There aren’t a lot of stories about galvanizing records these days. But a few weeks ago, when the song was about a week-and-a-half old, the topic of Kesha’s “Praying” came up in my office. Three of my colleagues, all female, raved about it. The fourth hadn’t heard it yet. Once she did, she went under the headphones and listened to it several more times.
Not every CHR station reacted as quickly. At the outset, the immediate airplay for “Praying” was mostly in medium markets and heavily concentrated in the Midwest. Both CHRs in Kesha’s hometown of Nashville were also on board. The big market leader was KIIS-FM Los Angeles, which supported the song immediately, but KIIS was the outlier. Two weeks later, you could see many of the majors rushing to catch up.
There’s always something galvanizing about the moment when a surprise hit accelerates. From “Bette Davis Eyes” to “Rolling in the Deep,” it often involves a song that makes you see an artist in a whole new way, even if the circumstances are usually less charged. “Praying” is a great moment in a summer that has been light on great music moments.
It is hard to write about “Praying” without acknowledging the singer’s public battle with Dr. Luke. Lots of songs are about the struggle with an anonymous “you.” Katy Perry’s “Roar” did that, and Dr. Luke co-wrote that one. But this song arrives fraught with context. Amidst the most serious claims, the artistic dispute between artist and producer became part and parcel of the discussion as well.
From a musical standpoint, it wasn’t unreasonable to wonder who Kesha was as an artist, or where she might go after the party anthems. I never assumed her lyrics had anything to do with the real-life person singing them, but there was such a consistent thru-line from “Tik Tok” to “Die Young” that it was hard to accept later that Kesha might not like that sound or those songs in the first place. Growing and moving forward is one thing. Disavowing half a dozen records that many people liked is another.
Besides, during the superstar producer era, many artists (including some established ones) were happily following the charts wherever they led them, rather than looking to make their own artistic statement. And not every attempt to do otherwise has ended happily over the years. For every Marvin Gaye who pushed away from a hitmaking machine to compel the release of “What’s Going On,” there was a “Praying for Time,” proving that George Michael should have kept things light.
But “Praying” is not “Praying for Time.” Kesha didn’t ditch collaborative writing — “Praying” has three co-authors. But what emerged was the most phenomenal record in recent memory, and that’s taking phenomenal at its literal meaning, not merely as a superlative.
As a song that’s just cracking the top 20 this week, it is certainly possible that “Praying” could be more of an event record than a song for the ages. Maybe it will be too draining to hear on an Adult Contemporary radio station every 30 hours for the next 30 years. But for now, it’s galvanizing in a way that few other songs have been lately. And chances are, subsequent listeners will find their own personal context for the lyrics.
I have rules about the song of the summer being uptempo/light/happy. Although they were instituted for your protection in the aftermath of Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together,” I have had to consider waiving them for “Praying,” because it will leave an emotional and cultural footprint on the summer in a way that, say, “There’s Nothing Holding Me Back” will not.
What I’ve decided is that in the spirit of those major music awards that recognize both “record” and “song,” I am prepared to now designate “Praying” as the song of the summer. Later this month, with your input, “Despacito,” “I’m the One” or “There’s Nothing Holding Me Back” will become the record of the summer. It seems unlikely that any last-minute hit will upstage them, because any last-minute hit would have to upstage “Praying” as well.