Long-read:

I see the magic inside of me

On Kesha’s Comeback and the Healing Power of Pop

~

words by mel reeve

photos by olivia bee

~

Making pop music as a way to explore trauma, particularly that caused by male violence is not new. When you’ve had your voice taken away through abuse, a public creative act like writing music can be empowering for both yourself and others, particularly when the chances of a conviction are so low – only 5.7% of reported rape cases end in a conviction for the perpetrator. Women who make art that is evidently informed by their personal experiences often have their work held to an unrealistic standard, particularly when it comes to authenticity.

Roxane Gay described recently how she gets called a diarist because she writes non-fiction, while men who do the same are lauded as artists and creators. Another recent example can be seen in Beyoncé’s Lemonade, which was scrutinized for its authenticity – because it dealt with deeply personal topics but was still pop music. For some it was only the release of Jay Z’s own album on the subject of his infidelity that confirmed to them that Lemonade wasn’t just a cynical piece of marketing. My frustration with this attitude does not mean can’t critique or even criticize popular art made my women, but it is time to interrogate the standard we hold this art to, and what it means to make pop tackling serious, personal issues.

Kesha’s “Praying” is as real and powerful as it gets. It’s her first original solo release in nearly five years and at its core is a song about survival. It’s about the emotional and physical abuse Kesha survived at the hands of her producer, who as a final part of his control over her stopped her releasing music, denying her of her livelihood and her passion. The video version opens with this monologue;

Am I dead? Or is this one of those dreams? Those horrible dreams that seem like they last forever? If I am alive, why?
If there is a God or whatever, something, somewhere, why have I been abandoned by everyone and everything I’ve ever known? I’ve ever loved? Stranded. What is the lesson? What is the point? God, give me a sign, or I have to give up. I can’t do this anymore. Please just let me die. Being alive hurts too much.

For me this is both a moment of genuine vulnerability and of powerful artistry. I’ve seen people suggesting that because the credits for this song include more than just Kesha’s name, it somehow dilutes what she is communicating. I don’t see why something being written in that context has to result in the meaning being diluted, and I question whether we would be being asked to make a judgement on its authenticity if it wasn’t the work of a woman. Kesha’s musical life has been in stasis for so long, during which time the media has drawn every mention of her name back to the court case between herself and Dr Luke, that there is an incredible bravery in her first release addressing this directly. It’s also a sound business decision; I don’t see why it can’t be both.

The idea that for something to have meaning it must be hard to access is a kind of gatekeeping, in which only a small group of people (usually white men, enjoying the art of other white men let’s be honest) are allowed to understand and gain meaning from a piece of art – I don’t see any difference between the validity of that kind of art and this, except that one is restricted. This song doesn’t become any less moving just because she wrote it as part of team of writers for a big name label. Why shouldn’t she profit off the narrative of her own experiences? Others are permitted to speculate and write about what happened, she has every right to use that experience in her art – she equally would have been well within her rights to write something completely unrelated to these experiences, although it’s pretty clear that this narrative would have been imposed on it either way.

As a survivor, who found joy in Kesha’s music when I was also dealing with some difficult things, it makes me emotional to see her succeed and finally be allowed to release music. The vibrant contrast between that opening monologue and the rest of Praying is powerful because it’s so important to acknowledge just how bad it can get, before sharing how it feels to find hope. She expresses that deep, dark feeling of despair in bold, simple terms please just let me die, being alive hurts too much. I think, if I’d heard the song without the monologue, I might not have connected on a personal level in the same way because I do not believe (for myself) in forgiving my abuser, or for being grateful for what I survived – I am where I am in spite of what I lived through, I will not be grateful for any personal growth or opportunities I had as a result of my trauma.

But this is not a soft ballad asking for forgiveness, Kesha is offering it without a request for a response, as part of her own peace I’m proud of who I am, no more monsters I can breathe again. Her compassion is not a weakness. The way she sings you were wrong, the best is yet to come is visceral because after everything she has struggled through so publically, she comes out triumphant, but still refuses to let what happened to her be ignored. When I’m finished, they won’t even know your name, it’s not about him, it’s about her and how she is now able to live her life. Her voice is finally being heard above his, and it is all the more moving because she is having a moment of justice through a pop single, not in court.

