Taylor Swift and Ke$ha: Not So Different
The two best new albums I heard in 2010 came from young women born in 1987 and 1989. They both debuted at No. 1 in Billboard, though the one that came out in January sold just 152,000 copies in its first week (but has racked up a couple million since). The one that came out in October finished its first week around the 1,047,000 mark. Each singer put more or less five singles in the Top 10 of the pop chart this year, but only the less respectable singer topped that chart for 10 weeks. The artist considered "country" grew up as part of a nuclear family in the southeastern Pennsylvania exurbs with a grandma who sang opera, and almost every soccer mom across the land thinks she's a perfect role model for kids. The artist not considered country moved from L.A. to Nashville when she was four and grew up fatherless there with a mother who wrote country songs, and almost every soccer mom across the land hopes her kids never meet anybody like her. So, on the surface, Taylor Swift and Ke$ha are exact opposites, right? Wrong. To me, they're two sides of the same coin, with a whole lot in common. Such as:
They both do vicious revenge songs, aimed at people of both genders. But Taylor does more. On Speak Now, I count the title track (the most compelling parts of which are directed at a bride's "snotty little family," not the groom Taylor's trying to steal away), "Dear John," "Mean," and (most explicitly, since it's where she claims retaliation is her specialty) "Better Than Revenge." On Ke$ha's Animal, there's "Kiss N Tell" ("I hope you cry!") and "Backstabber," though maybe you could also count the swipes she takes elsewhere at dirty old men and rich people and guys' ugly girlfriends. Not to mention maybe at least three songs on her late-year 10-song add-on mini-album Cannibal (title cut, "Grow a Pear," Fannypack tribute "C U Next Tuesday"), where she chews up and spits out clingy males who outwear their welcome. (Taylor dumps a guy in "Back to December," too, but regrets it.)
Taylor's "Dear John" ("Don't you think 19's too young to be played by your dark twisted games" allegedly about John Mayer, which is irrelevant) and Ke$ha's "D.I.N.O.S.A.U.R." ("You should be prowlin' around the old folks' home") both deal with the same topic. However, where Ke$ha slays dinosaurs, Taylor prefers slaying dragons. (See: "Long Live." Maybe even a D&D reference; what a nerd!) Also, in "Dear John," "Your mother accused me of losing my mind"; in Ke$ha's "Your Love Is My Drug," "Mama's telling me I should think twice." Too late!
They both giggle in the middle of songs: Ke$ha all the time, and Taylor at least in "Speak Now," probably her most Lily Allen-like track. Ke$ha's most Lily Allen-like like track is "Stephen." Taylor did her own "Hey Stephen" on Fearless, two years ago. Both "Stephen" songs are about pining over boys. The opening harmonies of Ke$ha's version sound fairly country, as does her Bubba Sparxxx-reminiscent hick-hop drawling through "We R Who We R," which she has described as an anthem for picked-on teenage outcasts, which is pretty much also what Taylor's Miranda Lambert-reminiscent "Mean" easily the most country song on Speak Now is. Admittedly, Taylor makes the being-bullied aspects far more blatant, and limits her community-solidarity use of "we" to the "band of thieves in ripped-up jeans" that confound her small town's cynics in "Long Live."
Speaking of small minds in small towns: "Mean" is meanwhile also a rejoinder to an increasingly "pathetic," "alone in life" (Taylor hopes!) jerk-wad who's forever "grumbling on about how I can't sing," stuck drunk back in the boondocks when Taylor has graduated to the city. Which points to yet another major thing she and Ke$ha share. Namely: the hall monitors of propriety and would-be American Idol judges have a habit of ringing their hands about how evil technology (e.g., hilariously disruptive Auto-Tune in Ke$ha's case) makes it impossible to tell whether either artist can "really" sing as if singing means anything more than performing lyrics with emotion, conviction, energy, and humor, and knowing how to switch phrasing for emphasis or entertainment value. These two both did that just as well as any other vocalist who recorded this year, though it helped that nobody else came equipped with half as many great hooks. I mean, maybe Ke$ha personally relates to the line in "Mean" about "your voice like nails on a chalkboard." But if so, it's probably on purpose goes well with the year's craziest synth solos (seriously, check "Boots & Boys"), not to mention those noisy Euro-voodoo drums and monster roars in "Cannibal."
