The Ones of the ‘10s: Kesha’s “TiK ToK”

In The Ones of the ‘10s, I’ll be reviewing every single that hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the 2010s and work my way up into the present. This column will be done in the style of Stereogum’s column The Number Ones where writer Tom Breihan has spent the last two years reviewing every #1 song in the entire history of the Billboard Hot 100 from 1958 to the present where he is currently up to 1978. Seriously, read his column it’s so good! Start with the latest song he’s reviewing and work your way backwards. My mission with this column is to give my thoughts on the songs that were big in the 2010s while also giving you guys the stories behind the songs and artists you either love or hate. And with that, we can try to make sense of what the 2010s were musically and where music is going now. In a nod to Breihan’s column, I will grade each song from 1 to 10. After my review, I’ll post Bonus Beats where I post various clips of the song’s use in popular culture from movies, TV, commercials, performances, covers, and samples. I’ll also post The Number Twos and the 10s of the ‘10s where I give my rating to songs that peaked at #2 and elsewhere in the Top 10 behind the song I reviewed that’s usually an 8 or higher. There are a lot of #1 songs to get through so I plan on posting one song review a day or as close to every day as my schedule will allow. Enjoy!


Kesha- “TiK ToK”

HIT #1: January 2, 2010

STAYED AT #1: 9 weeks

By the beginning of 2010, the Great Recession had officially ended but America was still largely feeling the effects of it as a generation of young people were coming of age in a very shaky economy that was slowly recovering and a limited workforce. And all through this, the number one song at the beginning of the year as well as Billboard’s #1 song of 2010 was all about going to the club to get blackout drunk where you wake up in the morning feeling like P. Diddy and brush your teeth with a bottle of jack. Hard times. 

By the time she broke out with “TiK ToK”, Kesha had been involved with music practically her whole life. Born in Los Angeles, Kesha Rose Sebert was the daughter of Pebe Sebert, a struggling singer-songwriter who had co-written “Old Flames Can’t Hold A Candle To You” in 1978 for country singer Joe Son and later became a #1 hit on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs Chart in 1980 when Dolly Parton covered it. But that success didn’t last and by the time Kesha was born, Pebe was a struggling single mother relying on welfare and food stamps to get by financially. 

At 4, Kesha and her family moved to Nashville when her mom got offered a songwriting contract and would often spend time in the recording studio with her. With this, Pebe began noticing her daughter’s interest in music and would encourage Kesha to work on her demos and would often write songs together. In school, Kesha studied songwriting while also playing the trumpet and saxophone in her high school marching band. She was also a high achieving student getting high SAT scores and went off to Barnard College after graduating but that life would soon change in a big way.

In 2005, Kesha recorded a two song demo with her mom and songwriter Samantha Cox. The first song was a regular country ballad while the other was a more hip-hop influenced song where Kesha ran out of lyrics and started rapping which went “I’m a white girl/From the ‘Ville/Nashville, bitch. Uhh. Uhhhhh.” It was the second track that caught the attention of producers Max Martin and Luckasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald who were listening to a bunch of demos trying to find someone that caught their interest. At this point, Max Martin was making his way back into producing dominance in America after defining the teen pop boom of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s when he teamed up with an up and coming Dr. Luke on Kelly Clarkson’s Top 10 hits “Since U Been Gone” (Peaked at #2. It’s a 10!) and “Behind These Hazel Eyes,” (Peaked at #6. It’s a 9.).

Impressed by her demo, Dr. Luke invited Kesha out to Los Angeles where she dropped out of college and signed with his production company, Kasz Money, and signed to a publishing deal with Prescription Songs. She didn’t get to work yet on her music. Dr. Luke spent the next few years developing Kesha and shopping her to major labels for a record deal. But she also got a competing contract with manager David Sonenberg who after examining Kesha’s contracts with Dr. Luke said to her and her mother, “This contract is worse than the one Lou Pearlman made with the Backstreet Boys,” (This statement would come back to haunt them later on). Sonenberg managed to get Kesha out of her contract with Kasz Money while trying to get her a record deal within a year. When he failed to get a record deal, Kesha signed again with Dr. Luke and Sony Music. 

Meanwhile, she struggled to make a living in Los Angeles working waitress jobs which is where she started to add a dollar sign to the S in her name as a way of poking fun of how broke she was. For a while she did whatever she could, writing and singing backup on various songs for various artists and appeared in the music video for Katy Perry’s #1 breakout hit “I Kissed A Girl” (Katy Perry will eventually appear in this column). But what really got her going was singing the hook on Flo Rida’s 2009 #1 chart topper “Right Round” when Dr. Luke and Flo Rida wanted a female voice on the hook with Dr. Luke suggesting Kesha (Flo Rida will eventually appear in this column). While the song was a hit, Kesha didn’t get a credit on it and thus got no royalties from it but it’s where Dr. Luke started to figure out how to develop Kesha and started work right away on an album. Speaking to John Seabrook in his book The Song Machine: Inside The Hit Factory, Dr. Luke stated that he wanted to make music like hip-hop in the ‘80s and ‘90s saying, “If you listen to hip-hop in the ‘80s and ‘90s you can hear that at a certain point people discovered that if you’re rapping, and then someone sings a hook—that works.” 

