On disliking Katy Perry and Ke$ha

Writing checks our asses can't cash; image courtesy of tumblr.com

Late last month, media scholar Jason Mittell posted a piece on why he dislikes Mad Men. I was intrigued by his argument, especially his claim that objects of analysis in academic scholarship are primarily determined by taste. In other words, we tend to research and write about what we like and eschew applying similar critical rigor toward what we don’t. He references Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, which attempts to explore the music critic’s disdain for Céline Dion by examining the album that boasts Titantic‘s “My Heart Will Go On.” However, Mittell notes a difference in attitude between him and Wilson. Wilson comes to Dion’s oeuvre as a hip outsider. Mittell, lauded for his ground-breaking work in television studies, approaches one of the two jewels in AMC’s original programming schedule from within his own habitus of quality televisual aca-fandom

Though I found Mittell’s commentary trenchant, I had a few problems with “On Disliking Mad Men“. He paid peripheral attention to the show’s deliberate peripheral attention to race and gender, the former of which continues to bother me and folks like Michael E. Ross believe needs immediate intervention. As Ian Bogost argued, Mittell also failed to capture a singular argument against Mad Men that couldn’t be applied to other like-minded quality programs.

But my primary quibble is with methodology. As Mittell reports in the essay, he only watched the first season of Mad Men and a few of season two’s episodes for the purposes of constructing his argument. Several commenters addressed this as an issue, though many were fans who seemed at least partially propelled by motives of conversion. Though a fan of the series, I’m not interested in whether Mittell would come to like or appreciate Mad Men. Most of my interest in his criticism actually stemmed from his anti-fandom, a position that tends to get overlooked. My complaint has a completionist bent: how can you write about something you haven’t submerged yourself in?

Mittell makes the valid argument that a season should provide a viewer with enough of an arc to motivate continued investment for a show’s duration. However, for the purposes of criticism this still feels too arbitrary. This may be a tenuous position for a person who values deliberate misreadings and appropriation, as it suggests that texts can only be consumed and interpreted in a limited set of ways. But a television series is a medium of progression and process. A movie ends conclusively, unless it’s spun off into a multiple-installment franchise. Serial television does not. Cliffhangers bridge seasons together. Characters develop, sometimes in profound and unexpected ways. To acknowledge this evolution it seems one has to watch the entire series, even if the person’s opinions don’t change.

Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka), Mad Men's symbol of change in its Sopranos-esque preoccupation with inertia; image courtesy of thesmogger.com (click on the image to read an entry on Sally from Act Your Age)

Music fandom informs my criticism. Completionism is a fan practice that exists across mediums. Often this is exploited through the commodity fetish, which again straddles mediums. The same person who has the Six Feet Under funeral plot DVD collection probably owns Rhino’s One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost and Found, which is packaged in a hat box (I know him — he’s my friend Erik). But I came to understand completionism through music. I’ve followed several artists across albums, in an effort to plot out their artistic trajectories. Sometimes, I continued to keep up long after I lost interest in their musical developments. Other times, I defended them long after they lost cultural relevance. occasionally, I’m surprised when they’re as vital as ever.

But again, we’re talking about taste. To the ire of Animal Collective’s Bordieuvian contrarianism, taste is nigh impossible to escape, much less transcend.

Mittell’s essay presented me with an interesting opportunity. During our workshops for Girls Rock Camp this summer, Kristen at Act Your Age and I noticed two pop stars who consistently showed up when we asked our girls to name the female artists they liked: Katy Perry and Ke$ha. I dislike both artists’ music, which some astute mash-up artists note shares producer credits to the point of becoming compositionally interchangeable.

Initially, I had a hard time understanding either pop star’s musical value. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll enumerate my biases going into the project. Below is my criteria for the music I like. Three of these items were stolen from conversations Björk and LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy had on musical preference. Unsurprisingly, I like both artists. If an act hits on at least two of these, there’s an excellent chance that I’ll like the music.

