“Coming up: a powerful Grammys moment from Kesha that speaks to our times!” the announcer chirped. A couple hours deep into the ceremony, this performance had been promoted all night as The One to Watch — but this tease was the closest the Grammys came to explaining why.
Even if the performance of Kesha’s “Praying” was indeed worth the wait, this moment wasn’t just remarkable for having a wide swath of women singers — from Cyndi Lauper to Camila Cabello — take the stage before burning it down with righteous fury as Kesha’s rasping howl ripped through the arena.
Janelle Monáe tried her best to make the implicit themes of “Praying” explicit when introducing the song. She insisted with steady conviction that “time’s up” for abuse of women in the music industry, but the Grammys weren’t going to make it clear why Kesha, of all people, was such a pointed choice.
Instead, the CBS-produced Grammys held up Kesha’s “powerful” performance as remarkable without acknowledging that Kesha occupies a unique space in the reckoning against sexual violence that’s been ricocheting throughout industries for the past several months. The ceremony remained stubbornly, purposefully vague, because getting any more specific would mean indicting not just the man Kesha says abused her, but the entire system that keeps men like him in power.
Explaining what Kesha’s moment was truly about would mean explaining that Kesha’s moment was about damning the entire system that had failed her and so many other women — a system that the Grammys and music industry at large seem to have little interest in changing.
Kesha has condemned the music industry for failing to protect women — a fact the music industry really doesn’t want to acknowledge
The Grammys weren’t about to say it, but Kesha’s performance was remarkable because it allowed Kesha to sing a song she wrote as a specific condemnation of a specific man she sued for sexual and emotional abuse in 2014 — a man that many people in that room who applauded her have undoubtedly worked with, and likely continue to work with today.
In 2014, Kesha sued Dr. Luke — a renowned producer with many, many hits under his belt — for sexual and emotional abuse. In 2015, she widened her lawsuit to include Sony Music Entertainment, the label that employs him and remains in control of the five-album contract she was trying to void with the lawsuit, alleging that it gave Dr. Luke and men like him too much control over younger, more vulnerable female artists.
“SME’s conduct placed Jane Doe female artists, including Ms. Sebert, in physical danger by giving Dr. Luke full creative and business control,” Kesha’s amended complaint reads, “with nearly limitless financial resources over young female artists who necessarily were compelled to become dependent upon his good will.”
In February 2016, a judge ruled that Kesha would have to stay in her Sony contract under Dr. Luke until she had fulfilled its obligations, regardless of her allegations against him.
And on the night of the 2018 Grammys, after Kesha performed a song she wrote about getting “through hell” to make an album from which Sony and Dr. Luke will still profit, Sony tweeted a saccharine response — “No words. All love” — with a gif of the singer breaking down in tears.
In a predictable twist, the tweet has since been deleted. But its existence, however temporary, still provides an insidious look into how, exactly, the music industry is grappling with its own culpability in enabling abuse. Sony wanted in on the significance of this moment without dealing with the fact that the company has participated in the exact thing Kesha and her women peers were singing out against.
Sony, like the Grammys, wanted the bonus points of being on “the right side” of the issue without facing its own failings. It wanted a piece of Kesha’s triumph without acknowledging that it had already destroyed a piece of Kesha’s heart.
The Grammys insists it values women while failing to value women
This maddening attempt to have it both ways was echoed throughout the 2018 Grammys ceremony, which tried desperately all night to have it both ways. In addition to putting on a huge show of letting Kesha sing while flattening her specific condemnation into a toothless platitude, the Grammys returned throughout the night to applause lines with the overall message that “women deserve better” — not seeming to realize that the ceremony itself was proving that point.
In between the Grammys’ self-congratulation for deciding to value women, few women won actual awards. Lorde was the only woman nominated for Album of the Year, which was made more conspicuous by the fact that she was one of the few nominees who didn’t perform. She reportedly turned down an offer to share her slot for a Tom Petty tribute performance of “American Girl.” (Lorde is from New Zealand.)
When asked why Lorde didn’t get to celebrate her nomination onstage like her male peers, Grammy producer Ken Ehrlich insisted that “there’s no way we can really deal with everybody,” despite giving U2 and Sting — neither of whom were nominated this year — multiple performances, both solo and collaborative. When asked why more women weren’t rewarded for their work, Recording Academy president Neil Portnow shrugged that they need “to step up.” (This comment sparked a whole mess of criticism, maybe most pointedly from Grammy winner and performer Pink; Portnow has since apologized.)
So, yes, Kesha’s performance was indeed one “that speaks to our times.” But the sad truth is that “Praying” will always speak to our times unless the music industry shows any sign of wanting to make real change beyond trying to buy moral bonus points with supportive hashtags.
Updated to include Pink’s criticism of Portnow and his response.