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In Glitter and In Rage

on Kesha, trauma, recovery, & sparkle

Photo by Efe Kurnaz on Unsplash

Trigger warning: this essay discusses rape, rape culture, eating disorders, alcohol abuse, and other potentially upsetting content.

In the past few months, I’ve found that there is no maximum volume for me when it comes to Kesha’s new single, “Praying.” My finger finds the button on the side of my iPhone, and I turn her voice up louder. Until she is wailing, “I hope you’re somewhere praying / I hope your soul is changing,” at a volume I don’t use for anything else, until my whole brain is Kesha. Lately, when I am alone, I want her screaming in my head so loud that all I think about is trauma, recovery, rage, glitter. Lately, if you ask me which pop star I am most loyal to, the answer is Kesha. Kesha with her glitter, her trauma, her recovery. Kesha wearing giant white angel wings sitting at a piano in the music video for “Praying.” I don’t know if this is devotion or if devotion is what Kesha means when she says in the song, “Oh, some say, in life, you’re gonna get what you give / But some things only God can forgive.” Maybe devotion is the thing that the speaker of the song feels: trusting a higher power enough to let that power seek your justice.

Or: in my college a cappella group, when we were seniors, we could each pick one song and have the group learn an arrangement and then we could sing the solo. This was a privilege reserved for seniors and went against the way our group typically operated. Usually, we did things democratically. We would assemble a massive list of potential songs and then vote on them anonymously. Once the songs were chosen and someone in the group had written an arrangement for them, anyone could audition, and then the rest of the group would vote on who got the solos.

This made sense and was probably the ‘right’ way to do things, but it also meant that many of us spent our first three years in the group ruminating on what our senior song would be, desperate for a little artistic control. Which is to say: the choice of senior song was crucial. In a prolonged moment of indecision, I opted out of my senior song and then regretted it for months or years, whichever is less embarrassing. My friend Matt chose, for his senior song, to arrange a fantastically complicated and frustrating Kesha medley. This was back when she spelled her name as Ke$ha, and we half-ironically referred to her as ‘K-E-dollar-sign-ha.’

This was back when Kesha or Ke$ha might have been a joke, when she sang about waking up and brushing her teeth with Jack Daniels, when a more serious song was a ballad to a man named Stephen. “Stephen, Stephen / Why won’t you call me?” Kesha sang this earnestly and so did we, in Matt’s Kesha medley. Matt took Kesha seriously, he did her justice. At the time, we didn’t know what it meant to take Kesha seriously, we didn’t know that she might be in dire need of justice. At the time, Kesha’s face was thin and angular on the cover of her album Animal, Kesha was thin and edgy and always, always covered in glitter.

Later, it came out that she had been abused and assaulted by her producer, Dr. Luke. Then everyone knew about her eating disorder and her fear and the details of her almost-unbelievable contract and the ensuing legal battle. It turned out that Kesha’s contract with Sony Records required that she make all her music with Dr. Luke, that she could not extract herself from him artistically. #FreeKesha trended on Twitter because Kesha’s fans wanted her to finally be allowed out of her contract and to release music not made with her abuser. Maybe this story is familiar. It should be.

A few months ago, I put on headphones and heard “Praying” for the first time. It was her first single from her upcoming album, Rainbow. Three more singles quickly followed. Kesha didn’t win her battle fully, and her new album was released with Kemosabe, the imprint of Sony founded by Dr. Luke. He doesn’t officially work there anymore, though, and to many Kesha listeners, the ‘you’ addressed in her new music is him, the man now behind a slightly different curtain. This might be as ‘free’ as Kesha can get right now.

There is something sinister about a man who is not a doctor, who wants to control women’s bodies, who puts himself in positions of such power over young women and makes the public refer to him as a doctor.

Now I look back at the Animal album cover and think: should I have known something? And: did we ever make fun of very non-doctor ‘Dr. Luke’ for calling himself that, the way we made fun of Kesha for her dollar sign? And: I think there is something sinister about a man who is not a doctor, who wants to control women’s bodies, who puts himself in positions of such power over young women and makes the public refer to him as a doctor.

Hindsight does the flattening, makes Kesha into obvious victim and Dr. Luke into obvious predator. Hindsight tells me that the parallels between myself at eighteen (lost weight, skin and bones, hugging a vodka bottle at a dorm room party, dancing in a photo with a feather boa between my legs and glitter on my cheekbones) and Kesha (skin and bones, dancing in so many photos with glitter and costumes and bottles of booze) were obvious. If you put those versions of Kesha and I side by side, are we scenes from a wild party or examples of post-rape crisis, girls mid-spiral?

Or: we were both. We were mid-spiral at the best party we could find. If you turn the music up loud enough, anything can seem okay, can seem livable. To me, the comeback version of Kesha, the one who sings “Praying,” she’s in the middle of this endless recovery bullshit but finally she gets to talk about it. When I listen to “Praying,” I can hear something that sounds like a clear evolution. I can separate the angular girl covered in glitter from the woman who is still often covered in glitter but is less skin and bones, I can tell myself definitively that there are two stages: there is trauma and then there is recovery. I can believe that if you look at a person, you will know which stage they are in.

Or: it is always more complicated. “Now the party’s over / And everybody’s gone / I’m left here with myself and I / Wonder what went wrong,” sang Kesha, but that was on Animal, that wasn’t the ‘new’ Kesha. That was Kesha seven years ago. At the time, maybe we thought it was a joke, like how the world at large seems to think teenage girls and young women don’t have real problems and should talk less. It is sometimes considered trendy or mature to mock their vocal fry and their raccoon eyes on their Snapchat and conveniently ignore that teenage girls have to deal with probably 100% of the things grown women experience, just with even less agency. When I see women on Twitter or in real life who talk about being ‘on their grown woman shit’ or ‘a grown-ass woman,’ I wonder at how quickly we forget who many of us once were. We were teenage girls. When we were alone with ourselves, when we were depressed or angry or distant or moody or wondering what went wrong, it wasn’t always about nothing.

