Kesha's "High Road" Is a Beautiful Mess

Kesha enlists Brian Wilson, Sturgill Simpson, and old Ke$ha to create a sometimes jarring portrait of herself, past, present, and future.

Kesha's fourth album High Road begins with a near-perfect hook.

"Tonight is the best night of our lives," she sings over an ear-worm of a chord progression, voice awashed in auto-tune. Suddenly the music stops. "B*tch, pick up your phone," a voice says. "We're going out."

It's jarring, tongue-in cheek, and a bit messy, like the rest of High Road. Kesha's always toyed with the limits of pop, balancing kitsch and genuineness, and true to form, High Road ricochets back and forth between pristine euphoria and camp, between childlike wonder and jaded ennui.

On "Shadow," Kesha flips between reflectiveness and crudeness. "Imma love you even though you hate me," she sings. "Hate is the poison, love's the elixir. If you don't like me you can suck my…." Her voice spirals into a choir of eerily beautiful harmonies, perhaps one of the more elegant arrangements that the phrase "you can suck my" has ever been spun into.

Maybe the contrast is the point. Kesha is an artist, but her medium is pop music's cliches and reliable symbolism. She pulls from other stars, sometimes copying Cardi B's flow, arguably adopting a bit of a blaccent in songs like "Honey." The transition from "Honey" to "Cowboy Blues," an ethereal, deeply beautiful acoustic number that mentions cats and talks with therapists and tarot cards, is also startling. At times, walking through High Road can feel like traveling through a bunch of different sets in Hollywood—a party, then a bedroom scene, then a desert under the stars. It's hard not to think of Lil Nas X's kaleidoscopic rendition of "Old Town Road" at this year's Grammys; Kesha's album feels like a similarly endless rotation through a carousel of lights and sounds.

Hovering over High Road is the well-known story of Kesha's past. Her fraught relationship with Dr. Luke dominated the headlines for months, exploding after Kesha accused him of abuse that nearly ended her life and attempted to free herself of her contract with him. The case dragged on and on, and when Kesha was finally able to break the chains, what followed was 2017's Rainbow, crowned by the breathtaking power ballad "Praying."

High Road finds Kesha borrowing from the ragged seriousness of that era, choosing to blend it with the glittery, vodka-soaked, gold-tooth fragments of her past and adding a sprinkle of openhearted optimism. Some of the album is so saccharine and manufactured that it's hard to listen to—the calliope-influenced, "Potato Song" could soundtrack mind-bendingly annoying TikToks—but it redeems itself with moments of beauty that feel like deep breaths. Similarly, the cosmic folky flashpoint "Chasing Thunder" is an inspiring power ballad which offers more scope than the glitchy cliches of the earlier bangers, but it winds up losing some of its power as it progresses instead of building to a truly satisfying chorus.

Few albums contain such an even mix of beauty and stupidity, of ugliness and effervescence. Kesha pulls it off with a wink, taking the high road and shrugging off the heaviest parts of the suffering that weighed over her for the past decade while not denying their existence. She practices self-confidence, but at the same time, she searches for unreliable men as if they could save her—an absent father and a man she briefly met at a Nashville bar both represent paths towards redemption and innocence that went untaken. Now all she has is herself and her scars, and she both celebrates them and mourns what could've been.

Maybe that's what we need nowadays—a movement towards optimism that doesn't disavow pain and suffering. Maybe we should be like Kesha on High Road, embracing the fact that none of us are just one thing; we're all collages of shallowness, mistakes, triumphs, Netflix binges, wild parties, best friends, transcendent experiences, days spent in bed, heartache, daddy issues, anxiety, clarity, and everything in between.

Kesha certainly thinks so. "You can be a woman who goes out and you party, and you have drinks … and you smoke some weed, and then you get a tattoo," she said to The Atlantic. "And then the next day you go for a run, and then you meditate, and then you go to the studio and write a song about a totally different emotion. That's just what being human is."


A Decade of Kesha: The Pop Star We Don't Deserve

The singer's debut album Animal is ten years old this week.

In 2008, an unknown singer by the name of Kesha Sebert was summoned to sing the brief female hook for what would become a No. 1 hit.

This song was called "Right Round" by Flo Rida, and it topped the charts for six consecutive weeks. Kesha—comically stylized as Ke$ha at the time—was uncredited on the track in the U.S., and critics denounced it for its hokey sample and crass sexual innuendos. But her success wasn't hindered; she swiftly landed a record deal with RCA after "Right Round" dropped, at last given the foundation she deserved to pump out a No. 1 hit (or three) of her own.

