Between the release of Kesha’s 2009 breakthrough ‘TiK ToK’ and the billion-strong video-sharing social network and Gen Z app-of-choice of the same name sits what feels like the entire history of modern culture. Arriving before Instagram, Spotify, and the host of tech gadgetry which defined the decade to follow, ‘TiK ToK’ captured the fast-paced and irreverent essence of internet culture. It is no coincidence that Gen Z’s app of choice takes its name from a single equally joyous and silly as it is strange.
But what captured the public’s attention and made ‘TiK ToK’ a hit? The song itself is a grab bag of musical influence, masterminded by Kesha’s mentor and superproducer Dr. Luke. ‘TiK ToK’ was neither pop nor rap nor rock. Instead, it was whatever it needed to be to grab the listener’s attention. And when it did it kept it there.
Tik Tok Started the Party for a Generation
Like any good pop single, ‘TiK ToK’ is not just a well-constructed song. It spoke to its audience, summing up the moment in time and taking the temperature of the world around. Great art reflects the life and pop is no exception. It often tells its listener what is going on in the world long before anyone else, including themselves, can put a name to it.
‘TiK ToK’ captures a feeling of unreality. What sounds like guitars are synthesizers. Kesha’s vocals arrived auto-tuned, neither rapping nor singing. Yet her contrivance is her appeal. The song reflects life in an altered reality of the internet – a space where seemingly anything can pop up, grab attention, and disappear, swiped away into oblivion no sooner than it arrives. Echoing the impatient click of the hands of an analog clock, ‘TiK ToK’ rings out the old and welcomes the new. And, no sooner does this arrive, it jumps again.
The song’s attitude was a joyous one. It was there to start the party for a generation who would soon be juggling multiple internet identities and spending as much time-shifting through these altered realities as the world outside. Kesha was at the vanguard of a generation to who fake was not an insult but something worthy of being celebrated. (Or better yet printed across a Gucci handbag.) Authenticity was not as important as being yourself. The fake was simply another element of the individual to be embraced, owned, and recognized on the path to finding one’s true identity.
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The song launched the career of the 22-year old Kesha Rose Serbert. The dance anthem follows a group of friends on a wild night out. From home preparation to knocking back the propositions of unwelcome men and casting a shrug to authority in general. And Kesha lived the life she sang about.
Convinced by Dr. Luke to drop out of her Nashville high school at age 18, Kesha moved to LA to pursue her dreams. At first, she lived briefly in a property owned by Dr. Luke before moving into a series of cheap rental houses with other struggling musicians. Kesha was young, broke, and totally alive. And it was within this carefree environment the idea for ‘TiK ToK’ would come about.
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“When I was 18 years old,” Kesha would later share, “I did wake up in the morning and I probably drank some Jack Daniels. I remember a morning in Vegas where that happened. So like, that was a real story then.”
“I woke up one day after we went to a party,” Kesha later informed Esquire Magazine, “and I was surrounded by 10 of the most beautiful women you’ve ever seen. And I was like, I’m like P. Diddy – there’s no man like this in the entire world. So that became the first line of the new single, and we just went from there.”
The song also speaks to the sense of boredom and agitation which comes with being young. Having signed to Dr. Luke’s label in 2005, Kesha, aside from an unpaid guest appearance on Flo Rida’s hit ‘Right Round’, had spent four years making little progress. ‘TiK ToK’ carries that feeling. Time is passing too slowly and Kesha is waiting for the world to catch up.
What Came Next
Kesha, like so many stars, flew too close to the sun. Within four years of her breakthrough single’s release, she was in rehab. The breakdown was, at first, attributed to an eating disorder brought on by the pressure of fame. “To have a breakthrough you have to have a breakdown, and I definitely went through both of those,” she told Teen Vogue in 2014. “In hindsight, it saved my life.”
“Things got worse because I’m in an industry where people photograph your body,” she explained. “[They] zoom in and blow it up and put it on the cover of magazines, and other people make terrible comments. It really messed with my head .”
“I have a public persona where I need to be fun all the time,” she then reflected, “and I refuse to be a hypocrite. I felt I needed to get help, not only for myself but also for my fans. My worst fear in life is to be fake. My whole message is to love who you are and accept all your beautiful imperfections. When I felt I was slipping into unloving territory with myself, I knew I had to listen to my own advice and correct it.”
After two months in rehab, Kesha emerged with a newfound feeling of self-worth and confidence. Little could the world have anticipated what happened next. Her greatest struggle was yet to come.
Kesha v. Dr. Luke
That same year, 2014, Kesha revealed she had suffered at the hands of the man who had launched her career. Dr. Luke (born Lukasz Gottwald), had first discovered the then 18-year-old Kesha’s demo in 2005. She owed a lot to Luke. Or so it would seem.
In Kesha’s view, her mentor had also been her tormentor. Looking to distance herself from Luke, Kesha sued to be released from her legal arrangement with the producer and his label Kemosabe. Appearing before New York and Californian courts in a series of explosive hearings, Kesha accused the hitmaker of stunting her creative growth. As the case progressed allegations of sexual assault, battery, sexual harassment, gender violence, emotional abuse, and rape were added to the accusations.
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Kesha’s accusations came as a shock. Having helped define the careers of Kelly Clarkson and Katie Perry Luke was celebrated as a pop Svengali. The public along with many within the music industry was unaware of any darker side to his personality yet statements from Lady Gaga and Kelly Clarkson, who had previously worked with Luke, hinted at similar experiences.
Despite the outpouring of support for Kesha from the public and musical peers like Taylor Swift, her efforts would come to nothing. Denying wrongdoing and citing Kesha’s motivations for the trial as purely commercial, Dr. Luke mounted a vigorous defence. US courts, not sharing in the public’s opinion, agreed.
Despite the widespread outcry, Kesha’s case was dismissed in 2016. Much to her dismay, she was obligated to fulfil a six-album contract with a man she believed had abused her. While Kesha maintains Dr. Luke had offered her a deal to release her from her contract if she agreed to take back the accusation of rape she could not accept it. “I would rather let the truth ruin my career,” she declared on Instagram in April 2014, “than lie for a monster ever again.” (Dr. Luke continues to produce artists to this day, his latest collaboration being chart-topping 2019 Doja Cat single ‘Say So‘.)
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