I Tried To Read The 5th Wave And Failed

I just can’t with this book.

I first saw the Fifth Wave in the bookstore a few years ago when it was brand new, and it seemed pretty interesting. It has a very good premise. It’s a dystopian YA novel (strange how that’s not only a genre now, but an oversaturated and cliche genre. What a weird time to be alive) about a girl surviving on her own in the ruins of Earth after aliens show up and destroy the place.

The alien assault comes in the form of “waves.” The first wave is an EMP blast that disabled all electronic devices and cuts off communication. The second wave is a series of bombs dropped into fault lines that trigger tsunamis which wipe out all human life near coastlines. The third wave is a virus, transmitted by birds, that not only causes people to die a painful and bloody death, but also lose their mind to the point that one victim is shown to have been chained to her bed while she ripped her own fingernails out.

The book begins after the fourth wave has begun. It has a pretty strong opening chapter, and I was hooked very quickly. The narrator, Cassie, switches back and forth between recounting the events of her life before and the way humanity dealt with the attack from “the Others,” and her current mission to travel to a nearby airbase where she believes she might find her younger brother, trekking along desolate highway while being followed by a sniper.

At first, Cassie’s tendency to wax philosophical is charming. I mean, if you can’t contemplate the futility of existence in an apocalypse that somehow manages to combine an alien invasion, a superflu, a zombie virus,, a worldwide flood, a super bomb, and the mass murder of all survivors, you really can’t ever find a time to contemplate anything. But as time goes on, it feels like author Rick Yancey was more interested in using the lens of an uber apocalypse to discuss human society than actually telling a compelling story.

And things only get more ham-fisted from here. Every point is driven home without a hint of subtlety, and simple messages that shouldn’t be difficult to grasp are slammed in with a sledgehammer. The most egregious example of this is a moment that made me roll my eyes almost out of my head. I had to put the book down and Google to see other people’s reactions because I was so incredibly annoyed.

At one point, Cassie is reciting her experience in a camp of survivors. They’re all struggling to survive and trying to figure out what the hell is going on, unsure if anyone is ever going to come and help them. Cassie herself makes a brief reference to religion before this scene, simply saying that when it comes to God, she feels like there’s some kind of a broken promise there. But leaving it at that would be subtle and understated, two things that this book is not. We’re briefly introduced to two characters surviving in the refugee camp: a religious fanatic nicknamed Mother Theresa by the others, and “the sole atheist in our camp, some college professor named Dawkins.”

Yeah, that’s a LITTLE on the nose, Rick Yancey. Let me talk about WHY I hate this so much. The point Yancey is trying (read: failing) to make here is that all fundamentalism is bad, both religious fundamentalism and… non-religious fundamentalism? I mean there’s a problem with trying to explain how someone could be a fundamentalist ahtiest when atheism is simply the rejection of a religious claim, but I get what he’s trying to say here. He’s saying that we should be level-headed in our approach to life, and not get lost moving too far to one side or the other to keep a clear view of the situation.

But this is an actual apocalypse story. The other survivors jeer at the atheist, telling him he’s going to hell, to which he reasonably responds, “How would I know the difference?”

What bothers me so much about this is not just that Yancey went with the most obvious and on-the-nose name choice possible for an atheist character by naming him after Richard Dawkins, though that annoys me too. And I won’t dwell on it for much longer, but I have now found two different interviews in which someone asked him about naming his character Dawkins, and in both of those interviews he chuckled and said “You caught that, did you?” Yeah, Rick. We ALL CAUGHT IT. It was not subtle, or clever, it was ham-fisted and graceless. Anyhow, that’s not what bothers me so much. What bothers me is the idea that in a world where all of the conceivable apocalypses have happened one on top of another, that an atheist would STILL be regarded with disgust. I mean, if you need any more proof that there is no God looking out for you, trying looking around at the nightmarish dystopian hellscape you live in. I get that people would probably turn to their faith for comfort, but like Cassie mentioned earlier in the book before this scene, it’s clear that if there was some sort of promise from God to keep people safe, he didn’t live up to it, and may as well not exist anyway. The idea that this ONE character is the SOLE atheist is ridiculous, particularly when Cassie more or less admitted to being an atheist only a few pages ago.

I did manage to get a bit of revenge when, later on when groups of soldiers arrive to take all young children away to safe houses, Mother Theresa demands that she be allowed to leave too, because “women and children should be taken first, that’s just how things are done,” seeming to go out of her way to throw everyone else under the bus. I might have enjoyed this jab at religiosity more if it hadn’t been countered by an incredibly flawed atheist strawman. Not that his Mother Theresa character wasn’t a straw man too, but at the very least, anyone could sympathize with the atheist character.

At any rate, just when I began to feel really interested in what was happening to Cassie, the story switches perspectives rather abruptly to another character called Zombie, previously Cassie’s high school crush, and his experiences becoming infected with the plague virus, and subsequent recovery. He’s hooked into a computer program called Wonderland that “maps” his experiences, basically downloading his entire personality, memories, feelings and thoughts into a computer, and then he’s sent to boot camp to train in becoming a soldier. Calling the computer program Wonderland is one of several cringe-worthy literary references that might have been clever if they weren’t so cliche. It reminds me of the villain in Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series being named Valentine, or the way the Looking Glass Wars tried to turn the Mad Hatter and Chershire Cat into anime-style martial arts badasses. It just feels so… silly. There’s kind of a trend in this series of giving silly names like Wonderland, Zombie, Nugget, Razor, Poundcake, and Dumbo. Sometimes they feel like they’re supposed to be references to other works, sometimes they just feel like unfortunate nicknames.

The story switches back to Cassie and manages to get very interesting for a few chapters, because the sniper who had been following her is an alien. Up to this point, no one has seen the aliens, but it is known that there are aliens masquerading as humans and killing people, which is called the Fourth Wave. The Fifth Wave, by the way, is never explained or even mentioned in this book, and won’t be addressed until the final book in the trilogy, but I digress. So the aliens have basically attached themselves to people’s brains and possessed their human hosts, but they aren’t a conciousness which replaces the old one (a la Stephanie Meyer’s the Host), they are still the same person they always were, only they’ve been “awakened” to who they truly are. The alien, Evan, is having trouble deciding on what to do because during the time he was hunting and stalking Cassie, he became attracted to her and began to become obsessed with her, unable to bring himself to kill her, instead nursing her back to health.

Evan is a pretty interesting character. He’s conflicted and you can see that his humanity is ultimately overpowering the alien part of himself. It does however worry me that since he is set up as Cassie’s romantic interest, this book continues the disturbing trend in YA fiction of having a female protagonist fall in love with an abusive or obsessive male partner who gives off some distinctly rape-y vibes. Still, because I’m me, I was just happy to finally have a cute boy involved in the story who I could be vicariously attracted to, because what is young adult fiction without sexual tension?

