Hate Her Harder: Kesha Will Not Be Silenced

Why Gag Order is the pop star’s most honest work of her career

Kesha (Image: Vincent Haycock)

There’s nothing new about pop stars looking to make people uncomfortable, though that’s usually done with carefully scripted moments of outrage. 

But making people genuinely uneasy? Peeling back scabs to reveal pain, and make that pain relatable and contagious? That’s another thing altogether – and that’s just what Kesha does on her startling, flawed and darkly beautiful new album, Gag Order. 

Pop culture observers will recognize the reference in the album’s title: The singer was slapped with just that sort of injunction during her now-years-long legal battles with producer/Svengali Dr. Luke, who she charged with sexually abusing her early in her career, a claim that soon spawned multiple related charges, from contractual misdeeds to dueling defamation cases – which linger to this day. 

The fact that she managed to get the album together at all has to be considered a victory, but it also has to be looked at as something of a pyrrhic one, since she’s still contractually bound to the man she’s accused of sexual assault and defamation – the man responsible for having her slapped with the actual gag order that named the collection. In other words, Dr. Luke profits financially every step of the way. 

Kesha went into great detail about her feelings about the album’s creation in a “manifesto” she wrote for Nylon magazine, saying “It’s scary. I wanted to make an album that sounds the way my head feels. Dipping in and out of depression, gratitude, rage and hope. Always moving. Without the darkness, there is no light. So I let my darkness have the light. I can’t fight the truth. Life is difficult and painful. It is for everyone.” 

Kesha Gag Order, RCA Records 2023

She hits the ground running on Gag Order’s opening track, “Something to Believe In.” It’s by far the simplest, most direct thing on the album, an internal dialog on desperately needing a helping hand, all expressed in short, sharp couplets that accompany the set’s most stripped, intimate melody. The “so you’re saying there’s a chance” vibe churns along until the more downbeat outro, in which she quietly muses “I’m so embarrassing/So used to abandoning myself/I can’t believe I’m still alive.” 

That life-or-death question arises again and again throughout Gag Order, which manages to confess plenty without being confessional, revealing a lot without sounding like a therapy session. What’s most telling, even more telling than the exceedingly personal lyrics, is the lack of musical shtick – the eschewal of the pop craft on which the star built her foundation. 

Things come together most effectively on the ambitious “Only Love Can Save Us Now,” which expands far enough to bring in elements of gospel and country (courtesy of her Nashville upbringing, no doubt) to ramp up the mood – which could be described as a dark-side analog to “All You Need Is Love.” The mathematical formula of the new songs is roughly the same, but Kesha’s take is darker and more realistic – yes, love is all we need, but it dangles just out of reach, so there’s not much chance we’re going to get it. 

In her notes for that song, Kesha wrote “I wanted my song ‘Only Love Can Save Us Now’ to sonically, lyrically, and emotionally reflect the severity of my mental pendulum swings. The ludicrosity of life can make you crazy. If anything, IF ANYTHING, can save us, I believe only love can. This song is a desperate and angry prayer. A call to the light when all feels lost.” 

That’s clear in a number of Gag Order’s songs, including “The Drama,” which borrows (with credit) from the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated.” That track, co-written with Kurt Vile, is probably Gag Order’s most upbeat, but even there, the tenor is a bit muted. Producer Rick Rubin, who Kesha has credited with breaking down the barriers she put up in prepping for the sessions, seems more involved here than on most of the concise collection’s cuts, taking the song apart to pour in the sample and play a bit with the structure. 

 

VIDEO: Kesha “Hate Me Harder”

Kesha takes more control on the album’s sparser songs, particularly “Fine Line,” a ballad that walks – no pun intended – a fine line between steely and vulnerable, offering up a litany of issues, tempered by the unblinkingly delivered line “This is where you fuckers pushed me /Don’t be surprised if shit gets ugly.” She touches on suicidal ideation, but walks down the literal mountain she references, assuring herself that she’s going to make it through, regardless of the help that might or might not be offered. And, for succor in her darker moments, she turns to the most basic human emotion – anger, which, as John Lydon told us decades ago, is “an energy.” 

That energy is put to good use through much of Gag Order – which underscores its title with a cover that shows the singer being smothered in a transparent sheet of plastic wrap. It’s not unfailingly successful. “Eat the Acid,” which Kesha herself undercut by admitting that she’s never committed the act referred to in the title, barely holds together as a song. While she’s clearly not interested in generating earworms these days, this rudimentary drone simply shambles along until it stops, rather than come to a coherent ending. Similarly, “Hate Me Harder,” a power ballad that approaches radio-readinesss, cuts corners in expressing the raw emotion she channels so effectively throughout most of the album.  

There’s no overt finger-pointing to be found anywhere on the album – after all, a gag order would even apply to the lyrics on an album called Gag Order. But for anyone who’s paid the slightest attention to Kesha’s saga, it’s not difficult to connect the dots on a jagged line between life and art. So, even though the album isn’t quite as cut-and-dried as spiritual precursors like Marvin Gaye’s masterful Here, My Dear, it’s still a vivid reminder that sometimes, when life hands you lemons, your best option is to squirt their juice right into life’s eyes and enjoy watching the opponent squirm.  

 

 

 

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Deborah Sprague

Deborah Sprague is a former editor of Creem magazine and a freelance writer whose work has appeared in such outlets as Variety, Billboard, Rolling Stone, New York Daily News and Newsday. She’s contributed to books including Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen, Kill Your Idols and Carpenters: The Musical Legacy. She lives in Queens, New York with her partner.

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