Concert Reviews

Kesha: The Pop Star Statue of Liberty Saving the World From Terrible Men

Brandon Marshall
Between President Pussy Grabber and predatory Harvey Weinstein (not to mention Bill Cosby and Woody Allen and Chris Brown and Anthony Weiner and the Proud Boys and “men’s rights” activists and, oh, yeah, President Slick Willy and his cigars for those who need a reminder that misogyny isn’t a partisan thing – and on and on and on all the way back to slave-owning rapist Thomas Jefferson), the United States has been bathing in the poison of terrible men from the beginning.

So what’s the fix?

Now that the glitter has settled and the rainbow confetti has been swept away from the Fillmore Auditorium (I only hope my beard hasn’t stopped sparkling yet), I’m convinced we need a massive injection of femme power, the kind Kesha showered on us on Tuesday night in Denver.

I couldn’t tell you the first time I heard the pop star’s songs or how many times they played in my presence before I unwittingly memorized them word for word (I can promise you it was long before I knew her name — even longer before I knew how to pronounce it — dollar sign or not).

It always amused me how much I appreciated the nihilistic lyrics in her upbeat bangers that everybody around 2010 heard endlessly during trips to the mall or to big-box stores or while waiting at a red light next to a car with the windows rolled down.

“She’s brilliant,” I’d tell my partner, not even knowing Kesha's name.

Why would I think that? With her valley-girl rapping, she delivered brutal honesty. More pertinent to me: Her lyrics mirrored the ragged party animal I had once been. I know all too well what it’s like to “brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack,” even if I used Kentucky Deluxe. I was certain I’d flame out and die young.

That ratty little party kid inside me who had mostly withered up before Kesha's career even began still comes out of hiding when I hear “Tik Tok,” “Your Love Is My Drug,” or “Die Young.” Critics may dismiss those songs as juvenile, but I embrace them as bite-sized danceable summations of my own grimy, drunken and debaucherous youth – kinda like Rimbaud poems, if you look at them in the right light.

Still, I didn’t care much about Kesha as a tabloid personality, and frankly, I had no idea she was the voice behind those songs.

I knew vaguely about her lawsuits with Lukasz Sebastian Gottwald, ask Dr. Luke. More recently, I read the excellent Rolling Stone cover story about her struggles with bulimia and her quest for authenticity. But it wasn’t until I botched her name and called her Quiche-a instead of Kesha in front of my bemused editor that I decided I needed to atone for my sin of ignorance and go see what her live show was all about.

There was no ambiguity: Her performance was about love. It was about survival. It was about acknowledging we’re fucked up and believing in ourselves just the same. It was an open-armed embrace of women, the misfits, the outcasts, the queers and the undocumented immigrants. It was about renouncing hate-mongering and patriarchal belligerence and stupidity.

Armed with her own experiences of sexual abuse, harassment and discrimination, she rallies, in the hard-won way only a survivor can, to preach love and redemption and to promote joy, even when the world around us is drowning in hatred and well-organized stupidity.

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Brandon Marshall
Bullied? Broken down? Depressed? Assaulted? Kesha's got us covered; she told us she just wanted us to leave feeling good because of how much she loves us. She said it many times. Whether she was grinning or tearing up, she seemed to mean it.

For people who know her catalogue, including her most recent release, none of this is surprising. I left feeling all that but also something more: that Kesha was a beacon of humanity, not unlike the Statue of Liberty (again, in the right light).

Her latest album is called Rainbow. If there was ever a symbol of love and redemption, it's a rainbow, whether you’re a queer kid growing up in the South, an Old-Testament-preaching Southern Baptist or a little bit of both. It’s the perfect title for an album that’s all about giving hope in the midst of despair and merging motley musical styles from coffee-shop crooning, Kimya Dawson-style sing-a-longs, and country twang to piano ballads and full-blown pop.

If bored kids getting wasted was the mythos of Kesha's first album, Animals, her latest is the product of a woman who has been attacked, assaulted, insulted and undermined in countless ways, rallying the best in humanity to not let the bastards keep us down (that’s the theme of Rainbow’s opening song, “Bastards,” the final one she sang Tuesday night).

And she’s not doing the hard work of maintaining self-esteem as a femme in a world that loathes femininity just to prop up her own ego. Her mission — if you take her at her word, which I do — is to crusade for human rights. And unlike grumps and bores who pound the partisan pulpit with contempt for those who disagree with them, she invites us into an irresistible party to get drunk on love.

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Brandon Marshall
She calls bullshit bullshit, but she doesn’t write people off. Instead, she embraces the messy – ours and her own:

In her song “Hymn” she sings: “I know that I'm perfect, even though I'm fucked up.” It’s the ultimate line of redemption, one we could all meditate on.

The same song doesn’t mince words about other big issues. She voices her support for the DREAMers, those undocumented immigrants Trump targets, to his white-supremacist supporters’ glee.

Even the stars and the moon don't shine quite like we do
Dreamers searchin' for the truth
Go on, read about us in the news
Pretty reckless, pretty wild
Talking shit and we'll just smile
Lest you think I'm reading too much into the word "Dreamers," she blasted the “bullshit” anti-immigrant attitudes defining the current administration’s agenda just before singing the song.

"Hymn" also bolsters all those refusing to stand for the national anthem, protesting police violence and, more recently, Trump.

After all we've been through, no, we won't stand and salute
So we just ride, we just cruise, livin' like there's nothing left to lose
If we die before we wake, who we are is no mistake
This is just the way we're made
You know what I mean, you on the team
Her brand of inclusivity is something that the United States once took pride in – if not in practice, as a value.

Her latest album is the pop-music kin of those immortal words Emma Lazarus ascribes to Lady Liberty in “The Great Colossus,” the poem engraved inside the Statue of Liberty:

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
In a country building walls and pushing the homeless away, Kesha is lifting her lamp, shining bright and warming us in chilling times.

She’s helping us to move, even when every muscle is frozen stiff with despair. She's making us dance, making us feel joy. She's putting us in touch with our rage and helping us find redemption in the garbage of life. What more could we ask for from a musician?
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris