It would hard for even the biggest pop agnostic to not be rendered speechless by Kesha’s new video and song “Praying,” which premiered Thursday (July 6) and is by some distance the most serious and emotionally overpowering work she has ever released.
The singer’s story has been one of the saddest stories of the record industry for a few gridlocked years now, after alleging that her mentor and longtime producer Dr. Luke abused her emotionally and physically, even sexually -- and even worse, she’s still contractually bound to him, a unique nightmare for even the hundreds of fans and scores of women who can relate to her troubles.
Now her first solo single in four years (and the announcement of a new album, Rainbow, along with it) proves she hasn’t been sleeping for one bit on how the landscape has changed in the interim, including pop’s emotional innovations. “Praying,” with its religious undertones and unfashionable arrangement, does not sound like a tune from 2017, and yet it’s informed in its striking visuals and cresting dynamics by many benchmarks of Kesha’s musical lifetime, including ones during her legal limbo and hiatus from performing. Here are eight throwbacks, symbols, and evocations that “Praying” brings immediately to mind.
Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” video (1989)
The crosses, obviously. The praying, the religious imagery. Religious imagery as a communicator of heaviness in pop was practically invented by the singer named after the Virgin Mary -- even if she took it here from the darkest times in Black American history, as Madonna also helped cement modern pop’s fascination with cultural borrowing, for better or worse.
Alanis Morissette, “You Oughta Know” (1995)
Let’s not cheapen what Alanis did, even though it’s devilish comedy as much as it is a pained bloodletting. “You Oughta Know” empowered women to use a pop platform to directly call out men’s abuses, even if she never used the bastard’s name. But he oughta know. Forget Carly Simon, Alanis reinvented the use of second-person in pop songwriting as a way to fight back, and Kesha on “Praying” has reshaped it yet again as a coded threat that she will no longer be silenced.
Silverchair, “Tomorrow” (1994) / Marilyn Manson, “Sweet Dreams” (1995)
The phrase “men are pigs” goes all the way back to Homer’s The Odyssey, where Circe turned them into literal swine. And sometime in the late 20th century the most famously filthy animal became synonymous with cops as well. When little else can be done to stop one’s oppressors, they can liken them to selfish creatures that bathe in their own excrement. In the ‘90s, when the popularity of rock dovetailed once again with its anger and resistance against the status quo, pigs made a lot of appearances and illustrated a lot of negative points in music videos: Whatever the ends of Silverchair, Marilyn Manson or Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer,” they helped us visualize pigs as a symbol of something ugly in society. Kesha’s own stark contrast in juxtaposing them with a fraught ballad needs no explanation.
Sarge, “A Torch” (1998)
Little-known Champaign, Illinois alt-rock band Sarge released the furious The Glass Intact in 1998, and this double-time anthem deserved more attention for its gut-wrenching portrayal of a rape victim who burns down the frat house where the tragedy took place: “She carried that torch / ‘Cause the stale smell of their sweat still clung to her insides.” It’s hard to imagine that Kesha wouldn’t find solidarity in the tune, in the extremely off-chance it finds its way to her ears.
Rihanna, “Russian Roulette” (2009)
A major precedent for Kesha’s current fraught pop state is Rihanna, who was brutally assaulted by the then-equally famous Chris Brown in 2009 and spent the end of the decade's remainder trying to pick up the pieces of her life to continue making best-selling music. As Rihanna isn’t especially public about her personal issues in song or otherwise, a gripping lament like “Russian Roulette” is likely the closest we may ever get as an audience to the abuse she endured, an extremely veiled and unspecific ballad that nonetheless outlines a relationship where she’s “terrified but not leaving,” even wondering if she will “never see another sunrise” toward the end.
Lady Gaga, period (2008-)
While Lady Gaga has opened up about her own abuse on “’Til It Happens to You,” her most cinematic videos have often been deployed for more lighthearted means. But her influence on the “Praying” clip -- not to mention the song's arena-ballad framework -- is incalculable, as it is for most any other pop star to make an ambitious short film in 2017. The mix of absurd costumes, vivid colors, and pensive acting could’ve emanated from the many works that Kesha Sebert has digested in her omnivorous years. But the heartbreaking opening monologue delivered beneath an ornate mask feels especially ripped from the Gaga playbook.
Demi Lovato, “Skyscraper” (2011)
After enduring her own personal emotional turmoil, Demi Lovato released her own gripping, sparse piano ballad with a desolate visual as a way to release her demons, and like Kesha, her shaking, emotionally wracked delivery can be felt in every syllable as the music subtly begins to pound behind her. She doesn’t sound like she’s made of glass or paper at all, and the shocking high note that Kesha hits in her own song’s climax echoes the about-to-break Lovato in her own tune’s final moments. Sia’s “Alive” from 2015 has a similar chandelier-shattering chorus that proves a power ballad can still be, well, powerful in the age of EDM.
Beyoncé, Lemonade (2016)
Lemonade, in many ways, was the fulcrum on which fearlessly feminist pop turned. Of course it existed before, but it never commanded America’s attention quite the same way before Beyoncé wrestled the bull by the horns and won in the public eye with every possible non-police demographic. “Pray You Catch Me” is likely a direct line to the sentiment of "Praying" as well, and when a high-heeled Kesha struts down the street in her video with a bat-like object in her grip, it's no mystery who she's trying to call back to. Souls changed at the end of Lemonade, as Bey and JAY-Z presumably reconciled to some degree -- though it’s a hell of a prayer on Kesha’s part that her alleged abuser will use his legal freedom to help himself.