The first time I heard a Kesha song, I was with my kid sister. I remember laughing together at the whimsically dark yet silly lyrics, “Maybe I need some rehab—or maybe just need some sleep…”
This was back in the day when my sister and I would dance in front of our shared bathroom mirror to whatever DJ iPod played. Meticulously, we pinned and curled our hair as we danced. Delicately, we’d paint our faces with CoverGirl and Maybelline colors of cultural uniformity. And this we thought would make us stand out—beautiful.
Over the last several years, I’ve dealt with guilt over the example I helped set for my sister. How was I defining what it meant to be a woman? To have self worth? Seven years later, as I become reacquainted with Kesha through her new album Rainbow, I can’t help but revisit these standards that I had so wrong.
To set the scene appropriately, my knowledge of Kesha back in 2010 came only through the kitschy yet fun, often spoken verses shared on pop radio. I never dug fully into her artistic repertoire. Nor did I have knowledge beyond passing comments of the more recent hell she went through with infamous producer Dr. Luke. Until about a month ago.
My husband encouraged me to listen to Kesha’s single, “Praying”. To say this song demanded my attention is an understatement. The melodic power I was hearing begged me to sing the words I did not yet know, and yet the emotion behind the lyrics gripped my vocal chords to pained silence. From that moment, I could not help but get to know Rainbow and the history that made it.
Kesha’s long awaited reintroduction into pop culture is an opus of anthems for the outcasts—the repressed—the weirdoes. With every track, she celebrates individuality and tells the haters where they can stick it—in the most mature way possible. Tis a sonic spectrum as varied in color and mood as the refracted light of the album’s namesake.
Starting with “Bastards”, you almost feel like you’re sitting by the campfire with the carefree artist and her guitar as she encourages you to chuckle over how crappy life can be. You sing along and embrace that you can overcome it. Then, after an almost Beatles-esque, syllable-sing-along of a bridge, you jump to the poppy “Let Em Talk” to the country funk “Woman” to the synthesized “Hymn” to the power ballad “Praying”… If that’s not enough variety for you, just wait for that Johnny Cash sound of “Hunt You Down” or the Dolly Parton cameo of “Old Flames” or the silly guitar waltz behind “Godzilla”.
Despite all this acoustic variety, Kesha’s themes are nothing but strong and consistent, and they speak of a newfound strength and consistency she wants to share. First off, it is damn good to be a woman, and we ladies do not have to have a man to feel strong. “Woman” was reportedly born from Kesha’s outraged response to Trump’s pre-presidency abomination of a comment about the fairer sex. The lyric content celebrates a woman’s financial independence, almost rebuking man’s involvement, spouting, “I don’t need a man to be holding me too tight”. Interspersed throughout the song are clips of laughter tracks, hinting just what Kesha thinks of men who think otherwise. Add to that her adopting parts of male anatomy as her own in “Let Em Talk” and taking on a female version of the traditional outlaw country song with “Hunt You Down”, and it’s obvious that Kesha has no qualms promoting women’s equality.
While frustration and anger are present in these lyrical undertones, Rainbow also paints Kesha as working hard to process past resentments in the healthiest way she knows how. From the Dr. Luke news alone, we have a small picture of the hell she’s been living. In “Praying”, Kesha lays it all bare without speaking a word of what actually happened. The song echoes with her justified anger, but instead of exposing “all the truth [she] could tell”, she dynamically closes the door on all that hate. She leaves the offender to find his own peace with the only one who can actually grant it. In “Learn to Let Go”, the track that immediately follows, we see Kesha transcend the victim mindset, taking her own advice that “Life ain’t always fair, but hell is living in resentment / Choose redemption; your happy ending’s up to you”.
When feminism is married to the awful things that can happen to a woman—whether in our world or in the tracks of an album—a woman cannot help but battle for and eventually celebrate her own self worth. On this third theme, Kesha most certainly delivers. And she invites all those who feel marginalized to the party. With the opening sing-along “Bastards”, Kesha strikes a chord with anyone who has felt “underestimated [their] entire life”, and reminds them not to let the jerks who give us that message win. “Hymn” lifts up the outcasts and the oppressed, singing praise to their perfection amidst life’s mess. Then, the album’s title track encircles the realization that “what’s left of [Kesha’s] heart’s still made of gold” and extends the invitation to anyone who needs the same self-realization to “come and paint the world with [her] tonight”.
All this weight, and yet Kesha is still able to embrace the silly side of her that had my sister and me bouncing around in front of the mirror seven years ago. (If you need proof of this, just take a listen to “Godzilla” and think on its impish genius.) Listening today, I wish my sis and I had been painting ourselves then with Kesha’s Rainbow palette. I wish we had realized earlier the promise that we are beautiful women—even, if not especially, in the messed up moments. But hey. There’s still time to paint the world a different color.
by Jennifer Hauck
Jennifer Hauck lives with her highly musically-inclined hubby in Indianapolis, Indiana. She loves puppies, coffee, Indian food, the stage and the lost art of snail mail. While she’s never been a formal music critic, she has studied and respects the power of the pen and still reaches for it occasionally.