Kesha Rainbow

[RCA; 2017]

Styles: pop as redemption
Others: Britney Spears, Angel Haze, Sia, Taylor Swift

“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, 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 ever? Spiritual paths can be roughly divided into the transcendent and the immanent. The transcendent path proposes that the conditions of the lived world — sex, money, work, our bodies, every aspect of daily Being — need to be transcended for something separate, higher, more true, more pure, more real. The immanent path, more congenial to modern-day Western spiritual practitioners, sees the Divine in all of these things. There is no profane, and impure energies are to be used as fuel for the journey. As Kesha puts it, “I know that I’m perfect, even though I’m fucked up.”

Her comeback album, after the abuse and mire she’s been dragged through, is both Kesha’s rainbow bridge to transcendence and a proud declaration that although the immanent may be scarred, she refuses to see it as marred — right here is where pleasure is to be found. “Defiant” may be a term too often misused in an age of empowerment feminism, but it’s absolutely fitting for this album.

Transcendence achieved, then, is the “what.” God doesn’t exist in a hymnless world — or at least not as a separate entity — but can yet be called upon. “Praying” is a gospel number overcoming personal demons and wishing well to the abuser, while “Hymn” transmutes a community of “sinners,” of “kids with no religion,” into a congregation. Even the cover art has something of the Tantric in its mystic symbolism and its erotics.

Rainbow is also a transmutation of Kesha’s own persona — the dollar sign now revealed for the profanity it always was. We began to see this Kesha, a lady of sorrow and of joy, on the gorgeous, show-stopping, melancholy “It Ain’t Me Babe” at the Billboard Music Awards — 2016’s song most likely to make you weep. But in the days of “Tik Tok” Kesha, along with Rihanna and less-remembered figures like Kiely Williams, had been the flagbearer of a particular genre of self-objectifying female-fronted pop, the contemporary counterpart to perennial male pop creeperness. Kesha-with-a-dollar-sign seemed like a joke, and a pernicious one at that (we didn’t know that, behind the scenes, the objectification was utterly real, and Dr Luke was laughing all the way to the bank). It was a self-abasement, a female chauvinist piggery. But on Rainbow Kesha’s telling us she’s seen the light. And we should all yell back “Hallelujah!” as loud as we motherfuckin’ can.

What, or who, are we praising? In the New Age, self-affirmation takes the place of God — a spiritual narcissism, the icon as selfie (there’s a reason why “icon” refers to both the religious image and the celebrity). To ask whether that’s happening here, though, seems churlish (as does giving the album a score at all): it isn’t quite the point, because there’s something more important going on. As Taylor Swift’s court case shows (as if we hadn’t just finished hearing about The Runaways), celebrity is no shield from abuse.

But, if we who will not judge lest we be judged judge yet, we can say: Kesha’s pop chops are sharp and true. For the most part, the pop songs work better than the mid-tempo numbers. They’re more spirited, but less moving. “Praying,” for example, is better as catharsis than as an earworm, but it’s no less powerful for that.

The country influence shines in Kesha’s voice when unadorned on tracks like gauntlet-throwing opener “Bastard” and rollicking highlight “Hunt You Down.” Dolly Parton guests — on country classic “Old Flames (Can’t Hold A Candle to You),” written by Kesha’s mother in a double tribute to the power of the maternal lineage — to greater effect than the Eagles of Death Metal, though “Boogie Feet” is hella catchy. “Woman” roars louder than Katy Perry.

On an album like Rainbow, the ramshackle, squee-inducing kawaii of “Godzilla” doesn’t seem any more out of place than the unnamed kaiju in Nacho Vigalondo’s “Colossal” — which seems an appropriate parallel in its tale of abuse, of unbearable real monsters and adorable fantasy monsters and the way in which, somewhere between the two, we do the messy work of recuperation.

And then, on “Spaceship,” to the earthy sound of banjos, we transcend with Kesha, beyond death, beyond earthly hurt, knowing our bodies as stardust, experiencing freedom. The occupants of the interplanetary craft have been called, and they are observing her rebirth… baby.

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