If responses on social media are in any way indicative of broader public sentiment, it’s clear that Kesha’s performance of her hit single “Praying” at Sunday night’s Grammy awards ceremony hit a cultural nerve. In an evening already steeped in the current cultural moment — from explicit rejoinders to recent statements by the President to subtle commentary on structural racism — it was perhaps the near-omnipresence of white roses on the red carpet, used this night as an emblem of the #MeToo/#TimesUp movement, that established the dominant context for the night’s performances by female pop stars. The transition to using white roses as an emblem is an interesting — and fitting — transition from the recent use of all black attire to represent solidarity at the Golden Globes. It’s as if the movement’s sentiment is moving on from a state of mourning to a state of power. This transition from mourning to power, from pessimism to pride, was similarly represented in two similar — but fundamentally distinct — appearances of the night: first Lady Gaga’s performance of “Million Reasons,” and later Kesha’s show-stealing performance of “Praying.”
Early in the night, Lady Gaga’s angel-winged piano-centric performance offered a preview of the kind of raw emotion simmering under this cultural moment. Gaga’s choice of an off-white dress and white piano clearly echoed the white roses used as an emblem of the #MeToo movement. Her transition from “Joanne” into “Million Reasons” began with her brief intro statement — “Time’s up” — a clear allusion to this second stage in the #MeToo campaign: a legal defense fund for those fighting sexual discrimination. First, we shared our traumas; now, we’re out to make them end.
Gaga performs “Million Reasons” with a sneer, a sense that the “one reason to stay” might not ever be coming. She rips the microphone from its stand with a flourish that echoes this moment of being fed up. Her gestures toward the male guitarist accompanying her seem almost threatening — she will not take shit from any man tonight (except, perhaps, she might take that one long awaited “reason to stay”). But despite this amplified level of emotion (and a very different take on the song from the more hopeful version nearly a year ago exactly at her super bowl halftime performance, which I wrote about at the time) — “Million Reasons” really is so last year. Gaga’s affect during her performance of the song made it clear – she, along with everyone watching, is pretty sure, at this point, there isn’t a reason to stay. The million reasons to give up on this patriarchal, slut-shaming, sex-coercing culture far outweigh any “one good reason to stay.”
So what’s the alternative?
Kesha’s amazing ensemble performance, an hour or so later into the Grammys, seems to offer the answer. It, too, like Gaga’s earlier segue into “Million Reasons,” is prefaced with “Time’s Up” — this time in the introduction by Janelle Monae, whose tone and language foreshadow the intensity and forward-moving dynamic of Kesha’s performance to come: “We come in peace, but we mean business, and to those who would dare try and silence us, we offer you two words: Time’s up.”
In stark contrast to Gaga’s solitary, isolated, and relatively stationary performance (while Gaga eventually gets up from her piano bench, she never leaves the “island” of the dark stage her piano is on), Kesha’s ensemble performance, which literally marches forward and claims a new position far ahead of the stage, offers a paradigm for the next step in the #MeToo moment.
Kesha’s “Praying,” — which came out this summer, also before the first flickerings of #MeToo on social media — either presciently felt and drew on the same cultural stirrings that energized the #MeToo moment, or itself was part of the building of energy that gave strength to those first few #MeToo testimonies. The song’s unmistakable themes reverberate with the sentiments of many abuse survivors, making it easy to claim “Praying” as “the anthem of #MeToo.” While I agree that “Praying” — especially in its originally released music video version — is a fitting anthem for a movement of survivors speaking out, the song is doing more than this, and Kesha’s Grammys performance Sunday night illuminates the additional meanings and uses of this anthem.
I should probably say, for the sake of journalistic integrity, #MeToo; I am not an unbiased reporter. Kesha’s “Praying” made me sob so hard I almost vomited the first time I watched the video. And the second. And by the third or fourth time, I was still crying but I knew that I wasn’t alone. And that there was power in coming to terms with your individual trauma while also recognizing that you are not uniquely broken, but rather part of a beautiful tribe of strong, amazing, wild women who have also been raped and abused, but who lived. And who not only lived but who thrived. Who cried out in the desert of loneliness and then found themselves ascending a technicolor mountain where they could trade in victimhood for baseball bats, trade in tears for a glass-shatteringly loud voice, trade in shame for pride and strength and crazy outfits.
Kesha’s ensemble Grammys performance takes the song beyond this initial transformation. An ensemble cast of all-star women, including Cyndi Lauper and Andra Day, dressed all in white (again echoing the white roses used Sunday night to signify #MeToo/#TimesUp solidarity), begin the song with a gospel-esque, harmonized echo of the powerful bridge of “Praying,” which not only figures as a sonic embrace and supportive gesture welcoming Kesha to join them on stage, but which also fundamentally shifts the address and purpose of the song.
