The pop star’s triumphant Rainbow is rife with references to multiple universes and intergalactic imagery, but its story of liberating resilience feels far more domestic in origin
Kesha’s new album Rainbow starts with a slow song. “Bastards” has a simple guitar melody and a simple message: “Don’t let the bastards get you down.” It’s raw and honest and soft, and in opening herself up from the get go, Kesha lets you know what you’re in for over the next 45 minutes – no sugar coating, but a real story with all the ups and downs and highs and lows that come with it.
It’s easy to view Rainbow through the lens of everything that’s happened to Kesha in recent years – her allegations of sexual abuse against her former producer Dr. Luke and her subsequent legal battles with him and his label Kemosabe Records have been widely publicised – but it’s important to appreciate it at its face value, too. It’s of course not hard to hear references to trauma in songs like “Praying” and “Learn To Let Go”, but more than anything, Kesha’s infectious positivity and vocal talent shines through.
“Let ‘Em Talk”, for example – a collaboration with the Eagles of Death Metal – is a body positive party anthem about reaching a point in your life where you know that people will shit talk no matter what and deciding to do whatever you want. The message will resonate with many young people, especially women. When everything from whether we wear make-up or not to whether we use Snapchat’s dog filter is picked apart in the media, it’s incredibly refreshing to hear empowering songs that aren’t just angry but instead focus on positivity – because being angry is great and important, but it weighs heavily on your shoulders.
Kesha understands that bitterness and anger won’t liberate you in the end, and it’s possible to go through hardships while remaining positive. The lyrics of “Praying” (“Sometimes I pray for you at night / Someday, maybe you’ll see the light”) is a roaring example of this – forgiveness is a fleeting thing you don’t have to give to anyone but yourself. As the track explodes into its highest note, Kesha’s vocals provide a powerful catharsis. Almost in the same breath, “Learn to Let Go” reinforces this in saying that “Your happy ending is up to you.” The light at the tunnel exists, and once you let go of your demons, no one can stop you from reaching for it.
“Learn to Let Go” marks a symbolic halfway point in Rainbow and the story it’s telling. The next track, “Finding You”, talks of happy endings; it’s a love song that could only come from the mind of Kesha, with references to multiple lifetimes and different universes and dimensions, and a chorus (“I know forever don’t exist / But after this life I’ll find you in the next”) that parallels her 2012 song “Past Lives”.
“In opening herself up from the get go, Kesha lets you know what you’re in for over the next 45 minutes – no sugar coating, but a real story with all the ups and downs and highs and lows that come with it”
Kesha’s universe is and always has been bright and packed with stars and colours (glitter has always been her signature look, like in the video for “Praying”), and her words paint a vivid picture that segue into title track “Rainbow”, where ethereal violins create a synesthetic experience of rich hues. Rainbows are one of nature’s most beautiful occurrences, but they need rain just as much as they need the sun to exist. They’re also brief, but the rainbow that Kesha sketches on this fourth album isn’t – the sadness and trauma will always be there somewhere, but the sun overpower them, shining on the droplets and creating a glowing band of colour as she sings, “Yeah, maybe my head’s fucked up / But I’m falling right back in love with being alive.”
Feeling alive again is tricky, but the second half of Rainbow is overflowing with Kesha’s reborn energy. “Hunt You Down” takes the album into a classic outlaw country direction but turns the trope of cowboys swindling and conning women on its head. Kesha has stated many times that she is a feminist, and it shows, from “I’m a motherfucking woman” to this song’s subversion of gender roles and “Boogie Feet”s “I’m gonna shake my butt, yeah / That’s a guarantee.”
Empowerment is all over Rainbow though, sometimes even Kesha’s own. “Old Flames (Can’t Hold A Candle To You)”, originally performed by Dolly Parton and co-written by Kesha’s mother Pebe Sebert, is reimagined as a duet with Parton herself. Her mother’s involvement doesn’t stop there. Kesha discussed the origin of the song “Godzilla” in an NPR track-by-track interview, stating that “my mom started writing it a long time ago. And she played it to me and I remember just thinking like, ‘This is the greatest song. I fucking love this song.’” The song tells an eccentric story about dating a giant beast who makes a mess, and it’s delivered with candid softness that’s almost like a kid’s song.
Rainbow’s closing mirrors its beginning with a soft, slow song. The last minute of “Spaceship” sees Kesha going back to her home planet, her own constellation, and escaping the immense mess we’ve made of our own. The desire to escape this world in the midst of all the hurt is especially relevant today, but in listening to Rainbow and hearing a story of liberating resilience, it’s possible to find resolution in more terrestrial places.