With her ripped fishnets, decadent image and trashy lyrics, she’s been hailed as the anti-Gaga. Yet Ke$ha turns out to be even weirder than that
There’s a scraggle of underdressed teenagers outside Shepherd’s Bush Empire, passing a can of cider among them, who look like they’re waiting for the soup kitchen to arrive. Meanwhile, they’re smearing themselves in glitter and scrawling dollar signs on each other’s cheeks. Lady Gaga would not be impressed. Luckily, they’re not waiting for her. They’re looking for a pop star whose persona is built on this kind of vagabond swagger, whose image is described as “garbage chic”, who looks like Miley Cyrus in Steve Tyler’s wardrobe, dragged through a hedge backwards by Kiss: Ke$ha.
The video for her first single, Tik Tok, opens with her slumped in a bathtub missing a cowboy boot. For a 23-year-old girl with a Top 40 pop act, that image is a real two-finger salute to the Katy Perry sexpots surrounding her.
Later, at her concert, I’ll watch a line of lip-synching 12-year-olds “Lookin’ like pimps in my gold Trans-Am/ Got a water bottle full of whiskey in my handbag”, and realise she’s managed the tantalising feat of selling 50 Cent’s sentiments to Britney Spears’ fan club.
Last year Ke$ha grabbed pop by the throat, when her first album, Animal, become one of the most played in the world. Her single Tik Tok topped the US charts for nine weeks, scoring more downloads in the first week (610,000) than any other female artist had ever. She was crowned on the cover of Billboard with champagne exploding over her fishnets.
Her dishevelled, decadent image, coupled with a neat line in pillow talk — “Don’t be a little bitch with your chit chat/ Just show me where your dick’s at” — made her the third-fastest-rising woman in entertainment in 2010, according to the number of Google hits she received, beaten only by Lady Gaga and Shakira.
Eighteen-year-old Craig has skived off college in Sheffield to be here: “I wouldn’t have done that for Alexandra Burke.” He’s made the pilgrimage for Ke$ha because she is “real”, she “doesn’t lie about being a virgin like Britney” and — he adds, patting glitter onto his eyes — “she gives a sanctuary to people who are odd, a space in which you can be yourself”. Newsweek magazine says she’s the “anti-Gaga” because she couldn’t care less about how she looks.
Ke$ha’s half an hour late when she rocks up to the Empire: a big blonde blow-dry of knotted hair extensions and glitter over biker boots and fishnets. Wardrobe, hair and make-up assistants are travelling with her, which leaves me sceptical about her whole schtick. Ke$ha-haters say her image is contrived; that beneath the grime she’s just another malleable pop tart whose management has created this rock-chic image for her. But over the next two days she proves otherwise. She may have stylists on tap, but you hardly see them touch her. She rips off false lashes as soon as they turn their backs, turns up for photoshoots with fake blood in her hair, and refuses to wear “high heels and bullshit”. In her dressing room she’ll show me the tattoos she doodles on herself with her own gun: a skull, her signature $, three “hobo stamp” dots. She says she’s “not a persona. I just want to be myself”.
I am not a babysitter. If you’re going to come to my show prepare to be visually and sonically violated. My balls are on the table
She’s playing one night at the Empire, to around 2,000 fans. It’s her first headline show in Britain. If it goes well, this year she’ll play the O2. If not, I guess she’ll be relegated to HMV’s pop bargain bin somewhere between Kenny Rogers and Kim Wilde.
A group of competition-winners are waiting inside to meet their idol. To get here, they had to write a paragraph saying why they liked Ke$ha, so I ask one: “What did your paragraph say?” He stares blankly: “What’s a paragraph?” Beside him a fan is unfurling a poster, on which he’s written in glitter pen: “EAT ME KESHA USE MY FINGERS TO STIR MY TEA AND FOR DESSERT SUCK MY TEETH MICHAEL HALL”. What does it mean? I ask Michael Hall. “It’s the lyrics to her song Cannibal.”
Kesha Rose Sebert writes her own lyrics. Her songwriter mum, Pebe (“like Peeea-nut butter”), penned country-and-western hits, including one for Dolly Parton, in Nashville, where Ke$ha grew up with her brothers, Lagan — now 29, an online video journalist for The Financial Times — and Louis, now 11. They were a one-parent family living on benefits. Ke$ha’s first memory is asking for a toy and her mum saying: “If you want that, you have to take it, because I can’t buy it for you. So I stole a stuffed animal. I was five.” It taught her “if I want anything it’s up to me to take it” but also that “money doesn’t equal happiness”. Now she is worth $$$$.
How much? “I don’t know.” Apparently, she doesn’t care. Still, enough to buy a house, in Nashville, her first home since she left the family abode to meet a man who, as Ke$ha tells it, “called me and said, ‘I think I’m your dad.’ My mum was like, “It’s a possibility”. So Ke$ha flew to LA, only to establish very quickly he wasn’t.
She decided to stay in La-la-land anyway, where she rented an apartment, lost it; slept in her car until it broke down; bought a bike, which got stolen; then moved in with the mega hit-maker Dr Luke, who made her a star. And her dad? “I’ve gone without for 18 years, so if you’re not going to add something insanely positive to my life, why add something now? The other day I talked to my mum about it. She has a sketchy memory. I don’t really care. I’m going to pretend like my dad is Mick Jagger and proceed.”
Ke$ha and her band — dressed like a Mötley Crüe tribute act — march towards the stage. A crowd of teenagers start panting: “Ke$ha, Ke$ha, KE$HA!” Parents shuffle awkwardly. Ke$ha appears, flying blonde hair, blue lips, sequin pants and a black-leather jacket with a flashing red dollar on the back. “I love you Ke$haaAAA,” a tiny girl screams. Somewhere Michael Hall is waving his sign. Watching Ke$ha perform is a bit like watching Glee Club do Bon Jovi at G-A-Y. Ke$ha bounds around with two male backing dancers in stars-and-stripes hot pants. A man dressed as Santa passes Ke$ha a glitter gun, from which she fires giant gold glitter chunks over the crowd before stage-diving after it. A group of transvestites storm the stage in a spectacle of heels, baubles, PVC and Day-Glo. But it is the song Tik Tok that sends things over the edge. Two giant red donkey pinatas are lowered on stage. Santa reappears, clutching blow-up sex dolls.
Then Ke$ha starts smashing out the donkey’s insides, showering her young audience with a rubbery confetti of Ke$ha condoms. “I did not expect that,” breathes a 12-year-old’s mother. “Promoting safe sex,” shrugs Ke$ha’s PR.
Could your fans be a bit young for the whole in-your-face-sex thing? I ask Ke$ha later. She sniggers. “There was a little boy who was five, but his mum brought him to my show. I’m not a babysitter. If you’re going to come to my show, be prepared to be visually and sonically violated. My balls are on the table. I’m very upfront with who I am. There is sex. There is alcohol. They’re going to figure it out someday.”
Ke$ha’s own mum told her “everything about sex before I was even seven”. “My mum left me at home when I was 14 with a credit card and a box of condoms and the keys to the car and said, ‘Don’t get pregnant and don’t drink and drive.’ ” She didn’t. “I had to be responsible for myself.”