The way we talk about Kesha has changed in the last few years. She's become the celebrity cause du jour after her motion asking the courts to release her from her contract with Sony and her alleged abuser Dr. Luke (real name Lukasz Gottwald) was denied. As celebrities line up to support her and thousands tweet with the hashtag #FreeKesha, it only takes a short trip down memory lane to see that the way we treat Kesha in 2016 is very different from how we treated her just a few years ago.
Kesha burst onto the scene in 2009 with a dollar sign in her name and an undeniably catchy single. "Tik Tok" was a party anthem that was heavy on Auto-Tune, light on substance and an unstoppable chart-topper. This success came after years of paying her dues, writing songs for other artists, making a cameo in the video for Katy Perry's "I Kissed A Girl," and providing vocals on Flo Rida's "Right Round" without ever seeing a damn cent.
Yet for most of her career her name seemed to conjure a resounding "ugh" following by an eye roll. The idea that Kesha was an untalented, pre-packaged and derivative pop star seemed to be the predominant narrative that writers turned to.
Critics appeared to delight in ripping her to shreds in a weirdly personal way. The Guardian once described her as "the degenerate Hannah Montana," while her debut album "Animal" prompted Slant magazine to bemoan how her "equally pitiable attempts at both singing and rapping [were] Auto-Tuned to such an extent that she barely sounds human" before concluding that Kesha was a "faceless, anonymous pre-fabrication of a pop star."
Meanwhile, "Cannibal" (the follow-up companion to her debut album) provoked A.V. Club into writing that "as a human being, Ke$ha is a terrible failure" and The Associated Press despised the album so much they claimed the singer's"desperation for attention and shock value is obvious" after they disapproved of the way she name-dropped serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer on one track.
And then there was her 2010 appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” which in retrospect elicited surprisingly strong responses. Gawker ran the headline “Kesha Stinks Up ‘SNL’ With A Duo Of Odd ‘Performances’” and asked if it was time for the singer to go away yet. Vulture was equally unimpressed, despite having low expectations to begin with: “Then there was Ke$ha, whose performances weren’t very good musically, which is totally fine. No one expects a good musical performance from Ke$ha.” Even actor Zach Galifianakis was up for tearing her down.
“She was sitting by herself, and I walked up to her and said, ‘Listen, I got your email. Your music is really bad! I don’t know who listens to it, but I imagine it’s, like, 6-year-olds – and it’s a bad message,” he told Rolling Stone in 2011.
There seemed to be some sort of unspoken collective agreement that everyone would begrudgingly tolerate Kesha’s existence as an artist and celebrity, And that’s only when we couldn’t keep from letting out a loud sigh at attention-grabbing claims that she was born with a tail, had sex with a ghost, threw up in Paris Hilton’s closet, broke into Prince’s house or described her look as “a cross between Keith Richards and a hobo.” And then there were the gross-out stunts, like the bra she made from her fans’ teeth, a Tumblr dedicated to photos of strangers dangling their beads into her mouth and the time she drank her own urine.
Kesha was a brash party girl, who referred to herself as “the dirty little sister of rock,” and it elicited a lot of cruelty. While some of the collective meanness stemmed from the considerably less sensitive ways in which celebrities were written about ― much of it was bullying, plain and simple. Like the memes that asserted she looked like John Travolta, or the way she was body-shamed for wearing a bikini. Oh, and there was the time Perez Hilton published a leaked nude photo of the singer. Not to mention each time writers feigned surprise and delivered the ultimate backhanded compliment by uncovering a video that proved “Kesha could actually sing.”
And then there was the fact that Kesha was constantly compared to and accused of ripping off Lady Gaga and Katy Perry ― and even after she whittled herself down to the size of your standard sample-size pop star and embraced a sexier look, she dealt with tabloids dubbing her a “Miley wannabe.” While her 2012 album, “Warrior,” generally fared better in reviews than previous releases, there was still a general consensus that the singer was fun, with little substance to back up her image.
And then something happened.
In late 2013, fans started a petition to free Kesha of her contract with Dr. Luke. At the same time, she offered up a kind of explanation for her perceived obnoxiousness by going on record with Rolling Stone, claiming she didn’t have any creative control over her work or image.
“What’s been put out as singles have just perpetuated a particular image that may or may not be entirely accurate. I’d like to show the world other sides of my personality,” she said. “I don’t want to just continue putting out the same song and becoming a parody myself. I have so much more to offer than that and I can’t wait till the world really gets to hear that on the radio.”
Three months later, she checked into rehab to treat an eating disorder. Her mother Pebe Sebert went to the press claiming Kesha’s former manager David Sonenberg and producer Dr. Luke were to blame for her daughter developing bulimia. When she left treatment, Kesha dropped the dollar sign from her name and changed her Twitter handle from from Ke$haSuxx to KeshaRose. It was a rebirth of sorts, and the change conveyed the idea the singer was trying to be a little kinder to herself ― and the media started to follow suit.
Suddenly the same singer that everyone loved to shit on was called “brave” and “inspiring.” She was dubbed a “role model” and suddenly worthy of articles listing the 14 reasons Kesha should be every girl’s best friend.
Seven months later in October 2014, she filed a lawsuit against Dr. Luke, alleging he sexually, physically, verbally and emotionally abused her for 10 years. The suit was filed an effort to have a judge vacate her contract with the producer and his label Kemosabe Records. She later added the label’s parent company Sony to the suit, claiming they put her and other female artists in “physical danger” and “turned a blind eye, failed to investigate Dr. Luke’s conduct, failed to take any corrective action, or actively concealed Dr. Luke’s abuse.”
To quote the 1988 film “Heathers,” “Suicide gave Heather depth, Kurt a soul, and Ram a brain.” Sadly, Kesha’s new role as a sexual assault survivor and body image warrior did just that ― it gave her depth, a soul and a brain. The singer, whose music was routinely called “vapid” and “dumb,” and was called every kind of sexist name imaginable, was no longer a target for ridicule.
And now, after her preliminary motion was denied, Kesha is being heralded as a survivor and a voice for victims of abuse. As fans are planning to protest outside of Sony’s offices on the singer’s behalf, and media outlets are almost demanding statements and seem to expect messages of solidarity with Kesha from any major artist who has worked with Dr. Luke ― we should take a minute to remember that we’re all patting ourselves on the back for our support of the same pop star we’re almost all guilty of bullying.
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