This, unfortunately, is when the book grinds to a complete halt. Evan and Cassie end up sharing a kiss and he climbs in bed with her, at which point the camera fades to black and we switch to Cassie’s younger brother, a terrified seven year old named Sam, who is brought into the safe houses after being separated from a girl he meets on the bus, and the narrative returns to Zombie, who is now in boot camp. And the book goes Full Metal Jacket on us. And you know, I really tried with this part. Firstly, I find military stories entirely boring, particularly when they involve boot camp, because I tend to view boot camp as a very strange form of physical and mental torture that we as a society have sanctioned as perfectly alright, and this book continues to espouse the supposed virtue of emotionally and mentally destroying a person through weeks and months of torture before “molding them” into a soldier, which even in real life seems to have little effect but destroying a person’s natural empathy and replacing their personality with that of a cold and ruthless machine designed to serve it’s masters, sacrificing any humanity.

But again, I digress.

I have difficulty with boot camp stories because of the above mentioned reasons, but also because it’s really not what this book has been about up to this point. And exactly halfway through the book is a very strange time to take on such a drastic change in tone. I mean, yeah, it’s still the same hopeless dystopia as the first half, but at a certain point the utter hopelessness of the story becomes unbearable. I mean, there IS no victory for these characters. At this point, most of humanity is dead. Even if they somehow defeated the aliens, there’s nothing that can be done, humanity will not survive beyond this point, any attempt to survive is pointless. And Yancey has said that the point of this story is not about victory but about endurance, but still, how compelling is a story of endurance? I mean, at the end of Gary Paulson’s book Hatchet, the main character does eventually get to go back to society. His endurance pays off. Where is the pay off here?

The thing that really pushed me over the line is that the book goes into gruesome detail describing the fate of the people who died, particularly through the lens of Casssie’s younger brother. Not only does the narrative go through the horrific details of his mother’s death and the way he lost everything he ever loved, but it does so while retaining his point of view, so that characters are still called “mommy” and “daddy” and we can see his innocence shattering. It all becomes so incredibly depressing that it’s almost too difficult to bear. This whole book is just steeped in hopelessness, and that’s the problem with it. Once you’ve breathed a sigh of relief, things can only get worse. There is never going to be any payoff for these characters.

The little boy is thrown into boot camp, a ludicrous idea even for a dystopian novel, and the drill sergeant taunts him about the death of his mother, which is probably more monstrous and unforgivable than anything that’s happened up to this point. Now granted, this drill sergeant is an antagonist, but the scene is framed in such a way that it suggests boot camp is a GOOD thing, so what is the message being sent here? I don’t know, but honestly this is the point where the book became too much for me and I had to put it down. I skimmed summaries for the rest of the book and then the rest of the series to sate my curiosity about what happened next, and I’m going to talk about it now, so consider yourself spoiler warned.

This boot camp section carries on for a while, and the narrative doesn’t return to Cassie for a long time, which as I said, grinds the story to a halt, because even though Zombie has been introduced, the central story was still mostly about Cassie. Halfway through the book is a bad time to give this novel a deuteragonist. We’d already followed Cassie, Evan and Sam, and Zombie’s section had been brief enough that it didn’t detract from the overall narrative. Frankly, I just don’t have the patience for this kind of storytelling. I know it may be important to switch focus, but I had to keep willing myself to read on beforehand, through all the gloomy atmosphere, because the story was essentially pretty good and was rolling along. I don’t have it in me to put with a boot camp section, not now. The military aspects of the book seem to be glorifying the military and even though that’s another discussion for another time, it was just too harsh of a tonal shift for me.

So, I was genuinely curious about what the hell the Fifth Wave actually was, and apparently it isn’t even explained until the third and final book in the trilogy. The big secret is that the aliens were never on earth, they were always acting remotely, and the mothership doesn’t actually house the aliens so much as it houses their equipment and their weapons. They controlled people by mapping themselves through Wonderland and then uploading themselves into people’s brains. This is meant to pull the rug out from under you, but Yancey actually did a very weird thing in the way he told the story in the first novel. You see, we learn from Cassie that the military are actually alien-controlled humans, but we switch to Zombie and Sam being cared for by the military and being given explanations about what the aliens are, even though we as readers KNOW they are the aliens. But, the information they’re giving the protagonists seem to be true, so it’s kind of a triple-bluff. I wish that the author had picked a better method of explaining the central story than several info-dumps from the point of view of side-characters, given by unreliable characters. Worse, the villains mostly seem to be pretty good people, except for the two military drill instructor types.

The general theme for this book seems to be that we as the reader are shown something, and then the characters are put into a situation where we know what’s happening and they don’t. That’s a good storytelling method in and of itself, but unfortunately, things get wonky from there. Right when I as a reader think I know what’s going on, the “bad guys” are acting good, and we’re left to wonder who exactly is the villain here. And this isn’t done in an interesting, morally ambiguous way, like a political tale in which every player has their own ends and the lines between good and evil become blurred, it’s just clunky and indistinct, leaving me as a reader not sure if the antagonists are lying or telling the truth, and not sure if the narrative itself is lying to me or telling the truth. There are lies hidden within truths hidden within lies, but it’s spun in a very ineffective way, and just left me scratching my head and unwilling to keep slogging on once the focus of the book shifted halfway through.

In case you’re curious, the ultimate ending of the series apparently keeps piling cliche upon cliche, because the sole fault in the Wonderland program is that the aliens didn’t anticipate that LOVE would become involved, and basically, love can break the spell that the program has on people, as it did with Evan and his (creepy?) romantic obsession with Cassie. Yes, that’s right, it’s the old “love trumps everything” trope, but wait, it gets better.

The reason that the aliens sent their ship there was to destroy human civilization, because humans were destroying the environment and wiping out other species, and apparently the Others go from planet to planet, wiping out civilizations that pose too much of a threat to their environments in order to keep life going. But if that’s the case, what about the Others themselves? If they have this kind of sophisticated technology, then surely they must have developed and incredibly advanced civilization that DIDN’T harm the life around themselves, in which case they could use their technology to travel to planets and help other races to take care of their home worlds, share their own technology with them, or hell, even take over the planet and become benevolent dictators. It seems like the Others went through a HELL of a lot of trouble to wipe out the majority of the human race when inevitably another race will eventually evolve to take it’s place and create it’s own civilization. And from what I can tell from plot summaries of the rest of the series, the real origins of the Others are never explained and they’re never even communicated with directly. What a let down.

The Fifth Wave, by the way, is a series of child soldiers trained by the aliens, who go and destroy what’s left of humanity, by tricking them into thinking they’re killing alien-infested people. Even though the people training them to do this are actually alien-infested, but actually not because of the whole Wonderland thing and ugh, my head hurts.

Even worse, the ultimate end for Cassie is that she downloads the memories and personalities of thousands of long-dead humans into her own mind, basically becoming Super Cassie and going on an army-of-one rampage against the antagonists, ultimately beaming herself onto the mothership with a bomb in hand, blowing herself up and destroying the mothership in the process. I don’t know if this actually defeats the Others, because clearly if they’ve done this with other planets before, they must have more ships. Did this really accomplish anything? So we have a combination of the “love conquers all” trope, the “humans will destroy the planet” trope, and the “sacrifice yourself to save Earth” trope. It’s kind of sad to me that a story with such lofty goals ends with such cliche set pieces.

