Or, How I learned to Stop Being Ironic and Love Pop Music
WORDS AND PHOTOS BY EMMET KOWLER
1. In Which I Begin High School, and “TiK ToK” is Unleashed Upon the World
I spent my years in middle school actively avoiding pop music. The genre was, after all, devoid of artistic value. With its artistically empty Auto-Tune, and its artistically empty bops about frivolous sex and drugs, and its artistically empty talentless stars, what was there to like? Give me my dad’s music. Talking Heads, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles. Because those artists never wrote popular, artistically empty music about sex and drugs, produced with cutting-edge technology.
This was a belief I clung to, vehemently. Earbuds jammed deep in my skull, good and tight to shut out the drawl of Top 40 radio streaming from my 8th grade art room’s boombox. It was a mechanism for distancing myself from the horde of hormones I found myself in; a means to delineate a cultural identity of my own, rather than bending.
But in high school, I needed to broadcast a signal that would cut straight through all that teenage noise — and whatever frequency my dad’s music was on, it wasn’t one my peers were tuned to. I needed to change my own frequency. I wanted in.
Lucky for me, my freshman year coincided with one arrival of the most indelible pop songs of the 21st century: “TiK ToK,” in all of its party-culture, hook-driven, Auto-Tune-laced glory. Wow, we all (just me?) thought, she brushes her teeth with a bottle of Jack Daniels? Now that we’re in high school, do we get to party til we see the sunlight? Errybody? Crunk? Junk? All that glitter is so outrageous! (I got a bigger kick out of the reference to Mick Jagger — the man who inspired 12-year-old me to wear skinny jeans — than most.)
I embraced “TiK ToK” because it gave me a way in with whatever crowd it was that I was after. They recognized and enjoyed it. I wanted them to recognize and enjoy me. I made sure not to get too close to “TiK ToK,” though; I wouldn’t appreciate Kesha because her music was good, but because it was deliberately bad. This infiltration needed to be subversive. Irony was bliss.
2. In Which I Begin to Curate My Taste For the “Sleazy”
A tantalizing hypothetical emerged in my brain when I got wind of Kesha’s 2010 EP, Cannibal. The two singles off that release, "We R Who We R" and "Blow," took over the airwaves exactly as they were intended and expected. But seven entire songs accompanied those two bangers. What were they?
“Sleazy” convinced me that Kesha was worth putting in the effort to become an expert. It was, appropriately for a maturing teenage mind, a step up the dirty ladder. The “beat so fat gonna make me come/over to your place” pun entertains me to this day. The sing-talking that had so enthralled us on “TiK ToK” had just been leveled up. Oh, and that lilt on “sure as hell not your money honeyyyyyy. . .”
“Sleazy” led to “Cannibal” (please let Kesha drink my blood someday) led to “C U Next Tuesday” (I’ll never admit how long it took me to get the joke) led to “Grow A Pear” (I’ve considered getting a mangina tattoo). I was hooked. I was building myself a strong, assured, and distinct musical identity by becoming an authority on an artist who (I made sure everyone knew) I didn’t take too seriously. Here was an artist who reportedly had a near-genius-level IQ and used it to write the trashiest pop songs the mainstream had seen in a long time. Hell yes I was gonna make her my so-bad-it’s-great passion project.
3. In Which Prom “Blow”s
Well into junior year, my rep as a self-aware Kesha superfan had become a fixture of my presence at my high school, to the point where I would often lead with it during those nonsense icebreaker activities that often dominate the first week of school. My palate for pop music had begun to expand as well, with Katy Perry, Rihanna, and Lady Gaga notable among the new entries to my roster. Glee was especially useful during this period, which is probably why I clung to it far past its first-season prime.
Socially, I was finding a more genuine crowd. I began to figure out who I was going to stick with, who I would see after school, who’d be my weekend friends. It was no longer fun (or in my best interest) to flit from group to group. I needed a solid crowd for prom.
Leaving behind scores of scuff marks on the linoleum dance floor, we danced, my wonderful straight-edge loser theater friends and I. Then, after two untamed, beautifully sober, Kesha-free hours, the DJ blew my speakers up and answered my prayers with a single song: “Blow.”
This was my moment.
My shoe fell off. I ran circles around the dance floor. So much jumping. Singing the entire time at the top of my lungs.
The next morning, sitting at the reception desk of my synagogue’s Sunday school, I replayed that dance in my head. I had no qualms about how great I had felt. Overenthusiastic, drenched in sweat, and completely myself.
4. In Which A Camry Can Be “Supernatural”
My friends and I spent a lot of time in the beige 2001 Toyota Camry I inherited from my Oma during my senior year. I would drive myself alone in that car to school every morning at 7 a.m., and I’d drive a friend or two home after theater rehearsal every night at 6 p.m. On Friday and Saturday nights, it was the car that got us all home from our local second-run movie theater. That car went to band concerts, to cast parties, and to prom, and it almost always had friends in it.
Friends, and Kesha’s sophomore masterpiece, Warrior.
I should also mention that, because of its past life as a grandma car, the sound system in that car was in perfect condition. That meant when the breakdown of “Supernatural” hit, you felt it in your entire body.
It was that song, along with so many others on that messy, incoherent, preposterous album, that fueled those milestones of our budding independence. Kesha’s music was no longer just a means to get attention — it was ingrained in the fabric of my adolescence.
5. In Which I Reconsider, and Get Inside Kesha’s “Gold Trans Am”
Leave it to a song about Kesha’s vagina to convince me to completely rethink my relationship with music.
It’s a brilliant song — completely committed to the metaphor, and able to pull off its punchlines. It’s got a wailing guitar solo, huge drums, and an exceptional hook. It could be considered the ultimate so-bad-it’s-brilliant song in Kesha’s catalog.
For the life of me, though, I never could call it a bad song. I loved the shit out out it. After four years of religious devotion, “Gold Trans Am” was the song that made me see Kesha’s music as great art in its own right, from its crass humor (“C U Next Tuesday”), juvenile hedonism (“C’Mon”), and reckless abandon (“Die Young”) to its heart-rending anguish (“The Harold Song”), uninhibited hope (“Animal”), and wistful fantasy (“Past Lives”).
For so long, I refused to believe that her music was real, for fear of. . . what, exactly? Being seen as shallow? Ignorant? Lame? But the songs I once saw as so ironic now bore the sting of sincerity. Much like the male alternative artists who garnered the admiration of “serious” music fans, Kesha wrote her songs not as wish fulfillment or ironic reverie, but out of her real experiences, hopes, dreams, and desires. It took me far too long to see irony as a trap, not a truth.
Kesha taught me that pop music, like my dad’s music, is a glorious world unto itself, with its own fixations, conundrums, and conventions; as pliable and diverse as any other genre. I’ve listened to too many self-proclaimed music buffs try to bolster their street cred by saying they love pop music “ironically.” All I can hear is an old edition of myself, who refused to own up to what he wanted and what he loved.
I was sick of being serious, so I started talking truth. I had spent far too much time devising and scheming my way into an identity, rather than embracing the one that was begging for organic expansion. I realized that the things we love touch us in such strange and unpredictable ways — and that there’s power in loving what we love, guilt-free. As I learned to hear Kesha’s genuine music, so did I learn to be my genuine self.