Like most, my first introduction to Kesha came back when she had a dollar sign in her name and released “TiK ToK”. It was the go-to soundtrack for uni house parties at the time, and I remember daring my then-girlfriend to brush her “teeth with a bottle of Jack” and subsequently pissing myself laughing when she stumbled out the bathroom, coughing and spluttering and spitting whiskey on the floor in disgust. Back then, Kesha released the kind of shiny, upbeat pop music people would violently slut-drop to at huge gay clubs in central London. She was like the old Katy Perry if Katy Perry partied until 6AM, didn’t wash the vomit out her hair and decided to wear a gold tooth (I really hope Katy Perry doesn’t decide to wear a gold tooth). But that was years ago, and a lot has changed since then. Kesha has become a different kind of pop star. And at Brixton Electric, during her first and only UK show in four years, I’m expecting a different kind of show.
When I arrive, though, it kind of feels like I’ve gone back in time. Kesha’s latest album, this year’s Rainbow, might have ditched the polished synth club sound of earlier years, but the crowd still look as if they could have stumbled out a home county uni bar club night called “Day Glo Tuesdays” during freshers week in 2010. If I squint my eyes, the queue could easily be one ginormous, screaming, glittery rainbow snake. That isn’t me being snarky: it’s really, really uplifting. It sounds obvious, but in our climate of misogyny and queerphobia, where even being at a gig can feel unsafe in light of recent horrific events, it feels powerful to see people take up space, covered in glitter or wrapped in fairy lights, screaming so loudly that you can hear them all the way down Brixton high street. It’s not an intentional political act. As Emma Garland wrote about a recent Harry Styles show, “Here, [the crowd are] brandished less a show of resistance and more as a celebration. People feel comfortable expressing themselves this way because they know everyone in the room is already on their side”.
The audience might look like Google image results for “Kesha Fan”, but the cookie-cutter expectation of a “Kesha gig” is clearly outdated. When she runs on the stage in a leather jacket, lilac hair swinging everywhere, launching into her track “Woman” backed by a full band, it feels closer to 1970s Nashville than G-A-Y Late on a Thursday. The drum thuds keep making the beer spill out of my plastic cup and there are teenage girls everywhere headbanging vigorously. “If she brings on Eagles of Death Metal I’m gonna fucking diiiiieeeee,” I hear one girl say, lowkey pouring some spirits from a flask into her and her mate’s drinks. “Are you reeeeaadyyyyy!!!” screams Kesha, before two of her band mates launch into a guitar solo battle and she throws herself on the floor and starts thrashing around like it’s the ocean and she’s trying to swim. At one point, she takes a swig of beer and spits it into an audience member’s mouth, calling them her “little baby bird”. In many ways, the raging party spirit of today’s Kesha is exactly the same as it’s always been – she’s just swapped strobe lights and neon leotards for cowboy jackets and devil horn fingers instead. And even though I’m 25 years old now and cringe easily at things because I’m a massive dick, I am 100 percent here for it. She looks like Janis Joplin. Her presence is electric.
Of course, the power of this performance is not without context. For the past three years – as you probably know already – Kesha has been locked in a legal dispute with her former mentor and producer Dr. Luke after she sued him for being “sexually, physically, verbally, and emotionally" abusive, which he has denied. This is – for all intents and purposes – not something that should ever define Kesha, who is a global superstar in her own right. But it’s important to remember the journey it took for her to get here, a journey that meant she was unable to release or perform music for a long time. And it’s important to note how meaningful her presence is right now, during a time when culture is experiencing a shift, and when other women are refusing to remain silent about their own abuse, too.
She doesn’t overtly address these battles – the energy of the gig feels more celebratory than solemn – but she does offer words of solidarity and encouragement in between songs. “You all know what I’ve been through, thank you so much for being there, I’m there for you too,” she says, to screams that seem to fill up every crevice of the room. When she sings “Praying”, her triumphant comeback single from earlier this year, the emotion in the venue feels thick and palpable. A number of people lift up rainbow signs and Kesha promptly bursts into tears. “I’m sorry!” she says, “I just saw them all raised at the same time and it was really overwhelming.”
In a venue crammed full of young women, queer and non-binary people, it goes without saying that Kesha’s trauma is – to a certain extent – a shared trauma. As the recent #metoo hashtag serves to illustrate, many of us have our own versions of Kesha's story, our own shit to get through. With that in mind, there was something genuinely cathartic about seeing her perform an album in which its mere existence is a feat unto itself. “I hope you’re all having fun. I hope you’ve met some new friends. Maybe even a special friend. Maybe someone you really like,” she says right at the end, before launching into a weird, scuzzy heavy metal version of “TiK Tok” that makes her original one sound like “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. It makes sense for her to end on this raging party anthem. Because that’s what she emerged doing, and that’s what she’s still doing, still here, still very much Kesha.
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