And then finally, the epilogue of the series involves Zombie and Sam wandering through the ruins of the old world, basically just continuing to survive, and having some philosophical discussion about what a realm is. And that’s it. Like I said, there is no victory. No matter how long Zombie, Sam, and the other survivors make it, no matter how many generations of their children survive, humanity is still dead, all of human history is still destroyed, all of the art and music and literature and memories of past generations is gone. And the world isn’t rebooted in an Eden awash with possibilities, it’s on a planet in which much of the life has been destroyed and what land remains is littered with waste. The end.

How incredibly unsatisfying.

And that’s the Fifth Wave. I couldn’t bring myself to finish it, and honestly I’m kind of glad I didn’t. It set out with some lofty ambition, but ultimately feels pretty pointless. The point of a dystopian story is to try and overcome the dystopia, to begin rebuilding, to create a new and better world, but this? This is just sad, and hopeless from the very beginning. Pain stacked upon pain, often in horrifically morose detail. It’s strange to me that in the world of YA fiction, you can’t directly talk about penises or breasts and you can’t do any more than imply that sex happens, but you can spend chapters describing blood leaking from the eyes of children and infants dying in their cradles and bands of marauders murdering (and raping?) children. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs in general that we are so much more comfortable describing horrific violence in gory detail than talking frankly about something as natural and harmless as consensual sex. Not that that’s Rick Yancey’s fault, it’s just an observation, and it’s certainly not a new one.

And now, I can finally go read Mercedes Lackey.

In Defense Of Kathy Griffin

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I will make this brief.

After everything that Kathy Griffin has done for us, we better not turn our back on her now. I haven’t said much about it because mostly I was so pissed off at the response of right-wing commentators. And then of course all the people dragging out such old chestnuts as “ugh that ugly cunt isn’t funny fuck her,” or some other such brilliant and scathing insight. You can bet your ass that if the shoe had been on the other foot, and Alex Jones were holding up a decapitated Hillary Clinton head, right wing commentators wouldn’t be tripping over their dicks to call him out on it.

What pisses me off most is seeing Kathy’s friends turn on her. Anderson Cooper saying he thought the photos were disturbing and awful, when he’s actually a friend of hers. Is he trying to put a nail in the coffin and destroy her? Or is he just saying that because he doesn’t want to risk his position at CNN?

Look, I get it. Holding up a severed head in a time where ISIS exists, it’s a bold statement. It’s disturbing. It’s maybe even a little tasteless. But art is SUPPOSED to be bold and disturbing. The message of Kathy holding up a severed Trump head is not “Hey guys, let’s go out and decapitate politicians,” it’s “We will overcome this, we will defeat this demagogue and we will resist.”

But you know what I admire even more than Kathy having the balls to make a bold statement? The fact that she apologized. Kathy has an infamous no apology policy. She stands by what she says. But after seeing the way it affected everyone, she owned it, and she apologized. And honestly, the worst I can say about the photo is that it’s in bad taste. But it’s certainly not “vile and offensive.” What’s vile and offensive is that we elected a man who openly brags about sexual assault.

What if we just called the Kathy Griffin photos “locker room talk”? Would that make it acceptable.

Trump is trying to make himself a demagogue and we need people to send out a message that we aren’t gonna take that shit. And we need it from all angles. We need the protests in the streets, and we need celebrities holding up bloody heads if that’s what they want to do.

The only thing that I’ve found truly unsettling was watching Kathy try and hold it together for her apology video. She seems like she’s been crying, and she sounds terrified. Like she’s afraid her whole career could be over. And it might. And that horrifies me.

Kathy is a fucking inspiration and the hardest working woman in show business. She made art. Art sometimes includes bold statements like holding up a fake bloody head. And unlike the racists who burned/hanged effigies of Barack Obama during his presidency (strangely no right wing media seemed to condemn THAT when it was happening), she isn’t targeting Trump because of his race or his gender or anything like that. He’s being judged based on the content of his shitty character. Need I remind you that there are actual photos of the Trump kids posing with dead animals they trophy hunted? How about the photo of Eric (I think it’s Eric, I can’t tell these assholes apart) holding up an elephants tail in one hand and a knife in the other? Here, have a look.

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Now tell me, is that more or less disturbing than Kathy holding up a bloody Trump mask? Because that’s a guy who actually killed a living creature for sport and posed with a piece of it’s body.

I know, I’m criticizing one of the Trump spawn, not the orange wonder himself. So let me get back to that.

The pussy grabber in chief wants to get the heat off his ass for his recent worldwide trip in which he alienated a staggering number of US allies, continued to deny the existence of climate change, and turned America into the laughing stock of the entire world. Now he’s pulling us out of the Paris climate agreement, which I remind you even genuine evil dictators like Kim Jong Un still participate in. That’s right, Kim Jong Un is more environmentally responsible than Donald Trump.

So, Donald Trump blasted back by dragging his eleven year old son Baron into it, saying that his son was disturbed by it. REALLY? You’re only just NOW worrying about the welfare of your son and what your narcissistic trainwreck of a presidency is doing to him? I’m not buying it, buddy. Trump is using Kathy as a scapegoat to try and get bad press off of him, and when that didn’t work he invented a new internet meme, because the Trump version of doing something good is creating a scandal that DOESN’T involve directly harming other people.

So hey, hand me a bloody Trump mask. I’ll hold it up for you, Kathy. I’m not above rash and over-the-top demonstrations. Kathy said it best: she’s a comedian, she crosses the line, she moves the line and crosses it again. It doesn’t always land. She owned up to it, and she apologized, not because she thinks that her willingness to speak out is wrong, but because she saw that it was genuinely disturbing to people and it crossed a line for a lot of people. She apologized because she’s watching her career crumble around her and that isn’t fair, not after everything she’s done.

Donald Trump is causing real harm to real people, and making a statement is both allowed and acceptable. Last I checked, despite Donald Trump’s best efforts we still have freedom of speech, and that includes bloody performance art. And don’t give me this crap about how “unsettling and vile” that picture is. We live in a culture that goes to the movies to see torture porn for fun, but suddenly you want to act shocked and clutch your pearls because a comedian makes a statement with a mask covered in fake blood? Like I said, if anything the photo was in bad taste, but it isn’t vile, it isn’t disgusting. It’s an artist making art.

Kathy Griffin does not deserve this, after everything she’s done for Americans, for the gay community, for women in comedy, for comedy in general, and especially for veterans and soldiers. Kathy Griffin has devoted significant amounts of her time, money and energy to soldiers, she’s included soldiers in her stand up tours, in her television shows, in her comedy specials, and done countless benefits for them. She’s been an outspoken activist for gay people, she’s gone canvasing door to door for the LGBT community, she’s organized marches against homophobic policies, and she’s never stopped opening up her damn mouth to defend people who need defending every chance she gets. Even though she crosses the line, she’s doing it for a reason, she’s making an important statement, and even her apology was sincere and heartfelt.

