A powerful image gripped the Internet nearly two years before the onset of the #MeToo and the Time’s Up movement. It was of pop singer Kesha, sitting in a New York City courtroom, choking back tears as a judge ruled against her preliminary injunction to be released from her contract with Kemosabe Records, founded by producer Lukas Gottwald, known professionally as Dr. Luke. He was the one who signed her to his label a decade earlier and oversaw her first two LPs, Animal and Warrior.
Beginning in 2014, Kesha filed a series of lawsuits in New York and California against her former producer, citing sex-based hate crimes, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and workplace discrimination. She continues to assert that Gottwald had physically, sexually, verbally, and emotionally abused her since the beginning of their professional relationship, as well as made threats against her family. Gottwald has denied all of the allegations and has, in turn, sued both Kesha and her mother, Pebe Sebert, for defamation and breach of contract. The case in New York is ongoing, with a new trial date set for this July.
But the singer also didn’t want to waste any more time not making music. Kesha released her highly acclaimed comeback record Rainbow in 2017, which established her as having strengths in numerous genres outside of the electropop that made her famous in the early 2010s. Sadly, while Sony and RCA have allowed Kesha to create music without Dr. Luke, he still profits from her. In the trailer for Rainbow’s 2020 follow-up, High Road, the singer remarked, “Kesha got her balls back. And they’re bigger than ever.”
Unfortunately, High Road lost itself entirely in Kesha’s attempt at satirically commenting on the electropop she recorded earlier in her career with no creative control. One track is even credited as having a feature with “Ke$ha”, her former alter-ego. Although Kesha avowed having unlocked a newfound sense of confidence, the inner turmoil brought about by the pandemic and her continuous legal battle drove the singer inward again.
The result, her latest LP, Gag Order, is an experimental art-pop record whose title refers to her legal inability to comment on her case against Dr. Luke publicly. So, she channeled all of the ugly feelings into other words that get her point across without naming names, similar to her lauded 2017 comeback single “Praying”. One of its lead singles, “Eat the Acid”, sets the stage for discomfort and anger across her new album, suggesting what consequences we suffer when we choose to eat the metaphorical acid.
Elsewhere, Kesha leans into electronica reminiscent of Fiona Apple or Björk to illustrate the inner demons she grapples with daily. But it’s jarring and unsettling. Angry and disturbing lyrics of this caliber would signify liberation for any other female artist. But it’s never been more evident than it is on Gag Order that Kesha is not a free woman.
This makes it all the more difficult to enjoy Gag Order for what it is when there’s a blaring undercurrent that’s hard to ignore. It says, “Hey, I’m not okay.” We cannot blame Kesha for not being okay, as any woman in her position of fighting for justice against her abuser for years on end would suffer an irrevocable emotional toll.
In Gag Order, the line between art and reality is purposely blurred until “Hate Me Harder”, its penultimate track. “There’s nothin’ left that I haven’t heard / And I can take it, so make it hurt,” she sings. It’s reminiscent of the opening lines of Rainbow: “I got too many people I got left to prove wrong.” Years of trying to survive as a woman in ageist mainstream pop music, on top of taking her abuser to court, has left her with nothing left to give but art. Her life is, therefore, similar to all lives from one time to another. It can be messy and disturbing and exist outside of traditional boundaries. “You don’t want to be changed like it changed me,” Kesha repeats on “Eat the Acid”. So is Gag Order a cautionary tale? A cry for help? A cathartic release? Most likely, it’s all of the above.