When I was high-school age, I had what most people would consider terrible taste in music. I remember being at a party once and kind of flirting with this one cute guy who asked if he could check out my iPod. We had been talking for awhile and he seemed pretty into me. But as he started scrolling through the artists on my iPod, he burst out laughing.
“Oh, my God,” he said. “Why do you listen to, like, little kid music?”
The conversation (and flirtation) pretty much ended there.
I remember being really confused. Sure, I had a few somewhat embarrassing artists on my playlist — A*Teens, Aly & AJ, Ashley Tisdale and Avril Lavigne were probably some of the first names he saw — but there were also some more respectable artists buried in there, like Alanis Morissette, Butterfly Boucher, Courtney Love and Fiona Apple. (I have layers, y’all.) Why would he write me off so quickly just because I enjoyed the occasional (and, at 16, completely age-appropriate, mind you) teen pop song?
Despite being offended, I can’t say I was surprised. Throughout my teen years, I listened to some of my favorite songs with a sense of irony and self-awareness that I developed as a defense mechanism against the messages I was receiving that the type of music I liked most was less valuable. And more than that, the influences that informed those opinions also caused me to internalize some other ideas that were much more damaging.
From schoolyard bullies who made fun of me for liking “girly” music like Britney Spears, to the pretentious hipster guys who still laugh when I tell them that Katy Perry is an inspiration to me, the perception of my music taste has taught me that the music I connect to most is disposable and meaningless, and in the process, has also served to remind me that my femininity and queerness — things that influence the music I connect with — are not things to be valued or taken seriously. And I don’t think that’s an accident. I think that’s a direct result of misogyny and homophobia.
The release of Kesha’s latest song, the empowering, piano-driven “Praying,” reminds me of this relationship between pop music and my oppression. The song is receiving universal praise from both critics and the public at large. The positive reception is well-deserved — the song is, by most measures, incredibly powerful and well-crafted, especially when taking into account the deeply personal subject matter — but at least part of the song’s appeal seems to come from the fact that the song is so different from Kesha’s past dance-pop hits.
“Finally,” it seems people are saying, “Kesha’s making real music.”
It’s a scenario that’s played out countless times — from Mandy Moore ditching her teen-pop roots to gain credibility as a singer-songwriter, to more recent conversations regarding Miley Cyrus’ and Harry Styles’ respective musical evolutions — but the underlying message is the same each time: music that is “good” and “real” sounds a specific way, and focuses on specific subject matter.
Was Kesha’s music less good or real when she was singing about going out dancing with her friends? What about when she was singing about love and heartbreak and betrayal? Do her words mean less because they’re sung over a dance beat? And who and what exactly determines or influences the answers to those questions? As a feminist, I can’t help but feel that it’s often misogyny and a male-dominated society that influence our perception of pop music — of “good” music. The public reception of Kesha’s recent reinvention reflects that.
Aside from the fact that a lot of her pop/dance tunes were solid, many of them were also well-written and meaningful (self-empowerment anthems like “We R Who We R” and “Warrior” are good examples), and explored a variety of topics. Not to mention, she was already producing heart-wrenching ballads and mid-tempos, even at the height of her pop superstardom. (The fan-favorite “The Harold Song” is a great example of this — “I would give it all to not be sleeping alone.”) But it wasn’t until she released a serious, John Lennon-esque piano ballad as a single that the general public started giving her the credit she had always deserved.
But Kesha has always been a talented artist who’s made interesting, intentional and well thought-out creative choices. Though she missed the mark sometimes (internalized misogyny came out in songs like the problematic faves “Grow a Pear” and “Kiss N Tell”), from the start of her career, she was creating music with the intent of subverting gender norms and empowering women.
“I’m just talking about men the way they’ve talked about women for years,” the singer said in one of her earliest interviews.
This theme has been constant throughout her career. “Men sing about strippers, sex and drugs and it’s praised and glorified,” she told MTV while promoting her last album. “When women sing about these things, we’re automatically demonized as sluts and drunks. It’s not true. Women can drink and get laid occasionally and it is equally as badass as if a man is doing it.”
Despite making such active attempts to challenge these double standards, she still fell victim to them — her music was often dismissed as vapid, because she sang about partying and drinking and hooking up, as if these aren’t things that most young people do. But because she was a young woman singing about her experiences with these things in a style that was made to appeal to teen girls — and, yes, to the music-buying masses — she was dismissed as another disposable pop wannabe creating mindless, meaningless music.
But I’ve always believed that pop music does have meaning. Just because a song is happy or danceable doesn’t mean it doesn’t have meaning. Most people wrote off songs like “TiK ToK” and “We R Who We R” as generic dance music, but as a working-class queer person, the lyrics — about enjoying the moment even though you’re broke and embracing who you are despite what people say — spoke to me on a deep level.
And make no mistake — Kesha fully intended to explore those themes with her music. She may not have used words like “class” or “privilege,” but she spoke a lot about the thought that went into her songs. As she told the Guardian in 2009, “There is no correlation between happiness and amounts of money” — a perspective that definitely comes across in her music and her carefully-crafted party-girl persona.
Which is another thing that Kesha, and female pop stars in general, don’t get enough credit for. Female artists are either critiqued for placing so much emphasis on their image that it distracts from the music, or have their personas dismissed for being “manufactured.” And, I mean, don’t get me wrong, the fact that women in music are judged more based on their looks is definitely the result of misogyny, and their on-stage personas are certainly commodified. But while those are definitely valid critiques, they shouldn’t take away from the artistry and expression that goes into pop stars’ visuals.
Artists like David Bowie are praised for their evocative imagery and for developing deliberate on-stage characters. Why should it be any different for female pop stars? Record labels are always trying to find new ways to cash in on their artists, but that doesn’t have to invalidate the artist’s expression. Because there is a certain kind of art to being a pop star that Kesha understood and took to an extreme. From the infamous dollar sign in her name, to her outrageous costumes (wearing a trash bag to the VMAs was a stroke of genius), the deliberate thought and attention to detail that Kesha put into her art went far beyond her music.
And that talent for combining compelling themes, great lyrics and stunning visuals is part of what makes “Praying” so good. The song is strong enough to stand on its own, but the music video, with its emotional monologue and colorful costumes, adds to the song’s impact — and the imagery (reminiscent of the album artwork from her last album, “Warrior”) proves that the artistry and influences that Kesha’s now being praised for have always been there. If we lived in a world that valued more forms of expression, maybe we would have realized it sooner.