They won’t break my spirit/I won’t let them win
I’ll just keep on living/ The way I want to live
Kesha starts her new album Rainbow with “Bastards,” a pared down guitar-and-vocals proclamation of staying strong in the face of bastards, assholes, and mean girls. Her next song, “Let ‘Em Talk,” brings the same idea into a classic pop rock mix with squealing guitars, bright drums, and scrappier lyrics like
Shake that ass, don’t care if they talk about it
Fuck all that, haters, just forget about ’em
It’s impossible to listen to Rainbow without hearing a woman wresting back control of her body and her image. Kesha has been fighting a public battle since 2014 to be released from an exclusive contract with producer Dr. Luke, whom she claims drugged and raped her in 2005 and has been physically and emotionally abusive over the course of their professional relationship. Since bringing her first lawsuit against Dr. Luke in 2014, Kesha claims that Dr. Luke and parent company Sony have refused to produce, publish, or promote her music. Dr. Luke has countersued Kesha and her mother for defamation and asserts that they’re just in it for that sweet rape money.
I’m not a legal expert and I’m not a detective. It’s tough to follow the extremely complicated series of lawsuits and countersuits that have rocketed back and forth between Kesha, her mother Pebe Sebert, Dr. Luke (real name Lukasz Gottwald), and Sony records. But as a woman and a longtime resident of the planet Earth, all of my observations have demonstrated that being a public survivor of sexual assault is a traumatic, and potentially life-ruining position to take up. If Kesha has invented abuse in order to snag a better recording contract, then she was willing to risk everything–her livelihood, her reputation, years of recording time–on her ability to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes. And it hasn’t even worked; she no longer works with Dr. Luke since he left his Sony imprint, but she’s still bound to the record company that put her in harm’s way, and Dr. Luke still stands to gain from Rainbow‘s success.
And Rainbow is a triumph. It’s a genre-smashing delight, demonstrating a rare combination of talent and intense joy for songwriting in any form–glossy dance hit, badass country rock, or soulful ballad.
The album’s third track is the brassy country-rock anthem “Woman,” which is an equally perfect pregame hype song as post-breakup anthem.
Another highlight is “Prayer,” the first single released from Rainbow, and Kesha’s first new music release after nearly four years of silence. Between Kesha’s description of the song in Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter newsletter and its lyrics, “Prayer” speaks to a struggle with feelings of powerlessness and depression, and strikes a balance between reckoning with her abuser and moving forward without him.
Well, you almost had me fooled
Told me that I was nothing without you
Oh, but after everything you’ve done
I can thank you for how strong I have become
The music video includes a spoken intro that’s strongly reminiscent of Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and moves through soulful, intimate moments into a triumphant climax where she washes her hands of Dr. Luke:
I’ll bring thunder, I’ll bring rain,
When I’m finished, they won’t even know your name
Kesha moves past her trauma with power and compassion, telling her abuser that she hopes he is “somewhere praying,” that “someday you’ll see the light.” She keeps Rainbow’s focus squarely on her own recovery, her desire to turn her own story into a space to uplift others who feel forgotten or downtrodden; her fourth track calls itself a “hymn for the hymnless,” and the album’s title track “Rainbow” attempts to guide others through their own dark times:
Darling, our scars make us who we are,
So when the winds are howling strong
And you think you can’t go on, hold tight, sweetheart
But Rainbow also leaves room for playfulness and joy. With sexy Britney Spears-inspired “Boots,” goofy folk-pop “Godzilla,” and exuberant dance hit “Boogie Feet,” Kesha brings an unapologetic sense of fun into the album.
With 2017’s white lady pop stars struggling to reinvent themselves (or un-reinvent themselves), it seems like the demand is not only for these women to be gracefully super famous, but to be self-referential in their fame, to occupy the public eye in a space of careful image curation and complete authenticity. Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud author Anne Helen Petersen speaks to the demands of female pop stardom in her chapter on Madonna, writing, “Pop and postmodernism both revel in surfaces, transformation and pastiche…Madonna has to continue reinventing and revitalizing herself, in part because pop music, and its fetishization of the new, demands it.” We’ve seen similar transformations from Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, and even Justin Bieber in the past couple of years. But instead of chasing the “new Kesha” through endless images and reflections of herself, Kesha pulls listeners back into older influences, mining childhood home videos in the music video for “Learn to Let Go,” collaborating with country queen Dolly Parton on a cover of “Old Flame,” and digging into what’s raw, intimate, and real.
In a moment of intense cynicism, an album this honest and generous feels like a gift.