Kesha Rose Sebert, better known as Kesha, crashed onto the pop scene with the hit ‘Tik Tok’ in 2009. The video for her single showed the artist waking up in a bathtub with messy hair, last night’s makeup, and an empty bottle of Jack Daniels — then stumbling through a nice suburban family home, flirting with petty crime, and partying. Kesha’s debut album Animal was wholly dedicated to her ‘past life experiences of love, heartbreak, boys, and having a good time’, which thematically resonated with enough listeners to make the record platinum.
Her public persona was deliberately unpolished, juvenile, yet also relatable and fun the way your first year of clubbing is fun (and then never again). ‘Blah Blah Blah’, ‘Your Love Is My Drug’, ‘Take It Off’, ‘We R Who We R’, and ‘Blow’ gave a chance to feel ‘hot and dangerous’ while not taking the statement too seriously, not having to identify with it full-time, the way one would have to with Christina Aguilera or Pink or Her Majesty Queen Beyoncé. Gluing studs over one’s eyebrows (cf. Kesha’s look in ‘We R Who We R’) is a move both bold and ridiculous, but not out of place. In contrast to the prevalent pop-music language (see Taylor Swift), Kesha did not shy from being over-the-top or vulgar, yet her songs and videos were genuinely joyful, and her personality, refreshing.
Kesha’s public persona was deliberately unpolished, juvenile, yet also relatable and fun the way your first year of clubbing is fun (and then never again).
In 2012, after a world tour and collaborations with Britney Spears, Nicki Minaj, and Alice Cooper, Kesha released her second album Warrior. It brought the hit singles ‘Die Young’, ‘C’mon’, and ‘Crazy Kids’, more anthems to partying, and more of the now familiar electropop sound. Largely positively received by critics, Warrior felt as a direct continuation from Animal, suggesting that Kesha has now found her style and more of the same is to follow.
Her third studio album Rainbow will not come out until 2017, and that will be a different record made by a different artist.
Between 2014 and 2016 Kesha was involved in a multi-chapter legal battle with her now former producer Dr. Luke (Lukasz Sebastian Gottwald). He was accused of sexual assault and physical abuse, as well as violation of business laws. Dr. Luke counter-claimed that Kesha has made defamatory statements against him to get out of their recording agreement.
The trials are still ongoing, and no final verdict has been given, although a few of the claims have been dropped. The allegations of sexual assault were ‘accepted as true’, but dismissed as past the statute of limitations. The accusation of hate crime was not accepted, since, according to Judge Shirley Kornreich, ‘Every rape is not a gender-motivated hate crime.’ And so on. This article published by The Atlantic gives insight into how Kesha lost a lawsuit despite no one arguing against the facts presented by her. Reading that legal account feels like watching a thimblerigger at work, and it makes me very, very angry.
The album cover shows naked Kesha, standing in sea foam, with her backside to us — akin to the reverse image of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. It’s a striking picture and it is a political statement: she owns that body and these are her stories to tell.
Kesha has had her period of being very, very angry, and of being sick. In 2014 the singer spent half a year in a rehab, treated for an eating disorder. The industry pressure to look thin, the infamous comments of Dr. Luke who compared Kesha’s body shape to that of a fridge — all of it made her feel ‘like part of [her] job was to be as skinny as possible’.
It was not until April 2017, when Sony Music Entertainment announced that Dr. Luke is no longer associated with their label, that Kesha started recording her third studio album Rainbow. Featuring fourteen songs out of dozens written during her time of forced silence, Rainbow sounds like a collection of best hits from various decades — it is that diverse. The album cover shows naked Kesha, standing in sea foam, with her backside to us — akin to the reverse image of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. It’s a striking picture and it is a political statement: she owns that body and these are her stories to tell.
Rainbow (2017), alongside Lady Gaga’s Joanne (2016) and Younger Now (2017) by Miley Cyrus, is an example of a female pop artist associated with liberal values — all three singers are passionate advocates for LGBTQ equality — turning to a conservative and strikingly American genre. Country music has been traditionally associated with working-class Americans with European background; they are now seen as the primary support behind President Trump (cf. ‘Who Are Donald Trump Supporters, Really?’). Kesha’s new album is a curious indirect statement that country music does not have to stand for ‘traditional values’, and can be a vehicle for any type of message.
Similarly to Miley Cyrus, Kesha is from Tennessee and banjo melodies are in her blood: Pebe Sebert, the artist’s mother, is a singer-songwriter. Pebe Sebert’s most recognised work is ‘Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You’, famously covered by Dolly Parton. That song appears on Rainbow as track number 12: Kesha’s duet with Parton, a formal blessing from the country primadonna and a nice enough version that sounds traditional without being old-fashioned. Remarkably, the song shows that Kesha can have a stronger presence than Dolly Parton, which is saying something.
Big and wide and absolutely unapologetic.
The influence of ‘Jolene’s author is not limited to track number 12. Rainbow and the videos for it are a celebration of Kesha’s new-found image: bright-coloured suits, large gaudy rings, big hair and cowboy hats bring to mind Village People, Dolly Parton (but with a penchant for disco), an Americana-spirited Pride. From a messy-haired pop starlet, the identity previously employed by Christina Aguilera and Shakira (et al.), Kesha has transformed into someone unparalleled. This is felt in ‘Woman’, the song best representing the whole album. The refrain ‘I’m a motherfucking woman!’ is a lyrical revelation: it makes the female the subject instead of the object, Kesha becomes Jules Winnfield. I love that song, it’s big and wide and absolutely unapologetic:
Rainbow has ballads (‘Praying’, ‘Learn to Let Go’), upbeat bubblegum songs (‘Let ‘em Talk’, ‘Boogie Feet’), indie folk (‘Finding You’, ‘Spaceship’), and honest-to-God country (‘Hunt You Down’, ‘Boots’). It is not at all a concept album, or even a collection of songs that necessarily belong together. It is a showcase for Kesha’s artistic development over the last few years, pick ‘n’ mix of genres and influences.
There is a great variety of style, but the tone throughout the album remains unflinchingly optimistic.
‘Bastards’ would suit Pink, as would ‘Rainbow’: an R-rated Disney heroine song that has Kesha talking to a younger girl (self). ‘Hymn’ sounds not unlike Rihanna’s ‘Cheers (Drink to That)’ and Miley’s ‘We Can’t Stop’, although less about partying and more about acceptance (not that those are mutually exclusive; see the allusion to Pride above). ‘Godzilla’ — my favourite song — is The Moldy Peaches, all of a sudden.
There is a great variety of style, but the tone throughout the album remains unflinchingly optimistic. This the third act, the hero gets his act together, Rocky is training for the fight, the Fellowship of the Ring have reached the mountain peaks, Obama has won the election.
Welcome back, Ms Sebert. You’ve been missed.
Discography: Kesha, Rainbow. United States. Released on Kemosabe and RCA Records from August 11th, 2017. (On AllMusic)
Current album: Kesha, Rainbow
Current book: Lydia Davis, Can’t and Won’t
Current TV series: The Great British Bake Off, Series 8 (2017)