I was backstage at the 2009 Jingle Ball, chatting with a band in a narrow corridor at what is now Amalie Arena, when a blur of blond and black slipped between us en route from the stage to her dressing room.
"Excuse me," Kesha said softly, so as not to interrupt.
She was 22 then, an unknown on the rise, whose debut single Tik Tok had just cracked Billboard's Top 5. The song was insanely catchy — it would spend the first nine weeks of this decade at No. 1 — and would affix in the public's eye an image of Kesha Rose Sebert as a boy-crazy party animal who brushed her teeth with Jack Daniel's before hitting the clubs.
It was also her first of many singles with co-writer and producer Lukasz "Dr. Luke" Gottwald, the man so closely associated with Kesha today.
In 2014 the singer-songwriter sued her producer, alleging years of sexual and emotional assault, harassment and violence, and begging for release from the "slavery" of her record contract. This spring, the suit was largely dismissed, thrusting Kesha, a singer once more likely to be criticized than celebrated, into a new kind of celebrity spotlight. She became a cause, a hashtag, a defiant fist held high in the air.
She was also a victim — if not (legally) of Dr. Luke, then of her own public persona, which has led far too many to take her far less seriously than she deserves. She has been forced to reconstruct her broken life with a reinvented sound and some much smaller shows, including one at Tampa's Ritz Ybor on Tuesday.
It's an early step in reclaiming what began as the most promising pop career of this decade. Millions are watching to see if she makes it.
"Excuse me," she said as she passed me that night. She was going somewhere in a hurry, but not so fast she couldn't take a second to be human.
• • •
Kesha's career began with a bang matched by few others.
Her first seven singles — Tik Tok, Blah Blah Blah, Your Love Is My Drug, Take It Off, We R Who We R, Blow and Die Young — all went platinum and hit the Top 10. So did 3OH!3's My First Kiss, on which she was featured; and Britney Spears' Til The World Ends, which she co-wrote. From 2010 to 2012, it was a run matched only by Katy Perry and Rihanna.
It was pure party music: pulsing, glittering, wild-child synthpop, with lyrics that reveled in the hedonism of youth. Her hippie-raver aesthetic, quasi-rapped delivery and suggestive song titles (Sleazy, Party at a Rich Dude's House) belied a rock sensibility forged growing up in Los Angeles and Nashville, where her mother wrote songs for artists like Dolly Parton.
But "Ke$ha," as she was technically known back then, didn't quite click like Perry or Rihanna — or Taylor Swift or Adele or Amy Winehouse or Miley Cyrus, for that matter. Zero Grammy nominations. Zero MTV Video Music Awards. Of all her peers, she was the easiest for critics to dismiss, with a name (oof, that dollar symbol) and appearance (feathers, face paint, rhinestones, spandex) that teetered between caricature and cartoon.
She would claim this was her intention, that "Ke$ha" was a subversive put-on for pop's sake, but few took her act as seriously as, say, Lady Gaga's. Even after recruiting punk icon Iggy Pop to sing on 2012's Warrior, she remained a trash-pop punch line. Saturday Night Live took shots. I took shots. You probably did, too.
Every now and then, glimpses of another Kesha peeked out. A clip of her singing Radiohead's Karma Police at a middle school talent show went viral. She contributed a fragile, wrenching cover of Bob Dylan's Don't Think Twice, It's Alright to a charity compilation for Amnesty International. She recorded with the Flaming Lips, and at one point planned a full album with them. Apparently there was more to Kesha than "Ke$ha" let on.
How much more? No one really knew.
But the world was about to find out.
• • •
In her bombshell 2014 lawsuit against Dr. Luke, Kesha spelled out in disturbing detail how she felt "sexually, physically, verbally and emotionally abused" by her star producer, starting from the time he signed her to his label at age 18.
She alleged she was drugged, date-raped, intimidated and bound to a producer who wouldn't let her work with anyone else. She claimed Dr. Luke's alleged abuse led her to develop an eating disorder, for which she went to rehab. (Dr. Luke, who was never charged with a crime, has strongly denied all allegations and has countersued Kesha and her family for defamation and breach of contract.)
Of all the accusations, one resonates differently today than it did in 2014. Kesha cites a list of alleged insults from Dr. Luke about her voice and appearance and worth as an artist. Here's the one that stands out:
"There are a million other girls out there like you."
Read one way, these words suggest Kesha was disposable, replaceable, just another blond pop star not to be taken seriously. Read another, they illuminate why so many have taken up her cause, donating time, talent and even cash to her comeback.
Kesha's downfall is part of a much bigger discussion about sexual harassment and assault, intimidation and gender imbalance. It's the same narrative that has ensnared Bill Cosby, The Birth of a Nation's Nate Parker and former Stanford swimmer Brock Turner. Like many accusers, Kesha has battled back against attacks in court and in public — "a desperate attempt to blame the victim," her lawyer, Mark Geragos, told the New York Daily News. Her quest for emancipation has been hobbled by denials and dismissals, yet as recently as this month, she faced the possibility of having to turn over more than 900 pages of personal medical records which could be made public. Pursuing her truth has cost her dearly.
"This lawsuit is so heavy on my once free spirit," she wrote on Facebook in August, after dropping one of her suits against Dr. Luke, "and I can only pray to one day feel that happiness again."
She's trying. At May's Billboard Music Awards, she performed a delicate and beautiful piano cover of Dylan's It Ain't Me Babe. She recruited a rock band called the Creepies and hit the road. She's still singing all those old Dr. Luke-produced hits — Tik Tok, Die Young, Timber — but they sound leaner, rawer, more aggressive. She's playing covers with a not-so-hidden message: Lesley Gore's You Don't Own Me, Dylan's I Shall Be Released.
my career is in a strange place, she wrote on Instagram in May, and it feels like I'm fighting an uphill fight some days. but I have decided to take my life back. my freedom. my happiness. my voice. my worth. I will not just f------ be quiet and hide.
The gap is narrowing between the Ke$ha the world thought it knew, and the Kesha it never really did. Her 20s blew by in a blur, her career undone, her potential only partially realized. Her struggles aren't over. But she's speaking up loud enough to be heard. And for the first time, everyone is listening.
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.