Five years ago, NPR called Kesha a “‘warrior’ looking for legitimacy.” A.V. Club asserted that she never actually had the chance to be “considered a credible artist.” Even Rolling Stone claimed that she would “fail to rock” once she got “sensitive, [turned] spiritual, and [started] doing acoustic ballads.” Yet when Kesha returned with “Praying,” a spiritual ballad, and the announcement of Rainbow, her first studio album since Warrior, the world rejoiced. Critics hailed the song as “brave” (Variety) and “powerful” (Pitchfork), and fans ensured that it became the number one worldwide Twitter trend and that the music video received 1 million views before the day was through. Though it’s great that the world is finally treating Kesha like an artist instead of just a dismissible pop singer, it shouldn’t have taken this long. Kesha has deserved our respect since Day One.
Her songs like "Tik Tok" and "Cannibal" had been treated with disdain until the start of her since-dismissed lawsuit against producer Dr. Luke, in which she alleged that he sexually assaulted her (Dr. Luke, aka Lukasz Gottwald, denied any wrongdoing and countersued Kesha for defamation at the time). Then, fans and celebrities alike rallied around Kesha. Many people have supported her with hashtags (#FreeKesha), donations (Taylor Swift, for one, donated $250,000 to Kesha), and petitions too numerous to count.
But before that there were I Hate Kesha Facebook groups and listicles detailing why she's awful. Perez Hilton ranted about hating everything from the dollar sign that used to be in her name to every single one of her live performances. The pop star revealed in a 2012 Billboard cover story that people have said that she couldn't sing. Even a Gawker article from 2012, titled "Ke$ha Is a Misfit Just Like Everybody Else, But She Isn't Stupid," said that the problem with Kesha was that she had to keep saying that she was smart because there is "little indication" that she's "book smart" in her music.
But the thing is, all the sides of herself that Kesha is showing us now, with critically beloved songs like "Praying" and "Woman" from Rainbow, have always been there. "Godzilla" is the kind of absurd fantasy that we saw on 2012's "Supernatural." (The former is about dating the titular monster; the latter is about having sex with a ghost.) "Hymn," the "hymn for the hymnless," is the new "Warrior," for the "the misfits... the bad kids." "Learn To Let Go" begs Kesha to "practice what I preach, exorcise the demons inside me... learn to let it go," a message she told herself in "Love In The Light" ("It's about the time to let all of the love back in the light.... to let go and forget about the hate.") And what are "Hunt Me Down" lyrics like "I love you so much, don't make me kill you" if not allusions back to "Cannibal" lyrics like "I get so hungry when you say you love me... I am a cannibal"? Kesha's message hasn't changed; her sound has just evolved.
Behind the scenes, Kesha has always been thoughtful, intelligent, and proactive about her beliefs. She revealed to Out in 2010 that she "wouldn't say I'm gay or straight... I just like people"; Seventeen magazine interviewed her in 2013 about her LGBTQ+ activism; and several of her songs, particularly "We R Who We R," were dedicated to, or even about, the LGBTQ+ community. Kesha told NPR in 2010 that she had "near-perfect SAT scores" (1500, according to the New York Times) and was in an "international baccalaureate program." And in a 2012 New York Times profile, Kesha said of her first two albums, "You must realize by this point that I’m in on the joke. I know I sound like a jack*ss half the time. I do it on purpose." But no one seemed to really get that until now. Until Rainbow.
Of course, she's not completely blameless in that public misconception. Prior to the lawsuit, as the New York Times interview shows, Kesha embraced the criticism and her public image. But Rainbow is the kind of album that she has wanted to make for a while, and she's said that, too. In 2012, Kesha allegedly posted a since-deleted tweet that she was "forced" to sing the controversial lyrics to "Die Young," before clarifying in a blog post on her website that "forced is not the right word" though she did "have some concerns" about the phrase. This led fans to launch the initial "Free Kesha" campaign to give Kesha the creative control they believed that she allegedly lacked.
During a Rolling Stone interview in October 2013 about the controversy, Kesha responded,
"What's been put out as singles have just perpetuated a particular image that may or may not be entirely accurate. I'd like to show the world other sides of my personality. I don't want to just continue putting out the same song and becoming a parody myself. I have so much more to offer than that."
A year later, she would file her lawsuit against Dr. Luke.
So, with Rainbow, Kesha does sound more like herself than she has perhaps ever sounded before. But this isn't the first time she's ever been "brave" or "powerful" in her music. This isn't the first time she's been thoughtful. It's just the first time the world has been willing to pay attention long enough to take notice.