I don’t know that I’ve mentioned this here on the blog before, but I adore Kesha. Her music was something my husband and I bonded over right away, and she’s held a special place in my heart since then. During the shit show with Dr. Assface (I refuse to write or say his real name), I grew to feel a particular kind of fondness for her. I was proud of her for standing up for herself and fighting for herself. And I was beyond sad when I thought that she might never release music again.
Last week Kesha released her first new album in 5 years. It’s almost unbelievable that she still has a career after that long away. And while I loved Kesha’s music before, her new album has brought something new and much deeper to the table, so much so that I have found the album as a whole to be completely transformative, an anthem for survivors, and honestly my favorite piece of media to come out in years. Beyond the album itself, Kesha has been releasing essays that go with many of her songs. She also has taken an interesting approach to the release itself, putting out 4 singles with videos before the album dropped, which totals a full third of the album available before the official release date.
As an intertextual piece of media, Kesha has created an amazing summation of the experience of healing from abuse. It’s been quite a while since I’ve really dug into a text and I am 100% obsessed with this album, so for this week, hopefully as a small spot of light in an otherwise dumpster fire trash pile of a time, I’m going to be breaking down the album, analyzing some of the lyrics, and talking about how it exemplifies the experience of a survivor.
Today I’m going to start by talking about some elements of the album as a whole, and for the next week or so I’m going to delve into specific songs. Let’s do it!
The thing that strikes me first and most intensely about Rainbow and the accompanying essays are not what Kesha says, but what she doesn’t say. Kesha’s album comes after a very long and very public trial with Dr. Douchecanoe, but nowhere in her album does she mention him, sexual assault, a trial, or anything else that could be seen as a particular that points towards the whole business. She doesn’t even reference the experience in anything that could be considered a “direct” way.
The two places that stand out the most to me as Kesha pointing towards Dr. Luke are the entirely of “Praying” (which lyrically is simply a song about one person who feels another person has wronged them), and in the essay about “Woman”, when she writes “I really have to thank Stephen Wrabel and Drew Pearson for helping me through the past few years and making writing songs a beautiful thing again. Both of those men made my art/work safe and fun, and every session with the two of them was so healing.”
I’ll dig into deeper depth on that last comment when I write about Woman, but what strikes me about all this is how careful Kesha is being. Perhaps it’s unintentional, but the whole business reads like a manual on how to avoid charges of libel, and that to me is such a deep part of the modern woman’s experience of sexual assault. The ways that Kesha talks around her assault are just as telling as what she says straightforwardly. Women today have more freedom to talk about sexual assault, but they are only allowed to do so in an abstract way. “I was sexually assaulted,” is an acceptable, poignant, personal story. “He sexually assaulted me,” is cause for a lawsuit.
Even though Kesha never says his name, we ALL know who she’s talking about (or to in the case of Praying). With that context in mind, the coyness of her references seem less like a capitulation to these pressures and more an in-joke in which we are all aware what she’s really saying, but she’s playing by the “rules”. And for those women who have not been able to speak up about their abuse or assault, it feels to me like an affirmation: you still deserve your healing. There are still ways to heal. There are ways to move forward and those of us who have been there will support you.
This odd tension in the album exemplifies to me the expectations of how women are supposed to deal with sexual assault, and the challenges it can present.
Which brings me to the overall theme of the album: healing. It’s named after a song whose lyrics say that you will find a rainbow. By itself, that message seems trite and almost dismissive of the real pain of sufferers. But the reason this album is so successful to me is its diversity. Rainbow covers a surprising array of musical styles, from horns heavy “Woman”, to the simple and indie feeling “Dinosaur,” all the way through a country duet with Dolly Parton. Each of these songs alone does not paint a full picture of trauma and recovery.
However that seems like an important recognition to me: no single emotion or reaction is enough to encapsulate someone’s experience of trauma. That’s why Kesha required a full album plus essays. Each piece is a very real experience, whether that’s forgiving the person who hurt you, hating the person who hurt you, feeling proud of yourself, or fulfilling childhood dreams. An individual person can feel all of these things, or different people could experience their trauma in all of these different ways, and nothing about any of these experiences in invalid or incorrect.
Everyone reacts to trauma or assault differently. It would have been easy for Kesha to create an album that spoke only about her experiences. However she created something that made space for all the reactions someone could have, and beyond that, it recognized the long path it’s taken for her to get to where she is. By opening up about the variety of her experiences, and not creating a pretty picture for us all to see now that she’s healthy again, she opened the door to validating thousands of other experiences.
The format and styling of the album overall give an important picture of sexual assault, but there’s one additional element that I think is important, and that’s Kesha’s choice to write and publish essays about four of her singles as well as short paragraphs on every track. I’m going to do a longer post just on how fascinating that is as a medium choice, but for now I want to point out how that experience of feeling, then stepping back and analyzing your feelings, is so common for people who are struggling with trauma, depression, or anxiety. The sense of distance from yourself, combined with the need to question everything and provide evidence for everything feels so familiar to me, especially when I think about my own experiences with sexual assault.
Again, I’m not sure that Kesha did that intentionally, but her choice of a dual medium is a brilliant mirror of what the experience of recovery can feel like. Interacting with an album that validates my experiences, talks openly about emotions, engages in a realistic way with assault and trauma, and ends feeling uplifting is so powerful to me. Seeing a woman who was supposed to shut up and go away come back and create amazing art that not only blows everyone away but also quietly thumbs its nose at her abuser is truly amazing. I can’t say enough about how powerful Rainbow is for me. I suggest you give it a listen.