When Kesha burst onto the scene in 2009 as Ke$ha, everything about her image — the candy-coated earworm that is her breakout hit “Tik Tok,” her Day-Glo color palette, the dollar sign in her name — screamed “meaningless fun.”
Her image said that she wasn’t interested in sending messages any deeper than “drinking alcohol is a pleasant recreational activity.” She wasn’t trying to open minds or move hearts; she didn’t evidence any desire to change the world. She was a party-girl pop princess, and her job was to look like she was having a blast and make music that could convince the rest of us that we, too, were capable of blast-having.
Since then, things have changed for Kesha. In a high-profile lawsuit filed in 2014, she alleged that her producer Dr. Luke had “sexually, physically, verbally, and emotionally abused” her, and she wanted to void their contract and make music without him. (Dr. Luke denied all charges.) That case is still ongoing and has yet to be resolved. Kesha’s new album Rainbow — out this month — was apparently made without Dr. Luke’s creative involvement, but it’s being released through his Kemosabe label with his approval, and there’s a good chance he’s financially involved in the process and will make money off the album.
Accordingly, Rainbow is not a party album, despite the presence of a handful of high-energy bangers like “Woman” and “Let ’Em Talk.” Though it retains some sonic signifiers of Kesha in party-pop mode, Rainbow is clearly an album about her personal journey, and about how freeing it is for her to make music without having to work directly with Dr. Luke.
Kesha is not alone in picking this year to move away from her party-girl pop star roots to a more conscientious sound. With her latest album, Witness, Katy Perry is attempting to redirect her career away from retro-kitsch club bangers toward what she’s calling “purposeful pop” (with mixed results). And Miley Cyrus is promoting her upcoming album, Younger Now, as a move away from the past few years of twerking, in a deliberate attempt to reconnect with the voices of Middle America. (She told Billboard she wanted to reach beyond her circle of “outspoken liberals,” adding, “I don’t think those people are going to listen to me when I’m sitting there in nipple pasties, you know?”)
All in all, 2017 is not a great time to be a pure party-girl pop star, unless you are Rihanna and your whole thing is that you don’t give a fuck. There seems to be a growing sense that party girls have to rebrand as socially and/or politically aware if they want their music to stay relevant. And most importantly — and paradoxically — that rebranding has to feel personal and authentic.
Living in the Trump era can make party music feel as though it’s in poor taste
There are a lot of reasons that make 2017 seem like a good time to get serious, but at the top of the list is the fact that we are living in Donald Trump’s America, and we are now forced to see everything, including popular culture, through the Trump filter. And in the context of Trump’s America, focusing on nonpolitical work can seem frivolous.
When the Trump administration is terrorizing immigrants and announcing plans to pull out of the Paris accord and failing to roundly denounce white supremacy, it can feel petty and trivial to make music about how everybody’s getting crunk, crunk, or to make videos where whipped cream shoots out of your boobs. The world seems scarier than ever; is this really the right time to party?
And pop stars like Kesha and Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus have major platforms that reach millions of people. So why not use them to try to send a nice, nonjudgmental political message about how we need to protect our civil liberties and not commit hate crimes? “I want to talk to people in a compassionate, understanding way,” Cyrus said. “I’m giving the world a hug and saying, ‘Hey, look. We’re good — I love you.’”
But pop is personal and personality-based, so for the change to work, the message Kesha and Perry and Cyrus are sending has to be personal, too. Their new, engaged personas have to reflect some inner core that was always there, waiting to be revealed.
For Kesha, a personal grounding makes sense. She’s spent the past few years publicly fighting to get away from Dr. Luke, and it’s only reasonable for her latest album to reflect that struggle and get a little deeper and sadder. And according to Kesha, that’s the kind of performer she always wanted to be.
“I was like, ‘I am fun, but I’m a lot of other things,’” she recalls saying as she made her first album. “But Luke’s like: ‘No, you’re fun. That’s all you are for your first record.’” So “Tik Tok,” which Kesha says originally had an ironic edge, got progressively simpler. “I remember specifically him saying: ‘Make it more dumb. Make it more stupid. Make it more simple, just dumb.’”
So Rainbow is supposed to give us our first taste of the real, unfiltered Kesha, who likes to party but also likes to sing sad ballads, and who has real, serious thoughts about the world. This is who she always was, the narrative goes, and now she can show us that. "I was just letting myself be honest with how I felt every day," she told NPR. She can tell us that she feels a weirdo alien waiting to return to her people in “Spaceship,” and share how she’s dealing with her trauma in “Rainbow.”
Perry, meanwhile, describes Witness as her reaction both to Trump’s election and to her own childhood. “The reality is that I was retriggered on the election,” she told the New York Times. “I was retriggered by a big male that didn’t see women as equal. And that had been, unfortunately, a common theme in my upbringing.” So with Witness, she says, “I went to that dark place that I had been avoiding, and I dug out the mold.”
The subtext here is that we are finally seeing who Katy Perry really is, the person that she was afraid to show us for so many years, and that person has serious ideas, political and otherwise, that she wants to share with the world. (Incidentally, Witness is also the first album Perry has produced without Dr. Luke in years. Perry has so far stayed silent about whether their relationship resembled the abusive relationship Kesha described, but she’s been named in Kesha’s suit.)