Flo Rida - Right Round (feat. Ke$ha) [US Version] (Official Video)

Prior to her collaboration with Flo Rida, Kesha had already been hustling for quite a while. She spent seven years writing over 200 songs that'd eventually be whittled down for her debut album, Animal, which turned ten years old this week. Before "Right Round," she'd been heavily active in the pop music sphere, working on songs with Britney Spears and appearing in the music video for her friend Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl." And songwriting was in Kesha's DNA: Her mom, Pebe Sebert, wrote Joe Sun's "Old Flames Can't Hold a Candle to You" in the '70s, which would be covered by Dolly Parton and become a hit. With the release of her breakout single, "Tik Tok," a new patron saint of partying had arrived.

Kesha came up with the idea for "Tik Tok" after half-drunkenly stumbling home from a night out. Her living situation at the time was a house in L.A.'s Laurel Canyon, where she crashed with a constantly-rotating cast of bohemian roommates. "I woke up one day after we went to a party, and I was surrounded by ten of the most beautiful women you've ever seen," she told Esquire of "Tik Tok"'s conception. Which is to say: She woke up in the morning feeling like P. Diddy.


These themes of shameless partying permeated Animal to the point that some critics and naysayers deemed her inauthentic, crude, and unsophisticated. But even while covered in glitter during her live performances, there was an endearing, welcoming quality to Kesha; she grew up poor and proved that you didn't have to be flush with cash to have a glamorous night. She flaunted her self-described "garbage can chic" aesthetic, taking the bus to the bar and smuggling in liquor to avoid steep drink prices.

But glitter, alcohol, and boys aside, Kesha knew from the beginning that she wanted to serve as a symbol of liberation for her young female listeners. "For girls, I think [Animal is] an empowering record," she told Seventeen. "It's funny, it's cheeky. I think people need to have fun with whatever they're doing—makeup, their clothes, music, live shows—anything you don't need to take too seriously, don't take too seriously." During her concerts, she'd don a backpack confetti cannon, and she refused to wear high heels because she couldn't safely dance in them.

Kesha stood for the girls who didn't give a f--k and lived as they please. That's why it was especially horrifying when news broke in 2014 that Kesha had sued her longtime producer, Dr. Luke, for sexual assault and battery, sexual harassment, gender violence, emotional abuse, and violation of California business practices. Dr. Luke countersued Kesha for defamation, and all of Kesha's claims were dismissed.

Kesha vs. Dr. Luke: A timeline

The singer returned in July 2017 with her first single in four years, "Praying," a soulful ballad that became associated with the #MeToo movement. "This song is about me finding peace in the fact that I can't control everything — because trying to control everyone was killing me," she wrote in an essay accompanying the song's release. "It's about learning to let go and realize that the universe is in control of my fate, not me. It's from our darkest moments that we gain the most strength...I hope this song reaches people who are in the midst of struggles, to let them know that no matter how bad it seems now, you can get through it. If you have love and truth on your side, you will never be defeated. Don't give up on yourself."

Kesha has always preached strength and freedom in her music. Whether wrapped up in the excitement of heading to a raging party or in the euphoria of healing from trauma, the decade since Animal has proven that Kesha is a dynamic force not only in pop music, but womanhood.

Kesha - Praying (Official Video)

Remember when Doja Cat was seemingly a flash-in-the-pan singer? Her quirky breakout hit "MOO!" was met with internet acclaim before she was inevitably "canceled" when old homophobic tweets resurfaced.

Her apology for the tweets was then met with a mixed reception. "I called a couple people f*ggots when I was in high school in 2015," she wrote. "Does this mean I don't deserve support?... Does saying f*ggot mean you hate gay people? Do I hate gay people? I don't think I hate gay [people]." The tweets in question, when revisited through the lens of 2019 politics, seem rather harmless. The whole debacle raises questions about the validity of cancel culture, especially pertaining to "old tweets," but Doja Cat isn't here to be a spokesperson and Hot Pink doesn't take time to reflect on the past. Instead, it pushes the career of Amala Zandile Dlamini fervently forward with a collection of catchy, and sophisticated pop songs.

