The Gospel According to Kesha (Part 2)

Part 1 here

If you’re going to read something in the Bible, it helps to also know the background story. Who wrote it? Why was it written? What was going on in the surrounding culture at the time?

If you’re going to listen to Kesha’s new album, it helps to also know the background story. I don’t know all the details. To best understand why these songs were written, it helps to know what was going on in her life that led to this. There are lots of allegations and legal actions. But with the climate of our current culture and the systemic way that women are treated, we can assume what the truth is. You can read all the details here. To sum it up, she was in an abusive situation and contractually bound to be in it.

Out of that situation comes the song “Praying,” the fifth track from Rainbows:

Well, you almost had me fooled
Told me that I was nothing without you
Oh, but after everything you’ve done
I can thank you for how strong I have become

‘Cause you brought the flames and you put me through hell
I had to learn how to fight for myself
And we both know all the truth I could tell
I’ll just say this is “I wish you farewell”

I hope you’re somewhere prayin’, prayin’
I hope your soul is changin’, changin’
I hope you find your peace
Falling on your knees, prayin’

I’m proud of who I am
No more monsters, I can breathe again
And you said that I was done
Well, you were wrong and now the best is yet to come

‘Cause I can make it on my own
And I don’t need you, I found a strength I’ve never known
I’ll bring thunder, I’ll bring rain, oh
When I’m finished, they won’t even know your name

You brought the flames and you put me through hell
I had to learn how to fight for myself
And we both know all the truth I could tell
I’ll just say this is “I wish you farewell”

I hope you’re somewhere prayin’, prayin’
I hope your soul is changin’, changin’
I hope you find your peace
Falling on your knees, prayin’

Oh, sometimes, I pray for you at night
Someday, maybe you’ll see the light
Oh, some say, in life, you’re gonna get what you give
But some things only God can forgive

I hope you’re somewhere prayin’, prayin’
I hope your soul is changin’, changin’
I hope you find your peace
Falling on your knees, prayin’

Songwriters: Kesha Rose Sebert / Ben Abraham / Ryan Lewis / Andrew Joslyn
Praying lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc
(Photo by AugeeKim, Wikimedia Commons)

Lyrical Analysis

Prayer is not an unexplored metaphor in pop music. Bon Jovi was living on one and Madonna’s name was called like a little one. But what is prayer? Is it dead ritual? Is it recitation of ancient words handed down through the ages? Is it conversation with a deity?

We can think of prayer as many things, but it might be best understood as connectedness. When I’m being prayerful, I am aware of my connection to God and my connection to the people and things around me. Because of these connections I become opened to what God desires from me, and how I can serve the people and things around me.

Knowing Kesha’s story, the events that led to the composition of this lyric, we can assume they are directed at an antagonist. If prayer is really connectedness then why would you hope that your enemy is somewhere praying? That hardly sounds like revenge. Who wishes prayer, soul change, and peace on their enemies?

Jesus.

Don’t let this nugget of truth and justice slip away. This is not an insignificant detail. Perhaps one of the most Christo-centric lyrics to be produced in all the world in the last year, both within and without the church, just came from Kesha.

This lyric echoes the words of Jesus from the sermon on the mount: “You have heard that is was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:43-45)

It should not be so surprising for such lyrics to come from pop music. Jesus regularly found a home among the disenfranchised, the social outcasts, and women falsely accused. Kesha says for herself that she neatly fits in all those categories. Kesha prays that her enemies find peace. So what do you pray for?

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The Gospel According to Kesha (Part 1)

Prologue

Anyone that knows me will find my willingness to blog about mainstream popular music curious. If auto-tune is being used to the point of it sounding like an effect then I am typically not a fan. My musical tastes have not changed much since the 90s. So let me begin with the story of how I came to discover Kesha’s latest album.

Shortly after “Rainbow” was released, Kate heard about it and played the song “Praying” while we were driving in the car one day. I listened to it with my musically analytical brain and found it interesting (“Huh, this pop song is about prayer and she jumps up an octave. Interesting.”) Fast forward a few months and I learn that Ben Folds is a producer on the album. Now I’m intrigued. Ben Folds is one of my favorite artists and I’ve seen him with the Houston Symphony the last two times he came to town. So, I listen to the whole album to hear for myself what is going on.

The album has grown on me. This is the first of three posts about the spiritual themes I picked up on in three consecutive tracks from Rainbow: Hymn, Praying, and Learn to Let Go.

