Music

Kesha’s Comeback Needed To Be This Strong — And She Knew It

“You brought the flames and you put me through hell, I had to learn how to fight for myself” — Kesha, “Praying”

The only God I have left lives inside a song. Anymore, I can’t abide sacred texts, or pious people, least of all religious gatherings; they all end up unraveling into the same kind of hypocrisy I see everywhere, the same affectation I see in myself, even, when I look mirror. A song is not forgiveness, but it can be intercession, a tiny negotiation between us and the great nothingness or cosmos that occasionally seeps into this small world. So, Kesha’s “Praying” is enlightenment, briefly, a double-edge sword, or the kind of battle hymn I could recite before bed, a glowing pop-song-liturgy to ward off the night. I don’t pray anymore, but I have fallen asleep listening to this song in the dark for the past several nights.

Some things, only God can forgive. Sure. But I don’t have that luxury yet. Maybe I never will. In the meantime, music is an escape from the flawed, f*cked-up confines of human nature, a four-minute vacation in the divine. There’s very little gradient when it comes to a musical spiritual experience, if you’ve had one, you know it comes over you slow and soft, like a holy ghost, or quick and sharp, with fire and glass, like a car crash. Kesha’s “Praying” might be the first time I felt it as both, the shiver and the scream, the comfort and the disaster.

“Praying” is not quite intercession, it’s more like a molten psalm. It doesn’t wish for revenge, but repentance. It doesn’t forgive, but within it, Kesha masters the process of converting a wound into quiet, internal power; this is the emotional machinery trauma survivors must build in order to sustain themselves in order to continue to creating, loving and believing in… whatever. Still, to wish your own personal monster is brought to their knees — not in defeat, or pain, but in repentance — now that might be an act of God. I don’t really mind if I never make it there, but listening to this song, I finally understand what I’m striving for when I lay awake, silently longing for peace.

***

The wish for repentance is a kind of courage. Surely, it is akin to the kind of bravery required to accuse one of the most powerful men in the music industry of sexual abuse. This allegation, though it is one of the most frequent abuses of power in the world, remains a damning force with the power to destroy careers and reputations, as it should. However, because of our society’s historically ingrained misogyny and the deep-seated culture of victim-blaming, sometimes — or, even, often — the reputation destroyed in the process is not the perpetrator of the crimes, but the woman who speaks out against her abuser. While the idea that a man may be falsely accused is constantly brought up as a straw man argument in these situations, statistically, that happens so rarely that it’s become all but a moot point.

What it takes, to endure three years of lawsuits, headlines, enormous legal fees and devastating losses, along with the public scrutiny that accompanies victims and survivors of assault, most of us will never know. The burden of proof is always placed on the accuser in situations like this, and whether you believe Kesha, who has staked her reputation on fighting for her truth, and poured out metaphorical blood, sweat and tears enduring this years-long battle, or Dr. Luke, who has vehemently denied the charges and taken the harshest possible legal action at every turn, at a certain point, what you believe becomes irrelevant.

Because the facts are this: One in five women will be sexually assaulted. Every ninety-eight seconds an American is assaulted. 94% of those who commit assault or rape will face zero consequences, only 1.3% of those accused of assault or rape will ever face conviction, let alone sentencing. Over two thirds of all sexual assaults go unreported. All of these statistics taken from RAINN.org, which also offers extensive resources for trauma victims and survivors. All of these statistics were proven, yet again, by the legal response to Kesha’s case.

Would pop music have accepted an angry comeback from Kesha? Would pop music accept her at all, was perhaps her deeper fear as she prepped for her re-entry into the creative space. At the time I’m writing this, “Praying” has well over 20 million streams on Spotify, and over 21 million views on Youtube. Currently, it sits at No. 25 on the Bilboard Hot 100. It is striking a chord; she is being heard. “It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator,” writes Harvard professor of psychiatry Judith Butler on the power dynamics of sexual assault in her expansive book on the subject, Trauma And Recovery. “All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing… the victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.”

