It’s hard to think of another pop song in recent years as cathartic, and as powerful, as Kesha’s new single “Praying.” It’s not just the slow-burning triumph of the song itself, though that’s no small feat. But in addition to the music itself, this feeling is given greater resonance when weighed against the past three years of Kesha’s ongoing legal struggles to free herself from the abuse and control of former producer Dr. Luke. #FreeKesha became a battle cry that the singer has built her new music upon, and “Praying”, with its righteous, crescendoing choruses, is an explicit acknowledgment of her work and pain - legally, emotionally, and physically. It’s not just a song about a nameless, shadowy figure; we know exactly what monsters Kesha is singing about.
Her next single “Woman,” a gleeful burst of brass and joyful independence (“I do what I want / I work real hard every day / I’m a motherfucking woman”) continues the theme. Undoubtedly, Rainbow is going to be a very special album. But a troublesome theme has emerged in music criticism and public reaction to the songs, one that threatens to devalue both the album and Kesha’s journey so far. It can be characterized by one sentiment: surprise.
The real Kesha! The new Kesha! The Kesha that we were meant to hear all along! It’s becoming all too easy to place a major divide between Kesha’s old music and her new album, one that discredits the old music as “not real” and “not Kesha,” and one that suggests that it’s only with this new album that we’ve begun to hear what she is truly capable of.
Kesha herself has nodded to the narrative that leads us to a “new Kesha” vs “old Kesha” dichotomy. In an essay introducing “Woman” for Rolling Stone, she wrote, “I think that this album sonically sounds more like the music I listen to than anything else I’ve ever done in the past. I love the music I have made before, but it was funny to me that 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...”
Certainly the synths that we’re used to from, say, “Tik Tok” or “Your Love Is My Drug” are gone; so is the over-applied auto-tune. But these are tricks of the trade, or perhaps more accurately, tricks of 2010 that she was already moving past on her second album Warrior. If it took “Praying"'s incandescent high note for you to realize Kesha could sing, you haven’t been listening hard enough. That joyous scream is clearly audible on “Dirty Love” - which, by the way, between its electric guitars and collaborative vocals with Iggy Pop does a pretty good job of referencing those old-school rock vibes Kesha mentions. The pounding drums that we can recognize in “Praying” are on full display in the gleefully mean “Thinking of You”; surrounded by glitzy synths and rhythms, her voice still rises to affecting, poignant heights on “Last Goodbye.” And “Past Lives”, a quiet, perfect track on the deluxe edition of Warrior, shows off the real creaks and breaths of her voice along with its sweet clarity, accompanied mostly by an acoustic guitar and strings.
This strange myth of “Kesha’s real voice” is not a new one. Search it in YouTube and you’ll come up with dozens of results over the last seven years: from “Kesha CAN SING!!!” to “Kesha’s Best Live Vocals”, with summaries like 'another video to showcase her real talent' accompanying viral clips of her singing “Amazing Grace” to her iPhone camera. In 2010, a video surfaced of her singing “Dead Flowers” (accompanied, cutely enough, by an as-yet not-famous Este Haim): the comments were full of bewildered admiration and surprise. "I thought this would be horrible turns out I was seriously wrong," one viewer wrote in 2014, well after Kesha had proven her vocal flair with two albums and a hell of a lot of touring.
But it was easy to ignore all of this manifold evidence in favor of the image Dr. Luke and Kesha’s label had constructed for her: the wild party girl, queen of autotune and singing while hungover. It makes sense for Kesha to use this new album, and the very literal sense in which she has broken free of Dr. Luke’s control and abuse, to create a narrative about her being able to reclaim her “real voice.”
Ironically, it’s this very narrative that makes it too easy to dismiss the talent and skill of her previous work. It undermines her strength as a songwriter, it takes away from the choices and hits of her past. It even strips her of her agency — the very thing this album seems to reclaim. We should be able to follow Kesha’s invitation to reexamine her, to see her as making, at last, the music she wants to be making, without needlessly trashing all of her previous work.
One thing that does seem new is the shift of the gaze in Kesha’s music videos. She is no longer an object to be admired — she grins out from the screen, pointing and beckoning in “Woman,” demanding that the Dap-Kings, and the viewer, join her. Contrast the video for her 2013 single “Timber” with its frankly boring aesthetics- Kesha posing with horses and pick-up trucks and doing her best to pretend Pitbull is sexy - to “Praying,” where all of her weird vision is on show; the long spoken introduction, the beautifully bizarre outfits (powder blue suits, sequin bodysuits fitted with wings), the churches and mountaintops, papier-mâché monsters falling to color bombs. Or watch “Dirty Love,” where she alternately wriggles and rips her way out of her clothes and into lingerie on a lonely stage for a leering camera, then compare it to “Woman,” where she wears a full body gold sequin suit, complete with a cape and mostly incidental cleavage, swivelling in front of a similarly glitzy sequin-ribboned backdrop but with her band now behind her.
Of course, thinking about sexiness as entirely about how many clothes you are or are not wearing is a reductionist and dangerous way of approaching things. It’s hardly impossible to be fully in control of the camera’s gaze while in your lingerie (Just look at Beyoncé’s “Partition”). But undoubtedly in her music videos, in her promotion, in the way Kesha is introducing this album to the world, we can see the signs of control the she clearly was tragically lacking in the production of her first two albums. This is the first time, perhaps, that Kesha is doing only what she wants to do.
All the same, we shouldn’t buy into this storyline where it is suddenly acceptable to appreciate and celebrate Kesha as a talented musician and songwriter. Kesha was always great. Kesha’s music has always been brilliant and weird and a vehicle to show off her sharp songwriting abilities. Her voice has always been on show. Her weirdness has always been evident. Her position as one of the decade’s best pop stars has always been certain.
What we can say now is that Kesha, in escaping her trap, has escaped another trap: one of trying to swerve into expectations. Let her shriek high. Let her bring in those bursts of joyous horns. Let her giggle stray and break the rhythm of the song instead of providing a sultry fade out point. We’ve been expecting something new. But on Rainbow, Kesha gets to show us what she was doing all along.
Kesha's Rainbow is out on August 11.
For more of our opinion pieces, get our take on how Rick Ross' recent controversial comments highlight how hard women have it in hip-hop right here.