by MATT BACON >
So the new Kesha is out. Regular readers know that I’m a huge fan of her first two records, they were a study in not giving a fuck.
Kesha perfectly captured a certain trashy Hollywood girl aesthetic that was then built upon with fantastical and weird music videos, unexpected collaborations and a number one single that just wouldn’t quit. Then it came out that her producer and label head Dr. Luke had been sexually abusing her and Kesha disappeared from the public eye for a while. There was a controversial court case with an unsatisfying resolution and ultimately for a long time we thought her career was fucked to oblivion. Slowly she started to get rights back and perform live again. Now we sit here with Rainbow, a new record from the pop queen and I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about it. After multiple listens as well as revisiting her back catalog I think I’ve started to develop some opinions about the various triumphs and failings of this particular effort.
The long and short of it, as I see it, is that Rainbow was inevitably going to be colored by the Dr. Luke drama. Which is fine. It should be. Dr. Luke is pretty decidedly not a great person. That’s kind of besides the point though. There is a certain heavy handedness here that kind of goes against the ethos that originally defined Kesha. That is to say, much of the first side of this record feels like a stab at the selfsame try hard feminism that fueled the Clinton campaign and led to a Trump presidency. For an artist who once sang about ruining peoples lives, eating her lovers alive and perhaps most memorably brushing her teeth with a bottle of Jack Daniels, a song whining about bully’s seems to be a little bit weak. In many ways Rainbow shows us a Kesha who feels fundamentally changed, which is to be expected I guess, I think I just never truly anticipated how radical that change might be.
Kesha has always had a strong feminist flair throughout her music.
However whereas on previous records it was based on a devil may care attitude, a shit kicking temper and a love for motherfucking partying, this record addresses feminism more directly. I’m not sure that’s the move though. If you look at a song like Woman what do the lyrics really achieve that haven’t been previously accomplished with the trademark sneer of D.I.N.O.S.A.U.R.? Similarly, the various nostalgic tracks that have defined this record often feel like rehashes of classics like Wonderland and Love Into The Light. For me the point of Kesha has always been that she doesn’t give a fuck, and this record has fundamentally shifted. Now we get a sense of triumph that breathes throughout the record and gives it a very distinctive flavor within the Kesha canon.
Of course – this taps into one of the most important fundamental shifts in this record, the musical style here has totally changed. Kesha has moved away pretty much entirely from the synth pulsing horned up sex kitten sound she so eagerly used to push. Instead we get a much more stripped down set of tracks, none of these, with one or two possible exceptions, are really club tracks. Instead she’s made a move for the more downtempo stuff that defines modern Lorde. There’s nothing wrong with that per say, in fact I quite enjoy the new musical direction, but I certainly miss the reassuring thump of Kesha’s bachanalian romps through the seedier sides of Los Angeles. It’s a daring shift though for an artist who has no real history of putting out music like this (Although her Deconstructed might have been suggesting this) and yet it frequently feels very natural. Sure there are the occasional growing pains, but this is a fully musically realized record and one that is a delicious listen that I can pull back to time and time again.
I think the conversation that needs to be had here is more about the changing role of female sexuality and the role of feminism and social justice in pop music today. For myself as a fan my favorite female artists and the ones I felt best reflected third wave feminism were groups and artists like The Donnas or The Bangles, using their larger vision to suggest a more dominant position for women globally rather than shoving an ideology down your throat. The Donnas for example simply wanted to prove they could party with the dudes and they got the dudes respect because of that. I think a lot of that falls apart with attempts at lecturing in a song, which really only serves to alienate. Now Kesha doesn’t do that outright here, but again, it just feels weird for social justice to be Keshas focus now given that her debut was as an 18 year old singing about stripping. There’s obviously a very good reason for that, but if it weren’t for the Dr. Luke fiasco this lyrical shift would feel forced. As is, I think it’s an interesting reflection of Keshas evolving aesthetic.
Now of course everything that I say with regards to this can easily be disregarded simply because this record is such a departure and as someone who has made Kesha a significant chunk of his life for a long time now it’s hard for me to wrap my head around all of this. That’s just something every fan of any band has to grapple with when shit turns as much as this record does. It’s a musical achievement to be sure, but I don’t think any of us would have anticipated a country ballad from the singer of Party At A Rich Dude’s House. But again, it proves the incredible versatility of Kesha as an artist and makes her all the more alluring. I’m curious to see how she goes from here, her breadth of collaborations are fascinating and lead me to wonder what exactly is going to come next from this fascinating genius.