It’s impossible to listen to Kesha’s third album, Rainbow, released last Friday, without considering how miserable the last five years of her life have surely been. Since 2013, Kesha has been embroiled in a very public legal battle with her producer Dr. Luke, who signed her to his label, Kemosabe Records, when she was just 18. Kesha sued him for sexual assault, battery, and emotional abuse, among other allegations, and also asked the courts to release her from her contract. They didn’t, so Dr. Luke is still — if only financially — involved in Rainbow, giving the album an added layer of darkness and vibrancy and rage. On “Learn To Let Go,” one of a few songs that seem to directly address her abuse, Kesha sings, “Had a boogieman under my bed / Putting crazy thoughts inside my head / Always whispering, ‘It’s all your fault’ / He was telling me, ‘No, you’re not that strong.’”
The details of Kesha v. Dr. Luke were very public and incredibly bleak. Kesha’s lawsuit alleges that Dr. Luke dosed Kesha with the date rape drug GHB (claiming they were “sober pills”) and raped her in 2005. In 2014, Kesha checked into a rehab facility for an eating disorder, which her mother blamed on Dr. Luke’s influence. “I’ve watched my beautiful, self-confident, brilliant daughter be berated and ridiculed for her looks and weight to the point that she almost died,” she told People. The suit also alleges that Dr. Luke offered to release Kesha from her contract if she retracted her rape allegation.
Kesha claims Dr. Luke was violent with her (leading to her running barefoot along the Pacific Coast Highway to get away from him), and that he restricted her creative control over her own music. Even after all this, the courts did not release Kesha from her contract, so — while Dr. Luke is not directly involved in Rainbow, and is no longer the CEO of Kemosabe Records — the contracts she signed with him even before the agreements she made with Sony means he’ll still benefit financially from her work.
So after all this, when Rainbow dropped last week, and it became clear that it was an excellent record, there was a kind of collective sigh of relief. In the days since the album’s release, most reviews have been jubilantly positive; Rolling Stone wrote that “Kesha channels that drama into the best music of her career.” Vulture called Rainbow “a ray of hope and solidarity, and it stays coolly upbeat and confidently shuffling through genres.” Vanity Fair raved that the album is “a blatant, angry response to the singer’s battle with a legal system that has left her feeling frustrated and trapped as an artist — but also a powerful pop album that earns the anticipation.” Even less glowing reviews of Rainbow still tout the record as a hit that Kesha has earned through sheer force of will.
Most people wanted Kesha to have a win for herself after dealing with a long, public, and personal fight with the man whom she claims didn’t just control her career, but her body and her life. But many of Kesha’s listeners — particularly women, queer, and nonbinary people with their own histories of sexual trauma — didn’t just want the album to be great for her sake; we, too, needed it to be great, because wins are so few and far between for victims of abuse in society at large.
On Twitter, the #FreeKesha hashtag is still a hub for fans to remind each other to keep Rainbow on the charts, as well as a place where fans go after other celebrities for ostensibly failing to buy Kesha’s music after supporting her during her trial. Thousands of them signed heartfelt petitions lobbying for her creative freedom from from Dr. Luke. All around, her fans are holding her up as not only a talented vocalist but an advocate for abuse survivors. A lot of people don’t get any solace after trauma, especially sexual trauma, and certainly not any legal or public vindication on a larger scale — which makes Rainbow’s success all that more vital for the members her fanbase with similar pasts. No matter your trauma, you get to claim Kesha’s victory too, even if — or especially if — you’ve never gotten a win for yourself.
Kesha has never been a “perfect victim”: Her image has always been one of a woman who liked getting fucked up and going to parties and meeting boys. Her 2009 video for “Tik Tok” starts with her waking up hungover in a stranger’s bathtub, leads to her getting arrested while singing about drinking, and ends with her in another bathtub at another party, missing a shoe. But Kesha’s comments since then have suggested that much of that pop star persona was a marketing strategy encouraged by her management, rather than an artistic choice on her part. “What’s been put out as singles have just perpetuated a particular image that may or may not be accurate,” Kesha told Rolling Stone in 2013. “I don’t want to just continue putting out the same song and becoming a parody myself.”
In the aftermath of the lawsuit’s details becoming public and Dr. Luke’s lawyer calling the suit “a continuation of her bad and offensive acts,” it would have made sense for Rainbow to be a chance to rewrite Kesha’s image entirely. Women who’ve been victimized generally have to be perfect — poised, ladylike, sober — in order for their claims to have public legitimacy. Rainbow, however, balances Kesha’s public images of being both survivor and party girl without relying too heavily on one or the other.
