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Listening to Kesha’s new album Rainbow is like speaking in a code I wish neither of us knew. Music is a code for the things I can’t speak, so I sing them instead, along with her. I’m convinced Kesha is trying to tell me something. Or maybe, I’m trying to tell her something. There is as much telling in listening as there is in speaking, especially when you’re used to being silenced. Listening is a kind of remembrance; it feels like praying. Rainbow makes me look backward. It makes me remember.
Everyone has their own tyrant. Whatever the the opposite of praying is, that’s what you are to me. When I’m with you, I’m forced to talk in code, because you’ve done unspeakable things to me. I try to write it down, but it comes out fragmented. A lot of the stories come out like that, they say. But I only know my own story. It never comes to me linear, only in circles and spurts, in whorls and half-loops. Recycled stardust, borrowed energy. Some days I am full of love and hope, others, I find monsters under the bed and decide they are the ones I should pursue, the ones I need to impress.
Every monster is another miniature of you, but I can’t say that out loud. I wonder what darkness must live inside you to leave so much night in me. I don’t believe the code will hold me up, above the water — it’s not a miracle, it’s just a tool. I can feel our rhythm bleeding out, edging toward the sky, something has to give. It’s unspeakable, so it becomes a color. Trauma is more color than sound, anyway, when I’m looking back on it.
A rainbow was once a sign of hope after unspeakable destruction, a coded promise of deliverance. I look into the sky and see nothing, no sign, no spaceship coming back for me, yet. Whenever I try to talk about the unspeakable, words are not enough. So I put the colors on and sing. Maybe sin is just a prayer gone wrong.
The overarching tone of Rainbow, Kesha’s first full-length album in five years, is one of burnished triumph. It’s an exterior expression of resilience — I’m still here, motherf*ckers — but her disposition throughout the promotional cycle for the record hasn’t corresponded to the magnificently brazen pop contained herein. Describing “Praying,” the grand heartbeat of her comeback, Kesha characterized the song — just two days ago — as a life preserver.
“It talks about me personally going through something very hard, lots of very hard things, making it through, not giving up, and finding empathy on the other side, which is incredibly hard sometimes. […] I think this record is, quite literally, saving my life,” she finished, on the verge of openly weeping during one of the biggest TV shows on the planet. She walks to the brink of tears during nearly interview in the lead up to this album, and keeps right on going. Watching her cry, I remember when prayer first began to feel empty to me.
Kesha’s trauma story is much different than the ones we hear when it’s too late, the ones written into suicide notes, spelled out in overdoses, and retraced in horrific clues — vision 20/20 — while priests spell out last rites in clear, ancient language. After Chester Bennington died, I read a tweet that said maybe musicians were saving everyone’s lives but their own with their work; Rainbow is the album Kesha made to save herself. Perhaps, in the chaos of 2017, pop songs have become the ultimate code, a promise of survival codified inside their sparkling power. “Hymn” became one for me in a week flat, a breakneck conversion rate, even for a pop song. If you know what I mean, you on the team.
How many codes, I wonder, have survivors used throughout history? Before they called us survivors, they called us whores, sluts, worthless, unspeakables. Sometimes, I am called “woman,” and even if they don’t say a single word more I know it is an insult. Before you called me a woman, before I was unspeakable, I was a prayer, somewhere, unspoken and unhurt. I must’ve been free of you, once, but I can’t remember where that was.
“If you think that pop stars are anything other than prisoners, then you are f*cking kidding yourself,” Josh Tillman, under guise of his Father John Misty persona, said in an interview with Pitchfork earlier this year. “I know them. They are crying for help in their music.” (Let’s make the most of the night ‘cuz we’re gonna die young.)
I read this piece only after someone on Twitter berated me about his assertion until I finally went to read the interview for myself, strictly so I could answer their question: Did I agree? As someone who frequently writes about feminism, the most famous, popular musicians in the pop realm, and also holds an ever-burning candle for scions of indie folk rock like FJM, the statement falls squarely in the crosshairs of my particular expertise. In fact, I think the user in question thought I’d skewer the statement with a harsh critique, arguing that it’s an overbearing dismissal of these women, or robs them of their agency. But the more times I read the words, the more I felt their weight.
As The New York Times points out in an expertly reported recap of Kesha’s current label situation, even after Rainbow she still owes two albums to Dr. Luke and his jurisdiction via Kemosabe Records. But there’s a freedom on her new album that belies even that harsh reality, an escapism rooted not in hedonism, or sex, or wealth, but in a wild celebration of self. Despite the underlying foundation of trauma, Rainbow is bigger than the storms it describes, and brighter than the calm it promises, the record is a true feat — not just of pop songwriting, but also personhood.
“I can’t hold onto upsetting things, trauma, bullsh*t, mean comments, things out of my control,” Kesha wrote in an Instagram caption supporting the release of “Learn To Let Go,” one of the album’s many early singles. “It has helped me heal, both my mind and my body, and has taken my battered heart back to where it feels childlike and gold again. I have hope in my heart…. what else is there?”
Occasionally, the artist is able to succinctly describe their work better than anyone else, and here, she does just that. Rainbow traces a movement of the heart from battered to childlike and gold. It is a renewal that acknowledges the prison of the past, and chooses to find joy, even behind bars. Dr. Luke may get a residual royalty on a song that is ostensibly written about surviving his abuse — does that actually take away from the value of the fact that Kesha still wrote and released it? In a certain light, it might actually add to it.
