First Ke$ha was an Animal, then a Cannibal, then a Warrior, and now – in her fourth album – a Rainbow. The titles of her albums are thematic and appropriate to her development as an artist and an icon: it’s difficult to imagine a rainbow eating a person or killing a White Walker, and Ke$ha has now dropped from her stage name the central dollar sign, the most materialistic key on your keyboard. When Ke$ha arrived in 2010, she flaunted hedonism at once refreshing and ridiculous, an auto-tuned diva who took the stage as though her hair was still unwashed from her club cavorting the night before. It looked like it would take a silkwood shower to remove all the glitter from her skin. Other than maybe Tic Tac Dough host and crooner Wink Martindale, she’s probably the only person to lyricize “pissing in the Dom Perrignon.”
Unlike the other heavily marketed emerging starlets of the late “ots” – Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga – there was a menace and defiance about her, something vampiric and decadent that offered an uninhibited contrast to Swift’s comfortable t-shirts, Perry’s #woke buoyancy, and Gaga’s gender-bending kabuki. In the delightfully stupid “Tik Tok,” Ke$ha bragged about brushing her teeth with Jack Daniels. She collected teeth (“like, over a thousand”) from her fans and made them into a bra. An early interview with Rolling Stone includes the sentence, “She burps, swears, talks about blow jobs, and, when she needs to take a leak, ducks behind a tree.” In the video from “Blow,” she killed unicorns and 90s teen heartthrob James Van Der Beek. “Blow” begins with a Ke$ha cackle that might be, for me, the best thing to happen in recent popular music. In that second and a half, there’s a ridiculous, even dangerous vitality that is rare for radio-friendly music, coupled with a glorious lack of self-consciousness, traditional glamour, and sophistication. This place is gonna blow.
And then something happened. Ke$ha not only starting giving a fuck, she had to. She went through rehab for an eating disorder. She claimed wide varieties of abuse against her producer, hit-making impresario and creepy lecher Dr. Luke. She went to court to plead breaking her contract with Sony so she shouldn’t have to work with her abuser, which were continually rejected. The Wikipedia page for Kesha v. Dr. Luke has sixty-one footnotes, with titles like “High Court Won’t Let Singer Kesha Out of Contract with Man She Says Raped Her.” Kesha kept losing appeals, and Dr. Luke went to Twitter to remind us that the Duke Lacrosse team didn’t rape anybody even though everybody thought they did. From 2013 on, after the release of her second album Warrior, Kesha’s life became a publicly documented hell.
As judges told her that sure, she was sexually assaulted, just not sexually assaulted often enough to make her own music, her social media accounts documented her depression with a startling clarity and probing honesty that were the kind of core values that Kesha’s earlier raucous music mostly made fun of. For most of us, she went from an icon who embraced a sense of shamelessness and excess to a deeply sympathetic figure who was incapable of doing anything other than expressing her hurt. That sympathy was tough to square for this forty-year old man who listens to “Sleazy” on a elliptical machine and came to lurve her for the way she celebrated her gothic stupidity while ignoring everything else that exists. In a move equivalent to the son of Jor-El deciding he only wants to be Clark Kent in Superman II, she retired the dollar sign. Female pop stars have always gotten a lot of creative energy out of secret identities (Sasha Fierce / Roman Zolanski / Art Nouveau / even Hannah freaking Montana), and the fun thing about Kesha was a luminous lack of ambition to be that thoughtful about really anything. So what would Rainbow be?
On the opening track of Rainbow, when she sings, “don’t let the bastards get you down,” we get the sense that the bastards have done just that. For starters, the song is mostly acoustic, and for the heavily produced Kesha an acoustic song is like the Pope making a public appearance in khakis. With that “you,” she’s addressing the “we” in her earlier anthem, “We R Who We R,” those who were once “running this town just like a club,” but have – let’s face it – been through a lot since 2010. The phrase that Kesha repeats has its origin in Latin – Illegitimi non carbundum – where “illegitimi” actual translates as outlaws, and “carbundum” refers to silicon carbide, an abrasive compound that must be ground down. Traditionally, this cliche has been invoked by hawkish military types, Barry Goldwater, and submarines, where it’s used to represent (respectively) peaceniks, civil rights activists, and other submarines. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred finds the phrase carved into her bedroom closet and has to ask the commander – a bastard – what it means. But Kesha reclaims it, since her earlier songs often are about and accompany acts of grinding. So instead of grind, the “bastards” will attempt to “get” “wear,” “take,” and “screw.” So it’s an intriguing move that she’s not using bastards to define her and her outcast “We R” army, but is reframing the illegitimate as those who have power, are abusing it, and are getting away with it. And this tone-setter, melancholy and soft rather than defiant, positions Kesha as being one of the people who might keep them grinding.
