Written whilst listening to Kesha’s “Praying,” over and over again.
“Praying,” Kesha’s first song off her new album Rainbow, is remarkably restrained, given the fact that this marks her first entrance back into music after years of legal conflict with former producer, Dr. Luke, following accusations from Kesha that Dr. Luke physically and emotionally abused her.
That abuse feels present in the accompanying music video for “Praying.” The concept of the video is visually similar to some parts of Beyoncé’s Lemonade, with motifs of death and romance, expansive waterscapes and spoken word. Vox’s Caroline Framke pointed out the similarities between “Praying” and Beyoncé’s “Pray You Catch Me.”
The parallels to Lemonade — Beyoncé’s stunning visual album about a woman rebuilding after a betrayal — are undeniable. Even aside from the self-reflective spoken-word opening the song (which is not unsimilar to Beyoncé’s opening track “Pray You Catch Me”), Kesha’s wardrobe and affect are eerily similar at times.
And while there are strong similarities between both visual projects, Beyoncé pulled mythology, black history and religion into a sleek, heavily stylized masterpiece. Kesha’s “Praying” feels more like a dystopian future, a bomb-racked wasteland that Kesha is waking up into.
The opening shots of the video are centered in a dusty, musty cement room, lit by neon crosses and signs. Kesha, surrounded by candles and color and garbed in something evocative of Gaga’s “Telephone” or “Bad Romance” era, is in a wooden coffin stuffed with colored silks. Two men, wearing shoddy plastic pig masks, are standing over her. It’s unclear if they’re her guardians or her guards. The saliva dripping from their masked mouths indicates the latter.
Am I dead? Or is this one of those dreams? Those horrible dreams that seem like they last forever? If I am alive, why? If there is a God or whatever, something, somewhere, why have I been abandoned by everyone and everything I’ve ever known? I’ve ever loved? Stranded. What is the lesson? What is the point? God, give me a sign, or I have to give up. I can’t do this anymore. Please just let me die. Being alive hurts too much.
“What is the lesson?” Kesha wonders from her coffin. What has she suffered for? Was any of it worth it? The question is particularly poignant when taken in context of Kesha’s actual life. Kesha alleged that Dr. Luke raped her and forced her into an eating disorder through his emotional abuse. Kesha went to rehab for bulimia in January 2014. By October, she sued Dr. Luke, the lawsuit going on for a year before Kesha sought a release from her contract with him.
After months of legal back-and-forth, the judge in Kesha’s case denied her request to break out of her contract with Dr. Luke and roundly rejected all of her claims. It was around this time that “#FreeKesha” was trending, a response to the profoundly unfair reality that after all this time, all this testimony, all this pain, she was not free of this man. So what was the point of a decade of abuse, months of public spectacle, and years of lost life?
A lot of art, and a lot of life, deals with trying to find meaning in sometimes meaningless pain. Like Kesha, one has to wonder, “Is this suffering arbitrary? Or is it for something bigger, greater?” Sometimes, like Kesha says, ‘being alive hurts too much.’
In April of 2017, SONY Records dropped Dr. Luke from their company, following the public reaction of Kesha’s allegations. And so, months later, Kesha begins to release new music.
In the video, Kesha is waking up, or coming back to life, in a colorful, feathery, dusty world. To match her captors’ pig masks, she is decked out in massive angel wings. Alternating between her stranded on a raft and her walking alongside that ruined, futuristic desert city, Kesha plays the piano.
It begins softly, and kindly: “Well, you almost had me fooled/ Told me that I was nothing without you/ Oh, and after everything you’ve done/ I can thank you for how strong I have become.” But the second verse pulls back the fangs that Kesha is known for having. “Cause you brought the flames and you put me through hell/ I had to learn how to fight for myself/ And we both know all the truth I could tell/ I’ll just say this is I wish you farewell.”
This is not someone meekly forgiving. This is not someone who has forgotten. Kesha is asserting, that despite the legal barriers and the public perceptions of her (and all women who come forward with allegations of abuse), that she is the one with the power. She is the one with the trump card, and she’s forgoing using it for the sake of moving on. But she still wants Dr. Luke to know it.
Kesha woke up in a destroyed world. But for the first time, in so long, she’s awake. As the song goes on, her voice increases in strength and her request for Dr. Luke, for him to find peace, grows stronger too.
“Praying” could’ve been something else. It could’ve been harsh, and hitting and cutting—it could’ve been her “Fuck You” to Dr. Luke. She would’ve been merited that. We would’ve loved that. But “Praying” is something entirely different. It’s forgiveness, knowing forgiveness, but forgiveness. It’s strength; it’s letting go of the past in order to move into the future. But refusing to release a slam, Kesha is putting herself beyond his control. Because to create music directly for him—at him—would still be putting him at the center of her world.
“Oh, some say, in life you gonna get what you give/ But some things, only God can forgive./ I hope you’re somewhere praying, praying/ I hope your soul is changing, changing/ I hope you find your peace,/ Falling on your knees, praying.”
She is, ultimately, not the decider of his fate, or her own fate, or his pain or her pain. Kesha gives that up to something higher and bigger. She is not the arbiter of Dr. Luke’s life; she can only, to live her own life, hope that he can just live his. Kesha has spent too long in hell to keep herself in it willingly. In “Praying” she wakes up in that bomb-racked world, and begins to walk away from it.