A few weeks ago, I saw that Kesha had a new album out, so I listened immediately. What I heard didn’t sound anything like the Kesha I knew, even though I hadn’t become a fan until her most recent albums. I was certainly familiar with her party girl anthems from a decade ago; honestly, how could you miss them? But it was the songs written after Kesha went public with her allegations against Dr. Luke that got my attention. Sure, they were fun and brash, but there was also hard-earned wisdom too and a stubborn refusal to look on the bright side even amidst so many shadows.
Perhaps I implicitly expected Kesha’s next album following Rainbow and High Road to get closer to her music from the past. I thought she’d follow the trend of so many other pop artists post-pandemic to offer something that sounded celebratory. The album title – Gag Order – and cover, which appeared to show Kesha’s face stuffed into a plastic bag, disabused me of that notion right away.
Even so, I still expected to at least hear Kesha singing in the opening lines. I didn’t. Instead, the first track “Something to Believe In” had the ironic mantra-like quality of Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place” from their genre-busting album Kid A.
Intrigued, listened on still expecting the Kesha I knew to reveal herself. I soon realized that she was revealing herself but in an entirely new way. The tracks never veered into her old party mode and they seemed directed away from typical pop beats featured prominently in her prior albums. Instead, on Gag Order, Kesha danced through genres, mixing and matching electronica, pop, country, and even hip hop as she pleased. Though the musical combinations may have seemed playful, the lyrics were dead serious.
The second track aptly likened her experience with Dr. Luke to a bad acid trip, another perfectly conveyed the sound of rumination and depression, and the tracks that followed expressed the difficulties of living in the public eye. The most upbeat songs on the album are “Only Love Can Save Us Now”, which sounds like a dire version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Peace and Quiet”, that sounds airy and fun until the lyrics hit you with the truth that love can be damn hard for women with histories.
Here’s the kicker: buried in the last half of the album is a clip from Ram Dass’s Becoming Nobody. As I wrote last year, Kesha isn’t the first popular musician as of late to sample a famous spiritual teacher. Kendrick Lamar extensively sampled Eckhart Tolle on last year’s release, Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers. Unlike Lamar, though, Kesha used only one clip from Ram Dass and slowed and distorted it to emphasize a single idea that is at the very essence of human life: that love and pain are intertwined so living a full life calls us to open to both.
This clip perfectly prepares the listener’s attention for my favorite track on the album, “Too Far Gone”. A simple reading would call it a song about lost love, but I call it the sound of the Buddha’s Second Noble Truth (humans suffer because of constant craving that arises from constant change). It’s a song about searching for safety and stability in life but not finding it because the nature of life is to be unstable.
Some may think this sounds depressing. Some critics have simply called it “angry.” I think both of those views miss a whole lot because I found it inspiring and uplifting. Sure, there are angry lyrics, there is a ton of sadness, and there are direct references to mental health struggles, the fact that the world is so messed up, and ended relationships. But sadness, anger, and pain aren’t the only themes running through Gag Order. The other themes are not giving up on life, the relentless search for peace, and the lesson that loving yourself is essential precisely because you can’t count on much in life lasting.
I also loved the album because it showed Kesha’s willingness to go beyond merely taking control of the narrative with her history with Dr. Luke. The variety of genres on Gag Order suggest that she’s willing to explore the limits of identity and isn’t beholden to anyone’s idea of who she should be or how her music should sound. In this respect, Ram Dass may have been selected to make this point. His sampled clip was taken from a lecture series where he specifically and (hilariously) lambasts how we humans cling to our identities.
Ram Dass’s history gave him the street cred to do this so well, since like Kesha, life pushed him to radically shift his identity. What better teacher could help Kesha cope with the unfairness and unexpected twists and turns of life than a man who went from Harvard researcher (named Richard Alpert) to counterculture leader (with Timothy Leary) to spiritual guru in less than a decade?
If Ram Dass can make the lemons of life into this unbelievable lemonade, why can’t Kesha too? And, hell, why can’t the rest of us? I listened to Kesha’s new album hoping to find more of what I liked about her other works, and I am thrilled to say I didn’t. While I’d love it for her if she at some point can write music again that is just fun and celebration, we also need music to help us get through life after the party ends. Kesha’s latest album doesn’t sound like the old Kesha at all, but it made me a huge fan of the new one.
Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, for a simple guide to creating a meditation practice of your own in 30 days. And to share mindfulness with your little one, check out my new children’s book, Mommy Needs a Minute.
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