“Nothing outside these four walls matters right now,” Kesha declared at the beginning of her sold-out show on Thursday night. “I’m talking about your rent, I’m talking about your homework, I’m talking about your shitty ex-boyfriend!” The glitter-covered crowd in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, were screaming at the top of their lungs. “I’m talking about my FUCKING LAWSUIT!” Kesha howled, raising two middle fingers to the sky, as a giant lit-up “FUCK THE WORLD” tour sign gleamed behind her.
She has headlined two world tours since 2010, playing from New York City to Japan, but the Kesha of 2016 is trying something different with her Fuck the World tour. For the past two years, she has been in an ongoing legal battle with producer Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald for alleged sexual assault, harassment, and emotional abuse (he has denied the allegations). As she is also signed to Gottwald’s Kemosabe Records, an imprint of Sony Music, Kesha is fighting to be released from her contract so she can make music that in no way benefits her alleged abuser. In February, Kesha was denied an injunction against Dr. Luke, a ruling that she has since appealed.
That fight continues — but rather than sit and do nothing while she waits for a chance to get out of her contract, Kesha has decided to tour. Without new music to premiere, she’s crafted a set list of reworked past hits and new covers of her favorite songs, playing them with her backing band The Creepies. Clad in a fringed black-and-red Western cowgirl ensemble, with her band in suits, bolo ties, and cowboy hats, Kesha presented her own Grand Ole Opry on acid. “Your Love Is My Drug,” with Kesha on lead guitar, became a pop-punk anthem. “Cannibal,” devoid of its rubbery synth backdrop, had her descending into Alice Cooper–worthy screams down on the floor. And “Timber,” played right alongside a soulful cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” became a classic country ditty. The stage at Warsaw — a Polish community center that doubles as a slightly fusty music venue — was strewn with Christmas lights. With band members running in and out between songs to throw confetti into the audience and doing synchronized dances in rubber dino heads for “Dinosaur,” the overall vibe felt like an impromptu DIY party.
Her covers, from Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” to a gorgeous, slow version of Britney Spears’s “Till the World Ends” (which Kesha helped write), were a chance for Kesha to really showcase her pipes. “That’s for everyone who says I can’t sing,” she screamed after her Spears cover. From the goofy, yodel-y vocals of “Tik Tok” to her gravelly rendition of Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing,” it was clear that while Kesha’s music might be on the freeze, her voice certainly isn’t. The free-spirited, giggly 22-year-old who climbed up the charts with “Tik Tok” back in 2009 hasn’t gone anywhere. And neither has her dedicated fan base, who brought the singer to tears after they led a chorus of “FUCK HIM! FUCK HIM!” for what felt like a blissful eternity.
When Kesha first blew up in pop music, she felt like the mainstream trickle-up version of girl power–happy, electroclash weirdos like Peaches and Chicks on Speed. And Fuck the World could have easily played like a vacuum-sealed reenactment of the early-to-mid-2000s. Instead, Kesha used her reworked and remixed songs to make an undeniable case for her own timelessness. Today, the sort of jokey misandry that runs through songs like 2010’s “Dinosaur” and “Cannibal” is rampant, and messy women are celebrated onscreen. And while at times it was nearly impossible to ignore Kesha’s legal cage, the lesson of the Fuck the World tour is that even without new material, the pop star is still finding new ways to be exciting and bold. Kesha has refashioned herself as a band-leading country rock star; most importantly, she has found a way to be here, in your face, speaking out about the rights of female artists chained to labels and male producers. Fuck the World is not the ideal way to see Kesha — the ideal would be without tears, with new music, on a worldwide tour. But for a musician whose only path to freedom also seems like a trap, her best option right now is to reinvent her past, making her old hits into new windows through which to see an empowered new Kesha.