My Hot and Dangerous Hero
by Brett Shaw
Illustrations by Cameryn Berridge
Hot and dangerous. That’s how the flashy, audacious pop icon formerly known as Ke$ha lives her life. Growing up on explosions of glitter and raunchy beats, I yearned for a similar reckless freedom of expression.
Throughout my entire life, a hyper-awareness of my surroundings has both helped and hindered me. This first manifested as curiosity and eager learning. Gallivanting around my basement in my sister’s boas and mom’s high heels with underwear on my head was a typical Wednesday night for toddler Brett. We had a spinning plastic disco ball that shined colored lights around our unfinished basement. Blue, pink, and yellow dots transformed every grey brick into a club floor as I danced around to Kidz Bop CDs. I often threw the boa over my neck, pretending to be someone much older and more important than I was.
Other times, this awareness took form as insecurity, which became prevalent during my adolescent years. Sixth grade was especially fragile. My only friends were cool boys from my football team who were forming overtly masculine identities. I studied their conversation patterns and clothing choices in a desperate attempt to keep up. It was gross and I was bad at it but tried my best at talking about girls’ boobs while wearing my finest cargo shorts. Usually, I was just quiet.
Sitting in the back of a school bus, on my way home from another socially exhausting day of sixth grade, one of the popular girls --- a pretty one with long blonde hair and a loud voice -- turned to my section of seats and started playing her favorite song, “Tik Tok” by Ke$ha. Before then, my only familiarity with popular music was the Kidz Bop CDs and whatever 80s rock my dad had on the radio. This Ke$ha song was whiny and feminine and bright. She sang of brushing her teeth with Jack Daniels and flirting with boys who looked like Mick Jagger. It was messy and humorous and gave the back of that bus a taste of the wild party-girl life that we’d only seen flashes of in TV commercials.
I sat at my family computer and watched the music video over and over again as soon as I got home. Dirty, blonde hair hung over Ke$ha’s face. Smeared eyeshadow and three hours of sleep gave her an air of carelessness and confidence. Adorned in daisy dukes and cowboy boots, Ke$ha strolled out of her nuclear home and into the bright, sunny world. She traded her golden bicycle to some kids for their boombox, hitched a ride with a hot boy in a ridiculous crop top, and made her way to a sweaty house party. Tossing her hair and body around with the allure of a woman and ferocity of a man, Ke$ha knew who she was and showcased it to the entire world, no matter how unconventional. She possessed this exciting energy that both embraced and defied expectations of femininity. She was obsessed with boys, partying, and shiny things. It was a life I’d hardly known existed but was so entertained by.
The summer after sixth grade, I met a girl at my brother’s baseball tournament out of town. She was a teammate’s older sister (two years older than me), and I was starstruck by her blonde badassery and her obsession with Ke$ha that equaled mine. We spent the entirety of our nights in the hotel memorizing “Your Love is my Drug” before writing a parody song on the back of a Starbucks wrapper. “Maybe I need some rehab, or maybe just need some sleep” turned into “Maybe I need some Pringles, or maybe just need some cheese.” We then sang the song to our parents in a desperate plea for them to buy us snacks. She was my first female friend since preschool, which was such a pleasant change in pace from my feigned interests in violent video games. Around her, I was free to gawk over Ke$ha’s outfits and dance on beds to pop music like an idiot -- a happy, carefree idiot. Going back to school, I would join show choir and make many more female friends who I could dance and sing with as well.
I became much more confident in junior high. I starred in school plays, hung out with a tight clique of girlfriends, and got into trouble for talking too much in class. I told loud jokes and wore bizarre outfits on school dress up days. I didn’t completely abolish contact with men either. With the courage to finally quit football, I joined the swim team where the friends were much less problematic (on most days). They actually enjoyed the trashy pop music that I played on the underwater speakers, and when they attempted to shave my head as a freshman, I had the audacity to say no to the tried and true tradition of boys who were three years older. Nothing could bother me. The problem was never that I didn’t get along with men. The problem was that I was surrounded by men with tighter concepts of manliness that I didn’t have the strength to challenge. I can’t pinpoint when, but at some point, I lost this fearlessness. Things were stirring within me that I couldn’t quite fight.
I realized I liked boys my sophomore year of high school. My first crush was actually a boy on my swim team. His playful smile and tousled hair drove me crazy (he also looked great in a speedo). The realization was challenging, not just because he was one of my best friends, but because I wasn’t ready to be gay. Growing up around stinky middle school boys calling each other faggots and Christian threats of eternal damnation had given me an odd idea about what being gay meant. Being gay was shameful and isolating and a sin, but only in the private comfort of my closest friends. Every time I thought about the boy on my swim team or a cute celebrity, guilt washed over me to the point where I resented these men and myself. Withdrawn and lacking the consistent confidence that drove my later middle school years, I quit theater and choir and anything else that drew too much attention to myself. I was still funny and adorable. Worst of all, I tried listening to music with muffled male voices and calming guitar notes in attempt to be a cool alternative rock guy.
