Kesha — the singer who rose to pop music fame with hits like “Tik Tok” and “Timber” — just released her first song in four years, and it’s nothing like we’ve heard before. The infamous chart-topping partygirl is gone. In her place is a stripped-down, soulful singer.
This is Kesha unplugged and authentic. Her song, “Praying,” is a powerful ballad of overcoming hurt and pain. It’s an encouragement to rise and be strong, even when someone has hurt you deeply.
The problem is: everyone knows who the hurtful person Kesha’s singing about is supposed to be. And unfortunately, that person is making money off of this song.
In October 2014, Kesha sued her producer, Dr. Luke — aka Lukasz Gottwald — for alleged sexual assault and battery, sexual harassment, and emotional abuse. He sued her for defamation of character. Kesha wanted out of her contract with Sony. Two years later, she lost. She remains under contract with Sony. The label agreed that Kesha doesn’t have to work with Dr. Luke anymore, but he still gets some of the money from her upcoming album, and she’s contractually bound for two more albums after this.
KE$HA –> Kesha
In January 2014, Ke$ha checked into rehab to undergo treatment for an eating disorder. Known for songs like “We R Who We R,” “Die Young,” and “Your Love is My Drug,” she was a pop music icon. Her smudged eyeliner, glittery eyeshadow, and neon dance numbers were iconic. She had her own MTV reality TV show.
When she left rehab, the artist seemed ready to leave many parts of her image behind. She ditched the $ in her name, returning its spelling to “Kesha.” She changed her Twitter handle from @ke$hasuxx to @kesharose.
The carefully-crafted partygirl image that skyrocketed her to fame had taken its toll, and Kesha Sebert wanted to move on to a new, healthier version of herself.
Kesha has had enough. She was tired of having to maintain an image that negatively affected her body image and health. She was done being “forced” to sing songs she doesn’t want to sing.
But when Kesha sued her producer for abuse, many people accused her of making up the allegations in order to get out of her contract. Many were sympathetic, but a great number of people didn’t believe her. Ultimately, Kesha lost her lawsuit. She’s doesn’t have to work with Dr. Luke anymore, but she still needs to release three more albums under his label, and he’ll get a portion of her profits.
“The Phantom of the Opera”
Oddly, Kesha’s rocky journey with fame parallels Andrew Lloyd Weber’s wonderful — and, at times, wonderfully cheesy — 1986 musical “The Phantom of the Opera.”
It’s the story of Christine Daae, a young singer mourning the death of her father. To pursue a singing career, Christine joins the chorus of a renowned Paris opera house. This opera, however, is haunted by a mysterious figure who lurks in the shadows and controls the opera by violently killing people until his demands are met.
This opera “phantom” falls in love with Christine, and begins giving her singing lessons in his underground lair. (It’s all set to the most overly-dramatic music, featuring the best synthesizers the ’80s could buy. Brilliantly cheesy. 10/10 would recommend.) Oh, and Gerard Butler — yes, the one from 300 — stars as the Phantom in the 2004 remake. His entire performance is a magical adventure with awkwardness and autotune, and it’s something you don’t want to miss.
But back to the, you know, plot. With the Phantom’s careful teaching, Christine quickly becomes the star of the Paris opera scene. But the Phantom continues to murder and manipulate, and Christine seems strangely oblivious. She lives a glamorous life of fame, but is ultimately no more than a plaything of the powerful Phantom. He demands complete control of her life, and she struggles to break free.
It’s the story of an aspiring young singer and the powerful older man who carefully cultivates her talent — and skyrockets her to stardom — but exerts total control over her life. Both stories wrestle with sexuality, fame, and power, as the young star struggles understand what’s really going on in her world, and to break free from the people demanding total control of her life.
