It’s been a while since we’ve been able to read Kesha’s name in the news without biting back some kind of frustration. Since 2014, the pop superstar has been locked in a legal battle with former manager and producer Dr. Luke (aka Lukas Gottwald) alleging sexual assault and emotional manipulation, while seeking an injunction to be freed from her contract with Sony. So far the law has predictably come down on the side of the record label and the accused (which I’ve already aired my grievances about), but the cloud isn’t without its silver lining — or Rainbow rather.
Earlier this month, Kesha dropped her first track in four years (excluding last year’s collaboration with Zedd), the swelling, life-affirming “Praying.” To sum up its impact in a single word, “wow.”
During her 2010 to 2012 zeitgeist, you would not have found me among her loyal elite. I counted myself among her most vocal (and pretentious if you asked my “friends” at the time) critics. I thought I was better than the jukebox pop music that ruled every sandwich shop on the Isla Vista loop. And let’s face it, “Tik Tok” isn’t one of the more artistic pieces to top the charts (Kesha herself told the Herald Sun she “thought it sucked”).
I consider my musical palette a bit more developed today, but her Animal work remains in my blind spot. It reeks of the 2010 pop assembly line, the brash electronic music that laid on high-end synths and glorified college-slum lifestyles (brushing your teeth with Jack Daniels, anyone?). That’s very much a product of the time period, and that’s exactly the point.
Kesha has been vocal in her court case that she had very little creative control over her music in the past. Although she’s said that she is proud of all her art, her past work is a far cry from what she calls her real influences. “I would go play huge EDM festivals and then I’d go onto my tour bus and get out my record player and put on Iggy Pop, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, T Rex, Dolly Parton, James Brown, Beatles, The Sweet; any of those records,” she told Rolling Stone. “They all couldn’t be more different sonically from what I was doing.”
A first listen to “Praying” emphatically states that we have never heard the real Kesha before. It’s an intimate pouring of emotion over a somber, swelling piano track. Her voice is raw, unprocessed, and most surprisingly, powerful. It’s an anthem of self-empowerment with buckets of not-so-subtle jabs at Dr. Luke, yet it’s more than just a revenge track. In an essay posted on Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter, she says that it’s a message of empathy for someone even after they’ve hurt you. It’s a nuanced, emotional journey that feels like a curveball from the artist that brought us “We R Who We R.”
Couple that with the second track just released off of Rainbow, the swaggering, soul-flushed “Woman,” and we begin to see a different picture of who Kesha is. “In the past, I’ve always felt like I was trying to prove something, trying to be someone I thought people wanted me to be,” she writes. “But on this record, I’m just telling the truth about my life. This album is me. [It’s] the most raw and real art I’ve ever created.”
Kesha and her previous image were sculpted by Sony and Dr. Luke in particular. It was Gottwald himself who courted Kesha Rose Sebert after being impressed by early demos that she sent him. The two worked closely together from when she signed with his Kemosabe Records (a subsidiary of Sony) through both of her previous LP releases. That time was marked by a pattern of coercion, torment, and alleged abuse that left her in rehab and struggling in vain to be released from her record contract. I won’t delve into the storied history of the lawsuit, counter suit, and injunction that cast a black pall over the music industry last year, but suffice to say that it is yet another bullet point in a long history of powerful men emerging atop the victims they leave in their wake.
Kesha is still tethered to her deal with Sony, though in a placating shrug they have vowed to let her work separately from Gottwald moving forward. That in itself is disheartening to say the very least.
This past year has been a case study in male privilege skating cleanly away from wrongdoing. Convicted rapist Brock Turner received the sentencing equivalent of a slap on the wrist while Bill Cosby strutted out of his case thanks to a hung jury. If we can learn anything from this pattern, it’s that society still values the rapist over the victim.
But the narrative is changing. Dissenting voices are growing louder and more prevalent. Kesha’s voice in particular, one of a survivor who is also such a central pop culture figure, lends weight to the issue.
It’s not only what she says in these songs, but how she says it too. Though the legal battle to be released from her contract rages on, she has chosen not to let it hinder her drive as an artist nor growth as a person.
Listened to in succession, “Praying” and “Woman” tell the story of a soul emerging from the darkness fresh, new, and wholly in control of her destiny. It’s a call-to-arms for the battered, broken, and oppressed to break their shackles and take control of their own story no matter the obstacles before them.
“It’s from our darkest moments that we gain the most strength,” she writes. “If you have love and truth on your side, you will never be defeated. Don’t give up on yourself.”
The journey before us is still a long, uphill slog, but Kesha demonstrates that it doesn’t have to be hopeless.