Ten years ago this week, the #1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 had it all –AutoTune, rapping, yodeling, even a cameo from Sean “P. Diddy” Combs. “TiK ToK,” the debut solo single from the brash belter then known as Ke$ha, was bedheaded yet buoyant, its blippy synths framing a Jack Daniels-scented manifesto for bringing the party wherever one went.
In early January, 10 years ago this Sunday and while that song’s tales of using whiskey as dentifrice and blaring “favorite CDs” in cars were ruling the top-40 landscape, Ke$ha released her debut album, Animal. “Maybe I need some rehab,” she drawls on the first line of its metaphor-laden opener, “Your Love Is My Drug.” Listening to it in 2020, years after she went to rehab for an eating disorder and became embroiled in a legal battle with her former producer and still-label boss Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald, is unsettling to say the least — even as Ke$ha’s charismatic half-rapping, half-singing yanks along the pounding drums.
Pop music has always been about narratives, but the 2009-10 class of female megastars could have populated the cast of a CW teen drama: Lady Gaga was the arty chick, Taylor Swift the golden girl, and so on. Ke$ha proudly wore the “burnout” title both on record and in her persona, comparing herself to Guns N’ Roses and Van Halen in interviews, showing up to interviews with “black makeup streaming from her right eye in precise darts,” having “keshasuxx” as her Twitter username. Amidst aggressive synths — in Valley Girl rapping and sometimes-raspy, sometimes-smoothed-out singing — Ke$ha embraced an exuberant end-of-days nihilism that was in vogue at the time on photo outposts like Last Night’s Party and the Cobrasnake and in blog posts by those sites’ subjects, as well as in music by the edge-of-Warped-Tour-lineup likes of Millionaires, Breathe Carolina, and Animal collaborators 3OH!3.
She also took men to task on songs like the chant-along old-guy dis “Dinosaur,” the perkily slut-shaming “Kiss N Tell,” and the slinky “Boots & Boys,” flipping the male gaze — which had been given a harsh edge after a decade laden with ladmags like Maxim and FHM — into a reason for collapsing into giggles. When I saw her first headlining tour in 2011 — a glittery, intoxicating show that felt like Live Nation’s version of a loft party — she turned the mid-show lapdance, which was at the time de rigeur for big-name female popstars, into an opportunity for humiliation: duct-taping some poor front-row sap into a chair, then sending out “Mr. Penis,” a person dressed in what I can only describe as a giant dick costume, to taunt him.
“I think I am really irreverent and I pretty much just talk to and about men the way men talk to and about women,” she told Entertainment Weekly in 2009, shortly before Animal’s release. “I just think it’s a double standard that unfortunately still exists. Because if I were a man … any man on pop radio could say the things I say about men to women, and nobody would even think about it twice.”
Of course, she was right. Reconciling those proclamations of girl power, however, with the stories of Dr. Luke’s treatment of her is tough. The lore around the glammy “Party At A Rich Dude’s House” was that it recounted “the time Ke$ha threw up in a closet during a party at Paris Hilton’s pad“; that night, Kesha alleged in a 2014 lawsuit, the producer drugged and sexually assaulted her. And lyrics like “On the floor I’m just a zombie/ Who I am is not who I wanna be/ I’m such a tragedy/ With every move I die,” from Animal’s spin on the power-ballad archetype, “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes,” hit harder after knowing about the emotional abuse Kesha — who dropped the dollar sign from her name after returning from rehab — allegedly endured while under Dr. Luke’s charge.
These stories from the past make listening to Animal today a bit of a whipsawing experience. The energy and bravado Ke$ha puts forth sound like a bracing tonic in the aftermath of the “chill era,” but knowing the backstory yanks you out of the pleasures offered by the music. And while it’s long, Animal does have quite a few gems to offer. “TiK ToK” remains ludicrously catchy, its wiggling keyboards giving the song its buzzed feel. The campy “Stephen,” a series of drunk dials set to bubbly synths, opens with a harmonized vocal that invites the listener to wonder what it might sound like as a country song. (It was co-written by her mom, Pebe Sebert, who co-wrote a country chart-topper for Dolly Parton during her stint as a Nashville songwriter.) And “Backstabber” has an explosive chorus that gives more firepower to her muttered complaints about shit-talkers.
While the legal issues with Dr. Luke are still dragging on, Kesha seems to have brokered at least some sort of peace with her former self. Her next album High Road, out at the end of this month, contains a song that’s partially credited to the dollar-sign iteration of Kesha: “Kinky,” which she described in the British mag Attitude as being about “how anything is fine as long as [she and her boyfriend are] honest with each other.” That honesty will likely involve Kesha looking at the old days with clear vision — and extending a supportive hand to her younger self, who was partying through the pain.