how kesha invented tiktok
10 years on, her chaotic debut single lives on in your favourite video sharing app.
Nothing defines a moment in time like pop music. We return to songs a year or 10 later, and are transported to the time when we couldn’t stop listening to it. For a drab, drawn-out autumn in 2009, there was almost nothing on the radio bar a song about DGAF drunken hedonism that caused 14-year-old me to dance around a sweaty, satellite town living room on a Saturday night like I was in a run-down nightclub on the Sunset Strip. That song was Kesha’s "TiK ToK", and it pulled the rug from underneath pop’s feet.
When that song first debuted a whole decade ago (it hit radio on 7 August 2009), a year had passed since Lady Gaga arrived on the pop scene. And in many ways it was Gaga’s otherness that helped the off-kilter format of a non-glossy popstar like Kesha push through the cracks. Giving the middle finger to the possibility of backlash, the then 22-year-old embraced her most odd-ball behaviours, and hammed them up as a way of playing with the thirsty tabloid media. Rumours swirled that she didn’t shower (she actually showered four times a day) and that she was born with a tail. And let’s not forget the time she drank her own pee on TV. With Kesha in it, pop music was glorious and gross and everything we’d been taught it wasn’t supposed to be. "TiK ToK" was the anthem we were long searching for. It spent nine weeks on top of the Billboard Hot 100, and has since sold over 18 million copies.
That song was millennial chaos in microcosm: a song about every single irresponsible act you’ve ever committed and shrugged off as a sign of a good time. It was literally ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ with a little bit of ༼凸 ◉_◔༽ mixed in too.
The nursery rhyme rap-pop flow of its lyrics were earworm excellence; the sound of ‘Wake up in the morning feelin’ like P Diddy’ over synths can still make a nightclub crowd go wild. The basic, bit-pop production was ragged and yet, in its imperfections, sort of flawless. It was one of those songs that was so simple that it was a miracle no one had made it before; proof that the greasy and glittered Kesha was one of the most exciting pop performers of her time. The chaotic, DGAF energy of "TiK ToK" spread like wildfire.
Inevitably the song was so catchy that it spurred parodies -- some mocking, some cruel -- that almost eclipsed the original's success. It was, in a sense, one of the original ‘meme’ songs. Weird Al Yankovic riffed on it for his 2010 medley Polka Face. A group of painfully British boys built a music career on the back of their now dated and wildly offensive effort. Even the Israeli Defence League tried their hand at some viral success and suffered the consequences.
Considering its chaotic energy and the way "TiK ToK" perfectly captured late noughties youth culture, it makes sense that the founders of the world’s most eye-wateringly successful lip-syncing video app may have taken inspiration from the title for their own venture. While it also has roots as the Chinese way of expressing a “vibrating sound” or metronome, perhaps TikTok saw it as the perfect subconscious reference to the OG meme song the entire world already knew and loved? The distinct way in which Kesha’s spelled the title of the song has led some Reddit users to suggest she should be able to sue them (she can’t), but we don’t think there’s too much beef here. After all, crossover homages do exist; J-Pop band Perfume used Kesha’s smash in one of their first videos on the platform.
The general consensus is that Kesha, who’s since dropped the infamous dollar sign from her name and adopted a far less wild aesthetic, has grown up since those "TiK ToK" days. Good for her. The now 32-year-old pop star has been put through hell over the past few years in pop music, but seems to have come back stronger. Dr Luke, the song's producer, who she accused of sexual and emotional harassment, remains a distant and unwelcome presence in her professional life. It might have been the ultimate anthem for hedonistic and unruly behaviour at the time, taking over the world for a while, but like many things from our teenhoods, it’s now a memory firmly rooted in our (and Kesha’s) past. Still, the world of pop and internet meme culture owes a lot to that riotous song. Stick it on now, and prepare to be transported back to the clammy house parties and bright blue Bacardi Breezers of your youth.