Ke$ha has been telling us that she’s a rock star for a while, and on her new album Warrior, it’s kinda true, if not in a strictly literal sense. Rock, as a genre, is just part of what she does on a musical level, and her hits still have more to do with dance-pop and rap. But rock, as a lifestyle, is a huge part of Ke$ha. Along with fellow pop star and metal fan Lady Gaga, she’s doing her best to merge the badass hard-partying attitude of classic rock and hair metal with thumping beats and glittery pop. It’s as if she decided very early in life that she wanted nothing more than to be Madonna and Axl Rose at the same time.
Rock purists will balk at the notion of a pop singer like Ke$ha being taken seriously as any sort of rock star, but here’s the thing: If she’s not a rock star, who in contemporary mainstream culture is? The idea of being a “rock star” has been almost entirely removed from actual rock music for over a decade, and the few bands who break big with even a trace of old-school swagger — The White Stripes, Kings of Leon, The Black Keys — get dismissed as throwbacks. For better or worse, rock music has become less central to the culture at large, and most of the rock music that has broken through in recent years owes more to polite, erudite indie culture or sensitive neo-folk than anything directly connected to the legacy of The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Guns N’ Roses.
Rock musicians may have largely moved on from the mythology of rock stardom, but there’s still a huge appetite for icons of transgression and debauchery. Pop stars and rappers have been throwing the phrase “rock star” around for a decade, and many of them have done a pretty good job of embracing that sort of over-the-top decadence in their own way. (Others, like celebrity chefs and the sort of tech people who do TED Talks, have been less convincing in taking up the mantle.) “Rock star” is just a shorthand term now, and its meaning has more to do with people indulging their id and glorifying their ego than anything to do specifically with guitars and drums. Rock stars serve as proxies for our horniest, most self-destructive urges. Ke$ha understands and embraces this, and at this very moment in pop culture, no one is doing a better job of embodying this idea.
The most exciting thing about Ke$ha’s whole rock-star trip is that she’s flipping a lot of badass behavior typically associated with men and claiming it for herself, and for women in general. She’s not subtle about this. On “Dirty Love,” a rowdy duet with Iggy Pop, she rejects the idea of being someone’s wife or girlfriend but growls about uncontrollable lust with a conviction that makes Iggy sound like a tame and friendly old uncle. On “Thinking of You,” she co-opts macho dude language by calling her promiscuous ex a slut and ends a refrain by dismissively telling him to “suck my dick.” Ke$ha is thrilling — and certainly for a lot of people, inspiring — because she’s willing to go all the way and live out a fantasy of being a girl who is free to behave just like the sort of cocky rebel asshole dudes who turn her on. In Ke$ha’s world, sex is a level playing field, and straight guys and girls can swap their traditional roles whenever it feels right. You express what you want and how you feel whenever you want, and don’t ever compromise that because of your gender or sexual orientation.
If you look at rock stardom as a tradition of artists challenging social norms and creating a fantasy that listeners are compelled to turn into a reality, Ke$ha is exactly the rock star we need right now. She’s offering us true liberation, not just from our usual inhibitions but from the sort of narrow definitions of ourselves that make us uptight and unfulfilled. Her music is dance and rap and rock all at once because that’s the best way to reach as wide an audience as possible right now, and it’s also because she’s unifying a lot of different types of pleasure and rebellion. This is crucial to her message. In everything she does, Ke$ha is trying to tell us that we can be everything we want to be and do everything we want to do, all at once. Her music is her way of illustrating that point.