Kathy Griffin has more courage in the little finger gripping that bloody Trump mask than Donald Trump will ever know or understand. Trump is a disgrace to America and to the world, and while he was tweeting on his golden toilet in a building with his name plastered on it, creating racist birther conspiracies, Kathy Griffin was on several USO tours, staying in a hotel that was almost bombed, and flying into a warzone in Kandahar, Afghanistan to entertain US troops, because she’s a fucking American.

What we need now is the courage to stand up to demagogues, to challenge them, to not give them an inch, and yes, to even hold up a severed head every now and then if that’s what it takes to get the message across that tyranny doesn’t have a place here. I stand with Kathy, I support her, I love her, and I’m not turning my back on her because she did what she does, and what she will continue to do, which is to cross the line, move it, and cross it again. That’s what artists are here for.

Things That Should Have Happened In Final Fantasy XIII

Final Fantasy XIII is a good game with a lot of flaws. Mostly, the only thing people talk about are it’s flaws. I still think it holds up as a fun experience and a well-made game. It’s a milestone in the visual capabilities of the series, but the muddy storytelling of director Motomu Toriyama is somewhat notorious for being completely incomprehensible. Whenever one plot-hole appears, Toriyama just distracts you from it by pulling out a new plot-hole, until finally you finish Lightning Returns and think, “Well I guess all those plotholes are filled now that the universe has been reborn. Oh well.” This is not excellent storytelling.

As such, here are some ideas that have brewed in my mind for a while, which I think would have vastly improved Final Fantasy XIII. Personally, I sometimes like to pretend that XIII-2 and Lightning Returns never happened, because the game itself does not set the story up for a sequel, and very little of what happens in the game is really referenced later in the series. XIII-2 and Lightning Returns revolve mostly around Etro and Yuel, but deal very little with the actual journey of the l’Cie in Final Fantasy XIII.

So on that note, I’m mostly going to be dealing with things I would have liked to have seen changed in the original game, though I will make some reference to how my changes my fit the sequels. This also means that I’m not going to spend too much time wondering about why in the world the developers chose to refer to an area in XIII-2 as “Archylte Steppe ???” This seems to imply that the time period in which this happens is either before the fall of Cocoon or after the whole timeline has been fixed, but dialogue from the hunters indicates that it happens after the fall of Cocoon, and that the people who bear the same tribal tattoos as Fang are not in fact from the same tribe as hunters but just Cocoon citizens who reacclamated to life on Pulse. I’m also not going to spend too much time grinding my teeth at the fact that XIII-2 spends a lot of it’s time redeveloping areas from the first game, but completely leaves out many of them like Eden, the Arks, most of Gran Pulse, Nautilus, Lake Bresha, the second half of the Sunleth Waterscape, the Gapra Whitehood, and so on and so forth. But as you can tell, I have my issues with XIII-2 as well, which for the record most people believe to be superior to Final Fantasy XIII, but personally I think that it trades addressing everything Final Fantasy XIII got wrong for sacrificing all the things that it got right.

Anyway.

In Defense of Jihl Nabaat

Jihl Nabaat is a criminally underutilized character in Final Fantasy XIII. Her treatment in the story is baffling: we go through the process of setting her up as a character, even including her in the flashback sequences, set her up as a perfect antagonist to Sazh and build up resentment toward her, and then even include the perfect moment to fight her, and… she’s killed off. No fanfare, nothing. No one even mentions that she’s dead. Barthandelus throws a Ruin spell at her and she’s gone, just like that.

Now, you might say that the fact that she is so important and is disposed of with such little interest by Barthandelus is precisely the point being made about how fal’Cie view humans as nothing more than tools. It does make an interesting parallel with Jihl, who herself sees other people as tools to further her own ends. But this is still bad storytelling. Barthandelus is the most cliche and uninteresting villain in the Final Fantasy series, and that’s in a series that includes such one-dimensional characters as Exdeath and Necron. Not only is he visually unappealing (I’ve seen him hilariously referred to as “the space pope”), but his dialogue and personality are incredibly one-dimensional and cliche. Also, his motives make no sense, but then, that’s a much larger problem within Final Fantasy XIII’s story.

Most of Final Fantasy XIII’s story can be boiled down to: “the fal’Cie want the main characters to destroy Cocoon by killing Orphan, so the main characters rage against their fate and defy their masters by… destroying Orphan and dropping Cocoon out of the sky exactly like they were told.” Even more confusing is why the fal’Cie bother to fight the l’Cie and try to kill them at every turn: Barthandelus is working tirelessly to make the l’Cie choose to kill Orphan and thereby destroy Cocoon, so why is he also directing the entirety of the Sanctum’s resources at murdering them? You could say it’s a test of their power, but then, why does he also personally attack them several times? Why did he bother fusing with Orphan? What exactly IS Orphan anyway?

But I digress. Jihl.

Jihl is an interesting character because of how comically evil she is. She’s sadistic and seems to take immense pleasure is causing pain to others, and yet at the same time we can clearly see that she isn’t all bad. Her first introduction is a brief scene of her smiling at Sazh during the fireworks flashback. Even when she’s actively trying to kill Sazh, she always states her reasons clearly, and even sometimes makes compelling arguments. She honors Dajh’s sacrifice and says she’s going to have his crystal made into a memorial in Eden, without ever revealing the fact that his father was a l’Cie, so that Dajh can be remembered with reverence by the citizens of Cocoon. The thing that actually makes her interesting is how intelligent and well-spoken she is, and how she seems to be capable of surprising compassion for someone who so enjoys toying with people. She talks down to Sazh about Pulse l’Cie being “undesirables,” but she also treats him with some amount of respect, choosing to allow him the chance to get revenge on Vanille rather than having her soldiers shoot them. Even when she strikes Sazh and knocks him out, she doesn’t do this until he becomes uncontrollable with rage.

Really the thing that confuses me the most about the treatment of Jihl’s character is that it doesn’t make any sense from a storytelling perspective. They went through all this trouble to set Jihl up as a primary antagonist, she’s even in a fully animated FMV sequence, and then they kill her with no fanfare. In fact, it honestly feels like they purposely cut out a boss fight with Jihl for some reason. Right before Barthandelus kills her, Jihl leaps down onto the platform in front of the l’Cie and draws her weapon, and the party gets ready for a fight. There could have easily been a sub boss fight here with Jihl, and then the next scene of Barthandelus killing her could have gone on the same.

But this isn’t my biggest wish for Jihl. I think Jihl should have been the game’s main antagonist. Throughout the game we’re treated to metaphors about tools, about people being used by others to further their own ends. Barthandelus is the puppetmaster behind the actions of Lightning and her friends, but I think that the murder between Jihl and Barthandelus should have happened in reverse: I think that Jihl should have been the one to suddenly and inexplicably murder Barthandelus, before removing her glasses and reminding the party that “For every task, there’s a perfect tool.”

