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On 'Gag Order,' Kesha gets intensely personal

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Kesha's back. Her new album is called "Gag Order." And listening to it, you can't help but think about all she's been through in the last 10 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FINE LINE")

KESHA: (Singing) 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.

SHAPIRO: Since 2014, Kesha has been locked in a legal battle with the music producer known as Dr. Luke. She alleges he has drugged and raped and emotionally abused her, among other claims. He's countersued for defamation and breach of contract, the contract under which she has now released "Gag Order." It's her fifth record for Dr. Luke's label. It is a twisted tale, to say the least. And the tension is all over this album. We're taking all this to the group chat. NPR Music's Stephen Thompson and Ann Powers, good to have you both here.

STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: It's great to be here.

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: And what's your first take? What strikes you most about this album?

POWERS: Well, you know, Ari, I really value artists who work to express the complexities of emotion in pop music not only in their lyrics but musically as well. I think the album is kind of a rocky listen but in the best way. I mean, it takes us inside the head of this woman who's dealt with so much and who sometimes is still unsure of herself. But she's just determined to be honest, and honest is not a word I ever use lightly.

SHAPIRO: And what does she show us when we get there inside her head? I mean, her last two albums in 2017 and 2020 - they nodded to her situation with Dr. Luke but less overtly.

POWERS: Oh, wow. Ari, this is why I think this album is so important beyond Kesha's own body of work and her own career. I mean, we're years out now from the #MeToo movement becoming mainstream. And as a public, we like to focus on stories of, like, triumph and, you know, stories that resolved in some way. But for victims, their stories rarely completely resolve. And Kesha is giving us a gift with this album. She's letting us hear the often-contradictory emotions inside her head...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVING IN MY HEAD")

KESHA: (Singing) I'm so sick of myself. You don't know. I don't want to be here all alone. I don't want to do this on my own. Get me out of my head.

POWERS: ...And reminding us that not only is healing a lifelong process, but justice is a lifelong process.

SHAPIRO: Stephen, what stands out to you about the album?

THOMPSON: I think it's the mixture of beauty and messiness. And to hear this record that is so much darker and so much more conflicted and conveying so many more messy feelings, that's really powerful. And I think at the same time, it's got this production by Rick Rubin that is really beautiful. You can kind of get lost in the swirl of this record. And, you know, sometimes her voice then punches through that beauty and really catches you off guard, like in the song "Eat The Acid," which is one of the singles from this record.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EAT THE ACID")

KESHA: (Singing) You said, don't never eat the acid if you don't want to be changed like it changed me. You said, all the edges got so jagged now. Everything you saw then can't be unseen.

THOMPSON: It kind of has this hypnotic build to it as it's going along. And she's kind of giving this cautionary tale, which is a reflection of a cautionary tale that she had received from her mother, basically saying, like, don't take drugs; it's going to change you the way it changed me. But then when you know her story, that cautionary tale is about more than what it seems to be.

SHAPIRO: This journey has been a decade, as we said. Why do you think she's going there now?

THOMPSON: Well, I think the simple fact that these lawsuits have been going back and forth, and, you know, they are not unidirectional. They are going back and forth. She's being sued for defamation. She is suing him for the reasons that you outlined in the intro. And I think that the cumulative effect of all that conflict - which is not only between her and Dr. Luke but her and this label that is supposed to be the caretaker of her career - I think that frustration has built up and accumulated in a way that she can't just ignore it in the records that she's putting out.

POWERS: Stephen, that's such a great insight. And I think that's why this record is not just about Kesha's story but about the story of pop artists in general. I mean, so many pop stars kind of reach this point where they've been put into a box and they want to refuse the bonds, you know, that contained them. And Miley Cyrus has done the same thing recently, but this record goes even farther than what Miley's done.

SHAPIRO: Do you think we hear this album differently because of the reckoning with Britney Spears and, going more broadly, the reckoning with so many female figures who were - I don't know - dismissed or written off, from Pamela Anderson to Lorena Bobbitt, who are obviously different generations. But there's been this kind of broader reassessment - Janet Jackson and more.

POWERS: Yeah, I think so. I mean, the name that came to mind for me was Amber Heard, you know, a woman who just had to endure public humiliation simply to tell her story. And a lot of this - I mean, what do you think, Stephen? I think a lot of this record addresses that particular predicament of being a famous person and knowing that any time you speak, there's going to be a chorus contradicting you, taking you down, and you have no escape in a sense.

THOMPSON: Yeah. I mean, Ann, I know you're a fan of the song from this record, "Hate Me Harder"...

POWERS: Yeah, I love it.

THOMPSON: ...That is speaking to that. And in some ways it's a very simple, very common refrain that you hear in a lot of pop music, in a lot of hip hop, a lot of R&B - like, come at me, haters.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HATE ME HARDER")

KESHA: (Singing) You saying that I'm over. You say I'm a has-been. You say I look older. Nobody was asking. Luckily, the joke's on you. I got nothing left to prove.

THOMPSON: That's what this song is doing. But at the same time, it is clearly an artist reflecting on her own reputation and understanding that there are people now for whom anything she says can and will be used against her not just, you know, in a court of law but just in social media and in the conversation around her. And I think she's doing a nice job of taking that situation, which in many ways is - her situation is specific to her, but she is taking it and making it kind of a larger, more universal song for anybody who feels beleaguered.

POWERS: I have a very specific response to that, which is, you know, I live in Tennessee, and there are many people in this state who are feeling very endangered right now. And I consider "Hate Me Harder" an anthem for all of those folks who are facing legal challenges, political challenges, feeling they might have to move away from their home. I mean...

SHAPIRO: You're talking about the anti-drag laws, the limitation on trans medical treatment and so on.

POWERS: Completely. And "Hate Me Harder" is an anthem for those folks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HATE ME HARDER")

KESHA: (Singing) There's nothing left that I haven't heard. And I can take it, so make it hurt. Hate me harder. Hate me harder.

SHAPIRO: I got to know Kesha as a kind of creator of danceable party hits that didn't have a lot of depth to them.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: Sorry. Is there any sign of that facet of her personality on this album?

POWERS: Well, I wanted to talk about "Only Love Can Save Us Now." It's a banger, you know? And it does kind of refer back to the Kesha we loved who brushed her teeth with Jack Daniel's, you know? It starts out - she compares herself to Evel Knievel, but it also contains that complexity we're talking about. You know, in some points, it's kind of bitter. It's angry, but then it just returns to this redemptive chorus that's almost like a gospel chorus. It's such a wonderful jumble of emotions. And yes, it has jokes because you know what? Kesha's a great comic artist, too. Let's not forget. She's the queen of making hilarious jokes. And thank goodness she hasn't completely lost her sense of humor.

SHAPIRO: That's our group chat. NPR Music's Stephen Thompson and Ann Powers talking about the new Kesha album "Gag Order." Thank you both.

THOMPSON: Thank you, Ari.

POWERS: Thank you, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONLY LOVE CAN SAVE US NOW")

KESHA: (Singing) Only love can save me. Oh, please, God. I need your love now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kira Wakeam
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)
Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.