Kesha had to know that her first album in five years, Rainbow, would be examined as a personal statement. This isn’t a rarity in modern pop music — reviewers scour Taylor Swift’s albums, say, for evidence of autobiographical details about her recent relationships —but Kesha has been under increased scrutiny since the release of Warrior in 2012.
It’s a long, sad story. In 2014, Kesha sued her producer, who works under the name Dr. Luke, for “sexually, physically, verbally, and emotionally” abusing her. Kesha claimed that the abuse was so painful that she developed an eating disorder and considered suicide on multiple occasions. But Kesha was contractually bound to Dr. Luke in such a way that any new songs would have to be cleared by Dr. Luke, and any profits earned by the song would be shared with the man she publicly accused of abuse. (In fact, Rainbow was released on Dr. Luke’s label, Kemosabe Records, and it appears that he will profit from the album’s success.)
Imagine the slow-motion nightmare of being creatively tied to the person you least want to see in all the world. I’ve been a Kesha fan for years — since back in her Ke$ha days — and I’ve been closely following the last half-decade’s worth of developments. They have retroactively changed my understanding of her work — Kesha now alleges that Dr. Luke was, at least in part, a creator of and an advocate for Kesha’s early party-girl image. The dumb fun of those songs is now much less of a personal statement and a lot more of a carefully calculated campaign conceived and executed in part by a horrible person.
For instance, Kesha claims she was horrified by the lyrics of the single “Die Young” off of Warrior:
I did have some concerns about the phrase 'die young' in the chorus when we were writing the lyrics especially because so many of my fans are young and that's one reason why I wrote so many versions of this song.
The history of the music industry is lousy with manipulative men abusing young and talented young women in the quest for fame and fortune. Kesha is walking the same road that women like Tina Turner, Amber Coffman, Mariah Carey, and Ronnie Spector have walked before: how do you reclaim your narrative after so long? How do you make your story your own again?
For Kesha, Rainbow seems to be a big part of that journey. It’s a kaleidoscopic album — by far her most diverse in terms of genre (including rock bangers, dance hits, and country ballads) and vocal talent — that demands the listener’s full attention. It’s also an album that demands to be read like a memoir. Kesha knows that we know her story, and she’s not going to pretend nothing happened. She’s not going to just put out an album full of “Tik Tok” rehashes. The emotional journey on Rainbow is a story of recovery and struggle and hope — though not necessarily in that order.
Kesha opens Rainbow by addressing her situation directly, in the stripped-down song “Bastards.” The first verse begins:
I got too many people
I got left to prove wrong
All those motherfuckers
been too mean for too long
And I'm so sick of crying, yeah
Darling, what's it for?
I could fight forever,
but life's too short.
This is a continuing theme through the album: the strength to walk away. Kesha is clear that it’s not a surrender or a retreat, but simply a matter of having more important things to do. She’s never forgiving or forgetting. She’s simply moving on, and her mantra is revealed in the chorus:
Don't let the bastards get you down
Don't let the assholes wear you out
Don't let the mean girls take the crown
Don't let the scumbags screw you 'round
Don't let the bastards take you down
It strikes me that if Woody Guthrie were to rise from the grave, his fascist-killing guitar gripped in his rotting hand, and if he were to sing “Bastards,” it would be regarded as the perfect protest song for these Trumpy times. The biggest mean girl in the world is right now watching TV in the White House, and while Kesha doesn’t talk much about politics as a rule, the fact that the president of the United States is a man who has been accused on many occasions of sexual assault, and who has openly bragged about committing sexual assault on a hot mic, must keep her awake at night. The only reason that people aren’t singing “Bastards” in front of the White House right now is the fact that Kesha isn’t regarded as a “serious artist” — whatever that means.
Kesha understands the anthemic power of “Bastards.” You can tell, because the song ends with an uplifting singalong chorus of “na-na-hey,” seemingly sung by dozens of voices. What began as one woman and a guitar ends with a swelling crescendo of voices in unison, raising their voices against the bastards. Sometimes when you walk away, an army walks with you.
The next song, “Let ‘em Talk,” is probably the hot single that record execs wished would have opened the album. Powered by a juddery riff from the Eagles of Death Metal, Kesha tears out of the song with the same sense of abandon that she brought to her earlier albums. (She even refers to “life” as “a party palace,” which wouldn’t be out of place in an earlier single like “Tik Tok.”) But listen to the lyrics and you’ll see Kesha is further developing the theme of “Bastards.”
Boys and girls, everybody talks about you
Loves and hates, they don't really know about you
I've decided all the haters everywhere can suck my dick
Kesha has clearly reached a decision that she’s not interested in conflict, or victory, or loss. She’s finding her own way. The next song, “Woman” is the profane anthem that her fans were hoping for: the statement that she’s more than okay — Kesha is more powerful than ever, and she’s ready to motherfucking party.
I'm a motherfucking woman, baby, alright
I don't need a man to be holding me too tight
I'm a motherfucking woman, baby, that's right
I'm just having fun with my ladies here tonight
I'm a motherfucker
At this point in Rainbow, listeners can’t help but notice that the beginning and ending (and sometimes the middles) of the songs feature studio chatter: Kesha asks if she should do another take of a song, she demands that everyone in the studio shut up, she cracks herself up with her own lyric about being as “loosey as a goosey.” There’s a sense that she’s leaving the studio door open a bit, allowing the listener inside.
Part of it is probably born of a desire to be transparent — Kesha has been very open with her fans through every step of the legal battles with Dr. Luke, inspiring many of her fans to come forward with their own stories of sexual assault — but she also seems to want Rainbow to feel like a draft, a work in progress. By welcoming the listener behind the curtain, she’s establishing that we’re finally meeting the “real” Kesha, and that we’re taking part in the creative process as it happens. She seems to be reserving the right to perfect her statement, to resubmit it as a complete work at a later date.
