Thousands of young, impressionable girls move to Los Angeles hoping to make it big every year. Why did Ke$ha break through? And what does it say about us as a culture that she did?
As you probably know, Ke$ha is, as The New York Times' Jon Caramanica put it, "a burgeoning pop star" who is also a "pioneer" for her integration of rapping and singing (and, as former Idolator editor Maura Johnston pointed out, yodeling). She's a post-racial, post-genre, post-postmodern pastiche with some very catchy hooks, thanks in large part to her mentor and producer, Dr. Luke, who also wrote hits including "Right Round" (the Flo Rida song featuring Ke$ha), Katy Perry's "I Kissed A Girl," Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone," and Miley Cyrus's "Party in the U.S.A."
In September, Maura wrote that Ke$ha's "Tik Tok" was "going to turn into the 'I Kissed A Girl' of the fall/winter." She was right. How did she know?
"The persona Ke$ha affects on 'Tik Tok' is like this perfectly bubbleheaded party-girl type, a persona that i think allows for recession-era escapism," Maura told me when I asked her how she knew that Ke$ha would be the breakout star of the winter. "It's 'relatable' in a way that you or I, being older, might find a little uneasy." (You can say that again.)
According to her official bio, Ke$ha was raised by her mom Pebe Sebert, a punk-rock songwriter, in Nashville—along with her brother, Huffington Post writer Lagan, who we covered yesterday). And indeed, as recently as 2006, Ke$ha and Lagan were performing country tunes in Nashville's hipster dive bars together. So how did she go from this:
Ke$ha plays up the idea that she's a wild child—two oft-repeated stories, both of which are repeated in her official bio, involve her breaking into Prince's house to give him her demo, and throwing up in Paris Hilton's closet—but she was an honors student who would've gone to Barnard if she hadn't dropped out of high school at the behest of Dr. Luke and fellow producer Max Martin, who wrote Britney Spears's "...Baby One More Time."
But even if she doesn't come by her persona organically (and really, who does these days?), it's still become one that critics and bloggers can't stop parsing. I traced the evolution of Ke$ha's prominence in the press; until August, she was a footnote on the credits to "Right Round." That was when Women's Wear Daily did a short profile of her, and quoted Ke$ha—whom they were still referring to by her given name, Kesha Sebert—as saying that Martin and Luke liked her because "I don't give a f—k and I'm completely irreverent."
She was also championed early and often by Oh No They Didn't, the gossip blog hosted on LiveJournal that has a rabidly committed fan base. Her next big mainstream media piece came in October, when The Guardian (U.K.) featured her as a "New Band of the Day." Paul Lester noted: "Maybe she really is raunchy, but just in case we doubt it Ke$ha takes pains to telegraph her bad-girl credentials. In fact, her whole shtick appears to be predicated on the idea that she's a rebel in American Apparel."
And that was the image she was undoubtedly trying to portray when, at an afterparty for the Q Awards in London at the end of October, Ke$ha peed in the sink at a pub with Lily Allen and a bunch of "music industry bigwigs" and journalists looking on. It was an incident that possibly backfired, since it barely got any press outside of Britain—she wasn't well-known enough yet that her wild n' crazy antics were noteworthy. (Now we'll be on the lookout, though.)
By December, when she performed at the Z100 Jingle Ball, she was officially famous.
We wonder what happens now. She's sold around 160,000 copies of her debut album, Animal, which came out January 5—not too shabby these days. Is she going to have a reawakening and return to her country roots? The Awl posited that she's the Britney Spears of this generation, but I don't think that's quite right; for one thing, she's legitimately smarter than Britney. She's much more aware of her antics than Britney and exploits her sexuality in a different way—she's cute, sure, but there's something tomboyish, almost asexual, about Ke$ha. (She also had a childhood, which probably counts for something.)