When Ke$ha’s iconic debut single ‘TiK ToK’ was released in 2010, I was 15 years old and a walking prototype of teen angst. I was trying desperately to find myself in the mawkish ballads of indie rock bands, cutting a makeshift fringe into my hair as the syrupy quivers of Conor Oberst serenaded me through headphones. The men that lived in my iPod shuffle were the sort who listened to alternative music on vinyl and had rolled cigarettes stuffed into their jean pockets. The sort of men who had a drawer full of old cassettes and polaroids. No autotune, baby; just truth.
Then there was Ke$ha. The only time I ever bopped along to her synthesised rhythms was in jest. At rowdy high school parties, clutching a bag of goon, I’d spit the lyrics of ‘TiK ToK’ out with spunk (‘trying to get a little bit ti-i-i-psy’). As far as I was concerned, Ke$ha’s singles were satirical garbage; no more than shanties for bedraggled girls with chipped nail polish and unrequited crushes, especially when compared to emotional depth of Death Cab For Cutie (‘this is fact not fiction’) or the stirring confessions of The National. These bands took themselves seriously and so did I; the blind elation of Ke$ha’s pop tunes was no match.
Seven years later, I’d grown out of my lace-up Converses and band tees, and—like a snake shedding its casing—the Ke$ha of my youth had similarly transformed. With the release of ‘Praying’ in 2017, Ke$ha demanded I listen (‘and we both know all the truth I could tell’). With an earnest tremble in her voice, she performed trauma with a vivacity no misunderstood indie soloist could match. ‘Praying’ allowed her the ability to wash her skin of the leech-like, sparkly remnants of the Ke$ha of old: a woman forced to work under the rule of her abuser, Dr. Luke; the same Ke$ha whose voice echoed in the ringing ears of teenagers, and whom I had derided with jest. Kesha was the sort of victim women and girls weren’t supposed to seek solace in. She had chips on her shoulder, scars, oil at her roots. She was young, reckless and impenetrable. She invited derision. But this new version of Kesha, removed from both her abuser and her dollar-sign alias, had retribution laced into her tongue.
There is something almost ethereal, otherworldly, about leaving an abusive relationship. Kesha’s monologue was profoundly familiar to me; her lyrics may as well have been ripped from the pages of my own holy journal. I had monsters, too, but one in particular: a brute in loose-fitting jeans and frumpish prescription glasses. It was he who ‘brought the flames and… put me through hell’ with an unchecked anger. As I lay motionless on my back, he’d resentfully push his thumbs into my shoulders, quietly murmuring that he’d rather kill himself than spend another moment with me. He insisted I lose weight, refused to touch me because he didn’t find me attractive, and insulted me continuously over the course of three long years.
But, like Kesha, I wasn’t an ideal victim. She was a poster girl for reckless fun above all; a pop-star who brushed her teeth with whiskey, coquettishly winking at handsome passers-by while pulling at her ripped stockings. Similarly, I spent many nights in tired bars reaching optimistically into the dark, drunk and giggly, lighting the cigarettes of strangers. We were both messy young women—perhaps still are—so when Kesha’s quivering admissions accompanied me all these years later on quiet, solo car trips, it wasn’t just her words I found compelling, but her very being. Kesha’s abuse and hardships transgressed society’s understanding of victimhood—or rather, who exactly was permitted to fall under the moniker of ‘victim’. With ‘Praying’, Kesha reminded us that there is no one path by which one arrives at trauma.
On its release, ‘Praying’ received universal praise. Topping charts all over the world, the single was nominated for Best Pop Solo Performance at the 60th Annual Grammy Awards and was applauded by fans and critics alike. Music commentators looked past its impressive musicality—Kesha relished in gospel melodies, letting the croak in her voice wane in and out over hushed piano chords—instead, they wanted to know the truth behind the tale. It was a song about forgiveness in light of harrowing abuse; Kesha’s anger, hurt and pity bled into the reverberations of the track. ‘Praying’ managed to transcend the critical confines of pop to become something more.
Perhaps most powerfully, Kesha’s single was interactive—a five-minute invitation laced with honesty. She demanded her audience see the abuse she’d experienced as something with a pulse: a living, breathing creature, rather than just tabloid fodder. While this creature was once a cruel and destructive force, in ‘Praying’ it is under Kesha’s control: compliant and obedient. She has trained it, whipped it into shape, and turned it into a symphony.
