“Animal” and “Cannibal” by Kesha

If you want to know why I’m reviewing Kesha’s first album and its accompanying bonus EP jointly, it’s because they are so similar in style and theme that covering either of them individually would be redundant. Ever since Kesha released one of the best Pop albums of the decade in 2017, people have begun to “re-examine” this album, attempting to convince themselves that it wasn’t the horrific disaster it was seen as at the time. However, there’s a reason that most people were initially convinced that Kesha was the worst Pop singer of all time. While Kesha is hardly the first great artist to make an embarrassingly bad first impression, and while I’m not sure how much of this is Kesha’s fault and how much can be blamed on the notorious Dr. Luke, who was basically managing her career at this point, her achievements since then don’t magically turn this album into a misunderstood masterpiece any more than David Bowie’s mature work turns “The Laughing Gnome” into a classic.

The official claim is that the songs on this album are intended as a satire of glam rap’s materialism and sexual objectification, but the people behind the album haven’t actually put any humor, or any commentary for that matter, into this supposed satire. Reproducing typical glam rap songs with a female singer doesn’t really make you some kind of outrageous visionary, and writing songs where the message comes across as “Women are just as stupid and shallow as men” is more degrading than empowering. This is why I never really bought into the argument that Kesha’s early work was intended as a ‘stealth parody’ of the Pop-music world. I’s not necessarily that I think the claim was disingenuous…I just don’t think it makes any difference, because her ‘parody’ here doesn’t really have a point other than being deliberately worse than any of the things she’s supposedly parodying.

If Kesha is indeed going for stealth parody, then Animal’s lead single “Tik Tok” is virtually the only time she achieved it in any real sense. The intensely annoying “Valley Girl” accent she affects here is still definitely an issue, but the song features a catchy chorus, and the lyrics, while still poor by normal standards, are at least amusing in their stupidity. I can’t really call “Tik Tok” a “good” song, and I definitely think it’s a bad sign that it was the Number One song of 2010, but I can understand why it was a hit, which I can’t say about most of her other singles from this period.

On this album Kesha is deeply entrenched in her performing persona as a shallow, mindless party girl—I’m well aware that this is nothing like who she is in real life, but that just makes this album even more uncomfortable to listen to today. It’s just hard to listen to someone who has since proved to have real talent and intelligence being forced to sing lines like “I threw up in the closet/but I don’t care!” Items like the idiotic and horribly mean-spirited “Grow a Pear” were supposedly intended as ‘female counterparts’ to songs by male singers and rappers that objectify women, but most of them wind up being about on the same level of subtlety and dignity as “Tonight I’m Fucking You” and Akon’s body of work, and I don’t really think we needed another edition of the aforementioned excesses, feminized or otherwise.

There are also a few emotional (if excessively self-pitying) ballads (I know Kesha’s situation at the time was pretty bad, but even “Crawling”-era Linkin Park would probably find “Dancing With Tears in My Eyes” too melodramatic). But most of them are done in by Kesha’s overprocessed vocals…I don’t have a problem with auto-tune if it’s used well, but the production on this album does very ugly things to what turned out to be a perfectly good singing voice.

Then there are some items that are just ridiculous, like “Dinosaur”, a collection of groan-inducing puns and stupid, juvenile one-liners making fun of the elderly, or “Cannibal”, the title track to the bonus EP, which was presumably meant to be a piece of innuendo, but goes into way too much disgusting detail about its chosen metaphor in the lyrics, and ultimately comes across as disgusting rather than sexy.

The low points of this album rank with some of the worst Pop music of all time…the unlistenable and flagrantly inane “Blah Blah Blah” is easily the worst hit song of 2010, a field that does not lack for competition. Her vocals on this song are off-key, overprocessed wailing with the added annoyance of a stereotyped valley girl accent. The lyrics are as unutterably inane as the title suggests, and the music itself is abrasive, sloppily produced garbage. But above all of those things, the one thing that really enraged people about this song was its transparent sense of contempt for the audience. In the post-“Friday” pop world, things this stupid are often done with the intent of picking up an ironic following (e.g. “#Selfie” by the Chainsmokers), but that’s not the vibe being let off here. This clearly feels as if Kesha (or rather, her producers) had such contempt for the general pop-music listener base that they truly thought they wouldn’t know any better, and the fact that for the moment it appeared to work had a lot of people panicking and quoting Idiocracy. The panic has died down, and after almost a decade of positive developments in Pop music, it’s almost been forgotten, but at the time, this song seemed to embody the demise of Western culture, and frankly, in retrospect, it’s bad enough that listening to it now, you can see why they believed that.

