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The Number Ones: Kesha’s “Tik Tok”

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What a way to start a decade. On her very first single, the 22-year-old Kesha, previously known only as a disembodied voice on Flo Rida’s “Right Round,” takes all of 25 seconds to establish a fully formed pop-star persona. Kinda-sorta rapping in a vocal-fried and Auto-Tune-drenched valley-girl chirp, Kesha tells us that she wakes up in the morning feeling like P. Diddy, and the voice of the actual Diddy chimes in with approval. But the real Diddy would never brush his teeth with a bottle of Jack Daniels. Nobody else would do that. That’s just Kesha.

Kesha’s “Tik Tok” video brings that character sketch into live-action cartoon color. Kesha wakes up in a bathtub, her hair in a riotous tangle, while flashes of the previous night’s revelry flash through her head. She staggers around in one cowboy boot, then ambles down the stairs of a picturesque suburban house, shocking the family that’s gathered around the breakfast table. Did she hook up with some unseen relative the night before? Or did she just crash her way into a random house with an empty bathtub, looking for a place to get some sleep? It doesn’t matter. When the gigantic chorus hits, Kesha’s out the door, riding off on her lowrider bicycle and looking for more trouble. You already know everything you need to know.

Kesha’s “Tik Tok” is a pure product of its moment, an irreverent dance-pop sledgehammer that brandishes the otherworldly Dr. Luke gleam that was so dominant on the pop charts at the time. The song is also a document of a moment when Dr. Luke was able to do whatever he wanted, with major-label machinery focusing its efforts on blasting his hooks into every radio in America. Kesha wasn’t really the party-monster caricature that she played on “Tik Tok” — or she wasn’t just that, anyway — and her future court battles with Luke would make this moment feel creepy and sinister in retrospect. At least for some of us, though, those revelations haven’t dimmed the sheer fun of “Tik Tok” itself.

Dr. Luke produced a lot of hits for a lot of pop stars, and plenty of those hits will appear in this column. Luke’s reputation has plummeted in recent years, and tons of his old collaborators are barely willing to even speak his name. Even after all that, he’s still making hits, but very few of those hits have the loopy charisma or the giddy joy of “Tik Tok.” The song is built from scavenged parts that have been glitter-glued together, but there’s something shooting all that mess full of energy and purpose. That something is Kesha, a star ready to arrive.

Legend has it that Kesha Rose Sebert was born at a party in the San Fernando Valley. (The night of that party, Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On A Prayer” was the #1 song in America, which feels somehow appropriate.) Even if the born-at-a-party story is a total fabrication, this is one of those situations where you want to print the legend. Kesha’s father was not in the picture. Her mother Pebe Sebert was a country songwriter whose big claim to fame was that she and ex-husband Hugh Moffatt wrote “Old Flames Can’t Hold A Candle To You.” That was a minor hit when the country singer Joe Sun first recorded it in 1978, and it became a much bigger hit two years later, when former Number Ones artist Dolly Parton recorded her own version. Dolly’s version didn’t cross over to the Hot 100, but it went #1 on the country chart.

Pebe Sebert had the one hit to her credit, but one hit can’t pay the bills forever. By the time Kesha was born, Pebe was broke, and Kesha has said that her family lived on welfare and food stamps. When Kesha was still young, Pebe got a new publishing deal, and she moved Kesha and her half-brother Lagan to Nashville, where Kesha mostly grew up. Pebe’s songwriting career didn’t pick up. Kesha went to public school, played in the marching band, and invented her own dumpster-diving aesthetic. She later claimed that her personal style did not make her popular in school. Still, Kesha was a good student, and she was all set to go to Barnard before a music career came calling.

Kesha and her brother Lagan played in a punk band together in high school, and Kesha recorded demos with her mother. At one point, Pebe and Kesha approached David Gamson, a former member of the great UK new wave band Scritti Politti, to write songs together, and some of their tracks eventually made it onto Kesha’s debut album Animal. (Scritti Politti’s highest-charting Hot 100 single, 1985’s “Perfect Way,” peaked at #11.) Kesha sent out demos, and one of those demos found its way to Dr. Luke. There were two songs on Kesha’s demo: a pretty country number and a goofy joke-rap thing. Luke told Billboard that the goofy joke-rap thing was what convinced him to sign Kesha: “That’s when I was like, ‘OK, I like this girl’s personality. When you’re listening to 100 CDs, that kind of bravado and chutzpah stand out.”

