“I’m a motherfucking woman, baby, alright/ I don’t need a man to be holding me too tight”
Kesha’s recent single “Woman,” off of her long-awaited album Rainbow, is a celebratory rallying cry for the pop feminist set. Featuring the smooth, bluesy brass tones of the Dap-King Horns, it’s a defiant anthem for womankind, and a hearty fuck you to the trappings of the patriarchy. In short, it’s a fun track destined for long nights of karaoke and road trip soundtracks. Like much of the album, it’s virtually bursting with the joy of a life well-lived. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a dedicated Kesha fan who doesn’t also interpret the track as a repudiation of one man in particular: Kesha’s longtime producer and former label boss Dr. Luke.
Over the last few years, Kesha’s case against Dr. Luke has been widely covered, so much so that the presiding judge has commented on the coverage in open court. Kesha alleges a continued pattern of sexual and emotional abuse at the producer’s hands starting when she was just 18 years old and sued to be released from her contract so that she could restart her career without being forced to work with the man she says raped and abused her. She was unsuccessful but managed to release her album without his direct involvement despite a still ongoing case. Regardless, Dr. Luke will still profit from her new music. In that light, the album’s opening track, “Bastards,” reads as a thesis statement and manifesto: “Don’t let the bastards get you down. Don’t let the assholes wear you out.”
This puts her fans in an interesting position: Is it okay to derive joy from something that she wouldn’t have created for us without having had to endure so much torment? Is it okay to put the history of the album’s release to the side while we sing along, imagining our own pains and sorrows? The short and simple answer is yes. Kesha created music she wanted her fans to love and identify with. But art doesn’t exist without context, and the context of this album is the abuse Kesha suffered for over a decade before being able to come out on the other side. Doesn’t enjoying the fruits of that pain feel paradoxical or even cruel? As Scaachi Koul wrote for Buzzfeed:
[M]any of Kesha’s listeners — particularly women, queer, and nonbinary people with their own histories of sexual trauma — didn’t just want the album to be great for her sake; we, too, needed it to be great, because wins are so few and far between for victims of abuse in society at large.
But is that expectation even fair? Why should Kesha shoulder our burdens and strife and expectations as well as her own? Shouldn’t we feel guilty for finding joy in her pain?
Much of Rainbow exists in a conflicting binary: breezy, if contemplative (and, yes, sometimes even aggressive), tracks that speak to larger truths about shaking off the haters and rising above, followed by pleading, soul-searching numbers clearly written as a means to process trauma. They’re broad enough to apply to anyone and anything, but it would be hard not to conjure one specific face while listening.
This duality leads to an album containing the utterly exuberant “Boogie Feet” and the devilishly fun “Boots,” which are reminiscent of the old Kesha, the one who styled her name with a dollar sign, auto-tuned her voice, and wore trash bags on the red carpet. “Godzilla” is a lovely ditty that’s literally about dating the fictional monster. They feel like exactly the kinds of songs we’d have gotten if Kesha’s hadn’t been forced into an extended hiatus. But then songs like lead single “Praying” and the wholly triumphant “Rainbow” are big dramatic numbers intended to invoke and reflect upon the pain we know she’s endured. Even tracks like “Learn to Let Go” and “Finding You” feel like the rebellious confidence of a woman determined to pick herself back up after a harrowing detour and keep pushing forward toward her goals. Bookended by the haunting country-inflected “Spaceship” and taken as a whole, the album feels like a meditation on healing, interspersed with small moments of light and mirth.
But the fans know the back story. The fans always know.
Much of being a celebrity in 2017 involves cultivating a personal following; models and actresses get booked based on their Instagram followings and reality stars move products with a well-timed post on Snapchat. But that instant access has also provided fans with a direct line to the celebrities from whom we always crave more, and they can no longer easily ignore us. We’ve collapsed the distance between celebrities and their audiences, and it’s changed the way we interact with the stars we love. Just look at the years-long wait for Rihanna’s eighth album or the number of false starts before Frank Ocean released his sophomore effort. We never consider what else their lives might entail, and often view them as constant content factories who only exist to give us more of what we love. It’s an insidious kind of entitlement that denies them their humanity. We don’t give them the room to have health scares or be depressed, or fall in love, or simply walk away without demanding more of their labor.
It’s this expectation that makes it seem perverse to “separate the art from the artist.” The art exists because of the artists, and their experiences influence what they give to us as part of their creative oeuvre. Kesha likely wouldn’t want her fans (the very ones who rallied around her when her case became public) to take on the burdens she had to shoulder just to enjoy her music; there’s no need to feel guilty. But we should also use this as an opportunity to empathize, look to our own lives for other women who’ve suffered as Kesha has, and extend to them a little extra care. That’s where the real joy lies, that’s the real end of the rainbow.