When Kesha first filed suit against Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald — her former mentor, de facto label boss, and the single most influential person on her musical career thus far — she wasn’t even asking for any of those things. Back in October of 2014, Kesha was just asking to be free, for a clean break and the ability to create art without her alleged abuser present. In some ways, it seems like it would’ve been easier for Kesha to just put her head down, release her last few albums, and run after she’d fulfilled her contractual obligations.

We’ve been through this. We’ve seen that, even with over 50 women speaking out, juries are deadlocked on whether a man like Bill Cosby, with power, fame, and charisma could commit and be convicted of even a single assault. Sometimes, speaking out at all feels hopeless. Legally, Kesha was denied freedom at every turn. So functions the label system, which has been assaulting the dignity of artists long before Kesha wept in court over her fate.

Yet, the study of trauma teaches us over and over again that the only way to truly recover, or at least push through these kinds of violating experiences, is to speak the truth of them, and deal with the fallout, come what may. Reconstructing the story of trauma is not only vital for the survivor’s emotional and mental recovery, but in a case like Kesha’s, where the story is, in many ways being tried in the court of public opinion, it becomes an essential component for the continued success of her work. If we believe the song, we believe her, right?

“Praying” is full of unbelievable grace, but it also demands the action, engagement, and remembering that Butler wrote of; it refuses to let Kesha’s pain function in service of her abuser, fashioning it, instead, into a shield for other survivors. It has been demonstrated to women (and many, many other minority communities) time and again that people will take their pain much more seriously as art than they will in plain, stated fact. That once the remove of a song or a painting or a film exists, it is a safe enough space for others to vicariously inhabit trauma. In that case, let us find God there, together.

***

The thing about going through hell and back, is it gives you a whole lot of material. Kesha could not have emerged from this nearly five year hiatus with another “Die Young,” or another “TiK ToK” — and to hear her tell it, no part of her wanted to. In an interview with The New York Times Magazine in 2016, Kesha admitted that even the level of flat-out vapidness her previous songs contained was, on some level, foisted upon her.

“I remember specifically him saying: ‘Make it more dumb. Make it more stupid,” she told the Times. “Make it more simple, just dumb.’”

Of course, part of what has always made Kesha beloved as a pop star is her candor, which exists in “Praying,” and in even greater measure in its follow-up, “Woman.” Yes, one song addresses the hell she’s been through, but that’s it. She has insisted that her trauma doesn’t get to be the whole story from now on. One song, then we’re right back to the carefree, party animal Kesha who literally won over America. Remember, at one point, “TiK Tok” was the best selling digital single in the entire world.

“Woman” still alludes to the darkness underneath the joyous strength, but it’s firmly about her living in the moment, and feeling her own power, not about the pain she overcame to get back to that place. More specifically, it centers the song’s power in her girliness, flying in the face of the control she alleges from her former male mentor. It has the word “motherf*cker” in it about fifty times, it’s full of giggles and squeaks and pre-song shouts; it restores to us the Kesha of “TiK ToK” past, and proves that there is life after trauma, there is more good, fun pop music, even after immense pain. If it feels like an on-the-nose celebration of feminine strength, it is — it had to be.

“I just didn’t know if I was going to be able to put out music ever again,” Kesha told Elvis Duran during one of her most intimate interviews in the lead-up to Rainbow, her first album in almost five years, which will finally be out August 11. “Some days it felt like I was kind of clinging onto this ghost of an idea that got me through a lot of years — it wasn’t day, it wasn’t months, it was years. Sometimes it felt more real, sometimes it felt less real. I kept waking up and saying, okay, you can’t just lay in bed, you’ve got to get up and go to the studio. And it’s kind of a testament that you gotta show up for yourself.”

Those days spent, creating instead of sleeping, are the impetus behind “Praying” and “Woman.” They are proof of the very basic, gritty reality of trauma survival, you simply keep going. The other options are too bleak. But, part of that bleakness needed to be integrated into Kesha’s first word on her return. Listening to “Praying,” I think there may have been some people who believed her — really believed her — for the first time upon hearing this song. Or at least, I pray they did. If there is no God to guide them toward the light, then, at least there is a song.

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