The rest of the album defies easy categorization, even as it aims to be what she later calls “a hymn for the hymnless.” She duets with fellow Nashville native Dolly Parton, chants songs called “Praying” and “Hymn,” and warbles a playful but melancholy song (written by her Mom) about taking Godzilla to the mall that wouldn’t be out of place in Raffi’s catalog if it weren’t that the women singing it had a similarly monstrous reputation. In their usual project of damning with faint praise, Pitchfork claims that “virtually every pop star of the early ‘10s has written off the gonzo sound just as Kesha had,” which suggests they thought the spoken-word part about “being born from a rock spinning in the aether” was her attempt to be taken seriously as an artiste and not the kind of thing even Gonzo the Muppet would find weird. But nonetheless, the point in more or less every review is this: Kesha has abandoned the other coaxing voices and is listening to her own, what’s emerging is now “authentic,” because it’s also “adult” and “serious” (to wit: she just turned 30). That’s fair, but it’s too easy: I don’t think she had a reason to make something rich and meaningful or before. Case in point: her 2013 album Warrior.
Warrior was anticipated as the raucous follow-up to Cannibal and Animal, where she would double-down on bad taste and parasitically devour the zeitgeist that she would capture. But it didn’t. With his typical sympathy, Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone noted that her “crudest, cheapest, cheesiest ideas are her best,” and that Warrior had replaced that fuck-all attitude with a tendency for sensitive balladeering. As the titular opening song proclaims:
We were born to break the doors down
Fightin’ till the end
It’s something that’s inside of us
It’s how we’ve always been
Accompanied by the similarly anthemic yet slightly anemic lead single “Die Young,” Warrior strained for substance. It felt like a bit of a concession that no one was demanding and, even if they did, it didn’t seem like she would make. It’s about empowerment and independence, which had previous been implicit and unrhetorical. Even her duet with Iggy Pop mixed trashiness with higher aspirations, where she pushed back against the stupid world instead of reveling in its stupid excesses. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not like she was talking to Charlie Rose about fracking or anything. She was still going on Jimmy Kimmel to talk about exorcising a ghost from her vagina; her reality show My Crazy Beautiful Life prominently features her mom dressed as a penis. But Warrior was supposed to be her Like a Virgin, and it ended up being her …But the Little Girls Understand, the follow-up to “Get the Knack” that you forgot existed.
So it wasn’t surprisingly in the wake of the recent court battles that Kesha revealed the production was “strained.” Re: “Die Young,” which was unfortunately released nearly immediately after the 2012 Newtown massacre – “I did NOT want to sing those lyrics and I was FORCED to.” Fans put out a petition trying to emancipate her Dr. Luke, claiming that he was “controlling Ke$ha like a puppet.” The album’s relative failure could be easily connected to Luke’s limiting influence, as Kesha wanted to rock a bit more, and realized – like the Beach Boys realized about surfing but Bobby “Boris” Pickett never apprehended about Dracula – that you could only sing so many songs about being in a club. If Ke$ha’s energy was still evident, it was in spite of the oppressive strain of mediocrity that Luke trapped her in at the height of his (literally) hands-on machinations.
On the piano-based “Praying” (co-written, surprisingly, with goof-rapper Macklemore) she emits a broken, strained high note far out of a range that Autotune usually corrects. But that screech represents a new voice emerging from a woman who might previously have seemed incapable of this kind of emotional anger and deep sentiment. And to be clear, she’s not praying; she’s telling Dr. Luke he ought to. In “Die Young,” she didn’t seem to care if she lived beyond a particularly riotous night of dancing and clubbing. On the title track of Rainbow, she now sings “I’m falling right back in love with being alive.” The pathos is sometimes wrenching, and it goes the other way in an empowerment ballad called “Woman,” that is less “I Am Woman” and more “Hear me ROAARRR.” She’s kept the energy, the humor, and even the perverse intelligence behind her earlier earworms, while connecting to a new side that was immense promise: a naked honesty that reflects the album’s cover, where a bare-assed Kesha steps into the water to become somehow baptized.
The typical posture of female pop stars since Madonna has been, essentially, “You think you understand me but you don’t.” It’s the theme behind Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” and Lady Gaga’s Artpop and even Beyonce’s transcendent Lemonade (“Y’all haters corny with that illuminati mess”). See simply the title of Swift’s Reputation, or the way Perry’s Witness serves as a verb and not a noun. In the face of spectacle and grandeur, we’re told that the best way to enjoy it is through either passive, uncritical, even inert or rapt adoration. It’s what cultural scholar Joseph Roach succinctly describes as “it,” or “a certain quality, easy to perceive but hard to define, possessed by abnormally interesting people.” Such performers contain “inducing asymmetries” that “register in the mind of the spectator as a miracle of unstable but inevitable harmonies.”
