by Zak Breckenridge
After seeing the December 2015 video of Kesha* performing at the Sweetwater Lounge in Nashville, it would be easy to say she’s lost it. She appears in an oversized t-shirt, carrying a few more pounds than in her last music video circa 2013. Her hair is wild, her makeup smeared. It might feel like a prophecy fulfilled, the arc of celebrity completed. We first met her in 2010, climbing out of a bathtub, covered in glitter, brushing her teeth with Jack Daniel’s. After two successful full-length albums (Animal and Warrior) and a handful of EPs, she went to rehab for an eating disorder and, upon her release, became mired in a bottomless pit of litigation. Like so many others before her, she seems headed for madness and obscurity. Are we seeing the real Kesha, at last the trainwreck she was always going to be? Or are we seeing something new, something once hidden behind the torn tops and glitter tornados?
When I was a eighteen-year-old junior in college, I wrote a paper called “Just Show Me Where Your Dick’s At: Labyrinths of Gender and Spectatorship in Contemporary Pop Music.” The argument was that Kesha inverts gender roles in her lyrics, drawing on a patriarchal idiom to demean and dismiss men, in a coming off basically as a feminist. However, the essay stipulated, she also claimed the authority to objectify these men through her own sexual desirability. So her feminist reclamation of exploitative language was still entangled with the male desiring gaze. Returning to this essay now, it reads as the work of an anxious, relentlessly critical kid trying to root out any traces of patriarchal domination in himself. Though, beneath that, there is a layer at which this young author was deeply, erotically moved by her willingness to dismiss and demean men. My essay took its title from her song “Blah Blah Blah,” in which she chants, “Don’t be a little bitch with your chit-chat / Just show me where your dick’s at.” This was the Kesha that captured my imagination, a woman in possessed of and articulate about her desire. To me, she had an aura of control, of self-sufficient power, could bend the iron bars of the patriarchy like Magneto.