In the world of pop plagiarism controversies, all eyes are on Ke$ha. A brouhaha has erupted over her current tour, which has a costume design element that looks to have been freely borrowed from a historic rock band's signature visuals.
The Residents have been famous for decades for dressing up in tuxes, tails, top hats, canes, and...giant eyeball heads. That unforgettably bizarre motif has seemingly been borrowed lock, stock, and iris for a big production number in Ke$ha's ongoing concerts.
When Ke$ha performed in the Residents' hometown, San Francisco, some of the group's local fans wondered if the decidedly uncommercial group had finally sold out, either for the money or as some sort of art project. Also, given that they've been on a 40th anniversary tour, the question arose: Could the Residents' sixtysomething members really be doing all that exhausting backup choreography?
Of course, the Residents have not deigned to seek employment as guest hoofers on Ke$ha's tour, and there was no authorization to use their trademark imagery, either.
Compare and contrast the two artists' stage shows:
Ke$ha "won't have a comment on this," one of her reps told us. But the Residents definitely have some thoughts. They don't do interviews — in fact, they're such fans of anonymity that they won't even allow their faces to be seen, which helps explain the eyeball costumes. But they did allow someone to speak for them.
"They don't know what to do," says Don Hardy, a filmmaker who's working with the group on a documentary, adding that there is a consensus that Ke$ha is "interfering with their intellectual property. Her people definitely didn't call in to say, 'Hey, can we use this?' They're debating what to do. One potential way to deal with it is to ask for a cease-and-desist and have attorneys sort it out. I think they'd rather see a different outcome, though. When you're a smaller group, what do you do? If you file suit, people say, 'Oh, it's the small guys trying to get in on something big.' It's a no-win situation."
There could be a kinder, gentler resolution. "It could be a five-minute conversation," Hardy says, "if Ke$ha will acknowledge that the look came from the Residents and that she's giving them a tip of the hat. Telling people, 'If you've been to my show, it's an homage' might encourage some of her fans to check out the Residents, and the bigger win would be that bit of recognition."
In case anyone might think the appropriation was coincidental, Hardy says that "even down to the color of the eyes, it's what the Residents have used all these years. It couldn't have just happened."
Hardy first tried to get in touch with Ke$ha to interview her for his documentary, after someone noticed that she was seen wearing a Residents T-shirt in a recent MTV special, which would suggest that she's a fan. He didn't get anywhere with her people then, and less so since, after the controversy broke out. The filmmaker suspects that the messages haven't gotten through to Ke$ha, who he's convinced is cooler than the average pop superstar.
"Residents fans are being negative to her, and that's unfortunate," Hardy says. "It'd be great to unite the two worlds somehow. There's a subversive streak to everything she's doing that seems different from a Katy Perry."
So the band's message to Ke$ha seems to be: Call us. The eyeball is in your court.
Meanwhile, many rock cultists will be eager to hear about Hardy's documentary-in-progress, which will be titled Theory of Obscurity, which he describes as "a love letter to hardcore fans that will hopefully cross over to people who might not know that much about the band." He's interviewing members of Primus, Ween, Talking Heads, Pinback, Neurosis, and other bands that have been overtly influenced by the Residents, as well as Devo, whom he describes as "peers who also drew inspiration," and superfan Penn Jillette.
"Our culture is about putting celebrity ahead of art, and the Residents being the antithesis of that" — having literally refused to show their faces for 40 years and counting. So will Theory of Obscurity have the band that influenced Talking Heads finally going on-camera as talking heads? Hardly. "There won't be any big reveal," Hardy laughs.
But hey, if this did come down to lawyers, maybe fans would finally get to see what the Residents look like...in court.