By Rachel Sloan
“I didn’t feel worthy of this award. But I knew I had to drag myself out of my bed, put on my damn boots, and walk up here tonight to say thank you.”
With tears in her eyes, Kesha took the stage to accept the Trailblazer Award at Billboard’s 2016 Women in Music ceremony, where she shared a heartfelt message on the challenges of recovery and the power in cultivating compassion for ourselves along the way.
“Show up for yourself,” she pleaded with moving sincerity, “and don’t let anyone stop you.”
Leading by example, Kesha marked her valiant return to music with the highly anticipated release of Rainbow, her first full-length studio album since Warrior in 2012. Between the acrimonious, highly public legal battle that began in 2014 when Kesha sued producer Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald citing abuse and sexual assault, and her continued outspokenness about her depression and eating disorder recovery, Kesha never strayed too far from the spotlight. Now, no longer under contract with Gottwald, she’s back with her fourth album Rainbow to reclaim her narrative with fervor and pride.
More than a message to Gottwald, “Praying,” the first single off of Rainbow, is an impassioned declaration of self-worth - a radical response to exploitation and abuse. It feels both like a triumphant ending and a glorious rebirth. Her spirit comes to life as her voice resounds with thunderous fortitude over a growing chorus, and she makes one thing perfectly clear: Kesha is a force to be reckoned with. A ballad of redemption, “Praying” is a rallying cry for survivors of abuse, exploitation, and psychological anguish.
Rainbow embodies the power of self-compassion as a weapon and a means of healing. Between the shameless profanity, bursts of laughter, and the horns blaring behind her, “Woman,” the third and perhaps funkiest song on Rainbow, radiates with self-love. A raunchy feminist anthem written in response to Donald Trump’s infamous, disgustingly misogynistic comments about sexual assault, “Woman” is a celebration of Kesha’s identity, autonomy, and some of the nuances of womanhood in which she confidently refutes the association of womanhood with weakness, inferiority, and passivity.
In a sexist, capitalist society rooted largely in the oppression and exploitation of women and femmes, loving oneself out loud is a radical act.
As referenced in Kesha’s essay for Lenny Letter, Rainbow is the product of a tremendous amount of pain, heartache, and determination to heal. During a grim political climate that is for many women, femmes, and marginalized people a time of uncertain gloom, Rainbow is an appropriately titled symbol of hope. Since she arrived on the music scene with Animal in 2010, Kesha has continued to use her voice to uplift the outcasts, freaks, femmes, and queers, and to encourage her audience to carve out spaces of their own with unapologetic ferocity.
Her music and persona challenge repressive ideals of sexual purity, femininity, and respectability, and vivacious tracks like “Let ‘Em Talk,” groovy dance anthem “Boogie Feet,” and feisty love song “Boots” deflect the notion that her imperfections, audacious attitude, and affinity for profanity somehow undermine her womanhood and her right to flourish. She reclaims and celebrates her quirks with songs like “Hymn” and “Rainbow,” encouraging her audience to do the same; “who we are is no mistake - this is just the way we’re made.” Practicing self-validation and self-love in the face of overwhelmingly misogynistic, oppressive standards and expectations is a challenging but powerfully subversive act.
Not only do women face depression, PTSD anxiety, and eating disorders at significantly higher rates than men, but they’re also more likely to experience sexual assault. While women and femmes tend to face backlash for speaking up about their experiences - a familiar aspect of Kesha’s story - the majority of perpetrators face minimal repercussions. From Lukasz Gottwald to the man in the Oval Office, high-profile men accused of sexual violence often remain in positions of power and esteem, and women continually receive the message that a man’s reputation is more important than her wellbeing. Women and survivors are invalidated, ignored, and silenced with such frequency that Rainbow feels like a personal triumph.
Practicing self-care isn’t all face masks and bubble baths for marginalized or otherwise vulnerable groups of people. As Audre Lorde famously argued in 1988, self-care is a form of self-preservation - “an act of political warfare.” Sometimes self-care is showing up to work, remembering to eat, or choosing to stay alive. For Kesha, it was getting herself into the studio - even on the bad days. Healing is hard work, and learning to love or even accept yourself is an incredible challenge when you’ve been conditioned to do the opposite. Each time we dare to see the magic in ourselves or take pride in who we are, we’re showing up. Sometimes that’s enough.
Soaring to the top of the charts in its first week, her second album to reach number one on the Billboard 200, Rainbow is a triumphant reclamation of Kesha’s autonomy as an artist. Her music has certainly evolved since she made her debut as pop’s sleaziest party animal, but her eccentric, poppy sound and notoriously cheeky persona still shine through with an added softness and intimacy that sets Rainbow apart from previous releases. Kesha channels her country roots throughout the album, demonstrating her ability to bend and transcend musical genres while maintaining a distinct, cohesive sound - evidence that she is greater than her trauma.
A theatrical explosion of unrestrained creative expression and raw vocal talent, Rainbow demonstrates that there is strength in vulnerability and power in standing in one’s truth. It may not be possible to empower oneself out of the claws of oppression or adversity, and the cure certainly won’t be found in a pop song. Still, Rainbow is packed with reminders of the revolutionary strength we hold within ourselves - a comfort for listeners struggling to navigate the long, lonely, tumultuous process of recovery, and a reminder to take the time to live, laugh, scream, love, and dance with abandon.
“Darling, our scars make us who we are, so when the winds are howling strong and you think you can’t go on, hold tight, sweetheart; you’ll find a rainbow.”
Rachel Sloan is a 24-year-old Kentuckian with dreams of a feminist utopia. She's a proud queer woman with a passion for radical intersectional feminism and mental health advocacy. As a survivor of mental illness, she speaks out about her experiences in hopes of raising awareness and chipping away at the stigma.