“Take It Off” is yet another obnoxious, flip-off-the-listener single from this album, if still not quite as bad as “Blah Blah Blah”. The beat is actually quite good, and this might actually have succeeded in being an uninspired-but-competent Club banger (much like Britney Spears’ more tolerable material) if not for the choice of sample. For those who don’t know, this song lifts its melody from “The Streets of Cairo” (a.k.a. “The Snake Charmer’s Song”), putting it in the same category as “Swagger Jagger” by Cher Lloyd (which samples “Clementine”) and “Play That Song” by Train (which samples “Heart and Soul”), which is not company you really want to be keeping. Granted, the Marcia Ball classic “Snake Dance” is based on the same theme, but it was a complex Blues gloss on the melody, not just a straightforward recycling of a musical cliche. “Take It Off”, on the other hand, reduces this overexposed snippet to its tiredest, most inanely simplistic level, making what might have at least been enjoyably stupid come across as unbearably annoying.

“Sleazy” combines the single worst producer in all of modern R&B, Bangladesh, with Kesha at her most inane. This combination of the Worst Producer and the Worst Singer (okay, she certainly didn’t stay that way, but you see my point) works about as well as you’d expect, with Kesha delivering lyrics like “Rat-a-tat-tat on your dumb, dumb drum/The beat so fat, gonna make me cum”, over one of Bangladesh’s bizarre noise collages that sound both painful to listen to and terrifyingly surreal.

“Your Love Is My Drug” was one of Kesha’s awkward, creepy attempts to write a love song that was compatible with her original persona, here combined with one of her unconvincing attempts to pass herself off as a rapper. It’s not by any means the worst item on this album, but it was still an unwise choice both as the opening track and the third single. It certainly isn’t as decisively horrible as the three above songs, but frankly, it sounds like album filler. This raises the question of why it was released at all, especially given that there was another creepily clingy love song on Animal called “Stephen” that was pretty similar to this, except for being one of the few items on this album that was both listenable and disturbing in a way that was actually intentional. This deeply creepy stalker ballad combines the prettiest melody on either of these discs with a truly unnerving lyric of twisted obsession…it’s the kind of love song that says, “I want to skin you alive and wear you like a suit”. Why didn’t they release that as a single, if they wanted a song in this vein? It would have been easily the best single from the album, and even given that album’s apparent goal of shocking and offending its listeners with every single, “Stephen” is still a much more disturbing and attention-getting song than the cheesy piece of radio background filler they released in its place.

“We R Who We R” was supposedly meant as a tribute to all the gay teens who committed suicide as a result of bullying, but to be honest it just comes off as yet another sleazy, inane club banger little different from Kesha’s other singles at the time. Taken as a generic Club song, it’s far from the worst thing Kesha had done around that time, but it’s so laughably unconvincing as the inspirational anthem it was apparently meant to be that it’s hard to take it seriously on any level. It didn’t help that, ironic as it seems today, at the time this song was released Kesha seemed like one of the least qualified then-current pop stars to deliver a serious inspirational message (it would be a long walk to the era of “Praying” and “Hymn”, is all I’m saying).

To be fair, though, there are a few songs (of which “Stephen” is one) that show, at least in retrospect, that Kesha actually had the potential to do good work, though most of us missed it at the time. The title track of Animal sounds much more like a track from the Warrior album than like anything else on the album that bears its name. Then there’s “The Harold Song”, an emotionally devastating song of lost love that offered one of the first hints at the tragic depth behind Kesha’s shallow party-girl facade. Even the final single from the Cannibal EP, “Blow”, is a solid and striking Club track that shows the template used for her early singles could have actually produced good music.

But despite these flashes of genuine potential, this is still easily one of the worst albums of the decade, and while, in retrospect, I don’t entirely blame Kesha herself for that fact, the fact remains that the negative press this album got at the time wasn’t really unjustified. Being a ‘stealth parody’, or ‘subverting’ the trademark sexism of rap by gender-flipping it, isn’t as interesting or creative an idea as this album’s defenders seem to think, and in any case, so much of this album is terrible as pure music that it almost doesn’t matter. Just remember that just because Kesha herself has been vindicated by history doesn’t necessarily mean this album has, and the damage it did to her reputation still hasn’t been fully repaired.

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