The full-body penis costumes are the first order of business for the straight-faced roadies unpacking Ke$ha’s wardrobe cases on the loading dock at the Palace of Auburn Hills outside Detroit. It’s just before noon, nearly eight hours before Our Lady of the Dollar Sign is set to take the stage for the latest stop on her co-headlining tour with Pitbull. But the amount of instruments, props and special effects gadgets involved make set-up an all-day process. There’s confetti and glitter to pack into cannons; the flags waved onstage have to be changed from Canadian to American (the tour has just crossed back into the States); and it’s crucial to make sure that the enormous inflatable pig and 15-foot-high pair of spread legs haven’t sprung any leaks in transit.
Backstage, Ke$ha’s stage manager, Justin De Meulenaere (better known as “Boot”), is distracted by a new toy. It’s a Gatling gun-style launcher that the Detroit Pistons use to fire T-shirts into the crowd, and Boot is obsessed with building his own version to shoot confetti. After photographing it from every possible angle, he thinks he has it figured out. Once the excitement abates, he goes back to putting together the drum kit, and then it’s time for lunch.
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It’s an interesting time to be in Ke$ha’s orbit. Most pop stars’ band and crew tend to fly under the radar, but after the airing of her MTV reality series, Ke$ha: My Crazy Beautiful Life, anonymity has gone out the window for hers. Superfans now know who Boot is; as he tapes set lists to the stage after lunch, several of them try to get his attention. He even has an interview with E! scheduled later in the day.
But he has to get back to work. Now it’s time to assemble the prop drums that Ke$ha and her dancers play during her big show-closing number, “Die Young.” Apparently there have been issues with the dancers not putting the drum sticks back in their bags, which leads to sticks littering the stage. So Boot has modified the drum heads and sticks with strips of Velcro to keep everything where it belongs. A lot of his job is coming up with solutions to seemingly small problems like this, modifying the band’s gear and props to meet their sometimes bizarre needs.
After Pitbull’s band finishes its soundcheck, Ke$ha’s gear is raised to the stage on forklifts. A trio of mirror balls, the largest measuring four feet across, are hoisted to the rafters. Their road case is incredibly large. By 4:30 p.m., Kesha’s band is onstage, running through “Tik Tok” for the millionth time so that new guitarist Nick Annis (also of Wes Borland’s band Black Light Burns) can nail down one of the changes. Ke$ha rolls in a little after five p.m., watches her band play “Tik Tok” again, then gets on the microphone for “Warrior.” There is a true band dynamic in the rehearsals, with Ke$ha offering musical critiques and confidently playing the role of bandleader.
She decides that “Last Goodbye” might not be working in the set as well as she’d like, so she replaces it with the unreleased “Machine Gun Love,” which they rehearse next. She tests out a new version of one of her stage props: a grinder that she holds against a metal codpiece to produce shooting sparks. “It’s lighter!” she says happily. She briefly raises the idea of restructuring the whole set list, but Boot talks her out of it for tonight. They compromise on a single song swap.
After dinner comes the final stage setup. Boot posts the set list and the word “Detroit” all over the stage. Ke$ha’s copy has notes to remind her of specific stage banter that is used to trigger production cues. After an all-band butt-rub circle – a pre-show ritual – the lights go down and the show begins. It’s the most stressful hour of Boot’s day, and he spends it cleaning debris off the stage, making sure props are ready, wiping whipped cream off of dancers as they come offstage and shooting off plumes of gas and confetti cannons.
The show goes off without a hitch, other than a large wheeled platform with a sort of stripper cage on it getting momentarily caught on something left behind by Pitbull’s crew. The band is offstage a little before nine p.m., and everything is poured back into a waiting 18-wheeler. It’s a sea of amplifiers, drum cases, wardrobe units and instruments. On top of it all sits a giant inflatable penis.