‘Praying’ is not the first of its kind, though. In 2011, Rihanna invited the world into a similar space, one that paralleled Kesha’s experience of calculated abuse. ‘We Found Love’ remained number one on the US Billboard Hot 100 for ten non-consecutive weeks—a party track that scanned over the highly-publicised assault Rihanna experienced at the hands of ex-partner Chris Brown. In the video, the track’s dance beat was eloquently framed by Agyness Deyn’s poetic monologue (‘no one will ever understand how much it hurts’), which played evocatively over snapshot interpretations of Rihanna’s relationship with Chris Brown. This track allowed Rihanna to regain her autonomy, at least in how she was able to illustrate their tortuous love affair. She reasserted herself into a storyline that had been snatched from her in a media storm, with her abuse becoming fodder for public conversation. Media outlets had made Rihanna into little more than bleeding flesh, swollen eyes and busted lips. But in ‘We Found Love’ she slammed doors, lay angrily in overflowing bathtubs, and threatened her lover with eyes like daggers. It was a mess of shrill, tired screams and desperate, sorry kisses that left wounds deeper than eyes could see—but it was her story to tell and she told it boldly.
In 2016, Beyoncé’s one-hour visual album Lemonade generated similar discourse. The revolutionary album explored, with artistic prowess, Beyoncé’s own story of abuse and infidelity: it was Beyoncé’s reckoning. Like ‘Praying’, Lemonade refused to be limited by pop’s confines. This was Beyoncé domesticating her demons. She turned them into unresisting displays of feminine black power; the sort of stories that—once upon a time—pulled, barked and whimpered on her lead. Lemonade was a call to arms, allowing her to explore the strength, energy and resilience of black women everywhere with unabashed pride.
Of the 12 tracks on Lemonade, ‘Hold Up’ caught particular attention, largely due to the video clip’s haunting structure. The introduction included Somali-British poet Warsan Shire’s eerie spoken-word ‘I crossed myself and thought I saw the devil’—inviting audiences to deeply reflect on the hurt that only women know; the sort that cannot be made to conform lyrically; the kind of pain that rolls off the tongues of our mothers, like poison.
In each of these tracks, these pop stars and women performed their experiences in vastly different, stylistically oppositional ways. Kesha, with her unassertive piano chords and raw vocal range; Beyoncé, with the haunting tremble and croak of her voice, stark against electronic beats; Rihanna, and her high-pitched declarations, embedded between thick, suspenseful dance music, forever anticipating a drop. What stands out as a common thread is that in each, the artist remains the protagonist of her own story: their assailants are anonymous, their anger eloquent and unchecked, and they all topped the charts, relishing in the explicit success of reclamation.
It is Kesha’s history—as a pop-star with an impressive backlog of fickle party tracks and a reputation for debauchery—that made ‘Praying’ what it was. Kesha, the same woman who wrote love notes to whiskey and frolicked about beneath fireworks, was publicly admitting to her experience—to how her abuse sunk its sharp teeth in, smothering all her hope and self-confidence. In this way, Kesha is no different from her young female fans—many of whom are likely to have their own stories of abuse. Stories of men like Dr. Luke: greedy ex-lovers, seething fathers, brazen catcallers and unbidden Facebook commenters. It’s a fantasy for any survivor to be able to fetch together every last ache and echo of their abuser’s insults, and to redeem them. To turn them into art.
Women are not quiet bystanders to the abuse we experience. We do not hide and peep in the shadows, perpetually wary. My memories of abuse are colourful and demanding. There were times when I screamed and sobbed relentlessly—sometimes indignantly, sometimes desperately, but loudly all the same. There were still other times when I rolled about on his carpeted floor, cackling with laughter. In ‘Praying’, Kesha seemed present in all of the ways that I was. She never once lost her agency, in spite of it all. Her abuse is such that those memories—all of the pain and conquest—are still hers to keep and to reflect on. And what better way to appropriate Dr. Luke’s violence than by gutting it from the inside out and turning it into something beautiful?
If, after all of this, Kesha comes back in a pair of ripped stockings with a coy smile on her face, carolling the sort of verses I derided at groggy high school parties, I’ll no doubt remain a fan. Whatever she does now will be a powerful gesture; the ability to extract pain, hang it out to dry and propel it into the public sphere—that’s nothing less than a superpower. Hearing my story echoed within Kesha’s as hers climbed the charts, blared from radios and trended on YouTube has left a deep imprint upon me, one which I expect will long outlive the once-upon-a-time indie ballads I used to hum along to—and the boys, in their pipe dreams, who had me finding solace in their confessions.
Madison Griffiths is a writer, artist and poet whose work has been published in VICE, SBS, Overland, Daily Life, Kill Your Darlings, Pedestrian, Catalogue Magazine, Catapult and Going Down Swinging, amongst others. She is currently the Victorian Women’s Trust resident writer for the month of March. Last year, she was shortlisted for the 2017 Overland Fair Australia Prize. Her work revolves predominantly around issues concerning women, mental illness, and race.