All the headlines say the Kesha performance was powerful. Here she was, dressed all in white, surrounded by a congregation of women.
But when I watched her perform, I didn’t feel power. I felt deep, guttural sorrow. “Praying,” the song she sang to an audience of 20,000 at Madison Square Garden and millions more at home, is a burden with a melody, a backhanded Southern curse cast upon the man who made her life hell for more than a decade — a man she was contractually forced to continue working under by the very industry that was now celebrating her. It wasn’t a show of strength; it was a display of trauma.
Immediately after the performance, Sony Global Music tweeted “No words, all love,” with a gif of the women hugging. That tweet has now been deleted, which is probably for the best because not only was it completely tone-deaf, it was a perfectly bitter reminder of exactly how terribly the music industry has treated and continues to treat its women. Women in music are underrepresented, underpaid, undercredited, and underrewarded. Yet theirs are the names plastered on advertisements for the award shows, and billed as the biggest performers.
Kesha was the music industry’s token hat-tip to what the 60th Grammy Awards broadcast kept vaguely referring to as “our times” or “the political moment.” That is, the current social and political movement to reveal abusers who sexually harass and abuse women. Call it #MeToo. Call it #TimesUp. The Grammys didn’t call it anything at all. Instead they tried to bundle every social justice issue (#MeToo, Immigration, Puerto Rico’s recovery, Trump) into one tidy segment. Maybe the Recording Academy didn’t want to dwell too long because it hasn’t done much to deal with its abusers.
Kesha has alleged that her former producer Lukasz Gottwald (Dr. Luke) sexually, verbally, and physically abused her during their time working together. Kesha’s very public legal battle to try and extricate herself from her label (Sony) and its Dr. Luke–owned imprint, Kemosabe Records, brought her the support of big names like Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga. But despite their support, and the #FreeKesha movement started in early 2016 by fans, a New York judge denied her the right to create music outside of her (allegedly) abusive contract. Sony Music has allowed Kesha to create this album without the involvement of Dr. Luke, but he has faced no legal repercussions, and denies all charges.
“Praying” is allegedly about him. But because she lost the lawsuit, Kesha is still stuck in her contract with Sony, professionally bound to her alleged abuser. That’s why even though Kesha had one of the most memorable performances of the night, the whole thing left a bitter taste.
Unlike the rest of the arts world, music has been suspiciously quiet in the months since the Harvey Weinstein revelations emerged in the press. Hollywood, Broadway, dance, fine arts, media — all have faced a public reckoning. But not in music (let’s call Russell Simmons the exception that proves the rule). In fact, the music world began and aborted its reckoning months before the Weinstein revelations. In August 2016, Kesha dropped her lawsuit. PWR BTTM member Ben Hopkins was accused of being a known sexual predator, and the group was dropped, its new album discarded. But those incidents felt isolated, and they missed the public window. Instead of one victim’s bravery inspiring another, any momentum was squashed. It’s not that there aren’t abusers in the industry (there absolutely, certainly are); it’s that what happened to Kesha is still too recent, her pain still too raw. After all, here was a reminder that you could be brave and take a stand and still no one would care.
In her complaint, Kesha’s lawyer wrote that her client “wholly believed that Dr. Luke had the power and money to carry out his threats; she therefore never dared talk about, let alone report, what Dr. Luke had done to her.” That fear exists for all victims. It is never easy to speak truth to power.
In her introduction to Kesha’s performance, Janelle Monáe said, “Just as we have the power to shake culture, we also have the power to undo the culture that does not serve us well.” But Monáe’s words and Kesha’s performance shouldn’t have been the night’s only statements on this nationwide moment. After the Golden Globes #TimesUp pins and all-black attire, the Grammys tried — weakly — to prove they too were woke. There was a coordinated effort — organized by a group affiliated with the #TimesUp Legal Defense fund called Voices in Entertainment — to have attendees wear white roses in acknowledgement of the movement.
It didn’t work. Beyoncé didn’t wear a rose, and neither did Kendrick Lamar or Bruno Mars. After Kesha finished performing, the camera panned back to host James Corden, who said, “It was a powerful moment amid a movement that commands our attention.”
The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements show no signs of slowing down. They are helping to remove abusers from power and shining a light on sexism in industries across America. But increasingly, this momentum is being appropriated by organizations like the Recording Academy to earn a kind of “I’m Woke” Girl Scout badge.
The advertising campaign for this year’s Grammys made a big deal of this “powerful, emotional” performance by Kesha. But in the end, she took home no awards (the academy instead honored Ed Sheeran). Her performance blew the roof off the Garden, and hopefully it will translate into ticket sales for Kesha and attention for this movement. But giving Kesha one moment in the spotlight doesn’t absolve the music industry of the pain its caused.
“I can make it on my own,” Kesha sang in the second verse, hands shaking, voice wavering, eyes brimming with tears. “I don’t need you/I’ll find strength I’ve never known.” It’s heartbreaking, because it’s not a choice. Kesha had to make it on her own; she has to find strength to keep waking up every day and overcoming her past and doing her goddamn job. The industry hasn’t hit its reckoning yet, but as Kesha’s set closed last night, it felt clear that it will have to very, very soon.