The fabric of America is woven with many stripes. For every hallmark of civility a subversive counterpart is at play. The mainstream must answer to the underground. Aboveboard businesses engender lawless underbellies and the one percent inevitably answers to the ninety-nine. There are the torchbearers for traditional American values, and then there are the weirdos. Somewhere close to the anarchic end of the spectrum stands Kesha Rose Sebert, better known as Ke$ha—the rambunctious songwriter, rapper, and singer whose brassy aesthetic recalls at once the irreverence of electroclash, the bravado of ’80s hair metal, and the backwater, gold-toothed charm of the blues. Her lyrics are laced with genital humor and profanity, a popular anecdote about using Jack Daniel’s as toothpaste, and even a reference to “pull[ing] a Jeffrey Dahmer” if a boy acts too sweet. Rolling Stone declared her debut album, Animal, “repulsive” and “obnoxious.” During her inaugural Get Sleazy tour, one song sequence famously climaxed with a supersized penis dancing on stage.
Sure, raunch can be construed as the antithesis of chic, but at what point does the barrier separating lowbrow entertainment from art begin to break down? Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey mined sex, drugs, and transsexuality in films like Flesh, Trash, and Heat. John Waters left an indelible mark on art and cinema with his own brand of transgressive offerings. “I do feel like there are the pop stars of the world and then I’m like their dirty little sister, running around with **** on my face in combat boots because I can’t walk in heels,” Ke$ha explains on the set of her V shoot. Yet somehow she has sold over 15 million albums worldwide. So how did a girl with so little decorum become America’s least-likely cultural leader? The answer lies in her journey. We need to talk about Ke$ha.
In person, the superstar is earnest, affable, and disarmingly regular. “My very first memory is when we lived in Van Nuys, running around barefoot,” she says of her upbringing. “Shortly thereafter we moved to Tennessee, which was a lot of hiking and rope-swinging. I always coveted a Trans-Am, which is now my ride of choice.” Getting that car, like the hit records, took a lot of work and resilience. “Everything I sing, I write,” she says. “Love it or hate it, it all comes from me.” Raised by her mother, also a songwriter, Ke$ha left home as a teenager, went back to L.A., and used her mother’s connections to set up meetings. But the experience proved to be frustrating, since many wouldn’t work with her until she had a record deal in place.
“I met with this one big writer and he thought he was hot ****,” she says dismissively. “He had me driving all over town—and I didn’t have gas money. The last time I met up with him, he said, ‘I have a great song title, but you can’t have it because you’re not signed.’ Then he asked me to leave his house. It was such a weird, twisted thing for a grown man to do to a young, desperate artist! It made me want to get successful to show that whether or not people recognize the power that is in you yet, it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. It’s not even about signing with a big label. With the Internet, the entire music business is changing. If anyone tries to tell you that you can’t do what you want to, I think you should give them the finger and do it anyway.”
Young, brash female empowerment has ruled the airwaves over the past few years, but Ke$ha has been able to separate herself from the pack by keeping her approachability in tact. Self-styled in ripped-up T-shirts and smeared makeup, she has emerged as the inevitable backlash to pop’s rhinestone-studded, over-the-top glamour. The dollar sign in her name is a knowing wink at the absurdity of fame—and it works. Her auto-tuned refrains have become rallying cries for the masses, thanks in part to mastermind producer Dr. Luke, who signed her to the deal that would make her career. “It’s tough for kids to emulate someone with twenty fashion people on staff,” Luke says of Ke$ha’s appeal. “Ke$ha comes out in an AC/DC T-shirt that she found in a dumpster, literally, and she rocks it. It’s sort of a metaphor for who she is. Anyone can be Ke$ha in their own way.”
“I try to include my fans in my message,” Ke$ha explains. When asked if she is today’s working-class pop star, she laughs. “I do feel like there is an element of what I’m doing that is about where I come from, which is working-class. I was never the cool kid, I was never hot in high school. I was never popular. You don’t have to be perfect and you don’t have to be rich and you can still be successful.”
Her salt-of-the-earth appeal is perhaps what led Matt Groening and the producers of The Simpsons to animate an extended opening sequence in which all of the show’s characters act out the lyrics to “Tik-Tok,” an unprecedented moment in Simpsons history—and one Ke$ha still counts as a surreal breakthrough. “It’s such an epic show,” she says, eyes *******. “It really represents American television. I had no idea it was coming. I don’t watch television at all. I’m not really on the Internet because it scares me.”
Ke$ha admits that she likes to live off the grid, but is shutting off the TV really all it takes to stay sane? “When paparazzi showed up at my house, it was really mind-boggling. I’ve found ways to do exactly what I want, but in the privacy of my own sanctuaries.” She still divides her time between houses in L.A. and Tennessee, living in the woods, she says, “away from inquiring eyes.” “I have wild, wild nights there,” she confesses, “but my friends and I are all really private. We get ****ing crazy, but you’re not going to see me stumbling out of nightclubs.”