1. Emphasis on strange and/or unexpected vocal harmonies. Throw in a 7th or a 5th when you think the triad will satisfy. Better yet, lean into a 2nd. Harmonies should facilitate discord.

2. Preference toward superficial or actual repetition. Song length is usually not a concern, nor is an overt attempt at progression. What is important is hypnosis, transportation, and the space to parse out subtle variation and compositional synthesis (swiped from Murphy).

3. Eschew conventional rock outfit line-ups. Don’t clamor for a bassist or two guitarists if the music doesn’t call for it or if you can’t find instrumentalists willing to commit or with whom you gel. If your instrument is the accordion or you and a friend both want to play drums, let it happen.

4. Women picking up guitars and playing together will always excite me, especially if they’re interested in odd tunings and/or angular melodies.

5. Tenuous reconciliation between electronic and acoustic instruments (thanks, Björk). Emphasis on “tenuous.” I have no use for a twee indie rock outfit that shoehorns in cute synth burbling over conventional rock riffs.

6. Funneling intensely private emotions through the very public act of singing (Björk has few peers in this category).

This rubric may strike some as oppressively pretentious, but these are my comforts and points of interest. I think at its best, mainstream pop music is capable of touching upon at least the first three items on the list, so it’s not necessarily a matter of art versus commerce when mapping out preferences. But Ke$ha and Katy Perry don’t meet any of this criteria for me.  

The protectionist feminist in me is also pretty horrified that girls like them. While I don’t think censorship is the answer, I do think figuring out what they like about them is necessary.

I admit to being amused by Ke$ha when Kristen at Dear Black Woman, posted an early performance of “Dinosaur.” Actually, some music geeks I know like her, deeming her funny, smart, ironic, and a forward-thinking pop star. Jamie Freedman at Always More to Hear talked about posting an entry called “In Defense of Ke$ha” during a lunch date, and I’m interested to seeing this piece materialize. But as much I wanted to like her talk-singing and deliberately shambolic performance on Saturday Night Live, I could not. Also, Ke$ha’s odes to partying and borderline alcoholism register differently in a gay club than they do when a pre-teen sings about brushing her teeth with a bottle of Jack. Plus, she has got to stop her sartorial appropriations of pan-Native American garb.

Oh honey, no: Ke$ha at MTV's World Stage VMAJ; image courtesy of fabsugar.com

When Perry’s second single “I Kissed a Girl” became a smash in 2008, I was throbbing with righteous indignation. Some of it was full-on music snobbery. How dare some pop tart swipe Peaches and Goldfrapp’s glossy electropop? I bristled at Perry’s image as a preacher’s daughter turned servile kewpie doll seemed to spring from the id of Leisure Suit Larry. But the message behind “I Kissed a Girl” made me angrier. It positioned Sapphic flirting as harmless, temporary, superficially transgressive, and ultimately in need of heterosexual male validation. I want the exact opposite in a pop song. You can imagine how I felt when Out put her on their cover.

Katy Perry makes the cover while Alyx fumes and wonders where the queers of color are; image courtesy of gawker.com

By the time Perry’s inane “California Gurls” came out earlier this summer, her image as a superficially edgy pop star with a predictable sense of heterosexually palatable feminine camp did little to challenge what I already thought of her. Neither did employing venerate sell-out Snoop Dogg for guest services. Neither did playing dress-up with various markers of teenage identity as host of the Teen Choice Awards. Neither will marrying Russell Brand. Neither will providing the voice of Smurfette in the doomed film adaptation of The Smurfs. Casting my friend Chu in the “Teenage Dream” music video tested my subjectivity, but ultimately confirmed that Perry needs to associate herself with hip, fashion-foward, androgynous young people to bolster her image. Thankfully, my friend is not the one in the headdress.