They also both do what sound like Kate Bush imitations, toward the ends of their proper albums (14 songs each, incidentally): Taylor's "Haunted" and Ke$ha's "Animal." And they're probably both influenced by Eminem, as well. Taylor's been known to cover "Lose Yourself" onstage, and in "Cannibal" Ke$ha compares herself to Jeffrey Dahmer, a very Eminem thing to do. Though Animal + Cannibal is more Licensed to Ill than Marshall Mathers LP, overall. But forget white rap entirely, if you want: what Taylor and Ke$ha have both said they do when writing a song is start with stuff that's happened to them and people they've known in real life, then craft imaginative scenes loosely rooted in the narrative tradition of country music. (Yeah, Ke$ha too she's mentioned this in interviews, and it comes as no surprise given that Nashville's how her frequent-writing-partner mom used to pay the bills.) Then it gets more complex, because (not unlike, say, Eminem) the voice or perspective you hear might change a couple times through any given song, while offhand asides get tossed in to throw you off. They're both proud of not knowing when to shut up. Taylor: "I always get the last word" ("Better Than Revenge"). Ke$ha: "Got here by running my mouth" ("Crazy Beautiful Life").
Class war! There, I said it. On Animal, a "young and broke" Ke$ha attends a "Party at a Rich Dude's House" (supposedly Paris Hilton's -- doesn't matter), where she pisses in the Dom Perignon and pukes in the closet. Take that, millionaire tax-cut-extension proponents! But her real statement of resentment is "Sleazy" on Cannibal, where she starts out "I don't need your brand-new Benz or your bourgie friends," then winds up dissing the dork's man-servant and mansion and bottle service in general, saying she'd rather drink in her own basement than "places where all my ladies can't get in." Yes! Taylor never quite goes that far, but does fire "Better Than Revenge" at a vintage-dress-clad prep-school hussy who doesn't realize "sophistication isn't what you wear or who you know." Then again, unlike Ke$ha, Taylor apparently wasn't raised partially on food stamps and welfare checks.
Taylor's better at tragedy than comedy; Ke$ha's the other way around. But both can do both. Taylor's more like Veronica Mars; Ke$ha's more like Amanda on Ugly Betty. In more reflective moments, Taylor often retreats to memory: "Mine," "Back to December," "The Story of Us," "Long Live," and especially "Never Grow Up," which is Speak Now's most heart-wrenching song (not to mention an obvious sequel to the equally weep-inducing "The Best Day," on Fearless.) When Ke$ha feels mellow, she turns vulnerable: "Stephen," "Hungover," "Blind," "Dancing with Tears in My Eyes," "The Harold Song." To be honest, most of those rank among her weaker moments, musically speaking, but their hurt still adds something. (Taylor's weak links, for what it's worth: "Sparks Fly," "Last Kiss," maybe the quaint and courtly "Enchanted.") Ke$ha fights 'til sunlight for her right to party (in fact, the word "fight" shows up fairly often in her songs). She brushes her teeth with a bottle of Jack, heads out with all her fellow animals and cannibals hiding a water bottle full of whiskey in her handbag (smart way to save money!), lets the night come to life, tells boys "turn around bitch I got a use for you" (okay, that was Axl Rose, but Ke$ha makes almost exactly the same demand in "Blah Blah Blah"), tosses them out like used Kleenex, wakes up the next day broken like bottles on the floor. If life's a party, it can crash at any minute. When the hangover strikes, there's a good chance, just like Taylor, she'll be obsessing over some dumb guy she met there.