It has been impossible not to have Kesha on my mind or playing through my speakers lately, and over the past year. So many women, and people in general, have been leaning on her latest album, Rainbow, to give them the strength, faith, and hope to triumph over adversity.
The breakout song from the album is of course, Praying. I could on for paragraphs and paragraphs about how I feel about this song, and what an amazing thing of beauty, grace, love, healing, and pure gift it is. Sure, she didn’t end up winning any Grammy awards for it, but that is just irrelevant in the face of the transcendence, raw power, and timelessness of this song— and the fact that Kesha got to sing it right into the heart of the very industry that tried to conquer and silence her, with an army of women singing at her sides.
However, there is just one line of the song that will not sit right with me. In the opening verse, she sings:
but after everything you’ve done
I can thank you for how strong I have become
I have seen this pattern emerge before from artists and writers addressing the mistreatment and abuse they have experienced. Coming out on the other side of their dark experience, they realize how strong and brave they are to have survived, and take this piece of newfound confidence and self-respect with them as they move onward with their lives and their work. But why the impulse to thank the abuser?
In an episode of Season 4 of country-music drama, Nashville, young and ambitious but perpetually star-crossed Layla turns to Will, her ex-best friend/ex-husband and thanks him for making her a better artist. The backstory is however that Layla fell in love with her friend, Will, who only proposed to her because (unbeknownst to her) he was a closeted gay man worried about how his sexuality made public might damage his career as a country music star. Layla therefore becomes his unconsenting beard, who later finds herself in the midst of scandal, humiliation, and heartbreak once Will realizes the life he has made for them is agonizing and untenable. This is the experience Layla is thanking Will for. I am definitely sympathetic towards Will’s predicament, but I was also outraged for Layla when she thanks him for the emotional trauma and professional scandal he put her through because ‘it gave her something to write [music] about.’
In statements like these, it seems like there is an underlying implication that these women could not be strong or brave or triumphant or creative or successful without the hell that men put them through. This seems like an extension of the manipulation that Kesha is calling out when she sings:
Well, you almost had me fooled
Told me that I was nothing without you
Abusers and manipulators do not deserve gratitude for ‘making’ someone stronger or better in the long run by providing them the luxury of experiencing adversity. Rather, I believe that experiencing adversity merely makes a person more who they were all along. As James Aubrey from the tv show Bones responds to his self-centered, criminal embezzler father, who comes back into Aubrey’s life to tell him how proud he is of the life Aubrey has been able to make out of his childhood of neglect and betrayal: “I am not who I am because of you. I am who I am in spite of you.” It is the fact that Aubrey is able to become the kind, reliable, successful person he was always meant to be that is the true triumph, despite the roadblocks his father put in his way.
I think Kesha would agree. Later in Praying, she sings:
I can make it on my own, oh
I don’t need you, I found a strength I’ve never known
That strength she found is her strength, it is of and in her. It was not given to her by her abuser; she owes him no gratitude. She doesn’t need him to create it, it was in her all along. Kesha is becoming the artist she always could be all along. (In fact, my first reaction upon listening to the powerful, raucous, and creative album was: this is what a woman can do when people get the hell out of her way.)
In Rainbow, another moving track from the album about falling back in love with herself and life, Kesha restates this sentiment, declaring:
what’s left of my heart’s still made of gold
Even though her heart has been worn and damaged, she knows that is still made of gold— meaning that it contained and was made of something precious and beautiful all along. The lyric conjures up the image of Expansion, the famous sculpture by Paige Bradley. Even though the cracks in the figure create a beautiful image, letting us witness the light within her— that light would be within her whether there were cracks or not. The beauty and strength and light was there long before Kesha’s abuser(s) ever came along.
Just because a situation or person brings out our best qualities, does not mean they get the credit for them. We need to honor and love ourselves for the incredible gifts and talents and strengths we hold within us. If we want to thank anyone, we can thank ourselves and the people who knew and believed we had it in us all along.
Thank you Kesha for how strong you have become.
“Yeah, now I see the magic inside of me” – Rainbow