So I had to put theory into practice. I listened to every track of their’s I could find for the past few weeks, anticipating Perry’s forthcoming Teenage Dream album. For fun, I tempered this experiment with Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs to test whether my reaction toward artists I don’t like changed in relation to Important Music. I also read Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love in preparation of my experiment. I recognize its contribution, though I can’t champion the effort I derisively referred to as Let’s Talk About Anything But the Album. Too often, Wilson sabotages insightful contextualization of Dion’s aspirational class positioning and ethnic identity in relation to her voice’s function as a luxury item or a continuation of hair metal’s power ballad against gross projections of his unbridled disdain or unnecessary explanations to oft-cited theories of taste circulating in Western philosophy and cultural studies. Furthermore, the chapter he devotes to Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love is a reprinted submission that reads like a conventional album review.

This potentially illustrates the limits of such critical inquiries. Though I found Wilson’s book frustrating, I couldn’t improve upon it here. I warmed a little toward Ke$ha’s Animal, which foregrounds her singular personality and features the pop metal barnburner “Party at a Rich Dude’s House.” Perry’s first two albums are joyless affairs, saddled with the burdens of putting up with bad boys and defining yourself as someone else’s vacuous sexual object instead of your own realized sexual subject. Both artists (and their songwriting teams) share the habit of putting down men through emasculation and viewing every girl as competition.

In short, neither pop star move me toward any notable form of appreciation regardless of how much I consumed. I’m curious to try this exercise on other artists, though am frustrated that taste will continue to warp the outcome. Am I really all the things that are outside of me? Probably. Can I transcend them? Maybe not, but I’ll keep listening.

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11 comments

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  2. Kathy

    There’s a lot to digest here, so this might get a little disjointed (and I’ll probably have to turn my comment into a post of my own at some point, so I’ll try to keep this fairly short):

    I should probably say I was never a big fan of pop music, even as a kid. So to find some merit in Kesha, Katy Perry, even Lady Gaga, requires me to flex muscles I don’t have. I don’t hate it, as much as I’m completely indifferent to it. I’m a stealth defender of pop music, in that pop music is largely music made by women for other women (or girls), and I don’t know how much of my indifference is due to my own experience, or society (and every male music geek I’ve known) telling me “pop music is silly, superfluous fluff completely devoid of worth.”

    I’m almost two decades away from my adolescence. With Kesha especially, I see no irony and wit, just pathos. Of all the current pop stars, I find her music the most unlistenable. To be honest, her music makes me really uncomfortable, and not in a “challenging artist” kind of way. When girls name her and Katy Perry as their favorite artists, how much of it is peer pressure, and how much is a lack of exposure to other types of music? If girls are consistently exposed to other styles of music, I wonder what their answers would be.

    I’m tempted to come up with my own set of standards and apply them to the Katys and Keshas of the world. I don’t know a lot about the mechanics of making music, but I love singers and songwriters — or at least have some relation to the lyrics. Just having a pleasant-sounding voice isn’t enough or I’d be a fan of every one who’s ever made it to the last few rounds of American Idol. I love the sound of Leonard Cohen’s and Tom Waits’s voice, though not technically perfect and and far as you can get from “pretty” they make sense with the words coming from them. (This is why I hate nearly every cover of “Hallelujah.” Everyone and his uncle tries to turn it into some big power ballad.) I don’t think either of them would pass.

    • Alyx Vesey

      Disjoint on, Kathy. I usually turn posts into lists when I’m not sure how to string my thoughts together. In solidarity:

      1. I’ve only grown to embrace (some) pop music after I graduated from college. Before then, and especially during my time as a college radio deejay, pop music was the bad object. It wasn’t until I caught on to poptimism’s intervention that I felt I could like a lot of pop music. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was around this time that I started getting assigned poststructuralist theory in my grad school classes. Even then, I have to find the artists (and production) compelling and I have to find some intellectual, artistic, and/or feminist merit to appreciate it. Then again, I totally shook it to “Bad Romance” at a gay bar in Eugene, so situations can shift reception.

      2. I have a hard time seeing (hearing?) irony or wit with Ke$ha too. I can see novelty — Moon Unit Zappa and Gillette most immediately come to mind — but that shouldn’t be deemed a stand-in for either irony or wit.

