Over the years, more than a few of today's megastars passed through Buffalo on their way up as part of KISS 98.5's Kissmas Bash, from Ed Sheeran to Charli XCX.
But Saturday's edition of the holiday concert series offered perhaps the biggest bona fide star to ever headline the event, in the form of Kesha. The singer's newest release, "Rainbow," debuted at No. 1 upon release; but more significantly, it represents a true artistic breakthrough and a bold step forward.
It's interesting that Kesha headlined a bill that included several up-and-comers indulging in the electro-pop that Kesha herself has left behind. "Rainbow" finds Kesha abandoning the auto-tuned, overproduced plasticity of her electro-pop beginnings in favor of an earthy, organic, deeply human form of pop that owes something to the rock music she grew up loving – a list of honorable artists that includes T. Rex, the MC5, Iggy Pop, Captain Beefheart and the Flaming Lips. Though she's only 30, Kesha is now making mature pop art. Her presence on the Kissmas Bash bill, then, offered the younger pop artists an opportunity to view a possible future for themselves.
Finding diversity within the strict confines of present-day mainstream pop is a tall order, but the Kissmas Bash folks have always put their best effort into constructing a bill that bumps against the walls of tight formatting. So in addition to the electro-pop of Sabrina Carpenter and Julia Michaels, we were offered the day-glo giddiness of Max and the choreographed efforts of a pair of straight-up '90s-style boy bands – Pretty Much and Why Don't We, both of whom apparently skipped school the day they were handing out the good band names.
Norwegian newcomer Astrid S. was up first, and offered a brief run-through of her animated electro-pop stylings, including her two hits, "Think Before I Talk" and "Hurts So Good." The former Norwegian pop "Idol" finalist has said that she fell in love with British alt-pop band Keane and heart-throb-turned-Deadhead John Mayer at a young age, taking inspiration from both for her own songcraft. This was apparent in her chord progressions. On record, Astrid S favors a more ornamented approach; but in this stripped-down, acoustic guitar- driven environment, the strength of her voice was granted plenty of room to soar.
Max – the actor known as Maxwell Schneider, whose roles include a turn as the revered songwriter Van Dyke Parks in the 2014 Brian Wilson bio-pic "Love and Mercy" – followed with selections from his album "Hell's Kitchen Angel," among them opener "Savage" and the hit "Lights Down Low," a song he wrote as a means of proposing to his wife. A cover of groundbreaking hip-hop duo Outkast's "Ms. Jackson" was a nice touch. Max recently told a Buffalo News writer that he "wants my shows to create a safe space for everyone," and there was indeed an air of inclusivity in his agile, airy, R&B-tinged pop. He performed with only a DJ and sang along to tracks; but still, soulfulness managed to shine through.
LA boy-band Pretty Much, a Simon Cowell creation, wore their love of Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC proudly on their sleeves, both in terms of their tight-knit vocal harmonies and their choreographed dance moves. The act could use a bit of polish, vocal-wise, however. The harmonies were out of tune in spots. "Hello" and "Open Arms" were met by shrieks of delight by the mostly young crowd. The music was wholly derivative and brought nothing new to the pop conversation, but the crowd was way into it.
Later, the second of the evening's boy bands, Why Don't We, threatened to steal the show, at least in terms of absurdly loud and high-pitched screaming. Again, this was standard boy-band fare, with the addition of a Trap music influence. This made for an odd marriage of sickly sweet harmonies and grating rhythmic figures, a la Future. There was also some hilarious stage banter, seemingly unintentionally so. A sample: "When we aren't doing this, we like to jam out. We do these things called 'Mash-ups.'" Lol! Did you also invent the Internet? And later: "We have this thing called a looper. You know what a looper does? It loops things." You don't say!
Julia Michaels, a songwriter whose tunes have been covered by Demi Lovato, Fifth Harmony and Gwen Stefani, earned a hearty response for her hit "Issues" – a song that several artists wanted for themselves, offers Michaels wisely turned down. Michaels was the first artist of the evening to perform with a live band, and man, was it nice to hear some human hands hitting strings and skins.
Disney Channel actress and Christina Aguilera acolyte Sabrina Carpenter brought the emphasis back to tween-friendly electro-pop. Her band was decent, her singing strong, her songs indistinguishable from dozens of others in the Demi Lovato mold. The kids dug her, though.
But the evening belonged to Kesha, whose too-short headlining set felt liberating amidst the blatant mainstream pop aspirations of her openers. In fact, the idea of liberation provided a subtext for Kesha's show. She's survived an eating disorder and seems to have emerged unscathed from her legal battle with former producer Dr. Luke, whom Kesha accused of sexual assault and rape. (Dr. Luke denied these charges.)
Kesha's battle with the producer might be seen as an influential precursor to the #metoo movement, and her ability to wrestle herself free from the confines of strict electro-pop and subsequent claiming of stylistic ground that is wholly her own tells an inspiring tale of self-empowerment through music.
These are not words I'm used to writing in my Kissmas Bash reviews. So thanks, Kesha.