Pop music and trauma: it’s time to listen to the meaning behind the music

Society is sexist and popular culture is failing to change it. Whether through a lack of trying or a failure to acknowledge any problem at all, a countless number of film stars, musicians and celebrities are getting away with abuse allowed by a society designed for men, controlled by men and — when convenient — ignored by men.

What happens when someone speaks up? Lady Gaga wrote ’Til It Happens To You for the documentary film about campus rape, The Hunting Ground. She came out as a victim of rape herself and — while met with sympathy from her fans — she was questioned and doubted by those who had nothing to do with her: in particular, men. One celebrity space-waster said PTSD had become “the latest celebrity accessory” following her and Madonna sharing their experiences of assault. Is he still paid to be on TV every morning? Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, yes.

Take Kesha as another example. Since October 2014, Kesha and her previous manager fought a long and strenuous legal battle. Following physical, emotional and sexual abuse, the singer took Dr. Luke to court and, in return, he sued her for defamation. The story is a harrowing one and has taught women that should they choose to speak out against their abuser they will face attack. Men face abuse too, of course, much like there are anomalies in all generalised situations, but this is a failure of the industry — a place, on the whole, dominated by men — and a microcosm of a far wider problem that too many of you — whether you admit it or not — are denying.

Praying is Kesha’s first song in years. Gone are the party anthems and hangovers, replaced with a sincerity and vulnerability that manifests itself in strength. We cannot underestimate the difficulty it takes to get to a point where you can move on from abuse. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) doesn’t just happen to war veterans. Abuse isn’t something else to check on the tick-box list of life experiences.

“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.”

To reach a point where you can vocalise what has happened to you, after years trying to speak about it and being shut down over and over again, is difficult for everyone; it’s impossible for many. Never underestimate the effects abuse can have on a person, nor the determination and battles with personal demons it takes to share your story. This is particularly true when experience tells us time and time again that you won’t be listened to, you won’t be believed, and you are — in some way — tarnished (see Amber Heard as an example).

“You almost had me fooled

Told me that I was nothing without you”

The control that perpetrators of abuse have over their victims enables them to keep them exactly where they want them for a long period of time. Ask yourself, how many times have you questioned why the abused stay with or close to their abuser for so long? The power someone holds over another following a systematic pattern of bullying and confidence-bashing is incredible. It’s the reason victims of domestic violence go back to their partner over and over again. Where else will they go? they think. Nobody else will want them, after all.

“After everything you’ve done

I can thank you for how strong I have become”

People throw around the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and suggest that negative experiences somehow turn you into a wholesome, rounded person as you learn about the true terrors in life, but that’s not the case. Life isn’t an uplifting indie film. Sometimes what doesn’t kill you actually makes you weaker. And quieter. And less confident. And more afraid. To take this negative and turn it in to a positive is no easy task and to do so is inspiring. Sia’s Elastic Heart is similarly defiant: “You did not break me / I’m still fighting for peace.” That said, nobody should ever expect anyone to turn their experience of abuse into anything they don’t want to and you are no weaker than anyone else if you only ever associate your abuse with negativity.

“You brought the flames and you put me through hell

I had to learn how to fight for myself”

Isolation is a huge part of abuse. Keeping someone separate from their friends and family damages their relationships with them, lessening the likelihood they’ll share their experience or need for help. On a wider scale, Kesha’s ordeal has been carried out in the public eye and she was still ostracised. While going through hell, how many of us stood up for her and publicly supported her cause rather than pointing out how ridiculous Tik Tok is? Not enough. This unwillingness to accept someone you once thought highly of has done something wrong is also the same reason people haven’t spoken out against the increasing list of bands that have been publicly outed as abusers.

“And we both know all the truth I could tell

I’ll just say this is I wish you farewell”

Too often does the truth never come out about what really happened in abusive situations. People are quick to jump to the defence of alleged abusers, questioning a lack of evidence. In Pink’s F**kin’ Perfect she sings, “the whole world’s scared so I swallow the fear,” suggesting a reluctance to acknowledge the truth. It’s easier to dismiss situations, so why try in the first place, right? Wrong. You are contributing to a culture of silenced victims and easy escapes for abusers.

“I’m proud of who I am

No more monsters, I can breathe again”

This line and the former aren’t an admission of defeat from Kesha, but an emblem of strength. She’s not forgetting about what has happened, nor is she expressing forgiveness — later on in the track she sings “some things only God can forgive” in one of its most powerful moments. But she is moving forward for her own sake. Nobody else is going to do it for her, so — even if she has to do it alone — she’ll carry on living her life.

“I hope you’re somewhere prayin’, prayin’

I hope your soul is changin’, changin’

I hope you find your peace

Fallin’ on your knees, prayin’”

The lyrics alone aren’t enough to explain the pain you hear in Kesha’s voice, but she keeps belting the song out anyway. The strength is however always pulled back with a reminder of the vulnerability and fear that exists alongside it.

Praying is an anthem to cling on to, but does not tell of an isolated incident. There are millions of women who live in the constant battle between moving forward and being strong — both for their own sanity and due to the societal pressure to just ‘get on with things’ — and it’s time to acknowledge them and feel empathetic not estranged.

Listen to women, challenge popular culture, and do your bit to make a stand.