The Kesha of today is and isn’t the same as the Ke$ha of 2010, whose debut album Animal featured six Billboard-topping singles, including “TiK ToK,” then the highest-selling digital single in history. At that point, she was one of a number of artists messing around at the intersection of pop rap and the newly commercially viable brand of EDM Skrillex and deadmau5 had made a name off. Primarily backed by Kelly Clarkson-hitmaker Dr. Luke (plus some assists from the legendary Max Martin), Ke$ha stood out as one of the few stars of that industry boom with a definable persona, even if it was seemingly crafted in response to the success of Lady Gaga. Less gay and drawing on an American strain of trashiness akin to the then-popular Jersey Shore (or earlier-on collaborator 3OH!3, from which much of her aesthetic was borrowed), Ke$ha found an audience that at one point likely rivaled Gaga’s, her purposefully stupid youth anthems and electropop celebrations of repercussion-free debauchery providing a better summation of the cultural attitudes of that moment than much else.
But, of course, the culture has since shifted (though 3OH!3’s influence still looms large), and concurrently, Kesha has been ensnared in a very public, still ongoing legal battle with Dr. Luke, whom she’s accused of physical and sexual assault, as well as controlling her career and personhood to a frightening, tyrannical degree. While she’s still stuck in her contract with Luke’s Kemosabe Records, parent label Sony has since parted ways with the founder/producer, and Kesha has resumed making music for the company. Ditching the “$” and Diddy aspirations in favor of psychedelics and the supernatural (as explored on a podcast and Discovery+ program), this new Kesha is a bit more introspective and spiritual, yet still decidedly a Top 40-minded act, even when she employs the likes of Rick Rubin and Hudson Mohawke for latest album, Gag Order. Admittedly, it’s hard to be too critical of the music on Gag Order, Kesha’s fifth studio LP and the first where she (sort of) explicitly addresses the traumatic fallout and cursed success she shared with Luke. But with some exceptions, like the frank and explicit B-Side “Fine Line” (elevated to the album’s proper centerpiece) and the unapologetically grim “Too Far Gone,” the songs on Gag Order are overly generic, obviously keen on charting despite the artist expressing disinterest in all of that elsewhere on the album.
Executive produced by Rubin, and with an eclectic crew of collaborators that includes the aforementioned HudMo, plus Mary Lattimore and Kurt Vile (relegated to a strange outro cover of “I Wanna Be Sedated” on track “The Drama”), Gag Order seemed poised to be a genuine reinvention for an artist in need of a new angle, but it’s held back by the designs of the corporate music industry, its most bracing moments undercut by underwhelming new-agey EDM reworks and overly glossy vocals. There simply isn’t much of a cause for celebration here because there isn’t much to dig into, which is a shame for an artist as singular as Kesha. Still, there’s enough of a shift to lend hope that Gag Order might be the start of something more interesting and free for Kesha, an artist who always had good instincts and existed in an aesthetic space somewhere near the trendy hyperpop material of now, but who hasn’t really figured out how to break away from the constraints of corporate production.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 21.