It's hard to imagine anyone successfully controlling Kesha Sebert. As an artist and as a human being, Kesha has never once appeared as someone who bites her tongue, much less someone who allows someone else to bite it for her.
She’s proclaimed her love for fat men, ensnared a 65-year-old Iggy Pop (who’s hardly a Carlos Santana-type figure) for her second album of teen-pop, beheaded James Van Der Beek in an absurdist video, and followed up her No. 1 debut with an EP that began with a demand for the listener’s liver on a platter. She drank her own urine on MTV, for chrissake.
In fact, Dr. Luke -- currently engaged with his former pop protege in one of the ugliest sagas in music history, even by the usual standards of institutional misogyny -- was just about the only conventional thing about Kesha, roping her absurd exclamations about brushing her teeth with a bottle of Jack into automatic Songs of the Summer, using the same basic synth and Auto-Tune tools he employed for Katy Perry. “TiK ToK,” “Your Love Is My Drug,” “C’Mon,” and the especially heavenly “We R Who We R” were all effective slam dunks on the pop charts, strongly sung with near-robotic hooks that were somehow transcended by Kesha’s untamable personality. “Die Young” added some guitar during a fleeting moment in 2012 when chords mattered again, but overall these were cut from the same cloth.
And it was the songs that weren’t hits on Kesha's albums that most pointed the way to her enjoying a long career: the surprisingly class-conscious rock of “Party at a Rich Dude’s House,” the inverted trap stomp of “Sleazy,” the bizarro, ad-lib-heavy stalker valentine “Stephen.” Plus, Kesha got her own name on the credits of “’Til the World Ends,” one of the most agreed-upon Britney Spears classics of the last decade. Of course, so did Dr. Luke. But how much do you think he had to do with 2012’s glam-metal paradise “Gold Trans Am,” which wasn’t even allowed a starring role on Warrior proper, or the swinging Iggy Pop duet “Dirty Love,” that has nothing to do with Gottwald’s four-on-the-floor conservatism?
So after those abuse allegations reared their ugly head, with Kesha still bound to a contract that forces her inspiring third album Rainbow to be released on her alleged abuser’s own Kemosabe imprint, Dr. Luke will collect a bunch of the profits when it very likely goes to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart next week. And he can’t sue for a damn thing, no matter how much she addresses him unnamed in the astonishing “Praying" -- unquestionably the most powerful song Ryan Lewis has ever had anything to do with. He’ll never be able to get the stink of it off of his winnings, which sure looks like a hard-won victory for Kesha.
But adding insult to Gottwald's injury is the fact Kesha’s comeback rises to the occasion without resorting to anything that resembles her old work. The man who barred her and the Flaming Lips from releasing the fabled LipSha disc now has to concede that “Let 'Em Talk,” and “Boogie Feet,” two furiously rocking Eagles of Death Metal collaborations -- along with two country songs (not just a token track to fill out some garden-variety pop scorecard), several gospel-inflected ballads worthy of Elton John, and a feminist Dap-Kings single that features the star cracking up halfway through the second verse — comprise what is projected to be her second No. 1 album. There is very little audible Auto-Tune or EDM synths on Rainbow, and even the guitars employed are hardly the brickwalled, quantized four chords of past Dr. Luke hits like Kelly Clarkson’s “My Life Would Suck Without You.”
What wasn’t a number-one record, by the way, was Warrior, the fraught 2012 sophomore not-quite-slump burdened by “Die Young,” a single that Kesha claimed to not even want to record, and apologized for profusely in the wake of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting. It had about five very good songs, but even those were marred by lyrics and concepts that felt held back, perhaps by a controlling executive producer. And its last four songs were total snoozers, a shock from an artist whose backup dancers once dressed as giant penises onstage. It peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard 200 and sold 85,000 in its first week, whereas Rainbow -- encumbered by nothing -- is projected to reach the chart summit, with 100,000 to 120,000 equivalent album units currently estimated.
Perhaps even without the heart-rending trajectory, audiences noticed that Rainbow -- which in spirit, isn’t that far away from Kesha’s past work -- amps up the human element. Even if platitudes like “don’t let the bastards get you down” are old hat, the rebellions are her own, not some cynical “Die Young” brand she’s supposed to uphold well into her 30s, which is when Dr. Luke’s binding six-album contract for her would supposedly expire. She and her mom even produce a track themselves, somewhat unheard of for pop stars in 2017. Kesha self-funded the album according to both her and Sony, though as for content, she’s still unable to say more publically than threatening “And we both know the truth I could tell” in “Praying" -- a burn notice of a first single that Dr. Luke contractually had to have approved, according to any legal wisdom we’re privy to.
Whether Luke likes it or not, the message got across anyway. He may own publishing rights to these songs legally, but the world knows his time controlling Kesha is limited to bank statements and ill-advised lawsuits (Dr. Luke recently subpoenaed Lady Gaga for “corroborating” text messages that are so filled with redactions they mean nothing to no one). She owns Rainbow, all the success that comes with it — including artistically, as it's very likely her best (and certainly her most universally acclaimed) album to date — and all reports indicate she did it herself. Sure, Dr. Luke probably gets money from it. But should her former producer throw a party at a rich dude’s house, it’s looking to be emptier with each passing year.