpretive act works like this to a degree.)

    A discussion of why I think “TiK ToK” has profound limitations as a salvo against adulthood is probably too complicated to get into here, but I’ll make a couple of brief points . . . first, I don’t think it’s clear that adolescence is superior to adulthood across the board: adolescents can be imaginative critics of grown-up hypocrisy and capitulation, but they can also be selfish and irresponsible engines of pure consumption. It seems to me that “TiK ToK” depicts and encourages the latter sort of adolescence while giving short shrift to the former. (Pop songs, which are designed to be consumed publicly and performatively, can evoke childhood in a productive way—as “Single Ladies” does—but have a tougher time with adolescence, which at its best is defined by an alienated disgust that doesn’t typically crack the Hot 100. This is the sort of thing that indie artists from Kleenex/LiLiPUT to early Sonic Youth to Cocorosie to tUnE-yArDs—some of whom evidently share Sebert’s fascination with the shift key—have tended to get right, because they can manage to position themselves convincingly as marginal.) Finally, I don’t think it’s accidental that “TiK ToK” emphasizes the aspects of adolescence that it does: it presents itself not as an act of resistance to adult world—of which it makes no specific or substantive critique—but merely as a vacation from it, to which all of its customers may gain temporary access. “TiK ToK” is primarily a product, and only incidentally a statement; it raises no serious objection to adulthood because it depends on adulthood as the permanent ailment from which it sells temporary relief.

    But that may just be my glass-is-half-empty attitude talking. Result always matters more than intent, and if you and other “TiK ToK” listeners are able to locate assertions of value in the song that don’t make us all meaner and dumber, I am not going to try to convince you that you’re mistaken.

    Thanks for stopping by! Hope your life had not been too badly disrupted of late by billowing clouds of ash!

  47. ryan permalink
    July 12, 2010 7:42 pm

    did you just bash a song because it was stupid, then use the word ‘stupider’ in your article?

    you’re right, our culture is getting dumber by the minute.

  48. July 12, 2010 8:33 pm

    @ ryan — No, and yes. I didn’t bash the song for being stupid; I bashed it for encouraging and exploiting stupidity. I think the song is smart. I also think it’s extremely cynical, and kind of evil.

    I DID use “stupider,” however, which is a totally acceptable comparative in American English. For the record, and according to Bryan A. Garner’s “A Dictionary of Modern American Usage” (Oxford, 1998), “Several words have a choice of forms (e.g. commoner, -est or more, most common; tranquil(l)er, -est or more, most tranquil; stupider, -est or more, most stupid […]). The terminational forms are usually older, and some of them are becoming obsolete; the choice in any given context depends largely on euphony.”

    Garner continues, “Still, if a word ordinarily takes either the -er or -est suffix — and that formation sounds more natural — it’s poor style to use the two-word form with more or most.”

    “Stupid” is maybe my least-favorite English word, the one that most grates on my ear, so in this instance I inverted Garner’s advice and used “stupider” rather than “more stupid” as a discordant intensifier, basically just to piss you — you personally and specifically — off. See, the thing is, although we try to use language precisely here at New Strategies for Invisibility, we are not snooty pince-nez-wearing grammatical prescriptivists, and we will not be policing anybody’s usage here in the comments section. We ask that our guests also let this type of stuff slide and just try to, y’know, actually follow what people are trying to say.

    That said, ryan, next time you call somebody out on their grammar, make sure you have your shit straight. Thanks for playing!

  49. tome permalink
    July 18, 2010 7:21 am

    This piece has given me such a shot of small epihanies that I feel I owe you thanks for writing it. Thank you, Mr. Seay. Absolutely fucking wonderful work.

  50. Matt permalink
    July 18, 2010 9:13 am

    Brilliant article. I dont think i’ve ever seen such a thorough tear down of what makes a pop song work (or, in this case, not work at all), and it’s fantastic.

  51. Nick permalink
    July 18, 2010 11:18 am

    Martin – it appears that, as usual, I’m late to the party here. This is fan-fucking-tastic analysis, though. This post, along with “The Delicacy of Rock & Roll,” makes me wonder whether pop music in general is so grating because it seems to work very hard at imposing the notion that we are NOT essentially free and creative beings. Where “Haircut” showed our essential freedom, pop platitudes seem to constantly fight this notion, centering on a dumbed-down fatalism (“Ain’t much I can do/but I’m a make do, etc.) Probably not coincidentally, pop songs remain uniquely slavish to their immediate influences, in ways that far exceed the requirements for placing a song in context. So, basically, ‘Tik Tok’ irritates me in EXACTLY the opposite way that expressionism irritates me – the latter hits me over the head with what I already know, while the former passes off a total falsehood under the guise of quasi-introspection or, at the very least, a sense of sisterhood, humanity or American-ness (versus the basic falsehood of wrestling, which you explore perfectly above).
    But I digress…my original point was that you covered an incredible amount of ground here, and both the coherence and originality of your argument is amazing. I really do think you should have worked “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair into this, though… maybe saving that nugget for your post on “The Birds,” I suppose.

