Article Thumbnail

The Unsung Brilliance of Kesha, Whose Music Defined the Decade

From ‘Tik Tok’ to TikTok, the 2010s started and ended with Kesha Rose Sebert. Now, a new legion of young fans is on a mission to make her greatness known

Quick — can you name the first major record release of the 2010s? It was Animal, the debut album by an up-and-coming singer named Kesha Rose Sebert, who’d just lent her voice to “Right Round,” Flo Rida’s cringe-y ode to oral sex. The new LP was poised to establish 22-year-old Kesha as pop’s new post-Recession party girl — thanks in part to an already viral hit called “Tik Tok,” about day-drinking, hooking up and waking up in strange houses.

In a decade where chaos reigned and rules flew out the window, “Tik Tok” was a fitting anthem. But in late 2009 and 2010, critics and “Hot or Not” lists (remember those?) disregarded Kesha as anything legitimate. She had a tacky stage name (Ke$ha); she dressed like a dollar-store Courtney Love, with walk-of-shame attire, smudged eyeliner and facial glitter; she sang about beer, hooking up and fending off drunk guys (unless they looked “like Mick Jagger”): The pop establishment barely seemed content to afford her one-hit wonder status.

But Kesha proved to be a reliable hitmaker with songs like “Your Love Is My Drug” and the No. 1 hits “Timber” (with Pitbull) and “We R Who We R.” Unexpectedly, our “Sleazy” singer became pop music’s face of the #MeToo movement. Her accusations of sexual harassment and violence against music producer Lukas “Dr. Luke” Gottwald targeted the alleged predators (and those protecting them) in the upper echelons of pop-music power.

Ten years later, Kesha, now 32, is ending the decade as pop’s face of self-empowerment. Her forthcoming album High Road, which drops January 31st, is a welcome return to her carefree, party-music roots. On “My Own Dance,” she sings, “Woke up this morning, feeling myself/ Hungover as hell like 2012, fuck it.” It’s “Tik Tok” for thirtysomethings.

Kesha’s growth as an artist parallels pop culture’s evolution in the 2010s, from revelry and innocence to empowerment and activism. But it’s no accident that the “Tik Tok” singer has found a new legion of fans in the TikTok generation. Many young people now graduating college found community in Kesha’s world of playful excess. Like Kesha herself, her fans have grown with her over the decade, establishing a world-weary sense of humor that bridges silliness and social consciousness.

“While Kesha may no longer be Ke$ha, the party lives on,” says singer-songwriter Austin Ryan. Kole Cluxton, a 20-year-old Kesha stan, was 10 when “Tik Tok” came out. He’s spent over a decade online, defending Kesha’s musical legacy and her allegations against Dr. Luke. “She’s just such a genuinely good person; I couldn’t ever see myself not supporting her,” Cluxton says.

“TikTok has a similar sort of accessibility [to] the idea [of] the Kesha party,” Brittany Spanos, staff writer at Rolling Stone, tells MEL, referring to the singer’s unique vibe: inclusive, excessive and a little bit chaotic. At the Kesha party, we eat the rich; there’s a Springsteen quality to her anti-bougie anthems like 2010’s “Sleazy.” “Literally, the song of the revolution,” says Sam Van Pykeren, a music writer for Mother Jones. “It will be blasted when the guillotines come out.” (This, though, might feel ironic on the singer’s upcoming cruise tour, whose tickets are around $1,000, plus taxes and fees.) Other activist messages are obvious in power-pop ballads like 2017’s “Praying” and the new single “Raising Hell.”

For 10 years, Kesha has been preaching self-discovery without judgment, queer acceptance and pure fun. She grew up and faced unimaginable trials as a young women in entertainment, but she never lost sight of who she is at heart. Her new album addresses everything from claiming self-ownership to losing your phone before you’ve called an Uber.

It’s a breath of fresh air: If TikTok culture tells us anything, it’s that Kesha’s brand of silliness is high social currency in an increasingly chaotic world. “I’m really okay if people think I’m a cheesy bitch,” Kesha told the Atlantic in November. “Because part of me is.”

Despite the Gen Z Kesha stans out there, the “Tik Tok” singer has yet to see her audio go viral on TikTok the app. If there were ever a year to “Raise Hell” and turn that around, it’s 2020.