Gag Order is the fifth album release by American singer-songwriter Kesha, formerly known as Ke$ha. With ten top-ten singles on Billboard’s Hot 100 and two number-one albums on Billboard 200, Kesha became a prominent figure in early 2010’s pop. She maintained a rapidly popularised party-girl persona through her steady release of club bangers, including Tik Tok and We R Who We R.
In 2014, Kesha issued a lawsuit against producer Lukasz Sebastian Gottwald (Dr. Luke) in which she sought to end their contracts, citing that she’d experienced various forms of abuse throughout their professional relationship. Dr. Luke then filed a counter lawsuit for defamation and breach of contract, inciting a complicated legal battle. Fans rallied behind Kesha through protests and campaigns under the ‘Free Kesha’ movement while several celebrities voiced their support for the artist. The case remains unresolved with a trial date set for this July. This tumultuous period has been reflected in Kesha’s previous releases. She was prohibited from releasing new music without Dr. Luke’s involvement, pushing a five-year gap between Warrior in 2012 and Rainbow in 2017. Kesha’s new album is her last release under Kemosabe Records, the label founded by Dr. Luke.
This makes Gag Order a poignant addition to Kesha’s discography. Although she touches upon her struggles in recent years on her third album High Road, the devastation of being silenced is evident in Gag Order. When defined literally, a gagging order refers to a court-issued order which prohibits the discussion and publication of information related to a specific individual, allegations, or events. Kesha is pictured on the album cover with a plastic bag over her head – indicative of suffocation and entrapment. These elements of the 13-track record draw upon her inability to speak about her difficulties amidst the ongoing court case with Dr. Luke. Produced by Rick Rubin, Kesha pushes aside her party-pop image in Gag Order to get vulnerable with listeners, detailing her most honest experiences of past trauma.
Opening track Something To Believe In begins with a deceptively melancholic melody that is soon caught in a fight for recognition against a throbbing electronic beat. Tension is heavy from start to finish as Kesha calls her apparently crumbling sense of self into question, admitting “I sit and watch the pieces fall/I don’t know who I am at all.” From this point, Kesha’s identity becomes a blank slate to be built upon. The album continues with second track Eat The Acid. The lead single of the album is a cautionary tale of a psychedelic experience alongside Kesha’s own search for meaning. Accompanied by trippy rotating synth, she passes on a warning from her mother “You said don’t ever eat the acid if/You don’t wanna be changed like it changed me.” However, she incorporates elements of her own spiritual awakening independent of hallucinogens, revisiting her connection with the divine as “Last night I saw it all/Last night I talked to God.” Highlighted by a glimmering melody reminiscent of a choir, Kesha commits to expressing her mystical experience through the track.
Living In My Head marks the first deviation from the electronic sound introduced by the first two tracks. It is a somber balance of soft acoustics and wispy harmonies through which Kesha clearly expresses her exhaustion and frustration with being trapped in her own mind. “I don’t wanna be here anymore/Stuck inside my head here anymore,” she sings with a tone that is nothing less than exasperated. This sense of defeat persists into Fine Line, her second single from the album. It presents a far more objective picture in which she focuses on the pressure placed upon her by the public. It is simply spoken, but by the final line “But hey, look at all the money we made off me,” draws great attention to the exploitation that she has experienced.
These reflective tracks are a dramatic contrast to what follows in Only Love Can Save Us Now. Kesha is hardly broken down. It possesses the punchy party anthem beat and freeing vocals that are characteristic of her earlier projects, with a catchy sing-a-long chorus that is ultimately made to be shouted from the dance floor. This familiar electro-pop sound is also present for The Drama and Peace & Quiet, breaking up the soothing presence of a monologue from late spiritual teacher Ram Dass in Ram Dass Interlude, and peaceable wind instruments in Only Love Reprise. The final songs bring the album to a sentimental close, drawing back upon the contemplative elements dotted throughout the record.
In spite of its title, Gag Order delivers a sense of catharsis. It is a culmination of unique influences that does not rely on dance-pop to be personable. While the album marks the end of a turbulent part of Kesha’s career, it appears to only be the beginning of her complex story.