    –The Last Marshal

  52. July 20, 2010 9:19 pm

    @ tome & matt —

    Many thanks to you both for the kind words! Thanks as well to Kieron Gillen at the kind of amazing gaming blog Rock, Paper, Shotgun for aiming folks my way. For a person such as myself with an ostensibly broad interest in the theory of narrative, the creation of fictional environments, blah blah blah, it is frankly embarrassing how little I know about the world of electronic gaming. In any event, thanks to all for stopping by.

    @ The Last Marshal (and PLEASE tell me that’s a reference to the 1999 Scott Glenn / William Forsythe action flick!) —

    Hey, glad you dug “Delicacy!” (To those just joining us, Nick is referring to an essay by Dave Hickey wherein Hickey extrapolates from his recollection of a Brakhage/Warhol double feature that he saw one time in college a sweeping theory of how art works; for the last five years I’ve been rereading it on average once every three months, usually out loud to myself, and sincerely believe it to be one of the best pieces of prose written in English since WWII.) I think your analysis is perceptive and sound; I particularly like the swipe at expressionism, which seems to be apt. My only quibble is with the notion that pop music HAS to work hard to impose the notion that we are not essentially free and creative beings; I think it’s probably SELLING the notion that we’re not free and/or creative, because for a lot of people — maybe for most people — the idea of freedom is burdensome and terrifying. At some level it probably OUGHT to be. The service that “TiK ToK” provides is the satisfaction of release (i.e. frenzied dancing in your car with the stereo cranked up) without the discomfort of freedom and its attendant responsibilities (i.e. why exactly am I stuck in traffic on the Eisenhower at 6:30 PM on my way home from my shitty job, with only this dumb song to distract me from my misery?). To invert the maxim of philosopher George Clinton: if you free your ass, you mind will not necessarily follow.

    Ric Flair probably deserves his own post, actually . . .

    Thanks! (Will we be seeing some renewed action over at Tito 3 : Stalin 1 now that your life has settled down somewhat and American interest in futbal is experiencing one of its periodic spasms . . . ?)

  53. Josh W permalink
    July 22, 2010 9:35 pm

    Single ladies, which you use as an example, is one of those double-bluff subversion things; it’s not actually a subversion, it’s almost like a hypnotist’s routine “up,up up,up, attention”. It’s adding a positive symbolic component to what the writer presumably wanted women to be doing anyway. It’s basically marketing an idea to people so they’ll want to do what you want them to do. [Actually you have discussed this in the comments]

    As for the kesha thing, it’s attention seeking. My own understanding of it was made of two things, noisy toddlers and high school musical, mainly because the latter is just engineered towards cheesiness, to a greater degree than if someone got there innocently. In the same way, this is aimed towards the peculiar childishness of young teenagers, “look at me I’m naughty, which means I’m adult”. It feels to me like an application of adult mental resources to a goal that should have been moved beyond. And I attempt to treat it as you would any naughty toddler; ignore them as far as possible, focus on the people who are behaving themselves, and if necessary, isolate them until they calm down. I can’t do the latter in actuality, so instead I ask to have stuff turned off.

    If that forms some kind of victory, then it’s on a par with “made you look”, and the team who made this is welcome to it.

    Why does it keep getting played? Does it? I’ll bow to your knowledge of people in general (or at least American people in general). I might add that stupidity can be comforting (a sort of Columbo effect); people feel they see through it totally. Basically, films and music that we are cleverer than make us feel clever and act mentally lazy, films and music that are cleverer than us make us feel that //they// are clever and makes us cleverer too.

    Maybe some people identify with the state of mind, and like to think back to when they were being overly attention-seeking. The freedom of a character who’s //obviously// not you, but is fun to be because people are still looking.

  54. Josh W permalink
    July 31, 2010 5:21 am

    In my last post I forgot a very important motivation not included here; it’s fun to sing in a weird voice! In other words loads of people I know would sing along with it just because they like playing about with weird intonation.

  55. July 31, 2010 9:32 am

    @ Josh W —

    Thanks for stopping by and weighing in! I think “engineered towards cheesiness, to a greater degree than if someone got there innocently” is a valuable distinction, and indeed pertinent to the matter at hand.

    Stateside, one does still hear “TiK ToK” with some regularity . . . at least it seems that way to me, although I’m probably hypersensitive. The frequency of play is certainly diminishing—and drifting infinitesimally downmarket in the byzantine FM radio hierarchy—as Sebert’s follow-up singles haven’t really gone anywhere. God knows I’ve been rooting for her, though. As I’ve said, she seems smart and not devoid of talent, and also possessed of a Courtney-Lovesque celebtenacity that I suspect will keep her on the radar for years, and if that’s to be the case, I’d really prefer that her songs be better.

    You are right about weird voices! For many people, at least. I find them uncanny and kind of troubling, though not always in an entirely bad way. I was at the Chicago Printers’ Ball last night, and they had a vocoder there for use by the public. I couldn’t bring myself to go anywhere near it.


  56. June 14, 2011 10:40 pm

    Really, really late to the party. This link was buried in a MeFi comment thread, and am I ever glad I followed it.

    Thank you for putting into words the musical brilliance of “Single Ladies.” The menacing dissonance under the chorus is one of the most inventive things I’ve ever heard in a pop song.

    I look forward to digging around for more of your essays.


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