Both women are from talented musical families. Kesha’s mother is a country singer. Christine’s father was a famous violinist. The moment Christine hears the Phantom’s voice, she’s lured into a strange trance — an almost hypnotic state — and she doesn’t seem fully aware of who she is or what she’s doing. Once Christine is under the Phantom’s control, her sexuality is over-emphasized. Racoon-eye makeup. Tight, provocative clothes.
As Kesha’s producer, Dr. Luke likely created and executed her provocative image — right down to the skimpy outfits and slept-with-her-makeup-on raccoon eyes. Christine and the Phantom’s relationship had undertones of sexuality, power, and control. Kesha has alleged that Dr. Luke was abusive — both emotionally and physically — demanding sexual dominance and career control.
Swap out the ballerinas for backup dancers and the corsets for glow paint: It’s basically the same story, set 100 years later and half a world away.
A Happy Ending?
For Christine — and for Kesha, as well — the happy ending comes with a catch.
While the Phantom ultimately gives up his grip on Christine’s life and allows her to marry her (adorably idiotic, but very pretty) lover Raoul, he never truly leaves. Presumably, he stays close to her for the rest of her life, always observing quietly from the shadows. At the end of the movie, as Raoul visits the grave of his late wife, he notices a fresh red rose tied with a black velvet ribbon. The Phantom visits Christine just as much as her widower does. But he got there first. And he’s more than willing to leave Raoul a clear reminder of it, too.
As Kesha’s “Praying” is released, and fans celebrate her triumphant return to music, a closer look at the singer’s new beginning shows she’s not quite as free as the hype would make her seem.
Dr. Luke isn’t actively working with her, but he will still make money off her success. Ironically, the more popular Kesha’s song about overcoming abuse becomes, the more her alleged abuser will profit from it.
Talent matters, but in the music industry, it takes someone with personality and a killer brand to be truly famous. Rebel rock party chick KE$HA was a brand. Kesha Sebert doesn’t want to play that role anymore, but she still wants to have a music career.
So Kesha Sebert wants to re-brand herself, without all the glitter and sensationalism she’s known for. She’s re-branding herself as the phoenix rising from the ashes. The brave, flawed, and vulnerable woman willing to share about her pain and struggle to inspire others.
But at the end of the day, she’s still a woman publicly focusing on how she overcame pain while her alleged abuser takes home some of the profits of her success. Like the Phantom, Dr. Luke has set Kesha free — but he’s still there in the shadows. He’s still watching. He may not ever come back, actively, into her life, but he will still be close by.
By all accounts, Kesha looks happy. She’s writing, singing, and recording again. She’s performing. She’s no longer forced to play a character she doesn’t want to play. She looks healthy — her body isn’t emaciated, and she appears to be committed to keeping her eating disorder in the past.
Like Christine, Kesha seems poised to go on to a long, successful career and many happy years. But her Phantom of the Opera has not totally disappeared. He’s still waiting in the wings.
Why does this matter?
In a world where web content and social media are, every day, telling us what to do, say, and think — it’s absolutely crucial that we don’t instantly accept everything we see as truth.
The entire web and social industry is built around one concept:
Figuring out how to use web clicks and social shares to make as much money as possible. And eliciting an emotional reaction is one of the best ways to do that.
I’m glad that singers like Kesha (and Demi Lovato before her) are able to come back from struggles — the downfalls of Hollywood fame, eating disorders, and being hurt by people around them. I’m glad they be honest about their pain, and channel it to produce music that can be empowering to the many listeners who are experiencing similar struggles.
This authenticity is so valuable. It shows how singers can use their platform in positive ways, helping people, instead of just being famous for fame’s sake.
But at the same time, it’s important to remember that simple media narratives often aren’t how they first seem. In this age where social media has proved to be a powerful tool for shaping how people think and act — and Twitter appears to be a trusted resource for discerning truth — we need to start making media literacy more of a priority.
We must learn to do research, to check sources, to learn the background information. We can still be happy for Kesha, and encouraged by the brave and important art she’s making. But let’s not allow that to make us blind to what’s going on in the shadows.