That formula is put to work on “TiK ToK” which Kesha said was inspired by her own lifestyle stating, “We’re all young and broke and it doesn’t matter. We can find clothes on the side of the street and go out and look fantastic, and kill it. If we don’t have a car that doesn’t stop us, because we’ll take the bus. If we can’t afford drinks, we’ll bring a bottle in our purse. It’s just about not letting anything bring you down.” And that opening line, “Wake up in the morning feeling like P. Diddy” came about from Kesha waking up in the house where the Eagles recorded their 1976 blockbuster Hotel California album in and being surrounded by beautiful women and imaged that it must be the same situation for Diddy. 

With all that, Kesha brought the song to Dr. Luke and his mentor producer Benny Blanco and began writing “TiK ToK.” At the time, Blanco was working with Dr. Luke on many of his hits including “I Kissed A Girl” and would produce more hits with and without Dr. Luke, many of which will appear in this column (Benny Blanco’s biggest hit as a lead artist, 2018’s Eastside with Khalid & Halsey, peaked at #9. It’s a 6.). Dr. Luke was even able to get Diddy himself to record his parts for the song where he says “Hey, what up girl?,” and “Let’s go” in the intro. After recording, Kesha decided she wanted to rewrite the verses because she didn’t think people would get the Jack Daniels line and wondered if she was going too far to which Dr. Luke and Benny Blanco convinced her to keep the song as it was. Kesha would later state that Dr. Luke wanted to make “TiK ToK” more dumb, “I remember specifically him saying: “Make it more dumb. Make it more stupid. Make it more simple, just dumb.””

Keeping the original lyrics was probably the right move because it’s hard to think how “TiK ToK” would be remembered if it wasn’t for that opening line. It’s one of those opening lines along the likes of previous chart toppers as “Jeremiah was a bullfrog” from Three Dog Night’s “Joy To The World” and “Some people call me the space cowboy” from the Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker.” Opening lines that are silly yet so quotable and infectious that they immediately lodge their way into your brain and in many ways are the catchiest parts of the song aside from the chorus. Even other verse lines like “Brush my teeth with a bottle of jack” and “We kick them to the curb unless they look like Mick Jagger” manage to stick in the brain just from the pure ridiculousness of them. 

“TiK ToK” would be the beginning of a formula Kesha would cultivate for the early part of her career: songs about wild partying, drinking, and sex delivered with a party girl attitude: rapping the verses, singing the hooks with lots of AutoTune effects, often over simple electro beats. Of all the songs from that period in her career, “TiK ToK” is easily the better out of all of them. It’s got a big hook and simple melody that instantly sticks in the brain not too removed from other club electropop song dominating during this period. Many have compared “TiK ToK” to Lady Gaga’s 2009 chart topper “Just Dance” for their similar lyrical matter and while both deal with partying as an escape from your troubles but where Lady Gaga sings in a mournful tone of how wrong everything’s going while Kesha revels in it. Yes it is annoying at times and it’s hard not to see why it turned off people to Kesha at the time but it works in this case in selling the careless attitude of partying.

In the song, Kesha takes us through her day going to a party such as not having a lot of money, guys hitting on her, only going with guys who look like Mick Jagger (they must look pretty ugly), and police shutting down the party. But through all that, they keep the party going until the morning making a party seem like the absolute place to escape your troubles. And the bridge, my personal favorite part, almost feels like the euphoria of being in the moment at a party not worrying about anything else going on around you. It’s not hard to see how “TiK ToK” would have connected with young people at the turn of the decade as they were coming of age broke worrying about their future in an uncertain post-recession economic landscape. While most of the party songs from this period were about enjoying fancy drinks and clothes, this was someone their age talking about being broke and partying all the time which must have felt like an escape from the blues of society. 

Unfortunately, I can’t go through this review without discussing the major elephant in the room in regards to the ongoing legal dispute which involves Kesha making disturbing claims of suffering sexual, physical, and verbal abuse from Dr. Luke which was already happening by the time of “TiK ToK”. We’re going to be encountering many more Dr. Luke produced songs in this series as well as many other songs made by monsters and problematic people. While I try my best not to let that get in the way of how I view a song and judge it on its own merits, there’s still a dark cloud that hangs over these songs. It’s just part of the whole deal. A thing we’ve all learned about music history is that many horrible and/or problematic people have been capable of making great music with Phil Spector being an obvious example. 

“TiK ToK” immediately established Kesha as the pop star with a party girl attitude and led to a string of Top 10 hits. We’ll see her in this column again. And as with Dr. Luke, he was a monster. But as a producer of hits, the man knew what he was doing. 

GRADE: 6/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the cast of The Simpsons lip syncing to “TiK ToK” during the intro of the 21st season finale in 2010:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “TiK ToK” being used in a pretty hilarious trailer for 2011’s Diary of A Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules:

THE NUMBER TWOS: Lady Gaga’s synthed out ode to cheating with your lover’s best friend, “Bad Romance,” peaked at #2 behind “TiK ToK.” It’s a 10!

(Lady Gaga will eventually appear in this column)

6 thoughts on “The Ones of the ‘10s: Kesha’s “TiK ToK”

  1. A very thoughtful, thorough and insightful look at, and behind this #1. Great start to what will be a great series! I look forward to the future thoughts on the rest of The Ones of the ’10s. Well done!

    Liked by 1 person

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