I wish that Jihl had turned out to be Orphan in disguise. We know from Barthandelus that fal’Cie have the ability to disguise themselves as humans, and we know that Orphan is ultimately the central power behind Cocoon. If Orphan is really the one at the center of this plan to use Cocoon to summon the Maker, why wouldn’t Orphan choose to disguise itself as a human and walk among them, monitoring the actions of Barthandelus by pretending to be his servant? How great would it be if Lightning and her allies stormed into Eden and Barthandelus appeared on the steps before them in the area where you fight the Adamantoise, and rambled on about how they’re nothing but puppets doing his bidding, and then from behind him came a blast and standing over his body, with her rod in hand, was Jihl, who reveals that she’s been using everyone from the beginning. The game even SETS THIS UP. She talks about using people as tools, doesn’t she? What better way for her to do that?

Jihl could transform into Orphan for the final boss fight, and the rest of the game could play out exactly as it did. If this idea seems too weird to you, let her be Eden instead. Eden is just another fal’Cie like Barthandelus who would have all the same reasons to keep a close eye on him, and the final confrontation could easily switch out Jihl for Barthandelus. After transforming into her fal’Cie form and being defeated, she could fuse with Orphan and become the final boss, the same way Barthandelus did. I mean, the weirdest thing about Barthandelus being the central antagonist is that we don’t know anything about him until he reveals himself on the Palamecia, meanwhile we’ve had the whole game to get to know Jihl.

I won’t delve too much further into this, but Final Fantasy XIII actually has a big problem with not utilizing it’s characters. Raines, Rygdia, Jihl, and Amodar all go mostly unnoticed, despite having thought and care put into their development.

Vanille’s Deepest Secret

Throughout most of Final Fantasy XIII, Vanille’s defining characteristic, apart from her optimistic bubbly personality, is that she’s a liar. She prances around smelling the flowers in an attempt to hide the dark secrets she possesses. Vanille is the fulcrum on which the entire story of Final Fantasy XIII revolves: she chose not to fulfill her focus and become Ragnarok, leaving Fang to do it on her own, resulting in Fang not being strong enough to do anything more than breach Cocoon’s shell. They should have both become C’ieth, but as she so often does in this universe, Etro felt pity for the two of them and intervened, allowing them to enter crystal statis anyway and placing them within the Pulse Vestige with Anima, to be kept safe until they reawakened.

There’s a lot about this story that just doesn’t add up. We’re never given much of a glimpse into what Vanille and Fang’s life was like on Pulse. We only get a few mentions of what life was like in Oerba, and the leftover photographs and housewares inside Vanille and Fang’s house, or her robot friend Bakhti (also known to me as The Cash Machine). There is one brief moment which shows Vanille living on Pulse, and it’s during the opening credits movie, but even then Cocoon still has a hole in it’s shell, so it’s possible that this scene is depicting Vanille on Pulse after returning with Lightning and the gang. Also, Etro becomes an important figure later in the Lightning Saga, but during Final Fantasy XIII she’s mostly left enigmatic, known only as “The Goddess,” and she seems to have a penchant for intruding on history at inopportune moments, resulting in more death or the corruption of the timeline. Why did Etro choose to intervene when she did? If Etro presumably knew that Fang couldn’t breach Cocoon on her own, why did she wait until after she’d tried and failed to intervene and put Vanille and Fang into crystal sleep? Also, we’re told that Fang slept in crystal for five hundred years alongside Vanille, but we never see Fang in crystal form, when Vanille awakens Fang is already asleep on the platform beneath her.

How exactly does this whole Focus thing work? We never learn which fal’Cie it was that gave Vanille and Fang their focus to destroy Cocoon, or why exactly that was the focus they were given. If the C’ieth stones are any indications, the majority of fal’Cie only made l’Cie to do trivial things like destroying particularly nasty monsters or C’ieth who refused to die. And, if Vanille and Fang failed in their Focus, why didn’t they turn into C’ieth? I know the answer is that Etro intervened, but how does that work exactly? Does the fal’Cie who gave the l’Cie a focus get to decide whether or not their thrall turns to crystal or into a C’ieth, and does the authority of one fal’Cie usurp the authority of another? Did they actually become C’ieth and then Etro intervened to turn them human again and put them in Crystal? Who woke them up? Why did they awaken from their crystal sleep when they did? What happens when the fal’Cie who makes you into a l’Cie dies? We know that Anima died right before making Lightning and her allies into l’Cie, but that didn’t stop their focus. If a l’Cie who completes their focus going into crystal stasis, who gets to wake them up and give them a new Focus if the old fal’Cie master dies?

Really, this is a rabbit hole of questions that can go on and on forever. Concerned with clear storytelling, Motomu Toriyama is not.

But again, I digress.

I think that it would be an interesting twist is Vanille herself is the Goddess of Death, Etro. We know that fal’Cie can take on human form, and surely a goddess would have that power. Now, there are holes in this idea: we know Etro is stuck in the unseen realm and can’t return because she was banished there by Bhunivelze, but still, there are a lot of things that would make more sense about Vanille if it turned out she herself was Etro. Vanille is the only party member with the ability to cast the Death spell, and though that does have some connections to her character, it is odd that of all the characters it would be Vanille with this devastating ability that works on almost every single enemy in the game, including the final boss. Vanille is seen making a sign with her fingers and offering prayers to the heavens many times, what if this were the sign of the Goddess? What if she were actually trying to work some kind of magic when she did that?

And why is Vanille narrating the story? From a development perspective, there are explanations: Vanille was initially conceived as the central character and was going to be the game’s primary protagonist, but after showing off Lightning in a promotional video and receiving positive feedback from fans, Lightning was made the central protagonist of the game. For the record I think this was a good move. But Vanille is narrating the entire story of the game, seemingly from within her crystal sleep in the pillar holding Cocoon. She and Fang even speak directly to Lightning and the others at the end after they’re freed from crystal. If Etro is the one who intervened and freed them from crystal, why couldn’t it have been Vanille who did it? Also, what exactly is the significance of becoming Ragnarok? It’s repeatedly stated that ONE of the l’Cie must become Ragnorok, but both times Fang attempts to do it on her own, she isn’t strong enough. Is this an ability they all inherently know? Vanille and Fang do it effortlessly in the end and it’s presumably because they’ve been down this road before and know what they’re doing, but is this is a power that can be used any time? As usual, not much is explained.

Vanille being Etro would continue to make sense as the series progressed. Vanille is somehow capable of seeing into Serah’s dream world and calling her out of it, and Serah’s dream world is within the Unseen Realm, Etro’s domain. During Lightning Returns, Vanille inexplicably has the ability to speak to the souls of the dead and guide them to the new world. No one ever even attempts to explain why she has this ability. Again, I know this pokes holes in the central plot of the three games, but still, I think it would have been a much more interesting twist to have Vanille turn out to be Etro herself, intervening physically as well as magically in the events of the world to try and stop the death of innocent people.

