Beauty Through Rage: The Resurrection of Kesha

Published on July 8, 2017 by   ·   No Comments

If you’re not paying attention to Kesha, or if you dismiss her as just some pop tart singing about brushing her teeth with Jack Daniels, then you’re missing out.  There is something to Kesha, even when she’s at her weirdest and wackiest, something different.  Something that deserves to be seen and heard.  And now she has a new single, “Praying,” that some (including Kesha herself) feared might never come.

The imagery of the video is beautiful and colorful and explosive; the vocals are at once restrained and pulsing with emotion.  This is a Kesha we’ve never really seen before…though the seeds were there in the last album (and possibly even before).  I think that this woman has always had more to say than anyone has given her credit for.

Let’s start with early Kesha…or more accurately, Ke$ha.

“Tik Tok” was the radio-friendly party anthem everyone needed as we rounded out the first decade of the new millennium and it was heavily produced, Kesha’s voice drowning in layers of autotune.  But when you watch the video, you can see some of Kesha’s hallmark “trashiness” from that era: she hops into a gold muscle car with a slightly flabby hipster with a fu manchu moustache and a thrift store outfit.  This aesthetic was much more prevalent on the songs on her album that weren’t released as singles.  “Party at a Rich Dude’s House” includes lyrics like “Cigar in the caviar (c’mon let’s do this), pissing in the Dom Perignon (c’mon let’s do this)” and this is one of the more explicit moments of the juxtaposition of filth and glamour that characterizes much of how I understand and interpret the singer and her music.  She has a song called “Grow a Pear” that playfully mocks fragile masculinity, and she loves to talk about dirt and glitter together as if they are a perfect match.

Kesha 01And maybe they are.

Here’s where I might lose a few people: I think Kesha is this generation’s John Waters.  And I mean early John Waters; Divine as Dawn Davenport with her acid-scarred face committing acts of glamour and murder in Female Trouble is wild and over the top, and I would argue it’s John Waters at the height of his aesthetic of filth that began with his earliest films, became infamous with the release of Pink Flamingos, and then peaked with Female Trouble.  The bearded hippie in “Ur Love is My Drug” is like a modern Coachella-infused replacement for the Egg Man: odd and sensual and an offbeat object of desire.  In multiple songs, Kesha establishes dominance by inviting a possible conquest to “suck [her] dick.”  She wore a dress made out of garbage bags to an awards show.  The first two albums, Cannibal and Animal, were later combined into an extended release and contain numerous examples of this aesthetic.

With Warrior, things started to change.  There were still the upbeat party anthems, but the bridges started to have these actually quite poignant moments of reflection (if you were looking for them), as if the party girl was taking a second to push towards sobriety and looking at her life.  Of course, before long the repeating choruses were back and she was lost again in the rollicking good times, but it was hard to forget that she was in there, and that she was starting to grow up.  The filthy glam was still there: not only does she mention gold Trans Ams in a couple of her songs, this album has a song dedicated to the low-brow muscle car featuring lines like “Sweet ass mullet caught my eye.  Now you got me jonesing for a moustache ride” and “Wham, Bam, thank you man.”  She’s appropriating men’s language around sexuality and making it powerful.  She’s in charge and she’s inviting you into her “golden cockpit.”  But other songs contain those unexpected moments of vulnerability.

In “C’mon,” the more typical lyrics like “Write our names on the wall in the back of the bar, steal some bubble gum from the corner Mexi-Mart” are interrupted by an uncharacteristically thoughtful passage:

I don’t wanna go to sleep
I wanna stay up all night
I wanna just screw around
I don’t wanna think about
What’s gonna be after this
I wanna just live right now

Still very much in line with the party mentality of the song, but the music has a softness and her voice has an intensity that allows something else to peek through.  Suddenly, when she’s asking you to “make the most of the night like you’re gonna die young,” that seems like an entirely different invitation.

A little bit more of her rage slips out in “Thinking of You” with a chorus that says “But now my song’s on the radio and you see my face everywhere you go.  I thought I’d call just to let you know I’ve been thinking of you, thinking of you.”  It’s pretty clear the thoughts haven’t been kind ones; in case that wasn’t made clear earlier, she punctuates the end of the song with one of her signature quirky endings, sing-songing “teeny weeny” (not exactly the endearing flirtation of “I like your beard” from the end of “Ur Love Is My Drug”).  And if she seems angry, she has a right to be.

Free KeshaA couple of years after these songs were released, the proverbial shit hit the fan.  Kesha was out of the studio and into the courtroom, accusing her producer and former manager Dr. Luke of sexual assault.  Her contract prevented her from making new music outside of her contract with Dr. Luke through Sony.  Kesha’s injunction was denied and her career was on hold, indefinitely.  The hashtag #FreeKesha was born.

I’m not going to rehash all of the details; it’s all available in lurid details for anyone with a rudimentary understanding of how to use Google.  Every moment is able to be found out, discussed, talked about, commented on, jacked off to.  Because that’s what happens to women who own their sexuality in our culture, women who dare to be powerful; they become cautionary tales.

And make no mistake, there is one aspect of the gem that is Kesha that is pure cautionary tale.  Her accusations against Dr. Luke are more personal and intimate because of their professional relationship, but there are parallels between her experiences and those of the victim of Standford rapist Brock Allen TurnerHis victim was partying and became intoxicated; it’s the kind of setup where you can almost here “Tik Tok” playing in the background, and when she was vulnerable and unable to defend herself Brock Turner raped her behind a dumpster.  People shook their heads and ridiculed her behavior, her willingness to “put herself in that position.”  Instead of his mugshot, news media ran his swim team headshots and people began to worry about how this “situation” might impact his budding athletic career.

As the details of Kesha’s case merged, it became clear why so many of her early songs seemed to be nearly dripping with subtle malice: the man who was abusing her also largely controlled her career; when she fought back, she nearly had to sacrifice her career to do so.  Sony offered to let her go back to work without Dr. Luke in the studio; when she refused to put money into her alleged rapist’s wallet, regardless of his physical whereabouts while working, she was told to shut up and starve.

Free Kesha MainAnd now, here we are with a new single and a new video: “Praying.”

There is anger here, and moments of desperation.  But there is also peace and a sense of moving on.  Because rage, while sometimes motivating and sometimes useful, is usually more detrimental to the one harboring the rage than to the object of its focus.  By letting go of that rage, by praying for the one who hurt her to find healing and change, Kesha found a way to move forward with her life, to continue living and thriving.

In an interview linked below, the host Zach Sang tries in not so subtle ways to get Kesha to talk some trash and give lurid details about her protracted legal battles but she’s having none of it.  The queen of dirt and glitter refuses to wallow in the mud.  She talks about how hard it is to find that sort of peace, how hard it is to wish for healing not only for yourself but for those that hurt you.  She makes the distinction, however, between moving on and forgiveness; as she says in “Praying”:

“There are some things only God can forgive.”

And so Kesha is once again in the land of the living, with her new single and a new album coming out in August.  She’s showing us a new version of herself, one that embraces her earlier “party animal” self (as she says in the interview, she is still that girl too) while recognizing that she has suffered much because of how our society treats women who don’t sit down, act quiet, play nice.  She is a phoenix; her flames are warm comfort to those who are trying to find their way toward healing, and blistering to those who perpetrate those hurts.  And she recognizes that all of us have it within ourselves to be both.

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