In October 2014, a twenty-seven-year-old pop star broke rank and sued a powerful producer after a decade of emotional and sexual abuse. Her request was simple: a release from all contracts requiring her to continue working for the same company as her alleged abuser. Despite support from outspoken public figures and media outlets, the New York Supreme Court ruled that the contracts were binding.
Fast-forward to 2018. Kesha Rose Sebert, the singer who made headlines four years ago, is still making music with Sony Records, the company with which she sought to break ties. While she no longer has to see her alleged abuser face to face, she must continue to work with him, and both Sony and her producer Dr. Luke will benefit financially from the success of her newest album Rainbow. The ties of contracts may still bind Kesha to her abuser, but they haven’t bound her to silence. Which is why her performance of “Praying” at the Grammys was more than a performance; it was a statement.
Nominated for Best Solo Pop Performance, “Praying” is Kesha’s response to the years of abuse and legal battles that have brought her career to a standstill. In the most anticipated moment of the Grammys, the artist took to the stage surrounded by women in white and sang through her grief in a searing performance. From the tearful responses of both the women onstage and the audience, it’s clear that the song resonated with many.
“Praying” is sung with the vulnerability of a victim, but it somehow avoids self-pity and instead conveys the power of a person convinced of their own worth. Kesha stays far away from platitudes in her call for reckoning. Confronting the abuse head on, she names her suffering and the lies she believed:
Well, you almost had me fooled.
Told me I was nothing without you . . .
’Cause you brought the flames and you put me through hell.
But in spite of this, she doesn’t seek revenge. Instead, she challenges her abuser to rise up and transform:
I hope you’re somewhere praying.
I hope your soul is changing.
I hope you find your peace,
Falling on your knees, praying.
It’s always curious to hear theological language in popular music, but it’s even stranger to see pop singers engage seriously and publicly with the messy realities that undergird such language. “Praying” isn’t a commentary on the institutional structures of religion (à la “Take Me to Church”); neither is it a subtle nod to vague spirituality. It’s practical theology—forgiveness embodied with bravery and strength.
Worst in Me
Singing alongside Kesha at the Grammys in the sea of white-clad women was Julia Michaels, a nominee for Best New Artist and Song of the Year. Michaels has made her living writing songs tinged with vulnerability. She’s spent years vocalizing the practical theology Kesha captures in “Praying.” Her hit “Worst in Me” articulates the paradox that makes Kesha’s words so empowering.
“Worst in Me” explores the small victories of relationship: celebrating another’s success, cultivating the trust that is the requisite to real communion. At the same time, Michaels confesses the temptation to surrender to lethargy.
It’s like we’re scared of getting good
Because the truth is that we could,
I know we can fix these kinks,
But the worst of me doesn’t want to work on things
And the best of me wants to love you.
Michaels’ articulation of the embattled nature of human love is eminently relatable; somehow despite our best efforts to extend past ourselves to another, there are the ever-present hang-ups: fear, doubt, an inflated sense of self-sufficiency.
Through her own experience, Michaels gives voice to a universal phenomenon common to us all and as ancient as human nature—it is same struggle the apostle Paul observes in Romans 7: “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” Even the best of us can’t always live out what is best in us; this interior struggle between selfishness and selflessness is, in the last analysis, the locus of all human action.
The dilemma articulated in “Worst in Me” illuminates precisely what is so shocking about “Praying”: in the face of extremity, when the natural choice is hatred, Kesha chooses to pray for her abuser. Here is a love that seems almost nonsensical: a gritty determination to see an enemy made whole. And through her example, Kesha challenges all of us to live out a compassion that defies logic.
As many have noted, pop music is the poetry of the people in the twenty-first century. Poetry has undergone a massive democratization; it’s up to us to decide what kind of poetry we support, and which truth claims espoused by the Billboard charts we will trust. So, when artists like Kesha and Julia Michaels start telling us the truth about ourselves in all the particularity of our cultural moment, we would do well to sit up and take notice. We might even hear the gospel being preached where we least expect it.
Cover image by Hannu-Pekka Peuranen.
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