Review: Kesha Bares All on New Album ‘Gag Order’

Kesha is an artist that is hard to define. At the beginning of her career, she made music that was the sonic equivalent of snorting glitter and rallying through a drunken stupor. Songs like “TiK Tok” and “Die Young” had parents of the singer-songwriters’ young fans wringing their hands and wondering what the effects of a line like Let’s make the most of the night like we’re gonna die young would be. 

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Ke$ha (with the dollar sign present and accounted for) was a party-pop steward who, at times, was discounted and chalked up to nothing more than a catalyst for a good time. Her fans and her haters made up the difference between those who use music as a vibe check and those that prefer to sink their teeth into something chewy and hard to digest.  

That Ke$ha was made a thing of the past when she went public with accusations of sexual assault against her producer, Dr. Luke, in 2014. She followed up her claims with a suit, but ultimately lost the case when a judge decided the statute of limitations on her two most damning accusations was up. 

It was a blow. 

The singer was forced to remain in her contract with Dr. Luke’s label, Kemosabe Records until the terms were filled and is currently being counter-sued for defamation. The fulfillment of that contract saw her share two more albums prior to the pandemic – Rainbow and High Road – which are bolstered with some of her most bare songs to date. 

‘Cause you brought the flames and you put me through hell / I had to learn how to fight for myself / And we both know all the truth I could tell / I’ll just say this is “I wish you farewell,” she sings in “Praying”—a song that reintroduced the world to a new Kesha (sans dollar sign) and found her somewhere between her usual anthem-making self and an intimate balladeer. 

The final album Kesha is contractually obligated to make under Kemosabe, Gag Order, arrived today (May 19). With it comes yet another plot twist in the Kesha story and it is one that creates pause. 

There is something clinical about Gag Order —in the best way possible. The album’s sparse and off-kilter production comes via Rick Rubin, who applies firm pressure to push Kesha’s style somewhere new while Kesha (who acts as executive producer ) opens herself up to evolution.

The musicality across the record is sleek with top notes of crisp drum fills and warping synths. 

From the first few seconds of the album’s opener, “Something To Believe In,”  any preconceived notions one might have about what a Kesha song should sound like is eradicated. All the color has been drained from Kesha’s mainstream, club-ready beats. In their place are sharp, chromed-out floor fillers ready to be devoured by the counter-culture. 

The lyrics, however, are anything but clinical. No one could accuse Kesha of being detached on this record. Despite being branded with the title Gag Order, the singer has cleared her throat and proceeded to speak with unbridled honesty across the 13 tracks.

In track four, “Fine Line,” Kesha leaves nothing up to interpretation singing All the doctors and lawyers cut the tongue out of my mouth / I’ve been hiding my anger, but bitch look at me now / I’m at the top of the mountain, with a gun to my head / Am I bigger than Jesus, or better off dead?

Similarly in “Happy,” she mulls over what might have been if she experience the last near-decade of her life without the strength she has within. 

What if none of this happened? / It’s nothing like I imagined it / What if I wasn’t this strong? / What if it all just went different, she sings.

The emotional core of Gag Order is palpable. There is a sense of isolation, panic, and dejection that the listeners gleans from this record—all of which, it is likely safe to assume, Kesha felt herself while creating this project.

The internal battle one must experience while creating a deeply personal piece of art such as this album while knowing a portion of the profit will go to an institution you are at odds with must be a hard one to weather.

That tinge of heartache is what grounds this album. What could have been a splashy attempt to reinvent herself for reinvention’s sake, is instead something that feels like a natural next step because the story within calls for change.

Gag Order is a thorough dissection of that story, which the public has been watching from a bird’s eye view for the last decade. Her scalpel is sharp and she wields it with a purpose, digging for her truth and laying it out on the table for observation.

It’s an effort that takes big risks to find equal rewards. It calls to mind past musical statements made by pop divas that demand attention. This is Kesha’s Reputation. It’s her Lemonade.

Kesha has drawn the curtain for her third act with Gag Order and is standing center-stage ready to bask in the limelight once again.

Photo by Vincent Haycock / Shore Fire Media

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