Ke$ha’s “Take It Off” is as bluntly utilitarian as pop music gets. It makes no bones about the fact that it’s meant to be played in strip clubs forever, right between “Nookie” and “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” Just in case anybody misses the subtle message in its lyrics, Ke$ha sets the whole thing to the venerable melody of “The Streets of Cairo,” also known as “there's a place in France ⁄ where the naked ladies dance.”
But who’s taking it off, and for whose pleasure? This isn't your standard strip-club setup of men’s eyes and money and women’s bodies: here, Ke$ha’s the observer, and she’s AutoTune-hollering at “everybody” to strip for her amusement. The video belies that, of course. One young gentleman loses his shirt, Ke$ha fiddles with her fur coat, and other than that the “dirty free-for-all” has more to do with magical colored dust than any kind of erotic buzz.
Nearly a quarter-century before Ke$ha first brushed her teeth with her “water bottle full of whiskey,” Alex Chilton opened his 1987 album High Priest with his own demand to “Take It Off” — not the same song, though. Chilton had been a pop star at an even earlier age than Ke$ha, scoring his first #1 single with the Box Tops’ “The Letter” as a 16-year-old in 1968; he’d sung with the ravishing power-pop band Big Star in the early ’70s, then spent years drifting away from music before straightening up and tearing it up in the mid-’80s.
The Chilton of the High Priest era (and ever after) absorbed the whole history of Southern music and spat it back out like Jack Daniels toothpaste. He was a human jukebox, cranking out Chiltonized covers of soul classics and Tin Pan Alley obscurities and trashy pop throwaways. (If he hadn't passed away earlier this year, he might have despised Ke$ha’s song, or he might have covered it; there was no accounting for his taste.)
Chilton’s “Take It Off” is actually a cover of a Joe “Groundhog” Richardson single from 1969 — a borderline novelty record, a leering recitative built on a sour organ pulse. The difference is that what drips from every word of Chilton’s version is palpable, throbbing lust for a specific woman he’s teasing out of her get-up. “Take off your wig and let me feeeeel your Afro!” he declares. “Don't roll those bloodshot eyes at me” is a quote from Wynonie Harris’s old jump-blues hit “Bloodshot Eyes,” but the second time, Chilton alters the line to “stop rolling your big brown eyes at me”: this is very specifically a black woman this very blue-eyed singer is giving the come-hither to.
Like Ke$ha’s “Take It Off,” Chilton’s is a strip-club song in effect: that backup yell of “take it off bay-beh!,” the hip-swiveling grind of the rhythm section. But there's something grippingly personal about Chilton’s version, a lascivious vulnerability that the hardbodied Ke$ha could never admit to. He’s not singing about a hole in the wall somewhere everyone can watch: this is a striptease by one woman, for one man alone.