Vanille lies so frequently that she even comments she can’t remember which events are truth or lies anymore. She outright lies to Hope and tells him that he promised to come and see Gran Pulse with her. I actually like the idea that maybe if Vanille were Etro, she could see alternate timelines, and in one of those, Hope did promise to come and see Gran Pulse with her. Either way, Vanille spends much of her time lying to others, even if she does it with good intentions. If Vanille is such a capable liar, couldn’t she be lying about her identity too?

A Titanic Superboss

I’m not the only Final Fantasy XIII fan to be baffled by the development choice NOT to make Titan the game’s superboss. Instead the superbosses are the final C’ieth stone mission and the Long Gui. Titan is a very prominent figure on Gran Pulse: he’s always seen walking around just beyond the mountains, no matter where you are on the plains. There’s a series of C’ieth stone missions revolving around running a gauntlet for his amusement and showing off your strength to him. He creates mist that causes power C’ieth to appear, and he even speaks briefly to the party. We also know that he’s a fal’Cie, and the characters in Final Fantasy XIII never met a fal’Cie they didn’t want to kill. It just seems obvious that Titan would be the game’s optional superboss. It even seems to imply that he would be, considering several of the C’ieth stone missions are done specifically at his behest, or in his area of the world. It would make sense that fighting him is the ultimate prize for completing these missions.

But alas, nothing. And even stranger is the fact that never appears in the Lightning Saga. Atomos actually reappears in Lightning Returns, sleeping in the Dead Dunes. This conflicts with the widespread notion in Nova Chrysallia that Pandemonium is the only living fal’Cie, because Atomos is clearly still alive and hasn’t become a crystal, but nonetheless, there he is. If Atomos survived, why didn’t Titan? Especially when massive juggernatus like Atlas seem to mirror his design. Surely he’d have been involved somewhere within the side-story of these huge creatures? Is the Atlas included in the second game a re-skinned version of a planned Titan superboss that never made the final cut?

Really, every time I see him on the Archylte Steppe, it’s like the game is just rubbing my face in the fact that he isn’t available to challenge.

Where The Hell Is Everybody?

Everyone, including Vanille and Fang who are natives and presumably understand a lot of it’s history, wonder where the hell all the people on Gran Pulse disappeared to. It’s brought up a few times with confusion, and then never addressed again. We know that the War of Transgression took a huge toll on both Pulse and Cocoon, but Gran Pulse is literally the entire planet, and there doesn’t seem to be one surviving human anywhere. We even see the ruins of Paddra, which indicate that it was a very modern, technologically advanced city, because it’s ruins include cars and traffic lights. The world is filled with C’ieth stones, and it’s never addressed whether or not these C’ieth stones are the remains of the humans who lived on Pulse after the war.

Did the war take such a massive toll on human life that only a few survived, and then those few all eventually became C’ieth? Why is there not a single l’Cie on Pulse who fulfilled their focus and turned to crystal? We never learn the answers to these things. Even weirder is the fact that in Final Fantasy XIII-2, Hope and the Academy set up shop in the ruins of Paddra and launch an investigation into it’s history, but they only bother researching it’s ANCIENT history, learning about the Seeress who led the city. They never bother trying to learn what it actually was that leveled the city and left ruins behind.

Three games and still the plot-holes left in Final Fantasy XIII are never addressed, we’re just given new plot-holes to contemplate.

Let’s Go Back!

It is standard in any RPG that once you reach a certain point in the game, you have the ability to revisit previous locations and unlock new secrets. Now sure, most of the previous locations in Final Fantasy XIII are straight corridors, but even so, I wouldn’t mind going down those corridors again if they contained new challenges, opportunities and treasure. One of the most glaring problems with Final Fantasy XIII is the lack of opportunities to make money, well why not have some C’ieth stone missions scattered throughout the areas you’ve already passed through? It wouldn’t be very difficult to just replace the PSICOM soldiers with some of the monsters from Pulse and throw in some C’ieth along the way. I know, it wouldn’t make much sense that there were C’ieth all over the place on Cocoon, but it the fal’Cie had no problem turning the Cavalry into Sacrifices, surely they could be persuaded to do it elsewhere on Cocoon. It would also be a great way to earn more money. In Final Fantasy XIII, literally your only source of income at the end of the game is to farm Sacrifices for Perfume or farm Adamantoise and their kids for Gold Nuggets and Platinum Ingots. Even if you LIKE fighting an endless parade of Adamantoise, this is still lazy development. As usual with Final Fantasy XIII, they don’t utilize their resources.  Even if stomping back through the Vile Peaks and fighting new monsters wouldn’t be incredibly fun, it would at least be more fun than fighting the same monsters on the Archylte Steppe over and over again to grind for Crystarium Points while you prepare for C’ieth stone missions. Slap some Perfumes or Incentive Chips onto the monsters in previous locations and put them on a higher level and bam, you’re ready to roll.

And there you have it. These questions have been rolling around in my head for a long time, and there are always more. But for some reason, despite all the glaring flaws in Final Fantasy XIII, I keep coming back to it. Some detractors would call that “a dog returning to it’s vomit,” I call it being in a codependent and possibly abusive relationship with Square Enix.

Why I Love Kesha

My relationship to Kesha is a curious one. She appeared at a weird time in my life.

On the surface, Kesha seems to be everything I hate about pop music: trite unoriginal pop songs with simple melodies and attention-grabbing hooks but otherwise little substance, cliche or vapid childlike lyrics, shallow subject matter that deals only with partying, sex, vague relationship woes, and verse-rap bragging peppered in between overly-synthesized and overproduced electro pop that is substantive enough to be entertaining but not enough to be unique, and lackluster vocals that are autotuned to the point that no one could have seriously thought the artist was ever really a decent vocalist to begin with in the first place.

I get that. I get the problems with Kesha. I get the reasons that people don’t like her. The above paragraph might lead you to believe I can’t stand her, but curiously nothing could be farther from the truth.

I started out hating her for all of the reasons mentioned above. Like everyone else on planet Earth in 2009, I too was subjected to endless repetitions of her breakout single Tik Tok on the radio, and like everyone else I was annoyed by it’s vapidity but secretly just a little bit entertained by it. But really, I genuinely didn’t like her. She sounded plain trashy. She clearly looked like a hot mess. Her aesthetic has always been “rave girl who hasn’t showered in several weeks and rolled around in garbage and glitter.”

But the truth is, Kesha is not what she appears to be. And the weird thing about is, she isn’t the OPPOSITE of what she appears to be either. She makes frivolous pop music, and she MEANS to do it, she means what she’s saying. She WANTS to be a pop star, and she isn’t making pop music ironically to try and expose the flaws in the medium. The pop music she’s making is genuine.