The next two songs on the album “Hymn” and “Praying” are thematically tied, obviously, by religion (or the lack thereof.) In “Hymn,” Kesha announces “I know that I'm perfect/even though I'm fucked up,” and she says she “don’t need no forgiveness.” And “Praying” is the flip side of that statement: just as she doesn’t need any forgiveness, Kesha isn’t interested in forgiving.
I hope you're somewhere praying
I hope your soul is changing
I hope you find your peace
Falling on your knees
This is a fantastic image. After the intentionally areligious “Hymn,” Kesha hopes that the one who did her wrong has found religion. Some early listeners of “Praying” on the internet mistakenly came away with the impression that Kesha had found religion, but in fact the song is much more interesting than that. We’re so used to performative humility in our celebrities that to see an artist demand humility of another is bracing — even sort of liberating, in a way. Kesha turns the piousness of religion around and weaponizes it. She won’t forgive, and she won’t forget. Kesha is a vengeful God:
And I don't need you
I found a strength I've never known
I'll bring thunder, I'll bring rain
When I'm finished
They won't even know your name
Kesha smuggled a country LP in on Rainbow, and those songs are fascinating for the way they knowingly play with some of the more toxic elements of the genre. Most interesting — and most likely to be misunderstood — is “Hunt You Down,” a song which turns the tables on generations of toxic and abusive masculinity in country music. Get a load of this chorus:
I've never hurt nobody
Never buried a body
Never killed no one
I ain't afraid to get a little crazy
Baby, when I'm in love
You say you've had your fun
And that you're done and I'm the one
Just know that if you fuck around
Boy, I'll hunt you down
Later, Kesha full-on warns her lover, “don't make me kill you.” By taking the language of the aggressor in an abusive relationship, Kesha is playing with over a hundred years of violence committed by men against women in music. (Listen to the early Elvis single “Baby, Let’s Play House,” when the King warns his lover “I’d rather see you dead/little girl/than to see you with another man” if you don’t believe me. There are plenty more where that came from.) Kesha is trying on the language and swaggering around with it for a bit, just to see how it feels, as part of her reclamation of herself.
Late in Rainbow, Kesha reaches an important achievement in her personal story when she covers a country song written by her mother, Pebe Sebert, in 1980. What’s more, Kesha’s version of “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You)” is a duet with no less a country legend than Dolly Parton, with a full backing band including steel guitar. The song feels like a daughter closing the historical loop as an act of love for her mother, and it’s a cathartic moment that serves as an emotional climax of the album.
But Rainbow’s denouement is a song called “Spaceship” that tries to tie together everything that came before: it’s bluegrass, it’s spacy, it’s thoroughly invested in the theme of leaving troubles and conflict behind. The chorus is about Kesha’s belief that she’s from another world, and that her people will come to collect her any day now:
I'm waiting for my spaceship to come back for me
And I don't really care if you believe me
I been living in a lonesome galaxy
But in my dreams, I see them come and rescue me
I want to celebrate this song as the end point of Kesha’s chrysalis period and the rebirth of Kesha as a weird space-oddity-country-crooner-dance-single-making-machine, but the song resists the idea of a cosmic reimagining that the first listening offers. For starters, the song opens with Kesha imagining her own death. And then there’s this verse:
I knew from the start I don’t belong in these parts
There's too much hate, there's too much hurt for this heart
Lord knows this planet feels like a hopeless place
Thank God I'm going back home to outer space
On the one hand, this verse continues the album’s themes of walking away from battles as a position of strength. But when combined with the spoken-word outro to the song, which plays over what may or may not be the heavily manipulated sound of a woman having an orgasm, the meaning seems to be a little darker:
As I leave this Earth and sail into the infinite cosmic universe, the wars, the triumphs, the beauty, and the bloodshed — the ocean of human endeavor — it all grows quiet, insignificant. I'm nothing more than recycled stardust and borrowed energy, born from a rock, spinning in the aether. I watch my life backwards and forwards and I feel free. Nothing is real, love is everything, and I know nothing.
It’s hard to frame a story as a hopeful rebirth when its very last word is “nothing.” Now, perhaps I’m reading this wrong — after all, that sentence could also be read as Kesha saying that she understands all of reality, since reality is nothing and she knows nothing — but there’s a separateness there, a distance of galactic proportions, that resists the expected narrative.
For an artist who is as encouraging of her fans as Kesha is — track her on Twitter and you’ll see her fans drawing immense reserves of strength from her, and vice versa — I find that distance to be more than a little alarming. And I’m a bit surprised that a woman who feared what the lyrics “we’re gonna die young” might mean for the emotional well-being of her youngest fans would end her comeback album with a song about leaving the earth because there’s too much hurt and pain for her to handle.
Is Rainbow a story of triumph and rebirth? Or is it a story of a woman who is still learning what it means to be reborn? Don’t interpret my ambiguous reading of the ending of Rainbow as disappointment; on the contrary, Rainbow is the best album I’ve heard in a long while, and I’ve listened to it, end-on-end, for weeks. And I think this ambiguity and sadness and distance is part of what makes Rainbow work.
Kesha is very careful to frame her strength and dignity in Rainbow in a very specific light. She never calls herself invulnerable. She can be wounded; she carries scars. She’s fought, and sometimes she’s lost. But she’s a work in progress, a profane and furious rough draft of a human being who isn’t afraid to reimagine herself three times on a single album. She’s a (motherfucking) woman, and to be a woman in 2017 is a complicated business. She’s figuring it out as she goes along, and she’s teaching us what that means even as she’s learning it herself.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant