Kesha released her first solo music in four years last week, a song called “Prayer”; it is a very good song and it makes me very happy, and I’d like to talk about why it makes me so happy.
First and foremost, this song is a visceral sonic revenge fantasy directed at Kesha’s abuser, whose self-important nickname I won’t repeat here. There’s an interesting dissonance, though, in that reading, which is pretty unmistakable based on the song itself, and what the singer herself has been publicly saying she intended with it. Kesha writes:
“This song is about me finding peace in the fact that I can’t control everything — because trying to control everyone was killing me. It’s about learning to let go and realize that the universe is in control of my fate, not me.
“‘Praying’ was written about that moment when the sun starts peeking through the darkest storm clouds, creating the most beautiful rainbow. Once you realize that you will in fact be OK, you want to spread love and healing. If you feel like someone has wronged you, get rid of that hate, because it will just create more negativity.”
I’m particularly struck by the last sentence. Get rid of that hate. How does one get rid of hate? The obvious way, the group-therapy one that leaps to mind, is to simply let it go. Unclench whatever part of yourself it resides in and watch it drift away.
Another way to get rid of it is to expel it straight back at its source. And whatever she’s saying in Lenny Letter, that’s what’s happening in this song. The gentle let-it-go reading Kesha suggests is there, but it’s also plainly not the whole story.
In the chorus, she sings, “I hope your soul is changing, changing, I hope you find your peace.” This is vague enough, especially on paper, to sound like something you could say to a friend going through a difficult time. She seems to have found her peace, and wants to pass it along, even to someone who’s hurt her deeply. When, in the next line, she envisions her abuser “falling on your knees, praying,” we can hear this as a sage piece of advice based on her experience healing through prayer. We can, if we take her word for it, even hear empathy for her abuser in these words.
But here’s another way of hearing that admonition: you’d better fucking pray, because if there’s any justice in this universe, it’s coming for you.
Even if, on paper, much of the song can be mistaken for a conciliatory gesture, it’s impossible not to hear premonitions of hellfire in her performance. She sings everything up through the first chorus mildly, almost uncertainly. Here is the benign singer-songwriter Kesha might have been, once upon a time, if the poor man’s Max Martin who ran her life ten years ago had decided he wanted to sell her as a new Vanessa Carlton instead of a grimier Britney Spears.
Then, in the second verse, a shift happens, as if she’s suddenly remembered how pissed off she is. We hear it in her vocal performance first, when she belts, “you were wrong, and now the best is yet to come,” and gives us a first glimpse at her real voice — the one we never, over four years and two albums, got to hear. The one that, as it turns out, is remarkable.
That voice is what this song turns on. In an interview with Viceland earlier this year, when reporter Zack Goldbaum said, almost offhandedly, “you’ve got pipes,” she replied, quietly, but with her jaw set hard, “that’s the thing that really makes me mad, is I know I do!”
This is the fundamental fact about Kesha that That Motherfucker did his damnedest to hide from everyone: she’s a fucking great musician. His position of power depended on us not knowing that, the way the whole patriarchy depends on women not being allowed to be as excellent as they really are without having to apologize. In music, the tale of a talented, skilled woman being controlled by a small, power-mad man is one as old as time, with too many iterations to name: Nina Simone, Ronnie Spector, Tina Turner, Whitney Houston.
The really infuriating thing about that tale is how entangled it is in the narrative about pop music. There’s this pervasive story that pop music is a mindless genre, designed by all-powerful producers to be as dumb and listenable and ear-wormy to the masses as possible, like fast food for the brain. The singers, in that story, are raw potatoes and whole beef sides that get turned into happy meals. It doesn’t matter whether they have any musical skill, it’s said; a good producer knows how to add auditory fat and salt in the exact proportions to make the final product maximally appealing.
Of course, that narrative exists exactly because the primary raw ingredient in most pop hits is a female voice. And even women who have vocal talent (which is invariably seen as less proof of musicianship than being able to play, say, the guitar, just to pick an instrument completely at random, haha) are routinely dismissed as vapid, frivolous, empty-headed, crazy, “troubled,” or some combination of the above—to say nothing of the fact that those public-sphere dismissals are often accompanied by private-sphere abuse. Think Mariah Carey, or Whitney Houston (again), or Ariana Grande. Women are never permitted to be talented and competent and visible (or haven’t been, until recently; it’s only begun to sink in, for most people, that Beyoncé is all three).
The widely-held assumption about Kesha in the early days of her career was that she was merely a “manufactured pop star” with no real talent, much less the extensive writing and performing background she already had by the time she arrived in LA at age 18 (not to mention that she reportedly got a near-perfect SAT score, or what’s perhaps my favorite Kesha anecdote, which is that she knew who John Maynard Keynes was when quizzed during a Planet Money appearance). Instead, the story was all, “She raps because she can’t sing!” and “You won’t believe Ke$ha’s voice without autotune!”
We’re hearing just that, in all its glory, now. By the time she gets to “I’ll bring thunder, I’ll bring rain/When I’m finished, they won’t even know your name,” the righteous fury in that voice is unmistakeable. Throughout the song’s searing second half, she wavers between I-told-you-so displays of virtuosity and barely-contained snarls. By the last time she sings the chorus, she’s spitting the words out so hard you can practically hear the mic straining under her plosives.
And then there’s the matter of That Note. Right after she warns that “some things, only God can forgive,” she launches her voice an extra octave into the stratosphere, hitting a blistering high F few would have dreamed she’d be capable of. It’s a pure sonic Fuck You to the target of her sublime ire. The God she’s been invoking gave her this, and that parasite wanted to hide it and get rich off whatever was left.
Let’s take a minute to think about that God. Kesha’s own experience of God is a personal, nontraditional one. Whenever she talks about higher powers, she tends not to refer to God at all, but to the universe, or nature. There’s nothing new-agey, though, about this song: this is fire-and-brimstone shit. When she tells her abuser to pray, my mind jumps straight to the spiritual “Sinner Man”:
“Run to the Lord, ‘Lord, won’t You hide me?’
Lord said, ‘sinner man, you should’ve been a-praying’”
The invocation of prayer, here, is a socially acceptable way of packaging anger. Kesha’s specific phrasing, especially, that she hopes her abuser is praying, gives a certain plausible deniability to the whole situation. She isn’t personally calling down God’s wrath, she’s just pointing out that it might be wise for a man in his position to pray for forgiveness. In saying even she sometimes “prays for [him] at night,” hoping his “soul is changing” and that he can “see the light,” she’s telling him this: I can only imagine you as deeply tormented, because you’re a monster. Then, of course, in saying “some things, only God can forgive,” she withholds her own forgiveness.
I sense — and maybe I’m putting words in Kesha’s mouth, but I don’t think so — a skillful disingenuousness in the statement I quoted earlier. She never says her abuser’s name, she never directly brings up anything he did, she insists she’s letting go and moving on. But the searing anger in this track says otherwise. That statement is the sugary sweet public mollification all women, especially women in the public eye, are forced to master if we want to survive. This is a woman smiling at a catcaller, or laughing off sexist jokes at work so important men don’t think she’s a bitch.
Fueling all that thinly-veiled anger, though, is a bright spot. It’s right where the turn from meek to furious starts, the first line in the second verse: “I’m proud of who I am.”
That embrace of self-love is what makes this whole thing go. The vital importance of learning to love yourself the way you are is one of those things that’s a cliché precisely because of how powerfully true it is. In “Praying,” Kesha roots herself in that truth, that she is good and worthwhile and deserving of affection and success. Her excellence becomes proof of her abuser’s vileness. That she’s self-resurrected, meanwhile, isn’t merely proof there’s justice, but justice itself. It isn’t the retributive justice we might have hoped for, but it’s a good kind of justice on its own.