Dropping the Dollar Sign
by Cole Schoneman
Photography courtesy of Cole Schoneman
In 2010, Kesha’s name was synonymous with glitter, clubbing, promiscuity and drugs. In contrast, everything about her new music highlighted in her Rainbow Tour was stripped down.
Kesha walked onto stage donning a baggy pantsuit, later opting for a nondescript white sundress. Her performance ditched pyrotechnics and pulsing synths, drawing more attention to her stellar seven-piece touring band.
Nearly everything about 2017 Kesha is unrecognizable. For the first time, someone who seemed so predictable actually gave me a reason to care about her music and message. When the superficial lyrics and auto-tune were removed, Kesha’s voice was heard for what appears to be the first time. She’s a survivor with a hell of a voice.
In light of recent sexual harassment cases coming to light (Harvey Weinstein, Boston University Professor David Marchant, James Toback), Kesha’s Rainbow Tour sent an especially important message to victims. One of the most recognizable artists in contemporary pop escaped a sexually abusive past and performed some of her best songs to date.
Kesha opened her set with “Woman,” a simple but catchy female empowerment song off her album Rainbow. The lyrics are straightforward, but illustrate her struggle to stay relevant amidst alleged sexual abuse by her former producer Dr. Luke.
“I'm a motherfucking woman, baby, alright / I don't need a man to be holding me too tight,” she sang in the chorus, as her backup dancers pelvic thrusted with two middle fingers extended. Her confidence and vocal delivery made this song a perfect opener for the show.
She followed “Woman” with her bizarre new funk song “Boogie Feet.” Originally featuring Eagles of Death Metal, this song rocked hard live. It showcased impressive dueling guitar solos and phenomenal backing vocals.
Kesha dedicated “Hymn,” another new pop-spirational song off Rainbow, to the LGBTQ community. Perhaps more than any other song off the album, it showed the greatest diversity of her vocal range. Soft ‘oohs’ punctuated the verses while pure impassioned belting drove home the chorus.
“Hymn for the hymnless, don't need no forgiveness / 'Cause if there's a heaven, don't care if we get in” she screamed on the final chorus, a clear message for her LGBTQ fans who have felt ostracized by traditional religion. Her vocals were raw, making the lyrics seem more genuine than cliché.
“Let ‘Em Talk” was Kesha’s closest venture into punk rock.
“Maybe bang your head to this one instead of shaking your ass,” Kesha said to the crowd. She screamed her way through guitar-dominated verses, followed by more solos and an improvised instrumental bridge. Alongside her pop-rock rendition of proceeding songs, “Let ‘Em Talk” fit the set list perfectly.
“All the haters everywhere can suck my dick,” she screamed to finish off the song.
Kesha’s excellent streak of new songs took a downward turn with “Take It Off,” a hit from her debut album Animal. Kesha jumped up and down while her tracked vocals took over the song. She was uncomfortable and reluctant to perform her older hits, seemingly masking these sentiments with louder synth lines and an audience that knew every word.
Kesha’s country-fied version of “Timber” refocused the set in a smart way. It stood out as her only old song that she made new. Originally a straightforward Pitbull clubbing song, Kesha performed the song as a mashup with “Hunt You Down,” a grooving acoustic country song in the vein of “Before He Cheats.” She resurrected “Timber” and repurposed this otherwise irrelevant track.
“Godzilla” was clearly a standout song for Kesha, and she talked at length about her mom’s role in writing it. Kesha seemed surprised and grateful that the crowd knew every word to this goofy song about high school relationships.
“What do you get when you take Godzilla to meet your mom?” she asked, earnestly singing alongside the crowd instead of handing off the vocals like she did on her older hits.
The highlight of the night by far was Kesha’s comeback single “Praying”, which was also a final “eff you” to Dr. Luke. The song stood apart in an already emotional set, at times melancholy and other times hopeful. Kesha’s flawless delivery, as she belted and screamed her way through an empowering chorus, allowed me to connect with her message. As a male who has never been the victim of sexual harassment, “Praying” put me inside the fractured mind of a woman who was called a liar for speaking out against a predator.
“I hope you find your peace / falling on your knees, praying,” she sang through tears before walking off stage.
Kesha closed the night with a Tom Petty tribute cover and a somewhat underwhelming three-song encore. She delivered on “Rainbow,” an upbeat piano ballad that highlighted her impressive vocal range.
“I used to live in darkness,” Kesha sang in the understated verses, entirely in her head voice, but now “I’ve found a rainbow,” she belted through the chorus.
“Tik Tok” fell into the same trap as her other 2010 hits, with Kesha’s vocals falling somewhere between white-girl rap and tongue-in-cheek pop. As Kesha’s most recognizable hit, she relied too heavily on audience handoffs and tracked vocals, once again implying that she didn’t want to be playing it.
“Bastards,” a straightforward folky acoustic ballad, does nothing noteworthy for Rainbow and was a very strange choice for a set closer; Kesha even acknowledged this before playing the song. The live band was hardly featured during the encore, and Kesha’s simple acoustic guitar lines were an inadequate replacement. As her comeback song, and the strongest song of the night, “Praying” would have been a much better song to end on.
During “Praying,” I found myself closing my eyes to appreciate Kesha’s vocals. I felt the mixed heartbreak and hope she was feeling as an artist. Seven years ago, this moment wouldn’t have been possible at a Kesha concert. The Rainbow Tour wasn’t so much a party as a deep moment of reflection on overcoming a toxic past (or flipping it off.)