This is a posture that works well in live performances and music videos, particular for the kind of impresario and curator of her identity that Swift seems to have become since the release of 1989. One of the more striking and silly ramifications of this came in 2011 in the wake of Rebecca Black’s viral fiasco “Friday.” Black’s song brought to prominence to the dudes at Ark Music Factory, who for about ten grand will try to turn your kid into a vaguely convincing simulacrum of an existing popular musician. Also on their roster at the time was eight-year old “CJ Fam,” a Curly Sue type who Ark decided should sing a song called “Ordinary-Average Pop Star.” In the video that accompanies the song (public-access-TV-quality videos being, apparently, the reason your stepdad pays for the Ark experience), CJ defiantly announces that she has rejected the trappings of fame (mostly limos and cameras) she has never experienced in her eight years as a person we have never heard of, to embrace the “average” life that she has never experienced anything but and has hired Ark to create. “I wanna have a regular life again,” she says, imagining famous young women who have irregular lives. While almost certainly conceived by Ark studio boss, affable Nigerian Patrice Wilson, the song nonetheless crystallizes the dream that gets so constantly refracted through female pop stars and their encounters with the media. “I wanna be who I am,” she sings, “and who I am is CJ Fam.”
And because of what Roach describes as this tendency for female pop stars to present these assymetries as unified – haters, for instance – in their resistance, they are essential to the construction of artistic identities. The “you” in Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” could be either the fans angry at her evolution, some highly publicized paramour, perpetual irritant Kanye West, or the media. Whatever. “You made” her do it. But in combining them, these opponents become bewilderingly abstract, even as they speak powerfully to the pressures women face when they have the status of an icon pushed upon them. As Rebecca Lush has written in a compelling scholarly article, Lady Gaga constructs “performance identity . . . in a way that deliberately obscures her core personal identity.” In “Aura,” it’s just that: a curtain she hides behind that only certain people get invited into, even though everyone wants to. In that song, “Do you wanna touch me, cosmic lover,” represents the tease at the heart of performance and spectacle by, Lush writes, “relying on extreme opposites: covered body versus exposed body, good versus bad, famous versus unknown.” Of course, Gaga has been such an affirming advocate of the LGBT community that it was considered activism just for her to perform in the same proximity of Mike Pence at the Superbowl. And this only further works to mystify the contradiction – she is an artificiality that can constantly change, that you cannot know, and yet to whom you should attach yourself yourself as one of her “little monsters” in an attempt to diversify the world.
My own work focuses on seventeenth- and eighteen-century poets, one of the most colorful of whom is Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle. After the Restoration in England, the monarchy of the swarthy Charles II released the dammed-up sexual energy of Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan autocracy. Yet even against this colorful backdrop, Cavendish was extraordinarily weird. She wrote a five-hundred page book about science that included a proto-feminist Utopia filled with hermaphroditic animal people. She received a rare invitation to a Royal Society laboratory demonstration and showed up with a “very pretty black boy” who treated this most solemn of scientific spaces like a playground, as she wore a “dress so antick” that Samuel Pepys, whose diaries serve as a tour guide for Restoration culture, said he did “not like her at all, nor did hear anything that was worth hearing.” Looking back before a recent critical recovery of Cavendish’s legacy by feminist scholars, Virginia Woolf (not a fan) classified Cavendish as “crack-brained and bird-witted,” with the “freakishness of an elf.”
On the frontispiece of several of Cavendish’s works of plays, poetry, letters, or fiction was an image of herself as a statue, with an poetic inscription that began with the lines, “Here on this Figure Cast a Glance./ But so as if it were by Chance, /Your eyes not fixt, they must not Stay /Since this like Shadowes to the Day / It only represent’s . . .” If what Roach describes as the “It” figure is an ultimately false vision of “inevitable harmonies,” Cavendish turns to the spectator and their inability to correctly see “abnormally interesting people,” who are “Shadowes.” That’s not too far removed from Gaga’s aura, but it’s different: the desire to interpret these shadows, to see behind the curtain, says more about our desire than the phantasm she creates.
In that sinister laugh from “Blow,” Kesha announced supreme defiance. But it wasn’t a sense that you couldn’t know her, just that she would trigger the dynamite if you if you got too close, destroying you and her. There has never been, and still isn’t, anything particularly complicated about her. “Godzilla” is an example of a metaphor that works in the same way that Aesop’s do: you’re supposed to get it [paragraph unfinished] . .
Even if Kesha has always adopted a sneer of defiance, embodied in that laugh from “Blow,” but now it’s linked to an off-putting openness about her tendency toward self-destruction and extreme sensitivity. In a typically spellbindingly weird interview with NPR, Kesha stated that she’s “a little bit of an empath and a fragile heart for this world.” It’s all there on Rainbow, a sense that we might do better if we tried to understand her and each other.