When Dr. Luke first tried to contact Kesha, her family had a couple of famous houseguests. Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie’s reality show The Simple Life filmed a 2005 episode with the Seberts; the idea was that Paris and Nicole were trying to find a boyfriend for Pebe. Apparently, when Luke first called the house, the person who picked up the phone was Nicole Richie. She hung up on him. (Paris Hilton’s only Hot 100 hit, 2006’s “Stars Are Blind,” peaked at #18. Nicole Richie doesn’t have any hits, but her adopted father Lionel has been in this column a bunch of times.) Luke eventually succeeded at reaching Kesha, and she signed with his Kemosabe label when she was still a teenager.
Kesha moved out to Los Angeles, and she lived with a guy who claimed to be her father for a little while. (She decided that he was too nerdy to share any actual blood with her.) For a while, Kesha’s career went nowhere. She had a deal with Luke’s imprint but not one with an actual label, and whenever her manager tried to get a major interested, her contract status with Luke would fuck it up. So Kesha just bummed around on the fringes of the music business. She co-wrote the Veronicas’ 2008 single “This Love.” She sang backup on Britney Spears’ Luke-produced deep cut “Lace And Leather.” She popped up in her friend Katy Perry’s video for “I Kissed A Girl.”

Kesha wasn’t making a lot of money from her Dr. Luke association. She worked as a waitress, and she changed the S in her name to a dollar sign in what she describes as an ironic gesture. Kesha’s fortunes changed when Luke summoned her to the studio to sing on Flo Rida’s “Right Round.” At first, Kesha wasn’t credited on that song, and she opted not to appear in the video. But “Right Round” was a massive hit, and it finally got the machine’s gears turning. Before long, Kesha and Luke negotiated a deal with RCA, through Luke’s Kemosabe label. Kesha recorded most of her 2010 debut Animal with Dr. Luke and regular Luke collaborators like Max Martin and Benny Blanco.

When Kesha started writing “Tik Tok,” she was living in a Laurel Canyon house with a lot of roommates; she claims that it was the same place where the Eagles wrote “Hotel California.” The house was a crash pad for lots of friends and friends of friends, and Kesha told Esquire how she got the idea for the opening “Tik Tok” line, the one about waking up in the morning and feeling like P. Diddy: “I woke up one day after we went to a party, and I was surrounded by ten of the most beautiful women you’ve ever seen. And I was like, I’m like P. Diddy — there’s no man like this in the entire world.”

Kesha recorded “Tik Tok” with Dr. Luke and Benny Blanco, and she later claimed that the two producers basically ordered her to stop working on the song. She was worried that it was stupid, and she wanted to keep rewriting it: “I didn’t think it was funny or clever. I thought it kind of sucked. But everyone else liked it. Now, I’m glad I didn’t rewrite ‘Tik Tok.’” There’s an interesting tension at work on “Tik Tok,” with the delirious sloppiness of Kesha’s persona contrasting with glossy, hammering production and with the mathematical precision of the chorus. Those things shouldn’t work together, but they do.

“Tik Tok” presents Kesha to the world as an utterly ridiculous person. It’s not just the unorthodox dental-health decision to use Jack Daniel’s as toothpaste. Kesha talks about being broke and proud and about rejecting dudes “unless they look like Mick Jagger.” (She never specifies whether she means 1964 Jagger or 2009 Jagger, and maybe that’s for the best.) Kesha vows to keep partying until the police shut everything down or until she sees the sunlight. She tries out rap vernacular in giggly and unserious ways — “talkin’ ’bout errrybody gettin’ crunk crunk.” Coming out of the bridge, she swipes an old Whodini line: “The party doesn’t start until I walk in.” (“Five Minutes Of Funk” was the B-side of Whodini’s only Hot 100 hit, 1984’s “Friends,” which peaked at #87.)

When “Tik Tok” was new, my guy Jon Caramanica wrote a New York Times piece about the looming specter of the white-girl rapper. In the 28 years between Blondie’s “Rapture” and “Tik Tok,” no white female rapper had ever made much cultural impact. (Iggy Azalea, a future subject of this column, had not arrived yet.) But a few white-girl rappers had made a kind of novelty splash. One of them was Uffie, the Miami-born club kid who fell in with the French blog-house scene and released the 2009 club hit “Pop The Glock.” In 2007, Uffie appeared on Justice’s track “TThhEe PPaARRtTYY.” Uffie’s delivery, as well as her lyrics about shining like a princess in the middle of thugs, sounded like a rough draft of what Kesha would do on “Tik Tok.”


In that Times piece, Kesha addressed the Uffie parallels head-on: “I understand why people need to make that association, but it’s not like, ‘Yeah, let me just listen to Uffie and rip that off.'” She also clarified that she never saw herself as a rapper: “I’m trying to go for the lost-member-of-Whitesnake vibe.” (That’s a great mission statement.) But even if Kesha fully ripped off Uffie the way that Owl City ripped off the Postal Service, I can’t get too mad about it. Unlike Owl City, Kesha improved on her source material.


