We want our stars to be honest. We want them to demonstrate a kind of authenticity in their art to humanize them; if they feel the same pain and passion as we do, we want to hear it. Today, it’s easier to know what’s going in a star’s life than ever before. In the case of Kesha, who released “Praying”—her first song in four years—this morning, her story has filled the space left by her absence from music. On the single, the extramusical knowledge informs Kesha’s cathartic piano ballad, infusing the song with the weight of the real world. For the Kesha of “Praying,” the battle comes naturally. She’s always been fighting, she’s always been a warrior, and here she reveals how close she came to giving up.
“Praying,” produced and co-written by Macklemore contributor Ryan Lewis, will arrive on Kesha’s third studio LP Rainbow on August 11, via Kemosabe/RCA Records. It’s impossible to to discuss the song without looking back to K’s ongoing legal battle with producer (and the label head of Kemosabe, to which she is still signed) Dr. Luke. In 2014, she accused Luke of sexual and emotional abuse, resulting in an endless back and forth that has prevented the singer from releasing music outside of his control. Earlier this year Sony ceased partnership with Dr. Luke and just last month a defamation lawsuit filed by Dr. Luke against Kesha’s mother, Pebe Sebert, was dismissed. The legal battle between Kesha and Luke continues, though. While the conversations and court dates proceed, there is one thing to be said about the relationship: should they chose to confront their abuser, a victim of sexual assault should not have to work with and continue a relationship with their abuser. Kesha could’ve lost her career over this, she certainly lost herself for a while because of it. That’s not justice.
“Praying” is a hopeful song, though its video, directed by Jonas Akerlund, doesn’t open that way. Against a shot of Keisha in a coffin, her voiceover arrives, delicate and hopeless: “Am I dead? Or is this one of those dreams? Those horrible dreams that seem like they last forever? If I am alive, why?” She continues this line of questioning, ending with “Please just let me die. Being alive hurts too much.” She channels the helplessness of severe depression—the feeling of constant, inarticulate weight, of being stuck and in pain.
This is a song about forgiveness, acceptance and triumph, and by releasing it via Kemosabe, she’s practicing what she preaches.
When the song itself kicks off, Kesha is close to that melancholy but it’s in the past tense. The second her somber piano hits its first note, she opens her mouth and sings, “Well, you almost had me fooled.” She’s removed herself from alienation, working to remove herself from trauma. “Told me that I was nothing without you/Oh, but after everything you’ve done/I can thank you for how strong I have become,” she finishes the verse, an almost direct reference to Dr. Luke—she’s destroyed the man in a few short, kind words, a gracious pummeling possible only by those who’ve found salvation—and on Salvation Mountain, no less, where the video was filmed. It’s the perfect backdrop for the song, bright, colorful bible verses painted on neon adobe in the Colorado Desert in California. It’s an unexpected place to find hope, mirroring Kesha’s move from desolation to empowerment.
Like its location, this is a different kind of salvation. In an essay for Lenny Letter, Kesha wrote, “For me, God is not a bearded man sitting in the clouds or a judgmental, homophobic tyrant waiting to send everyone to eternal damnation. God is nature and space and energy and the universe. My own interpretation of spirituality isn't important, because we all have our own. What matters is that I have something greater than me as an individual that helps bring me peace.”
Spirituality as an abstraction for hope and forgiveness is nothing new, but it’s increasingly rare in pop music. But this song isn’t concerned with fitting in; it’s Kesha’s truth, presented to heal others. She nails that solace in the second verse: “I’m proud of who I am/No more monsters, I can breathe again.” Around the 4:21 minute mark in the video (and 3:14 in the official recording) Kesha zooms to the top of her register, hitting an unexpected high note that fully articulates the emotion of the track. It’s almost a scream.
“Praying” was released on Dr. Luke’s Kemosabe label. It’s a confusing and bittersweet reality—she is releasing music once again; honest, true music, but on the label run by the man she accused of abusing her. This is a song about forgiveness, acceptance and triumph, and by releasing it via Kemosabe, she’s practicing what she preaches. It doesn’t feel great, but getting her message across does.
Last year, Kesha went on tour with Diplo’s Mad Decent Block Party. She played a handful of shows outside of it, and a giant light-up sign that read “Fuck The World” followed her. The sets were inspired by her Nashville roots—tons of country-folk-rock hybridity, a Bob Dylan cover or two. “Praying” is a pop record but more purposeful than the music that made her famous. Those looking to make pop music with real resonance would be wise to look to this song, and whatever Kesha does next. There’s still a war waiting to be won.