      3. I keep thinking about the why with girls too, as well as which girls and how they came to their fandom. If I had time to interview girls about them, I’d have so many questions about their fandom. In the limited scholarship I’ve read on girls’ fan practices — Dapha Lemish’s ethnography on Spice Girls fans comes to mind — I’d imagine that the answers would be varied, complicated, and contradictory. I’d also have a lot of questions about Taylor Swift too, though many of the girls I’ve had in our workshops mention that they like that she writes her own material, plays the guitar, and sings about experiences they can relate to. Thus, I’m actually quite curious how they negotiate their pop fandom with something more rock-centric like GRC.

      4. You should come up with your own set up standards. I’d be very interested in reading what they are and watching you figure out what it may indicate about your fandom.

      5. Perhaps you listen for an inimitable tone from the singers you like? Perhaps you tune to the grain of the voice? Based on the singers you mention, attention to phrasing must also be a key factor. Songwriters seem especially in tune with the importance of phrasing.

      6. Oh, “Hallelujah.” During this last SXSW, some guy with an acoustic guitar was yelling it at passersby. Nuance, dude.

      • Kathy

        Phrasing is key, and probably the link between some pretty disparate artists. I only used Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen as examples, though I’ve listened to their music for nearly two decades, because neither has what I (or probably anyone) would consider a “commercial” voice. Grit is nice. I’m not afraid of a little grit, but I like Rufus Wainwright, who has a high, ringing tenor, and Jonathan Richman, who has more an adenoidal whine. With women, I typically like deeper, more resonant voices, but I think that’s because I have a fairly low voice and if I have any chance of singing along I can’t with a soprano.

  3. Jason Mittell

    Alyx – I’m glad my Mad Men post prompted more people to explore dislike thoughtfully! I have nothing to add on Ke$ha or Perry, but a couple quick points concerning your comments about Mad Men:

    – In the anthology which will feature my essay, another author offers a detailed critique of the show’s problematic racial politics, so I didn’t want to go there too.

    – On completionism for TV serials: do you think that one can’t offer critical analysis of a series until it’s complete? (One commenter on my blog did say that.) If so, then we’re always going to be partial in our ability to see the whole until it’s all done – and then, we’ll be less timely and relevant. The musical analogy would be that we couldn’t critique an album until the artist retires/dies, which seems silly. The advantage of musical immersion is that you can digest an artist’s complete work (as of the present tense, at least) typically in a few hours, while narrative TV requires more dedicated time and attention. But I do see how it’s a legit critique of my experiment, even though I did try to be transparent in my approach.

    • Alyx Vesey

      Jason, thanks for replying. I’m looking forward to reading the anthology in full and await the author’s comments on the subject. Admittedly, it’s a lot to unpack for your project.

      I also appreciated your transparency in not completing the series. Like many of the commenters, I paused about your decision not to watch subsequent seasons in full. I understand why you argued that a season should serve as a good quantifiable marker. However, I’m also the sort of person who felt she had to watch all seven seasons of The Gilmore Girls (including three bad ones) and three seasons of Friday Night Lights (including one bad one) to write conclusively about supporting characters Lane Kim and Devin Boland. This could speak to being an independent scholar with more free time. More likely, I think it gestures to personal tendencies toward completionism.

      So your main question is the exact one I continue to struggle with. I recognize the strain completionism places on the critic’s time and relevance, to say nothing of the impossibility of writing about an ongoing series in any finite capacity. I don’t have further developed arguments beyond the ones outlined above, but I was struck by just how difficult it is to brace in a series or a music career for the purposes of scholastic inquiry, particularly when you have no personal investment in the output.

      In short, you’ve given me a lot to think about. I enjoyed your piece and will continue to grapple with it.

  4. exhaustedlove

    This was a really interesting post! It’s definitely got me trying to pin down exactly why I don’t like certain artists over others as well.

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