A listen to “Gag Order” will let you know that Kesha’s anger is unmistakably real, raw and existent
Kesha was the biggest star in 2009, the purveyor of the word “TikTok” before it became a pillar in Gen Z pop culture. Her debut single propelled her into fame as a rambunctious, unapologetic party girl and unintended beacon of the Indie Sleaze aesthetic. But while everyone loved the bops from Animal and Warrior, Kesha was battling something behind-the-scenes, an issue that halted her career for a long while. Finally, in 2014, she sued music producer Dr. Luke (Lukasz Sebastian Gottwald) for allegations of emotional and sexual abuse during her career under his wing. In effect, her music career also pulled into a halt.
She returned to the music scene with Rainbow in 2017, vaguely addressing the battle but focusing on her drive to keep going regardless of naysayers. After rising from the ashes, she releases High Road in 2020, an attempt to root Kesha back to her heart-thumping pop party beginnings as she powers through the pain. But perhaps this time around, Kesha felt like she needed to say it like it is and turn inward. So despite the fact that she isn’t allowed to publicly address the long-standing litigation process, Gag Order unabashedly references the continuous struggle.
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Backdropped against psychedelic instrumentals, sleazy synths and touches of folk-pop—genres that she’s already dipped her feet in—her lyrics don’t shy away from the cold hard truth. Anyone who listens, even if you have no full ncontext of her struggles, will know that Kesha’s anger is unmistakably real, raw and existent. Rick Rubin stands as the producer of Gag Order, the man who helped Kesha fall in love with the craft again. In her interview with Zane Lowe, she admits that her creative process for the album focused solely on mirroring her feelings, barely even considering singles, radio and other factors that businesses think of for releases.
Gag Order starts with Something To Believe In, a haunting folk-pop track that acts more like a prayer for an anchor to arrive. “You never know that you need somethin' to believe in,” she sings again and again, as if she’s trying to convince herself and the listener as it goes on. Living In My Head is woven from the same thread, with only an acoustic guitar and the layering of her vocals creating an evocative ballad as she begs to be free of the walls of her mind. Sonically simple instrumentals coupled with loaded lyrics pepper the album, depicting the empty shell that she’s still trying to navigate. In Too Far Gone she declares, “Thinks I killed the part of me that I like.” Here, she’s a popstar reborn. Older, wiser, but still loaded with feelings she needs to let out before she fully tries again.
The album also shows us a peek into her spirituality practices. “Last night, I saw it all / Last night, I talked to God,” she sings in Eat The Acid, a psychedelic track that advices against the use of LSD. The lyric references an experience she had in 2020, written in a manifesto for Nylon, where she “felt a wave of golden light pass through my body. A sense of peace.” Apart from opening up on her enlightening experience, she also peppers audio intros from a handful of spiritual leaders such as mystic and cult leader Rajneesh, Neopagan leader Oberon Zell and spiritual guru Ram Dass.
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However, pared back ballads, hypnotizing instrumentals and spiritual awakenings don’t mean that Kesha has fully rejected upbeat pop bops in favor of keeping it real. Only Love Can Save Us Now throws it back to the same sass we loved way back when with Kesha, intentionally irreverent, rapping over a staccato beat. She cuts it short with, “The bitch I was, she dead, her grave desecrated” before the instrumental soars into a folk-pop hit with a gospel chorus. Sounds exactly like remnants of Die Young from 2014 but with retribution in mind.
The essence of her struggle manifests in Hate Me Harder, Kesha hits back at naysayers with a hint of defeat. While she’s tried to speak on empowerment in previous, post-Dr. Luke releases, she still lets her façade crack. This also comes forth in one of the lead singles Fine Line, an apparent reference of her failing to keep her composure when her legal battles are concerned. Kesha isn’t afraid to close it on a helpless note, crooning in defeat, “There's a fine line between what's entertaining / And what's just exploiting the pain / But, hey, look at all the money we made off me.”
Through the full course of Gag Order, Kesha shows us that it’s anything but. A lyrical masterpiece circumventing legalities that allows her the release she hasn’t received yet in a long, long time. It’s a reflection of her feelings, extending the anchor she’s been looking for to people who need the same motivation to acknowledge their feelings to stay afloat. Kesha closes the album with Happy—an uncertain ballad that talks about how things don’t go as planned. She laughs instead of dying. And hey, finding something to laugh about is enough of a triumph in itself, right?
Art Macky Arquilla