Kesha transcends the last five years and delivers an album full of hope and renewed self-confidence.
Though she hasn’t released an album in five years—a lifetime on the ever-changing modern pop landscape—Kesha Rose Sebert has remained on the cultural radar. Because of her allegations of emotional and sexual abuse against her former producer, Dr. Luke, and the ongoing legal battle that has ensued, her name has remained a tabloid fixture. Given her early public persona as a trashy glitter-and-grime diva oozing sexuality and superficiality (she’s the one who used a ‘$’ in lieu of the ‘S’ in her given name), she proved an easy target for public shaming, seen as essentially having got what she had coming to her. By positioning her as such and assigning blame based not on the person behind the persona, but the very idea that persona seemed to represent, the proliferation of rape culture and its tacit acceptance was on full display.
The court of public opinion was virtually unequivocal: look at her, she’s clearly a slut who should not have presented herself as she did if she didn’t want any unwelcome advances. Do you realize how stupid that sounds, how faulty that kind of logic is? Say whatever you want about her musical contributions; at the end of the day there is a person behind the persona, one that 99.9% of us will never know anything about.
Kesha knows who she is, who she has been and how she’s been perceived. She makes no bones about it, going so far as to appear nude with her back to the listener on the surrealistic cover of Rainbow, her first release since the allegations came to light. This faceless sexualizing allows any number of women’s experiences to be projected onto her naked body. In this she regains control from the outset, stripping herself literally and figuratively to show she’s nothing left to hide, nothing left to lose.
Throughout the album, she offers one self-help anthem after another, using herself and her own experiences as the basis for each rather than relying on oblique platitudes. And while this constant reassuring could easily be perceived as little more than sloganeering, there is an emotional heft behind the words. “I’m proud of who I am/ No more monsters, I can breathe again/ And you said that I was done/ Well you were wrong and now the best is yet to come,” she sings on “Praying.” While seemingly simplistic when taken at face value, a peek behind the curtain shows the raw emotion and vulnerability on display.
Indeed, she’s already been dragged through the mud so often and for so long that she has nothing more to lose. “Bastards” builds around a clichéd axiom, but instead of being merely a vague mantra designed to help us get through, it plays as a life-affirming statement of purpose: “I got too many people left to prove wrong/ All those motherfuckers been too mean for too long/ …I could fight forever, but life’s too short.” Again, on the page it reads as juvenile. But the context of these words, coupled with the stark vocals-and-acoustic guitar arrangement, lend a sense of gravity that forgoes the threat of becoming laughable and instead acts as a self-help motto not only for herself, but for anyone who’s ever been bullied or shamed for being who they are.
This theme of life being too short to waste time on those motherfuckers looking to bring you down continues throughout, most exuberantly on the triumphant title track: “I’d forgot how to daydream/ So consumed with the wrong things/ But in the dark I realized this life is short/ And deep down I’m still a child, playful eyes wide and wild/ I can’t lose hope, what’s left of my heart is made of gold/ and I know that I’m still fucked up, but aren’t we all?/ Our scars make us who we are.” Nothing here is profound or original, but because of its source and the surrounding circumstances, even the tritest couplets are capable of cutting to the core.
She’s also left behind the electronic glitter beats and faux rap party swagger in favor of a more diversified musical palette. Enlisting the help of Eagles of Death Metal, she does her best Karen O-via-Marc Bolan on tracks like “Let ‘Em Talk” and “Boogie Feet.” “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You),” a monster duet with Dolly Parton—herself no stranger to objectification—is a gorgeously heartbreaking country ballad built on pedal steel and chunky guitar chords adopting a stop-start rhythm that allows the words room for maximum impact. The emergence of a country twang on a handful of tracks is the most interesting development and, surprisingly, given the state of modern country, a sign of maturity as a songwriter, not to mention a fine showcase for her impressive vocal prowess.
Of course, it’s not all heavy-handed and self-referential—this is a Kesha record, after all. “Godzilla” could well be a lost Kimya Dawson track, its inherent silliness laid bare in the imagery of the titular character going to the grocery store or being taken home to meet one’s parents. But even these inconsequential numbers (“Boogie Feet” is as dumb as it sounds) are important, as they show that, despite the knocks she’s taken along the way, she’s chosen to follow her own advice. Recognizing life is far too short to worry about what those looking to tear you down think, she transcends the last five years and delivers an album full of hope and renewed self-confidence. We should all be so bold.