The process of survival is not linear, we don’t all end up at the top of a mountain wishing for forgiveness for those that hurt us. You don’t have to like this song and you could treat it with cynicism as a pop ballad, but why? Why not take it for what it is at its root, and accept that music can be both popular, powerful and have integrity. Praying reminds me that I am not alone in my own pain as a survivor, and I am awed by the bravery that must have taken Kesha on an individual level, and it gives me hope that others will find strength and comfort in it too. It is important to acknowledge that the video features some elements of cultural appropriation, which is disappointing but I think it’s also interesting that the majority of criticisms I’ve seen of this track haven’t really touched on that when it’s an important thing to acknowledge.

So why is it that we are asked to question the co-writing credits on this song? Why is the art of women, particularly when it deals with the real effects of patriarchy and violent misogyny held to an impossible standard? Why is this even more apparent when it comes to pop music? Take Little Mix’s Shout Out to My Ex, a pure, powerful anthem of empowerment and women doing it by themselves, and yet we are constantly asked to consider what kind of role models they are based on what they wear, what they say, who they date – rather than on the art they make. This idea that music is less authentic just because it’s popular, designed to have mass appeal and to make money – especially when it’s made by women – needs to stop. No-one is asking whether Ed Sheeran’s lyrics are sending the right message to young fans, this is about women in positions of power, owning their situation and using it for their gain, and how certain people (let’s call it as it is, the misogynists) can’t handle it.

Kesha became famous as the ‘trashy’ party girl, how she was subsequently treated by the media, particularly when she disclosed the abuse she’d suffered speaks volumes. She was seen as too loud, too vulgar, not wearing enough clothes to be permitted these experiences as valid. The victim blaming, both implicit and blatant was palpable in discussions around the case and just proves that in our society, women still have to conform to the ‘perfect victim’ in order for their experiences to be treated as valid.

I can’t help but compare how the disclosure of Kesha’s abuse has been handled, to the way PWR BTTM were dealt with once news of the abuse a member of the band had perpetrated became public knowledge. They were outed on Facebook by survivors and after a lot of hard work from those people but eventually they were dropped from their label who even offered refunds to those that had recently bought the album. This situation is pretty unique, I can’t think of another example where a public disclosure of abuse against a successful musician/band has led to any real or immediate consequences. It’s arguable that this is because it became immediately obvious that a significant quantity of their fan base, particularly those that were LGBTQ+ and/or survivors themselves, weren’t going to let it go, and that was not going to be profitable.

Why was the Kesha situation able to continue so long? Because the law does not protect survivors, because they thought she’d eventually give up, shut up and go away. The silencing of survivors disclosing their experiences is insidious and deeply damaging. It almost happened with PWR BTTM, and it still might. It has happened successfully with so many other artists; Cabbage, R Kelly, David Bowie, Michael Gira and many others – all accused of sexual assault or abuse, but all still successful musicians who don’t even have to hide what they have been accused of. That’s no fault of those that attempted to hold them to account, it’s this shitty society. It also happens on a more local level, in your scene it’s more than likely that there are women not attending shows because they would have to be around their abusers, or even see them on stage. This is happening, and while survivors are silenced, ignored, told they don’t have enough ‘proof’, it’s not going to stop.

What does come out of this, is the songs that I have felt this emotional connection to as a survivor; MUNA’s “Crying on the Bathroom Floor”, a dark anthem with a vivid description of what it is to be in an abusive relationship; give me no peace of mind, give me distress, give me all your lies and I’ll love you for life promise I’ll love you ’til I die. But I’m crying on the bathroom floor (give me some more). There’s “Miniskirt” by Braids, a detailed, anguished depiction of entitlement, it’s like I’m wearing red, and if I am you feel you’ve the right to touch me ‘cause I asked for it in my little mini skirt, think you can have it. And Muncie Girls’ “Respect”, summing up the powerlessness and silencing…and it’s started again – another girl has lost her energy. It’s so easy to pretend that this doesn’t happen in our society. These are just a few examples of how these experiences are shared and explored through music, they’re all excellent songs and giving a voice to experiences that are so often silenced.

There is clearly an immense power in music as a way to reclaim your voice in a world where any kind of justice is so difficult to get, to reach out to other survivors and to explore these experiences, and it’s so important to me to see this happen in pop music too.

I hope things get better for Kesha, I hope she gets the justice she deserves and goes on to create the music she wants to make, but whatever happens now I am so grateful to her for writing this song. It might ‘only’ be pop music, but it’s the very nature of its potential reach that makes it such a powerful tool – I can’t help but imagine those (particularly young people) who will hear this and feel witnessed to.

‘Rainbow’ is out August 11, via RCA Records

~

keshaofficial.com

*

Website Design by Atomic Smash, Bristol