Kesha's back, y'all.
Now there's a sentence I never thought I would say. And it's certainly not one I ever thought I would enjoy saying. But, well, she's back...and we are all better for it.
The pop starlet has spent the last five years in record deal purgatory, essentially held captive by production mogul Dr. Luke and his record company. Accusations and denials of all kinds of abuse swirled, but in the end it was Kesha whose dreams were shattered and whose life hit rock bottom. It appeared to most that she would never again resurface, at least not in any way meaningful to the music industry.
Now here's my admission: I've never been a Kesha fan. Her pop-dance tunes, the latest of which, Tik Tok, was released some seven years ago, were nothing special. Her "bad girl," hyper-sexualized image came across as altogether too much - a sad gimmick. And probably it was.
Kesha's new heights
But now, Kesha is back. Her new single – the first in half a decade – dropped last week. Entitled Praying, it's a song that shows emotional growth, personal healing, and, oh yeah, a vocal range that would leave Mariah Carey feeling a little verklempt.
We often mark our lives by a series of defining moments – decisions or experiences that somehow encapsulate both the past and the future all in one present moment. For Kesha, dare I say, her defining moment comes at the 4:21 mark.
In the middle of a song all about chasing personal demons away and looking ahead to a whole new world of possibilities, Kesha pulls a wicked high note seemingly out of nowhere that should give all of us chills. Not one of us thought she was capable of that - not a one - and as a result we somehow feel blessed to have witnessed it's unveiling. Like watching Michael Jackson spin into his first Moonwalk at Motown 25, or Shaun White landing the should-be-impossible Double McTwist 1260, we know we just played witness to something transformational.
And yet for Kesha, this moment is about far more than just a talent. This was a spiritual experience - it was a breaking free, a railing against the past and a bold declaration of the future. That one wail expressed far more than any of the lyrics could. We know what she is singing about, but it's how she does it in that moment that really connects. She screams the things that so many of us wish we could: pain, shattered dreams, breaking free, reclamation of self. We can all relate to her throwing-off-of burdens and a finding-of-self, and she wraps it all up in that single wordless note.
Taya climbs from Oceans to the clouds
Taya Smith from the group Hillsong UNITED has been able to do the same thing. The song that first brought Taya into the limelight of Hillsong’s incredible worship legacy was the 2013 masterpiece, Oceans. Similar in theme to Praying, Oceans is a song about facing down fears and stepping out into the unknown future. It, too, is a song about letting go and moving forward. It’s a song of faith. Coming out of the song’s bridge, Taya sings the lyric, “My faith will be made stronger in the presence of my Savior,” and then steps out into the stratosphere with a high note unprecedented in modern congregational worship music.
In Hillsong's 2016 documentary, Let Hope Rise, Taya was asked how people have responded to the song and, in particular, to her. Humble, she paused, not feeling fully comfortable talking about herself. Pressed for an answer, Taya teared up and answered, “People have said ‘Thank you for the high note.”
There is something honest and guttural and deeply emotional taking place when she sings it. The lyrics ground us in the truth of what we’re signing, but that note - that wail - lets loose the groaning of our soul. Something is felt and expressed there that we didn’t even know needed to be felt or expressed.
If you’ll allow me to make the leap…I would suggest this phenomenon, whether from Taya or Kesha - or Beethoven or Bach, for that matter - has more to do with God than perhaps we would acknowledge at first pass. The apostle Paul, a man who knew a kind of closeness with God many of us long for, wrote:
The Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us in groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will. - Romans 8:26-27
I don’t want to make assumptions about Kesha’s faith or lack thereof, nor do I I want to over-spiritualize a pop song that may have nothing to do with the God of the Bible, but here’s what I do know: the Holy Spirit, God’s Helper and Comforter, meets us in our time of need, even when we’re not sure what we need. When we’re thrown to the mat, it is the Spirit who whispers, “Get up!” and who draws us closer, one step at a time, to the love of the Father. And when we finally reach the point of being able to recognize His voice for what it is, the breakthrough is so freeing, so life-giving, so joy-producing and hope-filling, there are no words to adequately express it.
The jury’s still out on whether I’ll be converted to a fan of Kesha’s music. One song does not an anthology make. I am, however, a fan of Kesha. She a human, after all - trying to break chains, chase dreams, come back from the dead, find redemption. And aren’t we all? I, for one, found myself in Kesha’s Praying, and I felt God in her high note. He’s there, if you’re willing to listen.
Dan is a pastor, writer, and speaker. He is the host of the Ordinary Faith Podcast and currently serves as a Campus Pastor for Southland Christian Church in Georgetown, KY.