It's the morning before the MTV Video Music Awards, and Ke$ha still hasn’t had her nails done, let alone decided on what she’s wearing down the red carpet. Instead, the 23-year-old singer, who’s behind the biggest dance hits of the year and up for three top nominations, including best new artist, spent the morning messing around with her new “as seen on TV” BeDazzler.
Her weathered Army boots and faded Harley-Davidson T shirt are now covered in rhinestones, each of which shoots little rainbow prisms across the room every time she moves. “I did try to get a pedicure today,” she says, playing with the drawstring of her baggy sweatpants. “I figured I should since I’ll be competing with the Beyoncés of the world.” But she shrugs when she pulls her sockless foot out of her boot and exposes the chipped, drugstore nail polish on her toes. “I guess that’s what closed-toe shoes are for.”
It’s that kind of irreverence—along with her Auto-Tuned electropop—that’s made Ke$ha the love-her-or-hate-her artist of the moment. The Nashville provocateur has sold nearly 20 million tracks and ringtones since her debut, Animal, came out 10 months ago. She’s also set a record for the most digital album sales by a new artist. But Ke$ha, and her success, have inspired some of the nastiest commentary the blogosphere and media can dish out. No doubt Perez Hilton will find plenty more fodder in Ke$ha’s new material—a CD of fresh and repackaged songs due out next month. But why all the love/hate? Ke$ha is scrappy, working class, and more clumsy than choreographed—attributes that attract and repel, depending on which side of the fence you stand.
For those tired of über-polished acts like Rihanna, she is a savior. Ke$ha raps and sings about brushing her teeth with “a bottle of Jack,” boys in “tight-ass rocker pants,” and crashing a “party at a rich dude’s house” (the “$” in her name is meant to be ironic—she adopted it when she was still scrounging under couch cushions for bus money). She finds her inspiration in the rougher corners of pop culture—evidenced by her decorative gold-capped tooth and beat-to-hell cowboy boots—yet her songs are club-o-licious thanks to a production team that includes Britney songwriter Dr. Luke. Even Israel’s troops found Ke$ha hard to resist. Soldiers patrolling a Hebron street were caught on camera, then YouTube, dancing in formation to her hit “Tik Tok.” They were later ordered to make a public-service announcement on the dangers of dancing while on duty.
The gangly star has been labeled everything from a “low-rent Gaga” to “absolute garbage” by snarky bloggers, while Rolling Stone decried the singer’s dance tunes as “repulsive, obnoxious, and ridiculously catchy.” But like her or not, Ke$ha is keeping the music industry alive—along with a handful of other female artists that include Lady Gaga. Three of last year’s four bestselling albums were by women, and the most-played artists on radio and online this year are Beyoncé and Taylor Swift. Ke$ha is a big player in this game-changing group, yet even here she’s still the odd girl out. Take this interview, for instance. She showed up in sweats that looked like hand-me-downs from her big brother, with her tangled blonde hair falling out of its clip and her freckled face makeup-free. “Most women in the music biz are very sexy, and I’m not trying to be that,” says Ke$ha. “Everything is very polished, big, perfect, choreographed, and that’s just not me. I don’t really plan what comes out of my mouth, and that’s what makes most of my lyrics entertaining. I say what I would say to my friends over a beer, except I happen to be saying it to millions of people on the radio. Maybe that’s why I’m successful. ”
Kesha Rose Sebert grew up fatherless in Nashville with her mother, Pebe, and two brothers. Pebe was a songwriter who wrote tunes for Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash, but early on, Kesha remembers squeaking by on food stamps in between her mother’s royalty checks. Kesha did well in school but considered herself a social outcast. “I remember in fifth grade my mom’s friend straightened my hair, put on lipstick, and that was the first time the popular people talked to me,” she says. “I thought, this is what I have to do to make them like me? F--k that. The next day I was back in my homemade purple velvet pants and my frizzy hair.”
Kesha listened to her older brother’s Beastie Boys and Pixies CDs, as well as her mother’s Merle Haggard and Bob Dylan records. She also liked the “badassness” of Black Sabbath and Van Halen. “God, if I could only scissor-kick like David Lee Roth,” she says. “But I always thought I wanted to be like the Beastie Boys. I wanted to make youthful, irreverent anthems. Parents might not get it, but kids would.”
Then came Paris Hilton. The heiress arrived on the Seberts’ doorstep in 2004, along with Nicole Richie, after Pebe had replied to an ad looking for families to play host on MTV’s The Simple Life. Hilton and Richie moved in for a week, along with a camera crew, and performed stunts that included trying to find Pebe a boyfriend through the local singles ads. “Paris Hilton was one of the reasons I stand for the things I do,” says Ke$ha, who was 17 at the time. “Even if I were that rich, I would never be that frivolous. You don’t have to carry a designer bag that costs more than a car to look cool.”
While the show was shooting, Kesha was also busy sending out demos of songs she’d written. The day Dr. Luke called her, Paris grabbed the phone, and as a “joke,” hung up on him. Luckily he called back. The doctor hooked her up with Flo Rida, and Kesha sang backup on the rapper’s hit “Right Round.” Her debut came out in January 2010. “I wrote it when I was dead broke,” she says. “It was a celebration of the fact that we couldn’t wear designer clothes, so we shopped at Goodwill. But we looked just as good. Instead of taking an Escalade to a party, we took the bus. But it wasn’t about pity. It was fun.”
So what does a hardscrabble party girl write about now that she can take the Escalade to that exclusive Hollywood club? “My new music is still about my real life—my ex-boyfriend, this experience I had in Japan, and how pop stars are like cult leaders to their fans,” says Ke$ha. “We have this camaraderie, the cult and I. We’re a group of misfits who’ve found each other, and we’re ready to have fun together because we’re sick of trying to be perfect.”
Which brings us back to the VMAs. Lady Gaga swept eight categories, but not before changing her outfit a reported 10 times. Ke$ha won nothing, and wore closed-toe shoes and a garbage bag all night long. Really. Her tailored Hefty was accented with a faux-fur collar, and a long, messy, Viking-style braid that dropped to her waist. To her, the evening was a success, because she didn’t “fall or cuss” on camera. The only thing that could have made it better was her “Dance Commander hat,” an old Army helmet adorned with two-foot-high colored feathers, but it just didn’t go with her trash bag. “A friend of mine has a big farm in the desert, and she picks up feathers and roadkill for me, then makes it into clothes,” says Ke$ha. “I think it’s cool to wear roadkill. If I died and somebody wanted to wear my teeth around their neck to VMAs, I’d feel honored.”