There are a group of listeners who consider Kesha to be another drop in the bucket, overly-autotuned pop singer cranking out tunes mostly made by producers, with little talent for songwriting or for singing. This is not the case. Kesha isn’t vapid or dumb. She’s incredibly intelligent, she has a genius IQ and received nearly perfect SAT scores. She’s driven and passionate and knows what she’s doing. However, don’t let that lead you to believe that Kesha is in fact an architect and student of Victorian literature whose lifelong art project has been to deconstruct the mythos of the pop star by playing one, laughing pretentiously in her study at night over a glass of sherry at plebeian pop fans who’ve bought into her charade.

The thing that makes Kesha unique among a slew of pop stars is the fact that she’s entirely authentic.

She comes from a humble background. In a life story that seems almost too perfectly fitting with her dirty rave girl aesthetic to be true, Kesha’s mother got incredibly drunk at a party and doesn’t remember the hookup that led to her becoming pregnant, and nine months later gave birth to Kesha Rose Sebert without the slightest idea (or worry) about who the father was. Kesha was raised by her single mother, a wonderful hippie songwriter called Pebe, and together with her brothers the family seems to have lived in an open, accepting home environment. Kesha definitely has hippie elements in her personality, and she speaks with a gentle slur that makes it sound like she’s always intoxicated, and a Californian accent that immediately calls to mind the movie Heather. I think. I’ve never seen Heather. Moving on.

Kesha moved to Nashville to become a musician, and spent many years writing her first album Animal. She made a lot of friends in the business, including fellow newcomer Katy Perry, and her first major role in the pop world wasn’t in her own song but as an extra in Katy Perry’s I Kissed A Girl music video. Go watch the video and near the end there are several sexy blonde girls sitting around a pool with Katy, and there she is, she even has her own close up shot for a moment. Kesha also wrote songs for many other musicians while working on her first album. The first song to put her on the map was Flo Rida’s “Right Round,” a simplistic and artless reworking of the classic song You Spin Me Round by Dead Or Alive into a sugary pop-rap tune with almost no substance whatsoever. When Flo Rida was working on the song, he decided he wanted to try out having a female vocalist on the chorus, and Kesha was working nearby in the same studio, so she was pulled in and recorded some vocals for the chorus. Because of some legalities, or the absence thereof, when Right Round became a worldwide smash hit, Kesha received absolutely no royalties for the song, and continued to live the life of a starving artist scraping to get by, while her voice was playing on every radio in the country and she remained unknown and unpaid.

This is where the infamous dollar sign in her name comes from. Her name is almost always stylized as Ke$ha, leading to some cute jokes in which people pronounce her name Kee Dollar Sign Hah, but it was conceived as a joke about the irony of the circumstance Kesha found herself in: everyone would assume she was rich, being in a worldwide hit single, but she got cheated out of any share of the money. As time would tell, she was cheated out of a lot by the music industry and the shady characters therein, and I’ll come back to that in a bit.

So, enter me. A ninenteen year old gay kid living in the south, struggling desperately to deal with a tumultuous life, and just coming out of a rather powerful bout of Christian zeal. I spent about a year of my life completely devoting my time and energy to being a Christian, and I took it very seriously, and I even achieved some small level of peace, but ultimately I realized it was a coping mechanism, and this time when I came out of Christianity I left it behind for good.

I was fairly aimless at the time. I’d hated school my whole life, and I’d graduated a year earlier. I did not want to go to college because I just hated school and didn’t want to experience any more of it, but I didn’t want to work either, both because I hate the tedium of boring and strenuous minimum wage jobs, and because I’ve been dealing with debilitating anxiety since I was sixteen, complete with rolling panic attacks that for all intents and purposes never really end or begin, but just go on forever. I wasn’t medicated whatsoever at the time, and I was struggling with severe agoraphobia that was developing in my life.

I was in a relationship that was both abusive and incredibly unsatisfying. I was entirely aimless, I was sad, I was lonely, I was horny, and I was frustrated in every possible way. Spiritually, sexually, emotionally, and mentally, I was frustrated to a breaking point. But I’d never had any suicidal tendencies (yet, that would come later) and never self-harmed, so I had no outlet, no real way to truly break down.

My boyfriend and I took a trip to Virginia and spent the night at some friends’ house. These friends happened to be another gay couple, and they threw a party which involved two more gay couples. One of those couples left once the drinks started flowing, leading to there being a grand total of six of us in the house. We got drunk, we got horny, and I, having never actually been drunk before, was eager to use the “oh it’s my first time being intoxicated” excuse to put as many dicks in my mouth as I could before everyone started to say no.

Does that sound a little rapey? It probably does. I can’t say I was in a good state of mind.

At any rate, there was a lot of sexual activity that night between just about everyone, pairing off for a few minutes with one another at different points. The radio was on, and Kesha’s hit single Tik Tok was booming through the house and I put my tongue into several orifices of several guys, and then spent the night in a cuddle sandwich with my boyfriend and one of the others who had broken away from the pack and basically let us fondle him the entire night.

All in all, it was pretty fun.

The next morning I had something of a hangover, which is honestly quite rare for me.

On the way home, Tik Tok was playing on the radio.

I don’t know why, I don’t understand it, but suddenly, I just got it. I enjoyed it. I had fun with that song. It was great. I didn’t want to stop listening to it.

Now, I know it sounds more like a joke than a real story: I never really liked Kesha until I participated in a drunken six-way gay orgy with some delightfully Virginian, slightly trashy gay guys. But it happens to be true.

When I got home the following day I honestly felt like I was still drunk. I sat in my bedroom, my head swimming, and looked up Kesha on iTunes, listened to the samples from Animal and read some of the reviews. I was disheartened. The reviewers were all mostly saying the same thing: the music was samey and average, the lyrics were so juvenile they sounded like they were ripped from the diary of a sixth grader dealing with boyfriend drama for the first time, and her singing voice was terrible and autotuned to the point of ludicrousness. I agreed with all of these assessments and quickly decided that Tik Tok was in fact a guilty pleasure, and that in general I still disliked Kesha.

But I couldn’t quite get that song out of my head.

My dysfunctional relationship progressed, as did my anxiety. I dove headlong into a Tori Amos phase from which I have never resurfaced, and mostly forgot about Kesha. I did torrent Animal at one point and gave it another cursory listen but I wasn’t terribly impressed. I fell in love with Imogen Heap, Florecne and the Machine, and many others, and continued to keep Kesha mostly out of my mind. When I finally broke up with the aforementioned boyfriend it happened to be right at the same time that my agoraphobia and anxiety had gotten so bad that I’d developed the curious symptom of alternating between sharp pains on the entire life side of my body or being completely numb in the same places. I was finally put on medication, and like magic, my panic attacks just disappeared. I was riding the first wave of stimulants I’d ever experienced, since I’d never done any kind of drugs before, and I was riding high on the antidepressants which elevated my mood and let me have gloriously peaceful and undisturbed sleep at regular intervals, and the relief and freedom of being done with an abusive relationship and having the freedom to love and to fuck whoever I wanted, provided I could find someone.

It was then that Kesha returned.

I don’t exactly remember what caused it. I just remember being high on my antidepressants, feeling adventurous and excited about going to gay clubs and finally getting my young adult life started, and I went back to those downloaded audio files from Animal, and turned them on, and I became completely hooked.

