Garden pathing in Kesha’s music

This is from my discussion on the “#FreeKesha” episode of the Pop Unmuted podcast for a special episode about Kesha’s music and the current controversy. 

Paul Lester: Ke$ha, are you satirising teen America, their voraciousness and bloodlust when it comes to consumption and sex?

Ke$ha: Absolutely! And you either get it or you don’t.

via The Guardian

From the first time I heard “Tik Tok”, I’ve had a special place in my heart for Kesha’s music. I was immediately fascinated with her sung style flow, which I jokingly refer to as Sprechstimme. Her self-awareness and satire makes her trashy style highly appealing.

Two of my karaoke standbys are Kesha’s “Dinosaur”, from her album Animal, and “Sleazy”, from her EP Cannibal. Both are more deep cuts—”Dinosaur” was never released as a single, and “Sleazy” was a B-side to “We R Who We R”—and most often my friends haven’t heard them before, and immediately roll their eyes at my selection because they assume Kesha’s music is just trashy boring pop. As far as I can tell, though, every time I win over some new Kesha fans with these two tracks. They’re catchy, but moreover, they’re funny! 

One technique Kesha uses to create humor in her songs is through garden pathing.

The song “Sleazy” begins with Kesha singing this lyric unaccompanied:


Without the harmony underneath, a listener would probably assume this is in D phrygian, or at least I did initially. Setting a lyric like this in the phrygian mode connotes independence, attitude, meanness, and general bad-assery, a vibe that is totally common for rap music and for Kesha. But the bass line, backup vocals, and synthesizer that enter at 1:42 reveals that the tonality is something else entirely:


It’s in B-flat major! (Or B-flat mixolydian, whatever.) Kesha’s lyrics now take on an entirely different tone. The hook now sounds much more sing-song-y, like a lighthearted playground taunt. There’s a humorous aspect to transforming the tone of this hook from bad-ass to playground, and this sense of humor is totally in keeping with Kesha’s M.O.—completely satirical.

Justin London adapted the term “garden pathing” to describe musical events in his book, Hearing in Time (to describe “metrical fake-outs”; he keeps a list of metrical fake-outs on his personal website). But the term “garden pathing” actually comes from language. Garden path sentences begin with one meaning but then end with an entirely different meaning. Wikipedia gives the example sentence “The old man the boat”. Reading the sentence, we first assume “the old man” is a noun phrase. But after hearing no verb, we retrospectively re-analyze the sentence and realize that “man” was being used as a verb.

Dinosaur” begins with Kesha chanting the spelling of the word like a cheerleader: “D-I, N-O, S-A, U-R a dinosaur”. This is an example of a garden path sentence in Kesha’s lyrics: two meanings of “U-R/you are” are elided and functioning simultaneously. U-R completes the spelling of the word “dinosaur” and “you are” is functioning as subject-verb (I know, explaining the joke totally kills it). Garden path sentences are an effective way to generate humorous lyrics. Garden path sentences rely on readers to parse the sentences into chunks as they read left to right in time; music, which occurs strictly in time, can control the listener’s parsing of the sentence by altering the timing of the lyrics.

An even better example of a garden path sentence in Kesha’s lyrics is back in “Sleazy,” immediately after the completion of the first chorus (1:52)…but I’ll let you experience this one on your own!