And Miley Cyrus is committed to the narrative that all of her image changes are illustrative of her deepest and most authentic self, until they aren’t. “I fucking hate it when people can’t adjust,” she told Billboard. “I know exactly where I am right now. I know what I want this record to be.” Cyrus has a history of political activism that she usually keeps separate from her music, and she’s positioning Younger Now as a natural outgrowth of that activism, one that treats both her political ideas and her blossoming relationship with Liam Hemsworth as equally important, because they are both equally organic to who she is.
“Radiating love is something that is important to me,” she says, adding, “hopefully, that is being political.”
The shadow of Lemonade looms over the current trend for authentic, serious pop
But the biggest factor in the emerging authenticity of America’s pop stars — bigger than Trump, bigger than the personal stories — might be the biggest pop star in America: Beyoncé.
When Beyoncé released Lemonade in 2016, she changed the game for everyone. Lemonade was simultaneously personal, apparently telling the story of Beyoncé’s marriage, and political, examining what it feels like to be a black woman in America. And it was a staggering artistic achievement. Lemonade was one of the best mainstream albums of the past 10 years at least, and everyone (except apparently the Grammy voters) knew it.
And the former party girls of 2017 are clearly feeling Lemonade’s influence, especially Kesha. As the buildup to Rainbow’s release mounted, music insiders whispered that Kesha was working on her own Lemonade. The video for “Praying,” the first single from Rainbow, is heavily derivative of Lemonade’s “Hold Up,” spoken-word interlude, baseball bat, flowing gown and all. It was even directed by one of Lemonade’s directors, who reportedly made Kesha switch gowns because the one she wanted was too similar to Beyoncé’s iconic yellow dress.
Meanwhile, Perry’s Witness was widely discussed as her own attempt to produce a Beyoncé-like game changer. “She’s tried to make her own Lemonade,” one critic wrote, “but it’s closer to flat home-brand cola.” Cyrus has largely stayed away from the Beyoncé conversation thus far, but that may change as Younger Now’s September release date approaches and more songs appear, particularly those that are reportedly about Hillary Clinton and women in the workplace.
In a post-Lemonade world, everyone wants their music to be meaningful both personally and politically, and so impactful and important that if someone else wins the Grammy, they’ll have to acknowledge in their acceptance speech that they are not the rightful winner.
But only Beyoncé can be Beyoncé, and Lemonade can only come from her.
When you position your music as an authentic personal statement, you invite a new level of scrutiny
As the former party girls of pop release their new serious, authentic albums, they’re getting markedly different reactions from the press.
Cyrus’s Younger Now hasn’t yet been released, so it’s hard to say what the reception to the full album will look like. Reviews of the first singles — “Malibu” and “Inspired” — have ranged from “maudlin” to “cute” to “raw and passionate,” but the consensus on her image rebranding won’t be entirely set until the whole album is out.
Kesha’s Rainbow, however, has been widely admired, with Rolling Stone calling it “the best music of her career” and EW noting approvingly that “her authenticity never flags.” The critical world sees Rainbow as honest, personal, and socially conscious, and that means that Kesha’s new persona has been fully accepted.
Perry’s Witness, meanwhile, has earned her some of the worst reviews of her career — and that wasn’t for lack of prerelease publicity.
Perry knew exactly what she was supposed to say in the lead-up to Witness’s release. “I definitely didn't want to write a club banger,” she said of her single “Chained to the Rhythm.” “It was a nice exercise of writing a song that at first listen is a really fun song, but I guess the more you dive into it, it has a different subtext."
The suggestion here is that “Chained to the Rhythm” has hidden layers, that it expresses something deep and meaningful about the world — but the unfortunate thing is, it doesn’t. It’s about how we live in bubbles, which is in no way a new, insightful, or particularly interesting idea. Perry knew how to talk the talk, but in her music, she failed to walk the walk.
“‘Chained to the Rhythm’ offers conversation about Perry-the-person instead of Perry-the-artist-activist,” writes critic Maria Sherman. “In its vagueness, it’s easier to speculate about her motives, since there isn’t any real content to interrogate.”
The stumbling block for Perry seems to have been the problem of authenticity. When Beyoncé changed the game with Lemonade, few doubted that she was writing in response to problems with her own marriage: What she was doing was original, and it also felt wildly honest and real. With Rainbow, Kesha is responding to a traumatic personal event that everyone knew about, and few critics doubted the honesty of her response. It might have been derivative in places, but that was excusable: The authenticity was there.
But Perry was unsuccessful at linking her vague sense of political outrage to a personal, emotional core. In a world in which fashionable pop is both serious and honest, she was only able to manage one of the two. And the result was that Witness, regardless of how personal it may or may not have felt to Perry, came off as an attempt to ride the sociopolitical zeitgeist.
It looks extremely rewarding, in our current cultural moment, to leave slick, candy-coated party pop music behind, to announce that you’re going to get serious and introduce the world to the real you, the one with lots of social awareness and interesting things to say about the world. But the opposing cases of Kesha and Katy Perry (it remains to be seen whether Cyrus will be able to pull off another drastic image makeover this fall) suggest that this transition is a lot harder to pull off than it might seem. If you fail to convince the world that your newly revealed authentic self is an organic change motivated by who you really are as a person, you risk coming off as little more than a crass opportunist.