I listened to Animal front to back, non-stop, for several weeks. I didn’t listen to almost anything else. I fell absolutely in love with the music and started to learn a little more about Kesha. I still understood a lot of the complaints: some of the lyrics were trite, but there were also a lot of hidden gems that you wouldn’t have guessed existed. Tik Tok and Take It Off were big hits all about partying, but other songs on the album lamented the darker aspects of being a party girl, of trying to find solace in living in the moment and enjoying the night as much as possible because it’s all you truly have. Hungover, Blind, Animal, and Dancing With Tears In My Eyes are all very emotional songs about the loss of love and the difficulty of trying to live day to day in a haze of partying. There’s a longing in these songs for something, an emptiness, and a willingness to be up front about the good and the bad, to be unapologetic about sex and fun and relationships, to call things like the way they are.

My little sister joined me on this adventure and loved listening to Kesha with me, and was actually nice enough to buy me a physical copy of Animal with some money she’d been given, which I still have. Later on, when Kesha started to release singles for Animal’s companion EP Cannibal, I downloaded them all as they were released and ordered a copy of the two combined into one two-disc album (Animal + Cannibal) that came with a cute little “K$” temporary tattoo which I intended to put on my cheek at my first concert, and which I have still never used but remains in the case. When I attended my first real concert last year, the Dresden Dolls at Coney Island, I was sad when I realized I’d forgotten to bring along my Kesha tattoo for my first concert. But at least I still remembered. That’s something.

The companion EP Cannibal was a great nine-track romp that fit the atmosphere of Animal perfectly while managing to expand on it. The songs were still about partying and having fun authentically and unapologetically, but there was a song called The Harold Song which absolutely broke my heart and still continues to be one of my favorite songs. It’s a beautiful and melancholy song about the loss of love that really affected me at the time because I was dealing with a terrible breakup, and this song was a companion in that pain and darkness for me. At first I thought that Cannibal deliberately mirrored the songs on Animal (Grow A Pear has a chorus very similar to Tik Tok, elements of Tik Tok are incorporated into Cannibal, Animal itself is included as the last song in remixed form, and many other songs seem to borrow elements of songs directly from Animal), and I’m still not sure if it was done intentionally or if the song structures were just all very similar and working from the same pop framework.

Kesha is honest and authentic, and I think that that’s what makes her special. I think this is also the reason that people like Kanye West, but I just can’t bring myself to think that guy is anything but a self-absorbed douche. Kesha delivers pop cliches with a slight wink because she knows it’s cliche, but she’s doing it authentically. And she isn’t a bad vocalist either. The thing that confused me the most about Animal was the fact that Kesha’s voice is very unnecessarily autotuned in many of the songs.

Kesha is an incredibly prolific songwriter, and there are literally more than a hundred demos for Animal that never made it onto the album. One song, a completely acoustic breakup song called Goodbye, is a really great glimpse into an unfiltered Kesha with all of the pop trapping stripped away: her voice is soulful and unique, and her intonation is similar to Alanis Morissette. Her vocal ability is surprising, it doesn’t completely blow you away, but it’s not at all what you’d expect after hearing so much autotune and vocal effects on her album. She also released another EP between Cannibal and her second album Warrior called Deconstructed, which contains simplified emotional mixes of several of her songs, including The Harold Song, with her vocal ability really put on full display.

I still don’t really understand why she chose to allow herself to be autotuned so much when she didn’t really need it, although considering the dynamic between herself and her producer Dr. Luke that came to light later, it’s not difficult to imagine that maybe he made the decision for her. I don’t really know.

And with that we come to Dr. Luke. Kesha came forward and filed a lawsuit against Dr. Luke for raping her, and for abusing her. I don’t really know if there was physical abuse, and I’m not going to look it up. The thing is, I’ve purposely avoided learning the details of this lawsuit. Kesha’s entire career came to a halt because under her contract she was unable to release any music unless she dropped the lawsuit against Dr. Luke, and he vehemently denied ever having abused her, despite many other women in the music industry coming forward to say they’d suffered abuse at his hands as well. Honestly, my heart was just too broken for Kesha to read the details. I couldn’t handle it. I was having a hard enough time holding my own life together, and to know that someone who I had come to greatly admire and respect had been hurt so badly, and who was being treated unfairly by an unfeeling system, it was too hard. It’s why I still don’t know all the details. I do know that eventually Kesha was forced to drop the lawsuit so she could continue to make music, but I still don’t know many more details. I know that during her absence she appeared at a few live events, and at one of them gave an incredible performance of When It Happens To You by Lady Gaga, a song about surviving rape.

Kesha also briefly had her own reality show which I watched the majority of online and greatly enjoyed. It really showed her beautiful personality, and the general carefree and honest way in which she lives her life. It made me smile to watch it, and it gave me hope.

I used to have this poster on my wall, and alongside the topless poster of Lady Gaga, I imagine that anyone looking at my room was probably really confused about my sexuality

Kesha inspires me. Her strength, her dignity, her willingness to create. There was a moment during Kesha’s reality show where her little brother was attempting to write a song, and she was giving him writing advice. The advice was this: “You have to be willing to let yourself suck.” As a musician and a writer, this has been one of the most important pieces of advice I’ve ever absorbed. What she meant was that when you start out at anything, you’re not going to be incredible. With drawing, composing music, or writing, you start out as a novice, and even your best, most polished efforts, are still going to be less than perfect. You’ll probably experience a few flashes of incredible creativity and accidentally stumble upon expressing yourself honestly and with style, but you have to be willing to let yourself create something that is less than perfect. Kesha’s hundreds of demos are a testament to that. Many of those songs are not that great, but they’re all honest and authentic, and that’s the thing about Kesha that I admire so much.

You have to be willing to let yourself suck. You have to be willing to create whatever is in your heart, and sometimes it’s not going to be great, but you have to be willing to do it. Lady Gaga has said something somewhat similar, which is “You have to respect your vomit.” She was referring to one of her songs, and about how the lyrics come in a rush, and she just word vomits them out, and that she then chooses to respect her vomit, respect those words for being authentic and in the moment. This proverb doesn’t inspire me quite as much but it’s worth mentioning in conjunction with Kesha’s advice from above.

And so, in a surprising twist, I ended up loving an artist who I thought represented everything I hated about manufactured pop music. While, yes, the element of pop manufacturing is there, Kesha’s honesty and brazen authenticity still shines through, and even though some of her songs are a bit cliche, her music is a surprise. Her personality is a surprise. Everything about her is a surprise, if you assume that the dirty glitter party girl you see on the cover is as shallow as her surroundings suggest. I don’t know how much irony she injects into her style, but Kesha is a worthwhile person and a worthwhile musician. She’s an activist for animal rights, she loves the gay community and has immense appreciation for her fans, and she approaches life with the kind and passive attitude of a hippie but the fortitude of a revolutionary. Her voice is real and true, even though there’s sometimes a layer of autotune.