When Kesha exploded onto the pop charts singing the chorus on Flo Rida's 2009 song "Right Round," she wasn't even given a credit on the track. She also wasn't paid for it, an experience she alluded to by ironically converting the s in her name to a dollar sign.
Later that year, she introduced herself to the world on the earworm "TiK ToK" as the girl who brushes her teeth with Jack Daniel's and kicks boys to the curb unless they look like Mick Jagger. In the video, her hair appeared to have gone weeks unwashed, and her makeup looked like a mix of glitter and soil. Henceforth she was marketed as the dirty-girl party-pop star.
At that time, Kesha's bizarre personality shone through, but the sound of her music was carefully curated by then-hitmaker and now-embattled producer Dr. Luke. The fuzzy electropop sound with repetitive choruses was a far cry from the music Kesha had grown up with.
She was raised in Nashville by her mother, a country songwriter. Kesha developed a love for country music and in a 2010 Rolling Stone profile noted Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline as her favorite record of all time. Her earliest demos were acoustic and country-influenced. So how did she end up making the shallow party pop for which she's become known?
Well, one of those early demos included what Billboard called a "gobsmackingly awful trip-hop track" on the flip side of the country demo, featuring Kesha rapping absurdly about growing up in Tennessee. The song eventually found its way into Dr. Luke's ears. In the internet and even post-TRL age, it's almost passé to stick to one genre as a music fan, and Kesha was no exception. And it appears that as a struggling artist, when an opportunity presented itself, she grabbed life by the balls and rode her inflatable stage-prop penises as far as they'd take her.
By the time her third release, Warrior, arrived, Kesha had become more vocal about her struggles with certain aspects of maintaining creative control over her career.
When radio stations pulled the lead single, "Die Young," after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, she tweeted she'd been forced to sing the words "die young" despite her expressed opposition. Though she later released a more nuanced explanation of her tweets, the sentiment rang the same. She was not completely comfortable delivering the words she'd been asked to sing.
Despite the controversy surrounding the album's lead single, she began to make some interesting musical choices. Using her growing creative agency, she put her hero Iggy Pop on the album in the song "Dirty Love." She was still as dirty as the woman whom listeners had met on "TiK ToK," but she had Iggy Pop by her side now.
Her career's creative momentum came to a sudden and shocking halt when she filed a lawsuit against Dr. Luke that sought to legally separate her from his label. The suit alleged he had repeatedly drugged and raped her throughout their professional relationship.
Though she's since dropped the sexual assault claims, the legal battle to artistically disentangle herself from Dr. Luke rages on.
During the legal battle, she's gained support from women throughout the entertainment industry, including Lena Dunham, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, and, notably, Kelly Clarkson, who worked extensively with Dr. Luke in the past.
The lawsuit, and indeed Kesha's entire career, is a case study in the role of women in an industry that features them on album and magazine covers and in advertising campaigns not as people, but as products to be consumed, often controlled behind the scenes by men yanking the puppet strings.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Women are left to do what Kesha (she dropped the dollar sign from her name as a symbolic representation of her rebirth) has done since the beginning of her career: seize an opportunity despite qualms and then eke out creative agency until they earn control over their brand, artistry, and soul.
At her upcoming show at the Fontainebleau, expect to see an artist touring and clawing her way back to the top — on her own terms this time.