Or anyway, Kesha improved on some of her source material. In both its subject matter and its blaring synth tones, “Tik Tok” owes more than a little to Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance,” and “Tik Tok” isn’t better than that song. Kesha’s presentation shares a few things in common with the way that Fergie, someone who’s been in this column a few times, switched back and forth between singing and party-rapping. The booming earworm insistence of “Tik Tok” is a comfortable sonic fit with the Dr. Luke/Max Martin style, which was probably at its peak right then. For me, though, Kesha’s loopy personality makes her more of a distant descendant of Cyndi Lauper, a previous generation’s cartoon-voiced thrift-shop pop goofball.

Back when people were constantly complaining about Auto-Tune, one regular refrain was that the plug-in removed all the personality from singers’ voices, making them all sound like each other. On “Tik Tok,” though, the heavy Auto-Tune actually brings out more of Kesha’s particular charisma. It’s a knowing and intentional usage. Dr. Luke and Benny Blanco smear the effect all over, using it to emphasize words like “tipsy” by briefly turning Kesha’s voice into something inhuman, making you feel like you’re tipsy. The Auto-Tune works as a functional irritant, like guitar feedback.

“Tik Tok” came out as a free MySpace download in summer 2009, and it gradually took over pop radio. By the time the new year rolled around, the song was unstoppable; Billboard eventually named it the biggest single of 2010. Later on, the single would go octuple platinum. The Chinese social network TikTok, which is now a dominant force on the pop charts, supposedly did not get its name from the Kesha song “Tik Tok,” but I have my suspicions.

Kesha’s album Animal came out on New Year’s Day, and four of its singles ultimately made the top 10. For her “Tik Tok” follow-up, Kesha teamed up with the appallingly dumb Denver duo 3OH!3, and the song sounded a lot like “Tik Tok,” except now with some assholes yelling on it. (“Blah Blah Blah” peaked at #7. It’s a 6. 3OH!3’s highest-charting single is “Don’t Trust Me,” which peaked at #7 in 2009. It’s a 1. In 2010, Kesha repaid the favor, if you can call it that, by appearing on 3OH!3’s song “My First Kiss,” which peaked at #9. That one is a 2.)

Next up was the Animal opening track “Your Love Is My Drug,” which Kesha co-wrote with the pro songwriter Ammo and with her mother Pebe. (As a songwriter, Pebe will eventually appear in this column.) “Your Love Is My Drug” didn’t fully abandon Kesha’s almost-rap style, but it brought her closer to the realm of pure bubblegum, and it peaked at #4. (It’s a 7.)


Finally, Kesha made it to #8 with “Take It Off,” a Dr. Luke collaboration that turned the old snake-charmer melody into a celebration of a place downtown where the freaks all come around, where they go hardcore and there’s glitter on the floor. Kesha has said that the song was inspired by a drag show. “Take It Off” did absolutely nothing to alter Kesha’s party-girl image, but those anthems were still working, and “Take It Off” made it to #8. (It’s a 6.) Eventually, the album went triple platinum.


Soon enough, the world would learn that Kesha and Dr. Luke were not a happy creative unit. Kesha would accuse Luke of all sorts of abuses, and tons of other female pop stars would come forward to affirm that Luke was, at the very best, a total fucking asshole. Kesha and Luke would sue each other, and the courtroom battle would bring Kesha’s career to a screeching halt, effectively preventing her from achieving the pop dominance that peers like Katy Perry and Lady Gaga were able to enjoy. We’ll get into all of that in future columns, since Kesha’s run did not end with Animal. She’ll be back in this column again.

GRADE: 8/10


BONUS BEATS: In 2010, the YouTube comedy channel Key Of Awesome had a viral hit with “Glitter Puke,” a “Tik Tok” parody that tried to describe the realistic consequences of the kind of constant drunkenness that Kesha describes on the original. That parody gets into some unfortunate slut-shaming bullshit, and there’s also a joke about Kesha’s contractual situation that’s weirdly prescient, but I mostly just like the lines about waking up with puke in your hair. Here it is:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: A 2011 episode of The Simpsons used a grand-scale “Tik Tok” musical number as its couch gag. Here it is:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the shockingly long sequence of Martin Lawrence and friends dancing to “Tik Tok” in the 2011 motion picture Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son:


BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s former Number Ones artist Avril Lavigne singing an acoustic “Tik Tok” cover in a 2011 BBC Live Lounge session:


BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the 2011 film Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules where Zachary Gordon films Robert Capron doing a lip-synced routine to “Tik Tok” — a video that, if the movie were set in the present day, would presumably be made for TikTok:

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What a way to start a decade. On her very first single, the 22-year-old Kesha, previously known only as a disembodied voice on Flo Rida’s “Right Round,” takes all of 25 seconds to establish a fully fo

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