It was the day after Christmas, and we were dancing at 12th & Porter while Ke$ha danced barely three feet away. She already had the No. 2 song in the country, but she wouldn't be a global it-girl for at least another week. Had we known that, a month later, we'd be fighting with Rolling Stone and most of the European Union to land an interview, we would have just violated the first rule of the Nashville Celebrity-Industrial Complex to cut in.
But at that point, Ke$ha -- born Kesha Rose Sebert -- was still just a girl from Brentwood who'd moved to L.A. to make pop records. Tons of artists head to the Left Coast to make music with big-name producers every year, but rarely do those albums see the light of day, never mind launch a single like "TiK ToK" -- the hook-laden, bawdy dance-pop monster that recently sucker punched Debby Boone's "You Light Up My Life" for the longest run of consecutive weeks on top of Billboard's Hot 100 charts. Not that we weren't pulling for the sassy 23-year-old, but that sort of success is rare, and even rarer among people who've allegedly made out with not one, but two members of our Monday-night trivia team.
Then, Ke$ha didn't have a No. 1 record, Animal, or two hit singles. She'd just finished a tour opening for second-tier shock-rapper Mickey Avalon, and her first single was climbing, but she wasn't a red-carpet staple yet. "TiK ToK" hadn't partied into every commercial bumper on the cable spectrum, and she definitely didn't hold the record for most digital songs — 610,000 — sold in a single week. Yep, that's almost one for every person in Davidson County.
In other words, the concepts of "waking up feeling like P. Diddy" and "brushing your teeth with a bottle of Jack," as "TiK ToK" cheekily slurs, were still unknown in America's middle schools. Ke$ha was just another local kid whose mom had a country cut in the '80s and was trying to make a go at the big show herself. Not exactly a rarity: If you're reading this and left the house today, chances are pretty good that you ran across a songwriter's kid.
But where her crosstown pop peers play the game, Ke$ha's the smart girl who gets bored quick and starts causing trouble. Taylor Swift has her shrinking-violet, Eisenhower-era femininity. Paramore's Hayley Williams has her brooding mall-goth shtick. But Ke$ha is loud, brash and unapologetic when it comes to her sexuality and her idea of a good time.
Take second single "Blah Blah Blah," the slick, synth-drenched hip-house revival that kept her out of the one-hit wonder club. She isn't through the first verse before demanding that the song's intended "show me where your dick's at." Not exactly the rainbows-and-unicorn abstinence porn that the rest of the ladies in town deal in. (We suspect there aren't too many local gals making records who'd pee in a sink and use it as a promotional talking point, as Ke$ha did this fall.)
Predictably, this attitude is a lightning rod. For every critic who takes her seriously, another declares her responsible for the fall of western civilization. "It's hard to remember the last time an album so flat and vacuous generated such a buzz," wrote James Reed of the Boston Globe. In the less formalized world of Internet commenters, you'd think Ke$ha was going door to door handing out heroin and butt plugs to every girl old enough to walk.
In reality, Ke$ha represents a rather typical strain of contemporary lady-dom. She's not creating some new form of immorality — she's just 23 years old in America today, and doesn't couch it for the culture warriors and conservatives who weren't going to buy her record anyway. The New York Times got all sorts of excited that a white girl happened to rap on a song, but that song was manufactured in the same hit factory that produced Katy Perry and Avril Lavigne. This is no cultural fluke.
Besides, in a city built on the art of reaching the common denominator in verse, is it really surprising that a second-generation songwriter could tap into our proclivity for post-adolescent hedonism and ride it all the way to the top? Sure, it ain't solving world hunger, but it takes intuition and intelligence to tap the jugular of the international pop consciousness.
Ask anyone who knew Ke$ha back in the day – like one Ben Harville, who played Radiohead's "Karma Police" with her at the seventh-grade talent show (totes adorable YouTube video, bee-tee-dub) – and they'll tell you that the space-cadet party-girl shtick is an act. If you fall for it, you've just been outsmarted.
Of course, none of this was going through our heads that night at 12th & Porter. Then, she was just a girl on the dance floor. No team of publicists trying to coordinate transcontinental press junkets, and no indication that, within a few weeks, she'd be one of the biggest stars in the world. Just a local girl having a good time at a local club — no reason to be rude in the name of journalism. —SEAN L. MALONEY