The Chappell Roan Digression

An Explanatory Note

This year, the March Xness tournament is themed around the dance hits of the 2000s, and I have been blessed with the opportunity to write about Kesha’s “TiK ToK.” Originally, I had planned to weave in a thread about Chappell Roan, but I wrote that thread separately, and wasn’t quite able to weave it into the essay gracefully. But since today is our day in the Sweet 16, and since there’s also a moment where I tip the hat to Kesha’s opponent today, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, I thought I may as well share it here. Assuming that I can figure out how to update my blog after four years.

This almost certainly won’t make sense if you haven’t read the essay proper.

It’s 2023, and while Ke$ha does not exist, I think she, too, has a daughter—though I don’t know whether Kesha is aware of this. Kesha, after everything, still thinks of Animal as her firstborn. This tracks: Kesha, an artist, gives birth to art. But Ke$ha, a construct, has begotten a construct.

To my knowledge there is no connection, biological or otherwise, between the woman Kesha Rose Sebert and the woman Kayleigh Rose Amstutz, save the coincidence of their middle names. Nor do I know of any musical connections—producers, labels, writers, or otherwise—between Ke$ha and Chappell Roan, the construct Amstutz embodies. And while it goes without saying, I will say it anyway: I do not know Kayleigh Amstutz; I do not know Chappell Roan; blah blah strange man imposing meanings onto narratives blah. You get it.

Nevertheless, I can’t understand Chappell Roan except as the daughter of Ke$ha. Her heiress. Or perhaps her reincarnation. The universe’s attempt to get things right, in all the ways things went wrong for Ke$ha.

The similarities feel, to me, innumerable. Both left their hometowns in their teens to move to LA and pursue a career in music. Both are unambiguously queer, but seem uninterested in attaching to themselves more specific labels. Both are up front about sex in a way that feels transgressive for women pop stars of their era. Both love to work with drag performers. Both signed on with a superstar producer on the rise into legend, each with a stable of the greatest female pop stars of their era.

And, perhaps most of all, both are two women, and both had producers who pushed them away from the soulful songstress toward the pop powerhouse. (In her own interview with Billboard in 2023, Roan told Rania Aniftos that “[‘Red Wine Supernova’] “was originally written as a “sad, slow vibe” in 2019,” but that her with the encouragment of her producer, Dan Nigro, “the song took on a more silly, celebratory nature, filled to the brim with cheeky sexual innuendo.”)

Let me be extremely clear: there is nothing to suggest that the kind of exploitative relationship that existed between Kesha and Dr. Luke exists between Chappell Roan and Dan Nigro. Nothing at all. I draw comparisons between the space they occupy in the industry, not between their relationships with their artists nor between the quality of their character.

And not the least difference is that when Dr. Luke heard the two versions of Kesha on that demo ages ago, he had the audacity to claim the right to tell Kesha which one she would be.

What I love about Chappell Roan, and about her relationship with Dan Nigro, is that it seems very obvious that he also saw two women in her, and has spent the last few years helping her decide to be both.

It’s 2017, and Chappell Roan already exists. She exists not because of a hopeless joke in the face of her own exploitation, or as a facade of strength to hide vulnerability, but to honor her grandfather—whose last name was Chappell, and whose favorite song was “The Strawberry Roan.”

And because she doesn’t like the name “Kayleigh Amstutz,” which—I’m sorry, but I get it.

Chappell Roan already exists here, now, before she signed with Atlantic, before she met Dan Nigro, before she moved to LA to commit to a career in music, because even now, independent and wholly under her own onus, she is Chappell Roan. Her first release, “Good Hurt,” was released under that name and to her own YouTube channel. (We won’t see a VEVO watermark appear until the video for “Pink Pony Club” in 2021.)

It is hard to hear Ke$ha in “Good Hurt.” Roan’s voice is low, breathy, and sonorous, round and rich even as Ke$ha’s—mind the $, please—is brash and forward and evocative of nothing so much as Moon Zappa’s iconic monologue on “Valley Girl.” (Talk about a man shaping the way his daughter is perceived, yeesh.) But again, this is Ke$ha, not Kesha, and in the story of Roan’s career, “Good Hurt” isn’t “TiK ToK,” it’s the demo where Bill Werde heard a whole different Kesha with a whole different future. Or, perhaps, the actual future—the Kesha of “Praying” and the Chappell Roan of “Good Hurt” could do a hell of a duet, lemme tell ya. (Pretty sure they haven’t yet; I googled.)

But that Kesha is unequivocally absent from Animal. There are “slow” songs, but they are without question Ke$ha songs. The mournful ballad of Animal is called “Hungover,” and it is about being hungover. (Ok, it is also an aubade using a hangover as a metaphor lamenting the departure of an erstwhile love, but also she is just hungover.)

And like the Ke$ha of Animal, the Chappell Roan of The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess is clearly a club kid. Consider “Super Graphic Ultra Modern Girl.” Consider “Red Wine Supernova.” Consider HOT TO GO!” So danceable she had to teach her grandma.

But the Chappell Roan of “Good Hurt” is here too. Consider “Coffee.” Consider “California.” Consider “Picture You.”

And perhaps most, and best, consider “Femininomenon,” arguably the most fun to say song title in the history of recorded music. Listen:

(No, really. I’m embedding. Listen while you read. She’s going to ask for something three times.)

