I have always been a fan of Kesha, but like many people, it took me a while to take her seriously. At first, I felt about her the way one feels about cotton candy- it’s nice in small doses, but ultimately unfulfilling, overly sweet and too brightly coloured. Then, one day, I found an old demo of hers on YouTube, a song called ‘Goodbye’, with only Kesha’s voice and a guitar. Hearing her vocals for the first time without autotune or a synth background changed something for me. Realising that she can sing, really sing, with her voice stretched out and hoarse with emotion made me relisten to everything that came before, and sure enough, smothered under pop distortion, I heard the same country tones striving to be heard.
I started my gender transition in the summer of 2013, when Pitbull’s “Timber” came out. It was the last thing Kesha released before the allegations and the lawsuits and the seemingly unrecoverable hiatus began. At my high school Leaving Ball, I danced to it with my friends, two days after getting my hair cut all short and masculine, in a badly-fitting waistcoat, straddling the line of androgynous, and felt like everything I hadn’t even known I wanted was now within reach. And then Kesha withdrew from the public, and I learned how slow the process actually is, and we both learned how to wait.
Rainbow, Kesha’s late-2017 return, is another shift in reality, but bigger this time – Kesha has creative control, and she’s combining the stripped vocals of her old demos and the glitter-mania of her dollar sign days into a smorgasbord of everything we could ever want. The video for ‘Praying’, Rainbow’s first single, still has all the old Ke$ha visuals: bright, overlapping colours, cluttered symbolism, the overall feeling that it takes place in some slant universe of empty space that needs filling. But, in a departure from dollar-sign Ke$ha’s party anthems, it immediately and painfully opens with a monologue about death. ‘Praying’ is implicitly about her ordeal with Dr Luke, the four-year hiatus of legal battles and Instagram videos tears. But even bigger than that, it’s about moving on from that.
Almost a perfect month after Rainbow was released, I went to North Manchester General Hospital to finally get top surgery. It was pictures of guys on the internet with shiny purple lines under their chest that had persuaded me to openly seek transition in the first place. Objectively it was everything I wanted. I’d stayed up the night before working, so that I’d have the best possible chance of getting some sleep in the hospital ward, but the dim light was too bright and the cushioned noises too loud, and up until then I’d never even had a filling. It wasn’t even disaster scenarios that kept me awake, just the weary anxiety pricking at my skin. By 2 AM, still awake, I caved and put Rainbow on repeat, because more than anything else, this album feels like healing.
Most of the songs on Rainbow are transparent about the theme of healing. They’re about finding release, letting go of the past and moving on, which absolutely made me cry when I first listened to them. They’re a powerful collection of songs, a little on the nose but in the way of a person who finds real importance in what they’re saying. Kesha has always existed on the boundaries of cliché, but it must be reminded that clichés exist for a reason. Like when you say a word too often and it loses its meaning, clichés are just thoughts we liked too much, and ruined. Kesha makes these clichés real again, through the sheer force of joy.
“More than anything else, this album feels like healing.”
Joy more than anything else powers the rest of the album. Songs about love and dancing and Godzilla, all joined together cohesively because of the palatable joy you can hear in Kesha’s voice. She’s always written her songs, but the persona she was writing them for wasn’t happy. Dollar sign Kesha was ecstatic, manic, probably great at a party, and I love her still, but she was as real as a smile that doesn’t quite reach the eyes. People were fooled, but people want to be fooled, especially when it involves a messy girl that they can dance to and condemn simultaneously. This new album gave Kesha the freedom to create songs she enjoyed and she ran with it.
Does this make the new Kesha more real? I don’t know, and I don’t care to know. When you’re trans, people try and compliment you about your newfound authenticity, and while my transition didn’t involve glitter or cowboy suits, it’s just another performance. The aim is not to get closer to the ‘real’ you, but as Kesha seems to be doing, just to find a happier version to act out, a costume that doesn’t pinch at the seams quite so much.
This new costume fits Kesha so well because it’s not really new for her, but rather a relic from her childhood. The country vibes bouncing through the album are thanks to co-writer Pebe Sebert, Kesha’s mom, whose credits include ‘Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You’, the Dolly Parton song that Kesha completely blows up and rebuilds. Kesha and I were raised on the same music in that respect. I remember listening to Dolly singing that song on a cassette in my mum’s car on late night drives when I was young. ‘Old Flames’ knocked me back when I first heard it because it’s like hearing a private joke from the wrong person, and knowing it means the same thing to them as it does to you.
Me and Kesha and her mom and my mum – all hearing Dolly Parton and thinking the same thing. Pebe Sebert wrote songs and cried in court with her daughter. My mum drove almost six hundred miles in less than a week for my surgery, Manchester and back almost every day so she could look after me. Rainbow would not exist in its current form without a mother, and neither would I.
The last song of the album is ‘Spaceship’, inspired by a UFO sighting, about death and escape and misery. It’s not a sad song exactly, but considering the subject matter of the album it has a surprisingly darker tone than the rest of Rainbow. Like the other songs, it’s a testament: to pain, to seeing unbelievable things. We feel joy and suffering, and in the end, we heal from it. We write about it, and share it with the world. That’s all we can do. •
Nick Watson has an MA in Creative Writing from Newcastle University, though he’s a Yorkshire lad at heart. As well as writing, he’s a big fan of small dogs and funky socks. You can find him on tumblr at nicholasllee.tumblr.com