There are plenty of nods in these songs to Kesha’s last five years, her abuse, and her recovery. “Bastards,” "Praying,” and “Learn To Let Go” all feel like direct responses to her abusers and detractors. But saying that this is a record addressed to or about Dr. Luke, specifically, feels reductive; instead, it’s a more nuanced look at how a woman is crawling out from under the label of “victim” without erasing swaths of her personality or character or history. There are a lot of nods to her old shtick, too: “Boots” starts off with her talking about having boys in different cities; “Boogie Feet” is an incredibly fun song about dancing; “Godzilla” is literally about dating Godzilla; and “Hunt You Down” includes Kesha cutely cooing to a love interest: “Don’t make me kill you.”
Kesha also duets with Dolly Parton on a cover of “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle To You).” The meaning of the song and the duet is incredibly layered: Kesha’s mother, Pebe Sebert, was one of the songwriters of the original version in the late '70s. But the duet also suggests that Kesha is channeling Parton’s trademark sexy, don’t-give-a-shit attitude, while also getting some support from a woman whom people also once refused to take seriously as an artist. “I wanted to call the album Rainbow because after the storm, there’s a rainbow,” Kesha wrote for Refinery29. “This was my way of telling myself that i was going to make it through. I made the decision to take the dollar sign out of my name. I did away with my cynical self-deprecating ‘I don’t give a fuck’ attitude and the matching Twitter name @keshasuxx. I let myself be 100% genuine, vulnerable, and honest.”
There’s something joyful about a woman refusing to relegate her art to being solely about her trauma, especially when her trauma is one that demands constant explanation. Sexual assault survivors and women who have been exploited by men are often forced to explain what happened to them over and over in order to get people to believe them. But instead of writing a record dedicated to that explanation, or even to her own grief over being locked in an unwinnable war for the last five years with the very people tasked with developing her career, Kesha made an album where her anguish was just one part of the narrative, instead of the whole story. “This whole album, for me, really is a healing album,” she told NPR. “It’s healing from so many things from my past and just trying to get back to the most childlike, naive, purest version of myself that I can find.”
In this sense, Kesha is much more successful at the “purposeful pop” Katy Perry was trying desperately, and failing, to accomplish with her 2017 album, Witness. For a while, Perry and Kesha had similar public personas, both technicolor party people who made fun pop music about boys and hanging out and dancing. Recently, Perry decided to swerve into more socially conscious music, an attempt to make fun music that had heft. It was not well received, maybe because the “purpose” behind Perry’s work was unclear. For Kesha, we already have a point of reference because her trial was so public, and her desire for personal and creative freedom so clear. Perry livestreamed her therapy sessions for all to watch in some warped attempt to create intimacy, but Kesha doesn’t need to manufacture affinity with her listeners.
Rainbow isn’t perfect. Some songs veer into mawkish expressions of self-confidence and closure, and Kesha still dabbles in cultural appropriation. (The video for “Praying” is rife with Sanskrit-stylized text, and artwork for the single features Kesha wearing a third eye. There’s also something truly unbearable about a white lady singing “Don’t touch my weave,” as Kesha does in the feminist war cry of "Woman.") Those choices aren’t defensible, but Kesha’s fans are especially prickly about criticism. Rainbow is foremost an album about healing after trauma — and women get so little of that in the world that it’s not surprising people might want to give Kesha a pass on something that would otherwise be picked apart.
The least we wanted for Kesha — and through some transference, for us — was an album that would reestablish her as a force of nature, and stand as proof that someone with bad intentions can’t tear you down all the way. We wanted (and continue to want) something similar for Britney Spears, ever since her very public mental health crisis in the late 2000s. Since then, she’s released three albums which have been considered critically uneven but enthusiastically received by her loyal fanbase. (It’s likely Kesha would’ve been supported by her base regardless of whether Rainbow was any good, but the fact that it is good makes it even easier to celebrate.) Taylor Swift, meanwhile, recently won her countersuit for $1 against a radio DJ whom she claims groped her in 2013. Swift has hardly been a media darling in the last few years, but she’s never had a more sympathetic audience than while fighting against the kind of trespass so many women have experienced before.
That same protectionist sentiment around Kesha might seem overblown, if not for the long history of women having to stand by each other after a sexual assault or a rape or abuse, because the system doesn’t work or because it’s so impossible to be believed or because your history suggests you might have been asking for it. If Rainbow were bad, or even mediocre, it would feel like one more collective trauma. We get so little; it’s such a relief for her — for all of us — to get this one thing. We needed the album to be good because we wanted her to win, but we wanted her to win so we could regain some faith ourselves.
At the beginning of August, Kesha performed “Woman” live at YouTube. Wearing a pink suit with yellow planets adorning the jacket, Kesha sways while holding up two middle fingers and singing, as she puts it, “about being a badass motherfucker.” Near the end, she mock-collapses, trying to keep singing while two men hold her up, wrapping her in a glittering cape. When she sings, “I’m a motherfucking woman,” she pushes them both off and sings her song on her own. The imagery is hardly subtle, but subtlety isn’t really necessary here. The power of this message comes from its directness, and how easy it is for all of us to take a piece of it for ourselves. ●
Scaachi Koul is a Culture Writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in Toronto.
Contact Scaachi Koul at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.