In the verses, you hear Chappell Roan, the haunting balladeer. It is not the deep and resonant speakeasy smoke you hear in “Good Hurt,” or “California.” But it is the slow, keening lament of “Casual” and “Coffee.” This is an elegy for lost love. But also, it is a club bop. Or it will be in a moment. When she gets what she asks for. Are you there yet? Has she asked? Was she polite?

Keep listening as you read. There are some things you need to know before she asks again. (And please, strap in; this is perhaps my most outlandish flight of meaningmaking in this already farflung analysis.)

While you listen, consider the DJ. Stand with me in a silent club. The lights are still up. There are people here, talking quietly at tables. Someone laughs. Beverages clink in emptying glasses. It is bright and the people do not like it. Even as someone who does not club, I know this is incorrect. A club like this is not the club.

Until the DJ. The lights dim at his arrival. The space becomes new. He—indulge me, the DJ we are imagining just now is Male—weaves together the myriad threads of instrumentation and rhythm to make music—but not just music. He makes the club. The heat haze of dancing bodies, the churning assemblage of appendages in motion. (The wiggling. The jiggling. My heartbeat.) The DJ creates the space in which we are all contained. He is the one who draws the astral selves from Dylan Mills and Kesha Sebert, who Hydes them away, leaving Ke$ha and Dizzee Rascal to flail in the numinous melee of the club. The DJ makes the club, and remakes the people within it.

So when Ke$ha calls out the DJ in the bridge of “TiK ToK,” to whom is she speaking? And how does she address him?

You build me up,” she tells him. “You break me down.”

My heart,” she tells him. “It pounds.”

You got that sound,” she says, and—say this for him, at least—he does.

With my hands up,” she surrenders. She gives over control. “You got me,” she says. “Yeah, you got me.”

It is a litany of trust. It is a statement of faith. Kesha gives herself over to someone who might make of her something new, who will build her up and break her down, who will gift her with his sound—that is, if she first yields to him. “You got me,” she tells herself. Five times in less than 30 seconds, she has to tell herself. “You got me.”

The power to create, to remake, to control, to contain, to shape the future.

Ke$ha comes to the DJ with her hands up—in supplication, in sublimation, in adulation. In worship. In the bridge of “TiK ToK” I hear the worship choruses of my Evangelical past, standing eyes closed and hands upraised and reaching out to a God who felt right there: “You alone are my heart’s desire,” “You are my only hope,” “When I fall down, You pick me up.”

You got me. Yeah, You got me.

Who else could he be? He is Dr. Luke. Or he is God. Or Ke$ha—again, mind the $; the construct, rather than the person—Ke$ha cannot quite see the difference.

Are you still listening? Roan has probably asked by now, but you may not have heard it. Keep listening. But while you do, will you excuse—forgive me—a digression across the gutter? Is it déclassé to engage with the woman atop the opposite column? Because I do hear her.

If Ke$ha is a true believer in the glory and majesty of the DJ, Sophie Ellis-Bextor is, at best, a Pascal’s wager agnostic, and at worst a Jonathan Edwards sinner in the hands of an angry God. She believes the DJ is there, and knows that he has power—but she does not believe him to be friendly.

Instead, she bargains with him like a militant Tevye: “You better not kill the groove, DJ,” she warns him. “I’ll burn this goddamn house right down.”

She knows the DJ is real. She knows the song is in his hands. The power to make, and remake, to kill the groove. But she does not share Ke$ha’s naive faith that the man who has so much unearned control has her best interests at heart.

Wise, I think.

Surely, you’ve heard it by now. Probably even the second time. Maybe the third time is still coming. It gets harder to ignore each time—which is, perhaps, the point.

For Ke$ha, the line between the DJ and God is vanishingly thin. For Ellis-Bextor, the DJ is an angry and inimical God, held at bay with an empty threat.

Chappell Roan is drunk and she is no longer asking politely. Did you hear her?

Did you hear me? PLAY THE FUCKING BEAT!”

Kayleigh Amstutz left her small town in Missouri to become herself: Chappell Roan. She left to sing, and to be the person she was, to be queer and out in a place where that person could be celebrated, even if she happened to bear another name than the one she mostly left in Missouri. The person she is is joy, and so the music she makes is joy. “It’s intentional to make [my music] feel like a party,” she told Aniftos, “because that’s what queerness feels like: It is a party.” Like Ke$ha, Chappell Roan is, at least to some extent, artifice. But the artifice and the artificer, the art and the artist, they are the same. “I’ve always wanted to dress like this,” she told Sofia Andrade for the Washington Post, “I just have not allowed myself until now because I just randomly put restrictions on myself.”

And yet, bless her, Andrade is listening: “She’s not the flirty, lewd, tongue-in-cheek Chappell Roan she is in her songs,” Andrade writes, catching at last the thread that so thoroughly escaped Bill Werde. “Her persona has allowed her to explore her identity in a way she might not have felt comfortable doing otherwise.” Roan explains: “I think having the drag version of myself is nice because it does separate [the public and the private] so well.”

She is here on her terms. She is not willing to change herself to suit the whimsy of the DJ. She is going to tell the DJ who she is, and what she wants from him, and he is going to play the fucking beat.

She was Chappell Roan; she is Chappell Roan; she will remain Chappell Roan.