Given her feral attitude, it is fitting that our next talk takes place at the Wildlife Waystation, an exotic-animal rescue-and-rehabilitation facility nestled in the mountains of the L.A. National Forest. The refuge also serves as the private home of its founder, animal-rights advocate Martine Colette, an endlessly fascinating woman with an affinity for chimpanzees and white wine. It is not yet open to the public, so we spend the day meeting in private with tigers, lions, ligers, chimpanzees, wolves, bobcats, grizzly bears, and other fauna, most of whom have found their way to the States as a result of lax wildlife importation laws or by illegal means, later to be discovered by authorities and then rescued by Colette and her crew. Today the sanctuary houses more than 450 exotic animals, cared for by more than 400 volunteers.
“We could have gone to a bar,” Ke$ha says, as a family of native peacocks leap into an adjacent tree and the surrounding animals chime in at tremendous volume. “But I wanted you to come here and see that it’s so important to me that everything I do is animal-friendly.” The first global ambassador for the Humane Society, Ke$ha has spent the past year getting involved in animal conservation, spending her recent hiatus on an “animal journey,” diving with humpback whales and hammerhead sharks and then rehabilitating baby lions in South Africa. She will soon chronicle her work with animals for a television series produced by National Geographic. “The show looks at animals being abused and how to stop that, or animals that are going extinct and how to help those animals. I am so passionate. I like animals more than people.” She also notes that she only wears shed feathers and intends to produce her own animal-friendly cosmetics line.
Her love for the wild things will surely find space on her new album, which she’s been writing and recording for the first half of 2012. “The first record was all me living in L.A., trying to pay my rent, have a really good time, and look good on nothing. But ever since then I’ve seen how many people my music can reach, and I’ve realized that I have somewhat of a social responsibility to make sure everything I say is positive. The underlying theme of this next record is warrior, with the positive message being that everyone has a warrior inside.”
Of the sound, she says, “Some people will be shocked. Some will also be excited to know that I don’t just do silly white-girl rap. I’m from the South, I have a lot of soul.” She pauses as a bobcat walks by. “But trust me—it’s not going to be some avant-garde jazz record. I innately write pop songs. That’s just what I do.”
Citing as inspirations the Rolling Stones, Iggy and the Stooges, and T-Rex, Ke$ha has broken the no-guitar rule she famously imposed on her producers the first time around. “I want to bring the edge and the rawness and the visceral energy of ’70s and ’80s punk rock,” she says. One song she describes features guitar and no auto-tune, with backup vocals performed by her mother. “It’s a throwback song. It’s all about how I don’t want your money, I don’t want a ring, I don’t wanna be your girlfriend, and I’m never going to be your wife. I just want your dirty love—so it’s called ‘Dirty Love.’”
While she is coy about rumors that Justin Bieber might make his way onto the album (“we’re only talking”), she recently recorded with Wayne Coyne on a Flaming Lips track. “I love hanging out with people that are like batteries,” she says of Coyne. “They re-energize my lust for being alive. We met and wrote five songs in 36 hours—they might not even be good, but when your blood is rushing and your heart is pumping, it’s really intense emotionally. When you find somebody who brings that out of you, it’s ****ing amazing.”
Coyne has equally kind words for Ke$ha, one of many collaborators featured on his band’s latest record, including Nick Cave, Bon Iver, and Yoko Ono. “In the beginning people would think we were worlds apart,” he says. “Because I’m [perceived as] this self-made, indie, psychedelic, acid-casualty weirdo, and Ke$ha must be this fake, manufactured sort of person—but she really isn’t at all. She’s more like me than people would ever know. She loves her audience, and she’s one of them. It’s not some act. She’s fearless, fun, and not afraid to be embarrassed or the first one to stand up and have an opinion. A lot of people aren’t like that.”
Coyne says others would consult with twenty managers before agreeing to a recording session, but that when he called Ke$ha on a Monday, she invited him to record at her house that week. Within 25 minutes of meeting the band, she was giving them all permanent ink, with a tattoo gun that she keeps around the house. “I can say from my experience that I love her and I would fight for her,” Coyne says earnestly. “I’m on her side, and she’s on mine. When freaks meet each other, you’re like, ‘I’m one of you, I can tell.’”
“The range of artists I want to work with is so vast it’s bizarre,” Ke$ha says. “I would love to have Keith Richards on the record. I would sure as hell like to do a collaboration with Bieber and at the same time do a song with the Flaming Lips. If someone is a real artist, you can’t confine them to a particular genre. It’s my mission to make it all make sense somehow.”
Part of her mission was achieved when she found herself parlaying a fever into a musical high as she was co-writing the global smash hit “Til the World Ends” for Britney Spears. “To write a song for an icon, someone who stands for pop, it really doesn’t get better than that,” she says.
The admiration is apparently mutual. “Ke$ha brings an incredibly carefree, fun-loving spirit to American pop music,” Britney says via e-mail. “I love listening to her songs when I’m on the treadmill. They help me power through my workout.”
As we prepare to head back down the mountain, Ke$ha contemplates the narrative she’s building. “It’s all spur-of-the-moment, crazy ideas. If people get me or people don’t get me, I really can’t worry. Somebody said to me, ‘I didn’t know if you were some wild party girl or if you were in on the joke, but I get it now.’”