When Kesha was about three years old, Kris Kristofferson released an album called Third World Warrior that included an anti-war song, ostensibly written for his own father (who he was estranged from after quitting the military), called “Don’t Let The Bastards (Get You Down).” Before the final titular line, Kristofferson quips his dad’s other two primary principles: “try to tell the truth,” “stand your ground,” and finally, that pithy, barbed wire kicker: Don’t let the bastards get you down. Kristofferson’s version is clearly the template for Kesha’s Rainbow album opener “Bastards,” as even a cursory listen reveals multiple parallels between the two songs, which could nest inside one another easily, like matryoshka dolls. Maybe it’s a stretch for me to wonder if Kristofferson inspired her own sophomore album title, but I’m tempted to trace that path, anyway.
Sure, not many people are checking for Kristofferson solo record deep cuts, but the prevailing assumption that Kesha has neither knowledge or experience in the field of country, or that this is a major shift for her is a bit more projection than normally comes this late in an album cycle. I’ve seen Shania Twain and Kacey Musgraves both crop up in reviews before Dolly Parton, who is literally on the album, gets invoked. Music criticism’s knowledge and acknowledgement of country music’s sweeping influence stays pitiful. Besides, if you want to invoke a new age country stunner here, “Learn To Let Go” is a dead ringer for a Maren Morris song, and could easily slot anywhere on her kingmaking debut album Hero.
But, perhaps what these lazy equivalences reveal is that a narrative of trauma will always overshadow the subtler flourishes in an artist’s songmaking oeuvre, particularly if that musician is a woman. Many note that Kesha’s mother is a country songwriter, few include that she’s sold over 8 million records in her own right, and that the two lived together in Nashville, Tennessee for most of Kesha’s teenage years. Not to mention, Kesha initially remade her mom’s biggest hit, “Old Flames (Can’t Hold A Candle To You)” four years ago, on the Deconstructed EP. My point is, Kesha was co-writing songs with her own multi-platinum songwriting partner long before Dr. Luke, sing-talk, or a bottle of Jack ever entered the picture. The country streak may be more prevalent on Rainbow than ever before, but it’s not a brand new foray for either of the Seberts.
Actually, embedded in the introduction to Pebe Sebert’s wikipedia page is a sentence that explains everything you might want to know about her daughter, the one and only Kesha Rose Sebert. “Pebe is best known for co-writing number-one hits for Dolly Parton, Pitbull and Kesha,” goes the entry, with all the nonchalance that only a cobbled together, ultimately authorless collection of internet information could possess. Envisioning Kesha as the test tube baby of her own mother, Dolly Parton, and Pitbull, is perhaps the only logical way to the pop-star-turned-trauma-icon and her third full-length album. On Rainbow, #FreeKesha has transformed from a rallying cry into a descriptor of its namesake, here, she is, somehow, free, and the results are glorious.
Dollar sign Kesha is not dead, she’s not split off or disconnected from her past self. It doesn’t work like that. Pitting post-trauma, country ballad and Nudie suit Kesha against the pre-trauma, lost-at-sea pop star persona that carried her through two seasons of Ke$ha: My Crazy Beautiful Life and the smash success of Animal’s four million copies is yet another unrealistic face off. “If someone is a real artist, you can’t confine them to a particular genre,” Kesha told V Magazine as early as 2013, while she was in the middle of recording a follow-up to her massive breakout record Animal. “It’s my mission to make it all make sense somehow.”
On Rainbow, the cohesion and sense-making is built off a specific bucking of genre. This is still the same girl who dubbed her second album “cock pop” in a sly twist on “cock rock,” so don’t be surprised that the album’s got a few clunkers — “Godzilla,” “Boots,” and “Boogie Feet” — all of which live firmly in her old balls-to-the-wall party pop oeuvre. But most of what’s here soars above anything she’s ever done. Rainbow kicks off with the aforementioned “Bastards,” a spare, feminist cowboy anthem laced with the kind of profanity that only flies in dive bars braided with a glossy kiss off to the mean girls.
Then, Kesha squares up on “Let ‘Em Talk About It,” a blast of her signature high-octane pop gone right, where she enlists Eagles Of Death Metal for some kerosene rage that’s more akin to Paramore than desert rock. It f*cking works. “Woman” is a lush, big-hearted unfurling of bluesy empowerment and reclamation, while “Hymn” and “Praying” flip the holiness of religion into graceful pop sacraments that makes them the two strongest tracks on the album.
On the title track, Kesha channels Kermit’s “The Rainbow Connection” for grown ups, a dreamy, orchestral sweetheart of a song that embodies the childlike heart she champions — and still includes the phrase “f*cked up.” Elsewhere, “Finding You” is a wide-eyed thundering love song about eternity, and “Hunt You Down” reaches an “Earl Had To Die” violence threshold, retelling the potential tragedy as winking millennial threat in honky-tonk form.
Rainbow ends with a song called “Spaceship” that comes full circle, closing back in on the album’s powerful, spiritual center; it’s a ballad of gossamer twang about loneliness bigger than galaxies. “I watch my life backwards, and forwards, and I feel free,” Kesha intones at the end of this airy, self-possessed closer, co-written with her mother. “I feel free. Nothing is real, love is everything and I know nothing.” The first time I listened to it, I thought I must have heard before somehow. I thought I remembered it. It sounded sweet and ancient, like a home I never had; it sounded like the future. To listen is to remember, and a memory is a prayer. Maybe my own memory is still unspeakable, but inside hers, I finally feel heard.