Doja Cat - Cyber Sex (Official Video)

Hot Pink, instead, is a Lil Kim-level flex dripping in glitter. It offers up some of the best music of Doja's career and paints her as more than just a one-hit pop singer. "Shine" is an expertly crafted ode to wealth and diamonds, while "Like That" and "Won't Bite" bring out the best in Gucci Mane and Smino.

Then again, as charismatic as the project is, Hot Pink is soaked in bitter irony. While the project fights to glorify female sexuality and wealth, its message feels hollow when the production credits roll. Dr. Luke, the mega-producer whose career was called into question after he was accused of brutal sexual and emotional abuse by Ke$ha, inked a controversial deal with Doja Cat earlier this year and had a heavy hand in Hot Pink's production.

It's clear that Doja does what she wants, which is at times admirable. But free will and ignorance are two different things, and while Doja doesn't feel the need to be defined by political correctness, it will inevitably define her and her career whether she wants it to or not.


Kesha Talks Emotional Wreckage, Glitter, and Her Upcoming Album

The pop star examined her past and future in a new interview with Billboard.

This December, Kesha is releasing her first album since 2017's Rainbow.

While not exactly downbeat, Rainbow was certainly a marked shift from her previous work, which was mostly about partying the night away and drowning oneself in glitter and liquor. If you thought that Kesha had disappeared along with the $ in her name, think again. In a new interview with Billboard, she said "I got my b*lls back, and they're bigger than ever."

She wants you to know that this isn't a renunciation of the more serious side she showed on Rainbow, though. "Everything goes up and down, and I think it probably will for the rest of my life," she added. "So you ride the highs, and you write songs about an awesome night where you go and meet Elton John and get f*cked up and lose your phone in the Uber, and sometimes you write songs about what it might have been like if you grew up with a father, because you have absolutely no clue. And hopefully, by now, the world has realized that you can be multidimensional."

Kesha - It Ain't Me, Babe [Billboard Music Awards 2016] HD 1080p

Kesha - Woman (Official Video) ft. The Dap-Kings Horns

People can be party girls and multifaceted, complex human beings at the same time. Who knew?

Apparently, Kesha is doing better than ever, and she's back to the place she was when she started making music, before everything happened with Dr. Luke and all the ugliness that surrounded those events. "It feels more earned and healthier than ever," she said of her newfound healthy state of mind. "I dug through the emotional wreckage, and now, I can go back to talking a little bit of sh*t."

Her next album will be a return to the exuberant, neon-saturated pop that launched her career. "I really wanted to put a solid footprint back into pop music, like, 'I can do this, and I can do this on my own,'" she continued. "I don't know if this is my last pop record, but I want to have one where I go out with a bang."

The followup to Rainbow will be released in December.


Before Taylor Swift: 6 Artists Who Were Screwed Over by Their Labels

Swift's very public feud with Big Machine Records has ignited a conversation about artists' rights, but she's far from the first superstar to challenge her label's actions.

Taylor Swift's recent attack on her former record label—which sold the masters of her music to another producer allegedly without her knowledge—has sparked a resurgence of conversations about musicians' rights to their own music.

Despite the dramatic nature of her accusations, Swift is far from alone in losing her work to a label; that's a story that's been repeated since the dawn of the recording industry. Even some of music's most iconic superstars have lost millions in legal battles over faulty contracts that they signed as teenagers.

1. TLC

TLC was a boundary-breaking girl-group that paved the way for the success of Destiny's Child and the like. During the height of their success in the 1990s, they were raking in millions of dollars—but due to a terrible record deal helmed by their manager, Perri Reid, they received only 7% of their record sales, translating to about $35,000 per year for each member. In 2018, Reid sued for $40 million in defamation following a VH1 documentary that portrayed her as corrupt and dishonest, claiming that the kind of deal that TLC received was just "the type of deal that new artists get."

Because of their debts, the girls were forced into bankruptcy at the height of their fame. Fortunately, they were eventually able to re-negotiate their contract with LaFace records, but the damage was done.

music artists bad deals record labels Image via Ebony Magazine

2. The Beach Boys

In April 1969, the Beach Boys sued Capitol Records for $2 million. All this began when the Beach Boys requested a termination of their contract back in 1967, also requesting $200,000 in unpaid royalties. Two years later, they still hadn't received the requested royalties and so ultimately won back nearly $1.5 million in unpaid production fees—though their conflict with Capitol Records continued, and their catalog ended up back on Capitol anyway, under the control of the Wilsons' father, Murray—who later sold all the band's masters to Irving Alamo Music for $700,000 without their consent. (The catalog would eventually be worth $30 million).

music artists sue record labels Image via Coastal Living

3. Kesha

Kesha's drawn-out battle with her music producer, Dr. Luke, ignited a series of conversations about recording contracts and the ways they often place artists between a rock and a hard place, with little room to escape under even dire circumstances.

