Kesha is an artist known for her wild and raucous party anthems and her neverending positive spirit. More recently, she’s also become known as an artist who has the strength and courage to stand up to the man who abused and sexually assaulted her. Last year Kesha was fighting her producer Dr. Luke in court, trying to sever ties with him after years of what she called an abusive relationship where he belittled and insulted her to the point of developing an eating disorder, threatened her and her family and drugged and raped her repeatedly. That she could come back with such a triumphant album in Rainbow and first single is amazing, especially after she lost in court. With Rainbow, Kesha is positioning herself to join artists like Rihanna, Carly Rae Jepsen, Lorde, Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez in the top level of female pop artists making music this summer.
Obviously a huge highlight is her first single since the Dr. Luke trial, “Praying.” Clearly referencing the tribulations she’s been through and where she wants to go from here, it’s not just a pop anthem, it’s a manifesto.
In “Praying” she’s singing for everyone who’s been emotionally, physically, mentally and sexually abused. She’s owning the truth, she’s owning herself, she’s taking back her life from the man who tried to take it away from her. It’s forgiving, vindictive, proud and optimistic at the same time. It’s complicated, like the singer, like healing from trauma. This is a comeback album for Kesha, and she’s not ashamed of that. There’s always been a theme of refusing to be ashamed of who you are in her music, and with this album and songs like “Praying” she continues that theme and brings it to a deeper level. She’s above the abuse that Dr. Luke spewed at her, as much as he made her hate herself, she loves herself so much more now. She wants us to be able to say the same thing.
There are plenty of great upbeat classic Kesha songs, including the two songs right after the opening track. “Let ‘Em Talk” has driving drum beats and the lines “Shake that ass/Don’t care if they talk about it,” “life is short and we got only one shot/so let’s go balls out and give it all we got” and my favorite, “I’ve decided all the haters everywhere can suck my dick!” My personal favorite of the more rowdy songs, “Woman,” features the Dap Kings Horns and will probably become my new karaoke song. All I want to do is sing “I’m a motherfuckin woman!/baby that’s right/I’m just having fun with my ladies tonight/I’m a motherfucker!” The song that perhaps sounds most like her older music is the dance punk track “Boogie Shoes,” a song about shaking your ass and having a great time.
The album also has plenty of great country pop songs, like the Dolly Parton duet “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You),” the opening number “Bastards,” “Hunt you Down” and one of my other favorites, the sexy, fun and supremely danceable “Boots.” I love that Kesha has been able to find her voice on this album; you can see clear influences in her music and songwriting, like Parton and punk rock, that weren’t necessarily as obvious in her previous Dr. Luke-produced hits. Kesha is a brilliant songwriter and a brilliant artist and this, her first album without Dr. Luke, is the highlight of her career so far.
My number one favorite song on this album is absolutely the title track. The first time I heard “Rainbow” I was sobbing. As women we so often are told by society and the patriarchy and by our abusers that we’re not as good as we were before, that we’re ruined, unworthy. Kesha’s songs are a direct challenge to that; they’re a rallying cry for survivors and victims and all of us. From a lesser artist the lyrics “I used to live in the darkness,” “now I see the magic inside of me,” “darling, our scars make us who we are,” would be cliché and trite. I mean, there’s already a song that famously asks “why are there so many songs about rainbows?” But what Kesha brings to this song elevates it to another level. It is schlock, but it’s the best kind, the kind that brings us to tears and makes our hearts swell. She’s not singing about hypothetical scars and pain; she’s singing about finding strength and love inside and outside of herself after years of working with a predator and years of him controlling her career and life. She’s not subtly hinting at where she’s been or where she’s going, she’s being open and up front about it. It’s got the desperate earnestness of a confession, the tenderness of sharing a secret with your best friend and the raw emotion and heart of a bridesmaid’s speech, graduation speech and eulogy put together.
There’s this thing that pop culture critics and people who are much smarter, wiser and more knowledgeable than me say. They say that pop stars and media and products aren’t our friends, they aren’t feminists, they’re things being sold to us, they’re the result of marketing and capitalism. And that’s true. But I also do think that a pop song can be feminist and an album can be your friend, and I think that Kesha’s Rainbow is those things. I’m embracing the things that make me feel strong and loved and special and empowered. I think it’s important that we focus on being genuine and open and full of heart, especially right now. While Kesha is dancing around the stage, she’s not dancing around her feelings or pain or struggles or desires. She’s laying her heart bare on the floor with this album, and her heart is the most beautiful rainbow I’ve ever seen.