Ke$ha comes on like a well-worn worst nightmare, her manicure chewed and her morals thoroughly compromised.
The 22-year-old music industry brat — her mom's a songwriter who raised her family in studios and dives from Los Angeles to Nashville — has irritated some critics by reinvigorating the Girls Gone Wild sexual recklessness of a few years back, but really her act reaches much further.
She's a classic screwball blonde, brassy like Jean Harlow and saucy like Mae West. Hating Ke$ha for kicking pretty boys to the curb and vomiting in the closet of some rich kid whose party she crashed (allegedly Paris Hilton) is like saying West was too forward when she told Cary Grant to come up and see her sometime.
What makes Ke$ha interesting, though, isn't the substance of her act. It's the way she and her producers — primarily her mentor, hitmaker Lukasz "Dr. Luke" Gottwald — refashion the screwball heroine role to suit a new era of aggressive superficiality and libertine self-empowerment.
The main lyrical idea behind her new album, Animal — that a woman behaving like a sexist, inconsiderate male oaf turns the tables in a way that shocks but ultimately leads to freedom — is neither new nor particularly useful. But unlike many of the pop ingenues who've tried on this attitude, Ke$ha offers a thoroughly fleshed-out character to embrace or despise.
Her total commitment to the deliberately stupid script of Animal (one that she and her mother, who co-wrote several songs, helped devise) makes it work.
Part juvenile delinquent, part wisecracking dame, Ke$ha pulls the rug out from under the overly proper. She finds power in the modernizing toys of her time, enticing boys with drunken text messages and juicing her libido with the hottest dance-floor beats. If some of her vices, like Jack Daniel's and guys who look like Mick Jagger, are cutely antiquated, she herself is as thoroughly of this moment as is her doppelgänger, Taylor Swift.
Her producers endlessly process, overdub and multiply her vocals until she's half like a Chipmunk and half like a hottie from a Japanese cartoon. There are moments on Animal — the country-in-space of Stephen, the 3OH!3 collaboration Blah Blah Blah — that are nearly as experimental as an Animal Collective record, but instead of some wistful, Brian Wilson-loving artiste at the song's center, there's this girl, rolling her eyes and snapping her gum.
Ke$ha's tipsy lilt allows her to effortlessly shift from half-singing to half-talking, a technique that makes her vocals carom like shiny pinballs against the crazy beats and sound effects that make up these tracks. She never gets bogged down or sounds like she's trying too hard.
Her deceptively yelpy vocal bounce recalls the Moon Unit Zappa of Valley Girl and legendary rap princesses L'Trimm and Salt-N-Pepa. Instead of going burlesque like her friend Katy Perry or trying to be soulful the way even Britney Spears does from time to time, Ke$ha mines the history of bubble gum rap, connecting Miami bass and her idols the Beastie Boys to Lady Gaga and Big & Rich.
Her thefts are playful and essentially innocent, which matters a lot. For all of her rampaging, getting wasted, trash-talking and man-stealing, Ke$ha never comes off as mercenary or even really very mean.
The messages Animal sends out are worth questioning. Do we want young women to approach sexual relationships as a matter of "turnabout is fair play," or to think drinking until you vomit in a closet is funny? Ke$ha falters aesthetically and morally when she tries to justify her ridiculousness on earnest and unbelievable ballads like Dancing With Tears in My Eyes and the title track.
She should stick to the wisecracks and the slapstick. That's where her power really lies.