Kesha’s Comeback: Pop’s Language of Survival

No one expected Kesha’s comeback to happen so quickly. No one expected it to happen, and no one expected it to be this good. Since the beginning of her recording career Kesha has been scrappy, a fighter in her field (a “Warrior” to borrow a phrase from her not-so distant musical past) and with Rainbow, her third full-length, has crafted an album that doesn’t simply write the message, it lives it.

Though the record is in its infancy, Rainbow’s story truly begins in 2014 and the events leading up to it, when Kesha filed a lawsuit against mega producer/songwriting collaborator Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald, alleging that Luke sexually, physically, verbally and emotionally abused her for years—the kind of abuse that led her to a rehab stint that same year. Dr. Luke also owns the Sony Music imprint Kemosabe of which she was and is still signed. The legal battle wages on as Kesha attempts to remove herself from the contract which, as Mic points out, promises she release at least six albums with him and that he owns part of her royalties. Her contract quite literally assumes protection over her abuser and forces her to continue to work alongside him, with him, for him.

Fans and survivors alike have shown support for her since her battle became public and it’s been incredible to watch, even while recognizing this long, complicated history. Most victims don’t name their abusers. There’s a myriad of reasons for this, and the most obvious is safety. By coming forward and accusing Dr. Luke, she’s put her career on the line and potentially something much more serious in jeopardy. Rather than continue to wait and see what will or could happen, Kesha elected to change the narrative. Last year she played a series of shows on her week-long “Fuck the World” Tour, revamping her old party girl classics and marrying them with a hodge-podge of Dolly Parton and Bob Dylan covers, exasperating her Nashville roots and love of storytelling music. She wore country-fringed suits and sang with her Southern twang, a texture mostly unexplored in her previous discography. She performed alongside her partner, fully commanding and controlling the stage—an undeniable feat when she linked up with Diplo’s traveling EDM festival Mad Decent Block Party. Regardless of genre or background, people were pleased to see Kesha’s return.

In July of this year, she surprise-released “Praying,” the first single from Rainbow: a slow-burning half-ballad that builds with incredible speed, Kesha stretching her voice to the fullest extent of its rasp, at one point, hitting a mesmerizing high note that seeps into the skin of its listeners. It’s a perfect delivery, but it feels much more resounding, a joyful lament. She wrote an essay on Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter, too, offering the song as a healing property—a tale of her abuse, depression and survival. She hopes it will do the same for others. It does. It’s by far the best song on Rainbow, but the remainder of the album does not disappoint. She needed a grand gesture to return to power, and she succeeded. At one especially choral moment, she breaks a verse with “When I’m finished, they won’t even know your name,” the smoothest takedown of Dr. Luke imaginable. In “Praying,” he doesn’t stand a fucking chance.

And yet, the song is called “Praying.” There are allusions to god and hell and afterlife, as could be anticipated. That’s not reserved for the single alone: there’s a lot of secular spiritual speak throughout the record (much veers towards Christian iconography, and the non-denominational aspect of her writing speaks to a certain crucial universality.) Instead of isolating, it serves to reflect how close to death Kesha felt in her darkest moments, and how she managed to absolve herself of whatever false guilt she felt. When she gets close to God, it’s just to remind herself she’s alive, in her words, that’s she’s a motherfuckin’ woman.

That song, “Woman,” is her second single from the record—a joyful track that sounds like it was written on a napkin in a Nashville honky tonk bar—a place of easy and cheap fun, beer and shot specials, a place Kesha probably only recently learned to have fun in again. It begins with a breathy Kesha laughing, telling her band to shut up (not just any band, but the famous Dap-Kings’ horn section) before launching into a sexy song about being an independent woman. It channels both Kesha past and present—the girl who liked to brush her teeth with a bottle of jack while using boys like currency to the woman who “writes her shit” and doesn’t need a man for anything, ever.

The crux of the album arrives directly after in the track “Hymn,” an R&B-influenced song unlike anything we’ve heard from Kesha in the past. She sings with the ultimate nonchalance, “I know that I’m perfect / Even though I’m fucked up.” There’s no pressure placed on any syllable in any dramatic or particularly important or noteworthy way. If it weren’t in the chorus, it would feel like an afterthought. But it’s so perfect (repetition unintentional but necessary), and when it builds to: “This is a hymn for the hymn-less,” it finds cohesion. When Kesha was on the verge of losing it all, she built something new for herself, and it is beautiful. That’s the only way to survive.

Maria Sherman is a music and culture writer living in Philadelphia. She’s a contributing editor at the Talkhouse and contributes regularly to places like Rolling Stone, NPR, Entertainment Weekly, MTV, Billboard and more. She most recently held the title of Senior Correspondent at Fuse Media and before that, worked to build BuzzFeed’s music vertical.

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