This was also the time that I set up a Tumblr account after numerous recommendations from my girl friends. The site allowed you to follow your specific interests like Ke$ha or fashion in an anonymous setting rather than building a public persona for you peers. My page was for complete strangers and two of my trusted friends. Many of the accounts I followed were run by boys with a similar sense of humor and interest that allowed me to keep up with pop culture on a much deeper level. One account posted a clip of a Ke$ha interview captioned “fuck the haters” that particularly resonated with me. With jewels and tears around her eyes, Ke$ha said, “I’m just trying to make people happy. It’s such positive, fun music. Why are people so angry?” Ke$ha was never universally adored. She was trashy. She was a slut. She was corrupting children. She was crazy. She couldn’t sing. She made shitty music. Tabloids, stuffy moms, and dumb boys wouldn’t let the internet hear the end of it. Ke$ha saw these comments, and they hurt her, but she had more to say. This interview was during the television promotion cycle for “We R Who We R,” a song about unapologetically partying with her weird friends and being proud of who she is, a song that would later be reclaimed as an anthem to her gay fans.
Many of the people I followed on Tumblr used their large following to share their stories of coming out and offered support to their followers going through the same thing. Among this support were more clips of Kesha at her concerts speaking against homophobia and proclaiming her love for the LGBT+ community and anyone else who felt like they didn’t belong. Reading testimonies from strangers I related to and watching the self-assured icon I had worshipped since the sixth grade proclaim her unconditional love comforted me. My guilty, lonely thoughts associated with homosexuality dissipated with each message of love and understanding. I got braver on the site and let myself be who I was. I followed more openly gay accounts, watched gay TV shows they recommended, and reposted pictures of hot boys. Being gay on the internet prepared me for accepting it in real life.
I came out the summer after my junior year. The first time was on top of a parking garage to my two closest friends. Sitting on the hood of a car, surrounded by concrete, staring up at the stars, I blurted out that I was gay. They were warm and accepting and gave me the biggest hugs in the world -- it was very cinematic. Then I told my lifeguard friends. And then my mom. All of them were so accepting with such similar reactions that I just had them spread the news because I had been exhausted by the whole ordeal. My gayness wasn’t news to me and coming out was not the attention I wanted. The fact that straight people didn’t have to have a large declaration of their sexuality was annoying to me. Coming out was the means to an end of being my audacious self again without worry of judgement or the uncovering of some secret. My truth resparked the airy confidence that I admired in Ke$ha and the boys on Tumblr. I kissed many boys, rejoined the theater program, snuck into public pools with my best friend, and started to give less of a shit again. It was chaotic and beautiful.
By this time, Kesha had dropped the dollar sign from her name and was in a public lawsuit with her producer who had abused her throughout the entirety of her career. She wasn’t allowed to release new music and went to rehab for an eating disorder that he pushed on her. A fan-launched campaign called “Free Kesha” involved protests at her record label and mass tweets of support to get her out of the horrible situation. My heart ached for Kesha. She motivated me through so much with her uplifting spirit and love for the world. Seeing her so broken made me angry. How could this bright light of a human be threatened by such hate? I tweeted support to her over and over again, hoping desperately for her to come out on the other side. After a year or so of silence, Kesha picked up odd show dates around the country to see her fans again. One of these dates landed her at the Dubuque County Fair, a small carnival only two hours from my house.
I went with the two girls I had first come out to. Love and excitement consumed me as I convinced them to show up eight hours early to guarantee us spots in the front row. With time to kill, we quickly made friends with the people surrounding us in line, all of whom are just as devout fans (some scarily more so). We called ourselves the Core 13 and numbered each of our hands so no one got any ideas to cut us in line. A community of trust was established as we played scandalous games of “never have I ever” and painted our nails with gold shimmery polish. Some of us bought short shorts that said “taters” on the butt from a nearby french fry stand. Leave it to Kesha to foster such open and silly relationships among her fans. In our final act of friendship, as the doors were about to open, we commenced the ceremonial Kesha initiation of dumping bottles of glitter all over our sweaty heads.
I secured the best spot in the whole venue, directly in front of the center stage microphone, and began jumping as high as I could. Preparing to see Kesha was already so surreal, and I could no longer contain my excitement. Screams echoed as the lights cut out and fog rushed over the stage. Single lights, each of a different color, took turns illuminating the yearning faces of a sea of young people covered head-to-toe in glitter. The first notes of “We R We R” began playing when a figure stepped out from behind a curtain, and it might as well have been God to me after all this time. Her shining rainbow leotard and feathery cape flying behind demanded every eye in the room. Kesha performed with such fun and raw energy that took form through belted notes and provocative movements. Each song overswept me with waves of nostalgia and awe as I sang along. In the middle of the concert, Kesha slowed down and thanked everyone for showing up and being here for her during this difficult time in her life. The audience and I chanted her name in response, which made her cry, which made me cry. I was so happy to support someone who had been there for me my entire life. She then sang “Animal,” a song dedicated to her fans whom she called her Animals. The first lyrics of the song go, “I am in love with what we are, not what we should be.” It was a song about individuality and acceptance that guided me through some of the scariest times of my life, and it was unfolding right in front of me. People often forget that Kesha was more than a weird party girl. She loved everyone unconditionally. She loved me when I desperately needed it.
At one point in the show, Kesha came down to take selfies with her fans. I was a complete wash of stunned smiles and teary eyes as she told me she loved my shirt, a tank top that read “Free Kesha.” Our selfie was blurry and we were both so sweaty, but we had the biggest smiles in the world as we embraced.
In that moment, we had a mutual understanding for each other as two people putting our brightest selves forward through love, support, and having a blast despite life’s hardships.
Kesha’s final number was the same song that had been played to me on the bus many years ago. Confetti raining down from the sky, I reached out my hand to grab the shiny piece of magic. I twirled and I twisted, beaming like the rainbow disco ball that danced around my basement. Each light shined off of me and reached out to every other person in the room.