In 2014, Kesha sued Dr. Luke, asking the judge to let her out of her contract, which would have forced her to record six more albums with the man who assaulted, drugged, and verbally abused her. The subsequent legal battle dragged on for years, and Kesha was denied almost everything she asked for, including an attempt to record an album on a different label while the lawsuits went on.

Eventually Kesha released a new album, Rainbow, produced independently but still released on Dr. Luke's label. The fact that Kesha lost her desperate, very public appeal to terminate her contract with Luke reveals the flawed, terrifyingly rigid power imbalance written in the DNA of contractual obligations between musicians and producers.

music artists sue record labels Image via Vox

4. Trent Reznor

The Nine Inch Nails frontman was shocked when he realized that his record label, Universal Studios, was selling his albums for an exorbitant price. He responded by advising fans to steal instead of dishing out their cash. In an impassioned 2007 blog post, Reznor wrote, "As the climate grows more and more desperate for record labels, their answer to their mostly self-inflicted wounds seems to be to screw the consumer over even more. The ABSURD retail pricing of 'Year Zero' in Australia. Shame on you, UMG [Universal Music Group]. 'Year Zero' is selling for $34.99 Australian dollars ($29.10 US). No wonder people steal music."

music artists sue record labels Image via Vulture

5. Prince

Prince received his first record deal at age 18, kickstarting what would become a career-long struggle with contracts and labels. Like Taylor Swift, he was an outspoken advocate for artists' autonomy.

Prince had a multitude of conflicts with Warner Bros. and persistently rebelled against their influence. When the label wouldn't let him release albums on his own schedule and refused to grant him ownership of his own masters, Prince changed his name to a symbol he called the "Love Symbol" (a combination of the male and female gender signs) in order to spite them. He also began performing with the name "SLAVE" written on his cheek.

music artists fight record labels Image via

"I wanted to buy my masters back from Warner Bros," he said in a 1999 interview with Paper Magazine. "They said no way. So I'm going to re-record them. All of them. Now you will have two catalogs with pretty much exactly the same music—except mine will be better—and you can either give your money to WB, the big company, or to NPG. You choose."

Eventually, Prince was able to purchase his masters through a deal with Warner Bros. that was contingent upon him releasing his own album. Later in life, Prince began advising young artists not to sign any record deals. However, in the years leading up to his death he signed a deal with Jay-Z's streaming service, Tidal, embracing streaming as an alternative form of distribution—despite having called the Internet a "Matrix" designed to benefit powerful labels at artists' expense.

music artists fight record labels Image via Vulture

6. Big Mama Thornton

Willie Mae Thornton created the original version of "Hound Dog," later covered by Elvis Presley. It eventually became one of the most litigated and contentious tracks in history, sparking widespread reflection on songwriters' autonomy, profits made from cover tracks, and racial dynamics of musical profit.

Elvis Presley wound up paying Thornton around $500 for his cover of "Hound Dog," the song that would launch him to superstardom. Back in the 1950s, it would have been nearly impossible for Big Mama Thornton to contest Elvis and secure the rights to her work—and so today, some are arguing that people like Big Mama Thornton are owed reparations for the profits they lost out on when their songs and styles were taken and profited off of by white artists.

Image via Medium

While each of these artists certainly lost out, it's important to remember that they are the ones who actually made it into the public eye, and there are so many others who didn't come close, by no fault of their own.

Though we often think of the music industry as a sequence of bright stars, triumphant stadium shows, and extravagant after-parties, its actual history is probably more like a graveyard, haunted by the millions of artists who never made it, because they unwittingly sacrificed their careers and livelihoods to corrupt executives and bad contracts.

Today, streaming has complicated the traditional artist-label dynamic, enabling some creators to circumvent label conflicts entirely—but the digitization of music brings its own share of problems. While streaming services are raking in billions, a recent study revealed that artists and labels are receiving disproportionately little amounts of money compared to the profits they bring in.

It seems that as streaming takes control of the music industry's finances, labels are getting a taste of their own medicine; and even in the virtual dimension, corruption still reigns supreme wherever big money is involved.