While the song is clearly addressed directly to Kesha’s (I suppose we have to legally say “alleged” here) abuser Dr. Luke, the ensemble chorus adds a dimension to the song’s address. Kesha’s own incredibly emotional performance, visibly suffused with anger, rage, pride, and relief, absolutely feels aimed toward not only her ex-producer but also to all those in the industry — who are certainly in that same room at that same moment! — who refused to believe her, or who otherwise “had [her] thinking [she] was nothing.” But the ensemble chorus’s echoes on the lines “I hope your soul is changing” and “I hope you’re somewhere praying” feel directed to the culture at large: this is a plural “your,” not a singular one. The broader address of this performance of “Praying” points out the cultural complicity toward individual abusers, and initiates a gesture of moving beyond calling out individual names, toward asking for — and working toward — cultural change. Survivors of abuse have had their months of somber, black-clad #MeToo, but now it’s time for the soul of the culture to change.
After the first verse of the song, Kesha and Cyndi Lauper each lead a column of the backup singers down steps and to a stage further forward, literally moving the #MeToo moment from a performative gesture to a progressive one, claiming space outside and beyond asserting victimhood. The first words sung on this second, farther forward platform, are: “I’m proud of who I am.” The script has been flipped — this is no longer about claiming victimhood, or even about waiting for “one good reason” to go back to a miserable relationship or to the status quo of silent and unquestioned sexism. We are claiming space, we are moving forward, and we are proud of who we are.
Expectedly, Kesha’s voice betrays the intense emotion of the moment. On Twitter, immediate reactions to this performance were split between those who felt the chills of authentic emotion on display, and those who felt Kesha’s voice wasn’t up to par. To the latter, I ask them if they can imagine being able to hold it together singing this song live, on this night, in this context, with that introduction from Janelle Monae, to this audience? Of course her voice betrays emotion. Of course it cracks and wavers. But she does not stop singing, and she is not alone.
Cheeks wet with tears, Kesha sings “I can make it on my own” but it is clear she is not on her own — although she’s “found a strength I’ve never known” within herself, that strength is also the strength of the many: the critical mass of women willing to speak that finally transforms the whisper network into the shouting public. Importantly, this is also the moment in the performance in which the rest of the backing vocalists move in behind her, the band is finally fully lit, and the sparse arrangement of the song expands into full instrumentation and full choral backing.
This visual and performative depiction of the communal power of women, together, supporting each other, is not the only aspect of Kesha’s performance here that seems to offer the answers for the next stage in the #MeToo movement. So much of the predictable backlash to #MeToo has called the movement “a witch hunt” (in an ironically gender-confused analogy) or worried about the “ruination” of “men’s careers” — seemingly oblivious to the women whose careers were ruined or even altogether prevented by the predatory and discriminatory actions of the men being named. But Kesha’s powerful — and powerfully delivered — line, “When I’m finished, they won’t even know your name” seems to offer a clear next step in the movement. The outing of their names isn’t the end goal here. The end goal is a cultural shift. The end goal is survivors taking back power, finding each other and moving forward together, and hoping the rest of the culture is changing its soul. We don’t have to keep calling out abusers by name. Kesha’s song, for legal reasons, surely, is careful to never explicitly identify its addressee, but truly, his name doesn’t need to be known. Hers does. The cultural shift that’s necessary here is a movement from merely outing the abusers to empowering the survivors.
After over a week of heart-wrenching victim testimony against US Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, I can only hope that history forgets his name, and remembers instead the names of the 156 women who stood up in that courtroom to speak: Kyle Stephens, Jamie Dantzscher, McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, Jordyn Wieber, pages and pages of names and stories worth remembering. Of course these victim statements are important and powerful, but they aren’t — and shouldn’t be — the end. It’s also important to recognize the somewhat coercive sentiment that victims should feel obligated to testify, to make a public #MeToo post, to name their abusers — when this very act of naming can be incredibly traumatizing in itself, can tear open old wounds, and — particularly for women still in precarious or abusive situations — speaking out and naming names can be dangerous, if not deadly.
Perhaps this is why the chorus of Kesha’s “Praying” includes the lines “and we both know all the truth I could tell / I’ll just say this is I wish you farewell” — she doesn’t have to tell all the truth, knowing it is enough. In Kesha’s paradigm, each individual survivor gets to choose when they tell, how much they tell, and even if they tell. The initial phase of #MeToo, the public testimony, has been amazingly powerful — but it isn’t universally necessary. Even without telling all the truth, healing is possible. Even without naming names, one can wish their abuser “farewell.” Importantly, this kind of “farewell” isn’t a dismissal of the impact of the trauma, nor does it make light of the struggle to get to this point. Instead, the “farewell” in this iteration of “Praying” is a moving on that is a moving forward: moving toward redemption, power, and pride, unchained from the “monsters” of the past.
Kesha’s career was almost ended by the abusive culture of the industry and the disempowerment of protracted litigation, but she took her career back, almost entirely on the strength of this first single off of her album Rainbow (her first album after five years of silence). Her performance of “Praying” Sunday night at the Grammys shows that women are done waiting around for “one good reason to stay,” but, with “a strength [we’ve] never known,” are moving forward, together, regardless of whether society moves with us. We can make it on our own, and we can only hope you’re somewhere praying. God knows our culture’s soul needs changing.