"You just know it’s going to do something, culturally."
Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was -- the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period -- with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
At the 60th Grammy Awards, Kesha belted out the final notes of “Praying,” stepped back from her microphone, and promptly burst into tears.
The singer, clad in an ivory nudie suit, was quickly embraced by the group of women draped in white -- including Camila Cabello, Bebe Rexha, Andra Day and Cyndi Lauper -- who had surrounded her as her back-up choir for the soulful, and cathartic, performance. As Kesha sobbed, so did many of the women onstage with her -- and several members of the audience (like Hailee Steinfeld, who wiped her eyes as the camera cut to her on the ceremony’s broadcast).
It was January 2018, and “Praying” hit listeners as a timely and healing hymn, one that spoke to Kesha’s struggles along with the disturbing churn of the news cycle at large. In 2014, Kesha filed a civil lawsuit against Lukasz Sebastian Gottwald, a.k.a. Dr. Luke, her former producer and the head of her label, Kemosabe Records. She alleged that Dr. Luke had sexually assaulted her and emotionally abused her for years, and the ensuing legal battle — in which Kesha fought to be released from her contract with Sony Music and Kemosabe — inspired the #FreeKesha movement that had her fans rallying behind her in early 2016, and continuing to support her as depositions carried on through 2017.
Hers was but one of the harrowing accounts of alleged sexual abuse that came to light as the #MeToo movement encouraged victims to share their stories and hold their abusers accountable. As victims spoke out about Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein and other powerful alleged predators across entertainment, Kesha prepared to speak her own truth to power and did, without naming Dr. Luke directly, with “Praying” in July 2017.
“Praying” was Kesha’s first release since she filed her lawsuit. Co-written by Ryan Lewis and recorded in a handful of takes, the empowerment anthem showed a new side of Kesha: the hard-partying vibes of “Tik Tok,” “Die Young” and the rest of her rager anthems were shelved in favor of an uplifting, gospel-tinged track that showcased her multi-octave range and propensity for raw, emotional delivery.
“When I showed up at Ryan’s house and I heard her singing it -- it’s one of the few songs that I can confidently say that when I first heard it, I knew it was going to be massive,” recalls Jon Castelli, who co-produced the track with Lewis. “I could probably say that about two or three songs I’ve worked on [where] you just know it’s going to do something, culturally. This was definitely one of them. That pressure in and of itself -- ‘Millions of people are going to hear this’ -- by default, we have to make sure it’s perfect.”
She released the song along with an essay written for Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter in June of 2017. “I was never at peace, night or day,” she wrote. “But I dragged myself out of bed and took my emotions to the studio and made art out of them. And I have never been happier with a body of work as I am with this record.”
The magical-surrealist video helmed by esteemed pop director Jonas Åkerlund dropped on the same day. In the clip, she dons sparkling wings and outruns grabbing pigs as she literally rises, a proverbial phoenix from the ashes of trauma, to the painted summit of Salvation Mountain in southern California.
“A lot of the artists I work with, they talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk, you know what I mean?” says Jonas Åkerlund. “She was selling this song to me, and the reasons why she felt like this was important. I don’t think I’ve heard that in a long time. The fact that she delivered on set and held onto the idea all the way to the end, a lot of people get cold feet in the edit room and all that, but she never did.”
The visual feast was shot over the course of a single day, but Åkerlund -- who’s directed videos for Lady Gaga, Beyoncé and Madonna -- found Kesha’s determination and her commitment to the fantastical treatment to be crucial to the project’s integrity. That spirit carried over into tangible success, as “Praying” rose to No. 22 on the Hot 100 and served as the centerpiece of Rainbow, the No. 1 album that followed. “You said that I was done/ Well, you were wrong and now the best is yet to come." Kesha set out to heal herself through song, but “Praying” is a brave balm that offers that power to those who need it most.