Sometimes a new song comes out that leaves my jaw on the floor. Usually, it's for all the wrong reasons. Occasionally, it's for the right ones. Kesha's new track, "Praying," is—surprisingly—in mostly the latter category.
Kesha (no longer with that $ standing in for an "s" in her name) built her reputation on vapid, hedonistic Auto-Tune anthems, charting seven Top 10 singles between 2009 and 2012. Recall that her first hit, "TiK ToK," found her bragging, "Brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack."
Lately, though, when Kesha has been in the news, it hasn't been for her music. In 2014, the singer filed civil suit against longtime producer Lukasz Gottwald—known professionally as Dr. Luke—for sexual assault and battery, among a long list of other accusations. She asked to be released from her contract with Dr. Luke's label, Kemosabe Records, and its distributor, Sony, because she couldn't publish new music without his approval. More lawsuits followed in multiple states, with Dr. Luke countersuing both Kesha and her mother for breach of contract and defamation.
Some of the suits have been dropped or resolved, while one is still in play. (Kesha has yet to win any cases.) But while the legal minutia surrounding this complex story is clear as tar, one thing seems clear: Kesha sounds like a changed woman. Her struggle over the last several years obviously infuses her new single, "Praying," a tune that focuses on forgiving a person who tormented her.
'God, Give Me a Sign'
The video for "Praying" (which I'll talk about more in a moment) begins with a wincing, spoken-word intro by Kesha that says her trials sapped her will to live. "Am I dead?" she asks. "Or is this one of those dreams, those horrible dreams, that seem like they last forever?"
After a pause, she resumes her monologue, asking questions about the meaning of life and pain, and where God is (or isn't) in the midst of it all. "If I am alive, why? Why, if there's a God, or whatever, something, somewhere, why have I been abandoned by everyone and everything I've ever known, I've ever loved? Stranded."
Before the song itself begins, she concludes, "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."
From Pain to Forgiveness
If that confession sounds grim, raw and desperate, the emotive piano ballad that follows seems to speak from the other side of it, revealing lessons Kesha's learned in her crucible.
"Well, you almost had me fooled," Kesha begins. "Told me that I was nothing without you." But the 30-year-old singer has refused to internalize that demeaning accusation: "Oh, but after everything you've done/I can thank you for how strong I have become/'Cause you brought me the flames, and you put me through hell/And I had to learn how to fight for myself." The second verse adds more of the same: "I'm proud of who I am/And you said I was done/Well, you were wrong, and now the best is yet to come."
But just when you think that Kesha's going to unload bitter recrimination on her antagonist, she turns that surprising corner: "I'll just say this as I wish you farewell/I hope you're somewhere prayin', prayin'/I hope your soul is changin', changin'/I hope you find your peace/Falling on your knees, prayin'." Instead of embracing victimhood as her primary identity, Kesha chooses instead to forgive. Remarkable.
Later, she adds, "Oh, sometimes I pray for you at night/Someday, maybe you'll see the light." Then she suggests that in addition to her forgiveness, the subject of her song needs to seek forgiveness from God, too: "Oh, some say in life you're gonna get what you give/But some things only God can forgive."
The closest Kesha comes to being mean-spirited is at the end of the second verse, where she sings, "When I'm finished, they won't even know your name." But for the most part, what Kesha expresses here isn't rage, but a settled peace and a seemingly sincere desire for the person who wronged her to find peace.
Which God Is Kesha Praying To?
Kesha seems to have had some kind of religious epiphany during her time in that personal wilderness. But what kind of epiphany was it?
The video hints at an answer as it alternates between black-and-white and blazingly vibrant images as Kesha meanders through several dramatic scenes. (Her outfits sometimes expose quite a bit of cleavage.) The video begins with the singer seeming lying in a casket, being watched by two men in suits wearing drooling pig heads. (Subtlety has never been Kesha's forte.) Then we see her lying on a raft, again seemingly unconscious, in the middle of an ocean.
From there, Kesha dons all manner of colorful outfits: a red and white faux fur; angel wings; a crown of thorns. She wanders past a wall of TVs, all of which sport messages that, presumably, she's heard at some point: "Our values are your value," You're too thin," "Democrats are evil." Some are perhaps positive ("Walk the past to reach the future," "Truth?" "The television will not be revolutionized"). Others are satirically Orwellian ("Buy more TVs," "You need more stuff") and a few are crude and profane ("Mental Master Bation," a blurred message with a clear s-word, "XXX" scrawled over line drawings of two breasts).
But we also see Kesha get down on a kneeler and look longingly at a neon cross. And much of the video takes place as she climbs artwork in Imperial, Calif., known as Salvation Mountain, which is covered with Christian imagery, Bible verses, the Sinner's Prayer, and the words "God Is Love."
Now, remember those TVs I mentioned above? Kesha returns to smash them in a scene that perhaps mirrors Jesus overturning the money changer's table in the temple. The video evokes Jesus in other ways that get uncomfortably close to comparing Kesha to Him, too, such as the crown of thorns she wears and the fact that she walks on water at the end.
Still, given all that overt Christian symbolism, it's natural to wonder whether or not the singer has perhaps found Jesus.
The answer, by her own admission, is no.
In a lengthy letter published by lennyletter.com, Kesha said of her spiritual convictions, "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. … This song is about me finding peace in the fact that I can't control everything — because trying to control everyone was killing me. It's about learning to let go and realize that the universe is in control of my fate, not me."
Kesha's evolving spiritual worldview then is one that obviously still requires careful, discerning navigation.
That said, I still find Kesha's personal evolution here a hopeful one. Elsewhere in her letter, she writes, "In the past couple of years, I have grown into a strong, independent woman. I have realized through this long journey of ups and downs that if I'm lucky enough to have a voice that people listen to, then I should use it for good and for truth. I've battled intense anxiety and depression, a relentless eating disorder, and all the other basic bulls--- that comes with being human. I know I'm not alone in that battle. Finding the strength to come forward about these things is not easy, but I want to help others who are going through tough times."
I'll take that version of Kesha over the whiskey-sodden, hedonism-loving one in a heartbeat. It's a step in the right direction, even if that direction isn't quite aimed squarely at Jesus.