Even the stars and the moon don’t shine quite like we do
Dreamers searchin’ for the truth
Go on, read about us in the news
Pretty reckless, pretty wild
Talking s*** and we’ll just smile
Don’t you see these f***in’ crowns?
If you know what I mean, you on the team

This is a hymn for the hymnless, kids with no religion

Yeah, we keep on sinning, yeah, we keep on singing
Flying down the highway, backseat of the Hyundai
Pull it to the front, let it run, we don’t valet
Sorry if you’re starstruck, blame it on the stardust
I know that I’m perfect, even though I’m f***ed up
Hymn for the hymnless, don’t need no forgiveness
‘Cause if there’s a heaven, don’t care if we get in
This is a hymn, hymn, hymn for how we live, live, live
This is a hymn, hymn, hymn for how we live, for how we live

After all we’ve been through, no, we won’t stand and salute
So we just ride, we just cruise, livin’ like there’s nothing left to lose
If we die before we wake, who we are is no mistake
This is just the way we’re made
You know what I mean, you on the team

This is a hymn for the hymnless, kids with no religion
Yeah, we keep on sinning, yeah, we keep on singing
Flying down the highway, backseat of the Hyundai
Pull it to the front, let it run, we don’t valet
Sorry if you’re starstruck, blame it on the stardust
I know that I’m perfect, even though I’m f***ed up
Hymn for the hymnless, don’t need no forgiveness
‘Cause if there’s a heaven, don’t care if we get in
This is a hymn, hymn, hymn for how we live, live, live
This is a hymn, hymn, hymn for how we live, for how we live

This is a hymn for the hymnless, kids with no religion

Yeah, we keep on sinning, yeah, we keep on singing
Flying down the highway, yeah, we do it our way
High as outer space, we don’t hear what the rest say
Sorry if you’re starstruck, blame it on the stardust
I know that I’m perfect, even though I’m f***ed up
Hymn for the hymnless, don’t need no forgiveness
‘Cause if there’s a heaven, don’t care if we get in
This is a hymn, hymn, hymn for how we live, live, live
This is a hymn, hymn, hymn for how we live, for how we live

Songwriters: Cara Salimando / Eric Frederic / Jonny Price / Kesha Sebert / Pebe Sebert

Hymn lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

(Photo by AugeeKim, Wikimedia Commons)

Lyrical Analysis

News flash: Millenials don’t trust the church. There are lots of reasons: Millenials don’t feel heard or appreciated, their culture receives the blame for the world’s problems, and they exhibit a general disdain for institutions. Their perception is that church is more filled with empty words that action (HT: RecklesslyAlive.com). From the perspective of this generation we get these words: “a hymn for the hymnless.”

But why a hymn? A hymn is specifically a song of praise or adoration typically directed toward a deity. Why is this a hymn? What makes it for the hymnless? Saying the song is for the hymnless implies that it is for the disenfranchised and the outcast. In the gospels, Jesus was typically the champion of the hymnless. Jesus came to defend those who were marginalized and on the edges of society. He restored hope to the widows, cleansed lepers, and ate with sinners. Jesus was the hymn for the hymnless.

Kesha explains, “So when I sing the words to this song, I do so as a reminder to myself as much as anyone that we can’t let the haters and the negativity win. We are all ‘dreamers searching for the truth,’ and we know the unexplainable universal goodness in people — their innate love and light and compassion for one another — will bring us together to do great things.”

There is also a thread of simul justus et peccator in these lyrics. “I know that I’m perfect, even though I’m f***ed up.” Our mistakes and flaws don’t define us. We are saintly sinners and sinful saints.

“Yeah, we keep on sinning. Don’t need no forgiveness. ‘Cause if there’s a heaven, don’t care if we get in.” This lyric reveals how disenfranchised popular culture has become with the Christian church (especially the evangelical wing). Whatever carrot the church is dangling in front of the culture is meaningless – even “heaven” (the meaning of salvation in evangelical Christianity being wrapped up in avoiding eternal damnation). Even if the true idea about heaven and salvation is more to do with connection, wholeness, and healing from God, the church has lost the ability to convey that message due to the prevailing cultural perception.

My theory is that in the context of North American Christianity the church has lost the substantive content of its spirituality and the medium has become the message to the surrounding culture. In the popular culture, a hymn is no longer a song of praise used to unite an assembly in lifting their voice in adoration. Hymns, sin, forgiveness, and heaven are now metaphors used by pop songs. The spiritual reality beneath them is vanishing. How will the church embrace the hymnless today?