After 12 years in the industry (eight as a household name), two number one albums, and three number one songs, Kesha finally got her first Grammy nomination earlier today. “Praying” copped a nomination for best pop solo performance, while Rainbow was shortlisted for best pop vocal album. It also might be the first year where one could make a convincing case that Kesha was snubbed. Both the song and record were shut out of the (noticeably female-lacking) major cross-genre awards.
Despite its rave reviews (the album has an 81 percent on Metacritic, higher than two of the albums that were nominated) and solid commercial performance (“Praying” remains in the Top 40, even 28 weeks after its release), an anthemic song about overcoming sexual abuse in the year of Weinstein and Trump was overlooked in favor of, say, Bruno Mars crooning about how “pretty girls” are waking up his “rocket” to such a degree that he’ll even let their “ugly ass friends” party with him.
The story of Kesha and her road to Rainbow and “Praying” is well known, but bears repeating. Once upon a time, she was a promising young artist with a good voice and a knack for songwriting, the kind the recording industry loves to lure into its grasps early. She was only 18 when she was signed to Dr. Luke’s label imprint and soon developed into something of the down-n-dirty party girl yin to Katy Perry’s California peppy yang. It wasn’t the image that would make the best use of her talents, but it was one that was guaranteed to garner immediate attention, woo the unimaginative radio program directors, and sell lots and lots of records. Of course, as we more recently learned, behind the scenes there was (alleged) sexual and verbal abuse, damaging comments about her body, and other tortures that are all too common for women in the entertainment industry. A protracted legal battle with Luke ensued that prevented Kesha from performing for years until Rainbow emerged earlier this year, and, in the process, allowing Kesha to reintroduce herself on her own creative terms and not as a pop star whose image was decided by committee.
You’d think that Grammy voters would eat it up, and several prognosticators assumed “Praying,” at least, would be a strong contender for both the song and record categories.
After all, one might assume an industry and awards ceremony that has stood in solidarity for so long with Taylor Swift for enduring 90 seconds of onstage Kanye West rudeness would find it fit to recognize a stirring statement song from someone who endured years of alleged abuse at the hands of a prominent producer.
The Grammys though have always been a hard awards race to gauge. They operate alone in a strange space trying to straddle the line of popularity and quality. Or at least trying to identify what was the most qualified among the popular, while often finding themselves reactive to past mistakes and past snubs and sins (it wasn’t until last year, after he died, that David Bowie had a major night at the Grammys, after all). It makes it hard to figure out what the body-at-large is thinking in any given year, and often it seems that body-at-large isn’t even sure itself.
Unlike the Oscars or Emmys, there’s also not a whole ecosystem of festivals, passionate critical debate, and precursor awards shows that feed into the conversation around the nominations, either. Grammy nominations just sort of arrive one day. To put it another way, Oscar voters may very well be considering the socio-political implications of their choices this year. Grammy voters it seems just kind of hope to put on a show that gets ratings, and then find a way to makeup for whatever mistakes they made the next time around.
It seems like “Praying” just sort of slipped through the cracks.
Which is a shame. How often does a pop star deliver such a deeply personal and cathartic song? How often does that song end up being an unofficial anthem for a particular moment? More over, what’s the point of being an organization that tries to straddle that divide of quality and popular when a popular artist breaks through with a creative triumph and doesn’t get more recognition? A song like “Praying” seems like the kind of work the Grammys could only dream of recognizing at a higher level.
A shame, but still, Kesha may very well the odds-on favorite in the categories she was nominated in (it was a particularly bleak year for the pop pack), and here’s hoping the Academy gives her the opportunity to sing the song live. Imagine the moment that could be.