Almost all pop singers play roles of some sort, but rarely has there been a major artist who has defined herself as narrowly as Ke$ha. The Nashville-born 25-year-old, who drops her second album, “Warrior” on Tuesday, Dec. 4, made her first impression as a party girl bar none with “TiK ToK,” her first solo hit that rode in on the melodic coattails of Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance.” But where Gaga was resigned to dancing in the face of catastrophe in her song, Ke$ha painted her life as a non-stop party in hers. Even her Web site was registered as “keshaparty.com.”
Clearly, the shtick worked. Her debut album sold over 2.5 million units worldwide, catapulting Ke$ha to “global superstar,” as her PR people put it. And it’s a role she continues to play well on her new album. But unless you’re a diehard fan, it all comes off a bit too one-dimensional hearing Ke$ha play the party girl track after track.
If you loved her debut CD, “Animal,” the 12 songs on “Warrior” definitely won’t disappoint, with their pumping beats (mostly courtesy of producer Dr. Luke) and outlandish lyrics, all of which Ke$ha had a hand in writing. If you’re not down with Ke$ha’s in-your-face persona, you’ll feel like you’ve spent an hour with a media caricature of a Third Wave feminist who thinks acting like one of the boys means non-stop attitude and excess.
“Acting” is a key word because the trouble with Ke$ha’s persona is that it sounds too stage-managed and therefore doesn’t quite ring true. Her enunciation is more schoolmarmish than street, her lyrics are too calculatedly “outrageous,” and her hooks too predictable. Ke$ha is playing the Rolling Stones to Taylor Swift’s Beatles in today’s pop scene, and while this makes sense image-wise, the music she makes comes off as just as safe and corporate in its own way as Swift’s. And if Ke$ha’s material is all a big send-up intended ironically, well, most of her audience probably isn’t getting the joke.
That doesn’t mean “Warrior” is a weak album. There’s a lot of craft in the kind of major label dance music in which Ke$ha specializes. Taken as a whole, it’s samey and wearying. But the songs, when taken individually, all reveal ear-catching hooks and will sound a lot better in the context of Top 40 radio, which is where they’re designed to go, after all.
The lead-off single, “Die Young,” has already gone top-10, its fatalistic, lovelorn lyric delivering a clever juxtaposition to its pounding electro-beats. “C’mon” is the album’s reported second single and will probably be cranked at teenage parties like any early Beastie Boys single was, considering its reference to high school. Iggy Pop, whose wild child persona helped pave the way for Ke$ha, guests on “Dirty Love,” a pounding rock track on which Ke$ha uses a deep, throaty voice that offers a welcome break from her nasal-sounding raps.
The album’s biggest surprise, though, is “Wonderland,” a piano-driven classic rock-styled ballad that makes good on Ke$ha’s promise to bring some retro sounds into her music. It’s got a lyric filled with hungry-years nostalgia about reminiscing with old friends that’s like nothing the singer has ever written. And then Ke$ha distracts from the mood by throwing in a profane word on one of the best lines, underscoring how her self-styled image informs every move she makes. Even KISS and Alice Cooper knew to play it straight on occasion.
Tony Sclafani’s writing can be seen at www.tonysclafani.com.
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