As the Tufts campus prepares to welcome one of pop’s biggest, most outlandish and crass stars to the Spring Fling stage, the Daily Arts Section set out to deliver a comprehensive history of her persona and her music, and to explain why she is a driving feminist force in the music industry.
With as much bravado as she exuded while singing about brushing her teeth with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, Kesha Rose Sebert dropped the dollar sign from her former stage name and began steering her life and her music in a new direction. In 2009, the singer formerly known as Ke$ha shot to fame with her party banger TiK ToK, establishing herself as the wild child of pop with a ballsiness and devil-may-care attitude that shook up the entertainment industry and marked her as a force to be reckoned within the music scene. Adorned with glitter from head to toe, a style that seemed to be a mixture of Britney-gone-bad and early David Bowie or Keith Richards, the songstress rocked fur vests with cowboy boots, sparkly dresses and ripped vintage band tees, always with a messy mane of wild, blonde, lion-hair bedhead. While she received criticism for her party girl persona, it also quickly became evident that Kesha was one of the smartest stars in the pop game. Infusing her songs with a bratty sharp wit and layering vocal harmonies over rapid fire rap verses, Kesha sang about sneaking into parties at the mansions of wealthy men and not batting an eye at their money in “Party at a Rich Dude’s House” (2010), celebrating her personal success and loving exactly who she was in “We R Who We R” (2010) and being unapologetically sexual in “Sleazy” (2010).
It is not unheard of for a musician to undergo a major aesthetic brand transformation , whether it’s their persona or their name. Lady Gaga swapped out her blunt blonde bangs on “The Fame”(2008) for long blonde rocker locks on “The Fame Monster” (2009) Most recently, she switched to long flowing dark brown hair for “Cheek to Cheek” (2014), her recent collaboration album with Tony Bennett, for which the pair picked up a Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album. Sean Combs, whom Kesha sang about emulating on her first single “Tik Tok,” jumped from Sean “Puffy” Combs to Diddy to P. Diddy, and he has now returned to the simple and elegant Puff Daddy. Katy Perry’s hair changes color so frequently it’s a shock that it isn’t holographic. Madonna, Cher and Britney have switched up their looks with nearly every new single they released. David Bowie’s famous turn as Ziggy Stardust — complete with face paint in a red lighting bolt shape across his eye — was a landmark artistic move in the pop world, as the character challenged conventional gender roles and pushed the envelope for artistry in music. It should come as no surprise that Kesha credits Bowie and Richards among her musical inspirations, alongside Johnny Cash and Iggy Pop. Kesha collaborated with Iggy Pop on “Dirty Love” for her album “Warrior” (2012).
Kesha’s first hit vocal performance was, in fact, uncredited — delivering vocals on Flo Rida’s “Right Round” (2009). This brief moment of being shunned by the industry may have fueled so much of the brashness of her early work. In fact, in an article on AOLTV written by Harley Lond, Kesha explained the reasoning for the initial inclusion of the dollar sign. “’Well it kinda came from “Right Round” (rapper Flo Rida’s number one single on which Ke$ha made an uncredited appearance) and I didn’t make any money off of it, [so] I’m kinda being ironic about it,’ Ke$ha said. ‘I could hear [the song] everywhere’ but was so broke ‘I couldn’t buy a taco.’”
Much of Kesha’s work adopts a sexuality that transcends traditional gender roles. Blending machismo with an unashamed, unbridled and raw sexual energy that celebrates her female identity. The combination is rarely so viscerally channeled into banger pop. Granted, sex in pop is as common as twang in country, yet it is Kesha’s handling of sexuality that sets her apart. Take “Boots and Boys” or “Blah Blah Blah” from 2010’s “Animal.” On “Boots and Boys,” Kesha sings, “They bring me so much joy (bring me joy) / (I gotta say it) / I wear ’em both so pretty as I walk in the city.” On “Blah Blah Blah” she snarkily states, “I don’t care where you live at / just turn around boy, let me hit that.” And then, of course, there is the hidden gem “Dinosaur,” where the artist sounds off at older men trying to pick her up, rolling out the biting lyrics, “Not long ’til you’re a senior citizen / And you can strut around with that sexy tank of oxygen / Honey your toupee is fallin’ to your left side / Get up and go bro! / Oh wait you’re fossilized, ha!”
Kesha’s work inverts gender stereotypes by allowing the personas in her songs to adopt complete autonomy of their bodies and sexual choices, going against the grain to objectify the male body at times and counterintuitively drawing attention to the way women are so frequently and brutally treated by the entertainment industry in the process. Her work asserts that the women in her songs are as free to refuse objectification as they are to “Take the drinks from the tables when you get up and leave ‘em / and I don’t care if you stare and call us scummy/ because we aren’t after your affection and sure as hell not your money, honey” — as delivered in “Sleazy.”
Perhaps more important than her lyrics, though, is the reasoning behind Kesha’s name change, or the death of the dollar sign. After checking herself into rehab in January 2014, the singer spent six months recovering from an eating disorder and embarking on a serious journey of self-love and self-acceptance that culminated with the name change as well as some significant career changes.
In an op-ed that she penned for Elle UK, Kesha described her reasons for checking into rehab.
“I’ve always tried to be a crusader for loving yourself, but I’d been finding it harder and harder to do personally … So I made the decision to practise what I preach. I put my career on hold and sought treatment. I had to learn to treat my body with respect.” Now, after rehab, the star has dropped the dollar sign from her name and changed her twitter handle from the former @Keshasuxx to the simple @KeshaRose. Separating herself from her music producer Dr. Luke, whom she alleged sexually assaulted her and was emotionally and psychologically abusive, Kesha is removing toxicity from her life and moving forward to embrace positivity. She isn’t a traditional role model, but her refusal to be destroyed by an industry that so often thwarts the voices of strong women makes her an icon.