Paul Q. Kolderie is a Grammy-winning music producer and recording engineer who has worked with Radiohead, the Pixies, Uncle Tupelo, Morphine, Hole, and many others during his 30-year career in rock. He currently lives and works in upstate New York with his wife Robin and their three dogs. You can follow him on Twitter here.
Generations change, and each one grows up with a new normal, a new set of heroes, a new way of doing things. Today, it’s possible to record and mix a song entirely on a computer with no input from musicians. It’s also become fashionable to treat the human voice, the only real sound that remains in the mix, with Autotune to make it sound robotic. Things used to be done differently, but that doesn’t matter — this is how it is now, a bleak landscape of blasting synths and fake drums. Today’s pop music sounds like what’s playing when you walk by a slot machine in Vegas. Ke$ha’s record has that slot machine sound. Maybe it’s the sound of money. We’ll see.
She comes from a musical family. Her mother Pebe co-wrote “Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You,” a number one country hit for Dolly Parton in August, 1980. Mom took Kesha Rose to recording sessions and gigs and encouraged her to sing. Country music was not for her though, so she eased into singing back-up for celebrity artists like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears — a more modern path to success. Mom and daughter started writing songs together, and one of the demos she made caught the ear of Dr. Luke, who signed her to his record company and remains her executive producer. She’s had a steady ascent, singing the hook on Flo Rida’s number one hit “Right Round,” then releasing a first record full of catchy singles like “Tik-Tok” that established her as a standard-bearer for the You Only Live Once generation, fucked-up 24-hour-party-people who fight until the morning light and never have to say they’re sorry.
So here’s her new record, Warrior, written and recorded by a committee of professionals headed by Dr. Luke, and featuring her mom as co-writer on several cuts, plus Max Martin, Kool Kojak, Cirkut, Shellback, and a shadowy host of Pro-Tools jockeys. Some songs have eight writers listed. Iggy Pop contributes guest vocals on the faux-nasty rocker “Dirty Love,” which features synths pretending to be guitars; and Patrick Carney from the Black Keys is credited with what may have started out as a real drum track on the wistful ballad “Wonderland,” but that’s about it for human input.
Ke$ha has said she wanted this record to have lots of guitars and announced she was taking guitar lessons, but if there are any actual guitars on this record I can’t hear them. “Wonderland” starts and ends with some treated guitar but everywhere else it’s virtual synth city. Every vocal is Auto-Tuned for pitch, not as extremely as T-Pain but that tell-tale warble is easy to spot. Drums pound along in perfect time, and since they’re all samples each hit is perfectly identical. There are no cymbals to compete with the buzzing synths that take up all the midrange and highs. The arrangements use the same tricks over and over, like filter sweeps, dropping out and then swooping into the chorus, doubling up the rhythm again and again before dropping out. Any piece of the song that can be copied and pasted is used and reused. Every chorus is the same, including all the vocals. On “Crazy Kids” there are three breaks where she whispers “we are the crazy people” and they’re all the same one — no one thought it might be cool to make them different!
There are no instrumental solos and virtually no drum fills, as it’s difficult to program improvisation. Instead, several songs feature elaborately edited breakdowns that are effectively Pro-Tools solos BY THE ENGINEERS! It feels like the producers were trying to make the record as quickly as possible and there was just no time for subtlety. As much as these songs strain for excitement, the repetition just wears you out. It’s not until the eighth song, “Wonderland,” that we hear anything resembling a real instrument on this record. The piano and organ sounds are no doubt sampled, but at least they signify real things. Everything else is just programmed drums and super-compressed sawtooth synth waves.
Over and over, the lyrics speak of dancing until you die, partying like it’s the last night of your life, your last weekend. Raging into the night like you’re gonna die young. Left unclear is why you would want to spend your last hours drunk in a nightclub with phony rock & roll blaring over the speakers, but I suppose it beats some ways to go.
In a recent New York Times article about Warrior, Ke$ha described going to Dr. Luke and expressing her desire to make a rock record with lots of guitars. His response was that if she wanted to have hits she would have to continue to work in the dance-pop style that currently dominates the charts. And that is certainly what they’ve done here. In this genre, Madonna is a towering icon, but she had some of her biggest hits with the backing of actual musicians like Tony Thompson and Bernard Edwards, the rhythm section from Chic. And Giorgio Moroder made deathless disco for Donna Summer with real drummers! It can be done, and pretty soon someone is going to have a dance-pop hit that showcases the soul of real people. Then perhaps that will become the thing to do and we’ll all be better off for it. The field is wide open for someone like Prince to come along and show everyone how it’s done. But Ke$ha is smarter than you think. Maybe she should tell Dr Luke to shove it, start an actual rock band and see where that goes?