When I see women on Twitter or in real life who talk about being ‘on their grown woman shit’ or ‘a grown-ass woman,’ I wonder at how quickly we forget who many of us once were.

Through various grapevines and google searches, I know that one man who assaulted me now has a semi-fake PhD from a non-reputable school, and another man who assaulted me once asked people to call him ‘Dr. _____’ even though he held no such degree. I do not know if what they want is something like devotion or respect, or maybe just a veneer to hide behind. A fake degree to simulate authority, to deter questions or accusations. I should probably say all of this is alleged, I should probably say that some things between Kesha and Dr. Luke are also alleged, but I’d rather not do any further disservice to either myself or Kesha.

Or: I know that a real doctor at my grad school’s health center was arrested for indecent exposure and instructed not to see patients without another staff member in the room. And yet I saw him without supervision and was not warned. I know that he touched me like I was a porcelain doll and gently rearranged my necklace and asked me unnecessary personal questions. When I got home, my roommate googled him and told me about his record and his supervision requirement. And I know that there is not only one man who thinks it might be useful if vulnerable young women called him a doctor.

In the middle of her legal battle, when Kesha couldn’t perform her old songs (because they were co-written or produced by Dr. Luke) and she couldn’t write or perform new music without him, she sang covers. This is also what we did in a cappella. We tried, as a dysfunctional group of young humans, to pick songs that we might like to sing with all of our voices at once. Often, we sang songs that I liked but did not particularly believe in. Sometimes, we sang songs that were so complex that creating arrangements for them was almost funny. Like: there’s something about the many overlapping and infuriating instrumental parts of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ song “Can’t Stop” that still makes me nostalgic when I hear it in dive bars. But I don’t love the lyrics and the song should probably not ever be performed by a college a cappella group again. I adored some of the a cappella covers we performed, of course, otherwise what’s the point? Others, not so much. Covers — this whole idea that you can re-sing something differently enough to make it intriguing, really—are hard, we didn’t always get them right.

As is often true, Kesha did it better. Her covers weren’t sloppy or off-key, they were close to transcendent. Once, she appeared in all white and sang Lady Gaga’s “Til It Happens to You,” which is a song about sexual assault. I watched the YouTube video of this and sobbed. It is true that I could say analytical and not fully positive things about Kesha wearing white and angel wings post-rape, I could say something about how her new survivor identity might read as some sort of rebirth, which implies rape is a death. I could say that a part of me thinks this narrative is damaging, that I worry for the people who are somewhere between trauma and recovery and the ways that this might make them feel more dead instead of giving them hope. Not all of us can ascend to Kesha-like angel heights. Sometimes we might need something more attainable to aspire to. But I wouldn’t say those things, not here. Or I would couch them this way. And that might be devotion, religion, a type of prayer.

Not all of us can ascend to Kesha-like angel heights.

An article in The Atlantic about “Praying” referred to the song as having a clear message: “love your enemy.” The article, of course, was written by a man. When I listen to “Praying,” loudly or quietly or just part of it because I’m walking into a restaurant and need to take out my earbuds, that’s not how I hear it. I hear it more like this: what the ‘you’ that the song is directed to has done is so terrible that only God can forgive it, and God might not make that choice. Thus, it is important for the ‘you’ to be praying, to be changing, to atone. The song doesn’t ever say that the speaker loves the ‘you,’ and in fact says this instead: “And we both know all the truth I could tell / I’ll just say this is I wish you farewell.” The speaker could say a lot of things about the ‘you,’ but we all know that the speaker will be flattened into Kesha, and the ‘you’ will equal Dr. Luke to most listeners. There’s not a lot of room for persona for Kesha right now. Almost everything she says or sings is taken as a statement about Dr. Luke, because he is the issue the public knows to be at hand. The legal ramifications of saying more could be dire. So the speaker threatens the ‘you’ with this knowledge and then turns away, not because she loves her enemy, but because she knows the rules of this game. The rules are the same ones that mean I don’t tell you my rapist’s name in this essay, only that he wanted people to call him a doctor once. The rules leave women speaking up, but only to an extent.

On my Facebook feed, a man I went to college with posted to say that Kesha’s new ballad was brave, but she should stick to her ‘bangers.’ Those would be the ‘bangers’ partly written by her abuser, the ones she sang when someone else ran her life and she had very little agency. Songs with titles like “Party at a Rich Dude’s House,” “Your Love is My Drug,” “Die Young.” Yes, I screamed along to these songs in college or sang them sweetly in a cappella harmony, yes, I loved them too. Lately, though, listening to them feels like a betrayal. I don’t know if that was the music Kesha wanted to make or still enjoys, but until I know, I don’t want to listen to it. I don’t want to hear men’s opinions on how her message is about loving her enemy, or on how she should stick to music written by her rapist.

This man who posted on Facebook considers himself knowledgeable about music and respects his own opinions, he considers them worth sharing just because they exist. Women who he is friends with commented on his post, some snarkily, some earnestly. There once was a time when I would have engaged also, when I would have sought out hot takes and reviews semi-religiously. I would have wanted to know what critics (often men) thought of the new Kesha, and their views would have influenced my own. Now, I think a lot of that was about not respecting or trusting my opinion or that of the artists I admire. Now, I trust Kesha to make music about recovery, trauma, glitter, rage. Her volume when she sings is the loudest her voice can go, and I trust her to pick that volume. I turn her up louder. Together inside my headphones, we are a thing I think is called a prayer.