Three young women in Ke$ha’s entourage are conferring about the evening’s plans. Where should the Californian pop star go for the night’s entertainment? A venue specialising in what a member of the entourage describes as “weirdly sexual burlesque” turns out to be the answer. One of the young women sounds apprehensive. “Is there a reserved seating area?” she asks.
I observe this snapshot of the VIP lifestyle – decadent, regimented, roped-off – in The Cuckoo Club, a private members bar off Regent Street in central London. Ke$ha, real name Kesha Sebert, is over promoting her new album. It’s the follow-up to her 2010 debut, Animal, which transformed her from incompetent LA waitress and hustling professional songwriter into celebrity A-lister.
Ke$ha, 25, is one of a vibrant group of female pop stars who dominate today’s charts. Each projects a distinctive personality: the self-styled “black Madonna” (Rihanna), the arty weirdo (Lady Gaga), the middle-American sweetheart (Taylor Swift), the cheeky girl-next-door (Katy Perry). Their male counterparts are colourless in comparison. You can’t really imagine Justin Bieber’s entourage planning visits to “weirdly sexual” burlesque clubs.
Ke$ha’s image is the party girl, which dates from her debut single “Tik Tok” in 2009 – a brash celebration of American debauchery in which she sang about brushing her teeth with Jack Daniel’s and partying “till we see the sunlight”. It sold more than 14 million copies.
Following Madonna’s example, the current crop of female stars has raised provocation to an art form, from Katy Perry’s mildly risqué “I Kissed a Girl” to Rihanna’s unsettling exposure of her experience of domestic abuse. But whereas Madonna at her peak was the strong woman par excellence, her successors are more ambiguous. Is Rihanna really in control when she sings with the ex-boyfriend who beat her up, as she does on her new album Unapologetic?
Ke$ha’s music is essentially frivolous – her speciality, she says, is “silly, fun pop songs” – but it has a similar dynamic. “Take my hand, I’ll show you the wild side,” she sings on her latest single. Yet being in control can also mean heading out of control, towards tomorrow’s hangover. Owning up to your appetites can mean being possessed by them. The tension points to the pressures faced by young women in a culture that is at once intensely moralistic and highly sexualised.
We are sitting in a corner of the basement bar. The singer sprawls on the banquette, blonde hair tumbling over her shoulders, a ring in her nose, a tattoo of a mandala-style emblem visible on her arm. I’m not impertinent enough to request a glimpse of her other tattoos – the statement “Suck It!” inside her lip or the “Yeah!” on her foot.
She wears a hippy blouse and fake brown crocodile-skin trousers. At least I assume they’re fake: Ke$ha is a keen animal-rights activist. Born in LA but raised in Nashville, she was brought up by a single mother who works as a country-music songwriter. Her mother, with whom Ke$ha has written several of the songs on her new album, sounds like a free spirit, choosing to raise her children in the bible belt without paternal involvement and drumming into them the importance of self-reliance. A “wild woman”, Ke$ha says approvingly.
The singer followed in her mother’s song-writing footsteps, scribbling tunes in the back of maths books at school where she was a “total loser”. At 17 she moved to LA, working badly as a waitress (“I’m good at singing songs and writing them and dancing around and being entertaining, but I’m not good at waiting tables”). She did better-selling songs: the first one went to Australian duo The Veronicas. Later she co-wrote one of the standout pop songs of recent years, Britney Spears’ 2011 single “Till the World Ends”. By then her performing career was under way, having got her break guesting on a hit single by the rapper Flo Rida.
Following “Tik Tok” she was lambasted for glamourising intoxication and promiscuity. Not unreasonably she cites double standards. “If men can talk about drinking in every awesome rock ’n’ roll song and every awesome rap song, why can’t a woman?” she says. “Just because I drink doesn’t mean I’m a drunk. Just because I have sex, and I’m not embarrassed about it, doesn’t mean I’m a whore. If men can do it, why can’t a woman do it? I really feel one of my main reasons for being on this earth is to level the playing field just a little bit.”
Would she describe herself as feminist? “In some ways. In the ways that I feel I can do the same things men can do, and be just as rock ’n’ roll and bad ass and not feel shameful or be shamed for it.”
At root Ke$ha’s music, like many of her pop peers, is about sexual morality and women’s bodies. It’s an electric issue in the US, where abortion is the fault line between competing visions of the nation. For all her sexual frankness, Ke$ha carefully avoids taking a position.
“As far as the political side, I don’t really go there because everyone has their opinions on that,” she says. “But I think women and their bodies – I think that debate has been going on since time began.”
Ke$ha is more uncensored than most pop stars – yet that’s not the same as being entirely uncensored. She operates in a rigidly structured environment. Large amounts of money ride on her success; intensive work by many hands goes into her songs. She is a brand as well as an individual.
“I have people on me from the moment I wake up to the moment I get to sleep, literally, like phone blowing up, emails blowing up, people walking in and out of my room, I don’t even have a room key half the time,” she says. “When you’re on tour you’re not alone for one second. You’re put to bed and woken up by someone and you’re followed around by a security guard who makes sure that none of your stalkers tries to kill you and make your skin into a Ke$ha suit.”
Last year she stepped outside this “high-demand lifestyle that is really bizarre” by travelling around South Africa and South America for a month with a backpack.
Warrior pushes at musical boundaries by incorporating rock into her usual dance-pop – though not too much.
“I really wanted to bring as much rock ’n’ roll as I could to this record, but after a from-the-business-standpoint conversation with my producer [her mentor Lukasz “Dr Luke” Gottwald], he was like, if you want to have a successful record you can’t just abandon that sound.”
Warrior’s guests include the granddaddy of dissolute rock, Iggy Pop. Ke$ha speaks with awe of working with the Stooges singer, who is 40 years older than her. It’s an unexpected display of ancestor worship.
In the balance between individual and brand, it strikes me that there is more Kesha in her music than Ke$ha. “Sometimes you just have to be a little bit more cautious, which is not at all in my nature, trust me,” she says. Roped-off areas are one of the byproducts of fame.
‘Warrior’ is out on Sony Records on December 3 (December 4 in the US). Ludovic Hunter-Tilney is the FT’s pop critic