#FreeAlabama

Brian Oliu
11 min readDec 12, 2017

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by Tasha Lamberto Coryell

I was at a Kesha concert the night that Roy Moore officially became a candidate for the United States Senate. I had been a fan of Kesha since college, back when she was named Ke$ha and her songs were primarily about going to parties, back before the lawsuits against Dr. Luke.

Like most people, my first awareness of Roy Moore came when he was removed from office for violating the Constitution. Moore has been removed from office twice, the first time for refusing to take down a monument of the Ten Commandments outside the state Judicial Building and the second time for ordering probate judges in Alabama to follow the state’s ban on same-sex marriage despite the United States Supreme Court ruling. Many of the people I’ve met in Alabama have defied my expectations of what I thought the state to be; Roy Moore is not one of them.

I loved Ke$ha, the one with the dollar sign, because she embodied what I wanted to be and never could. She was blond and thin and sang songs about going to parties, being in love and doing drugs. I was in college and my dark hair was cut in a short, asymmetrical haircut, which sounds cool because I got the haircut in an attempt to be cool. On the weekends, I drank vodka mixed with juice and went to parties and tried to have experiences that were akin to a Ke$ha song. The problem was that I attended a small liberal arts college full of people with social anxiety and the closest any of us every got to being Ke$ha was relating with the self-loathing displayed in her twitter handle “keshasuxx.”

It didn’t seem remarkable when Ke$ha entered rehab in 2014. As a millennial, I’ve witnessed a multitude of celebrity breakdowns: Britney Spears, Amanda Bynes, Lindsay Lohan, Demi Lovato. The biggest disruption was when she removed the dollar sign from her name, going from Ke$ha to Kesha and changing her twitter handle from “keshasuxx” to the gentler “kesharose.” Because I too have a name that ends with a “sha,” I had replaced the S in own name with a dollar sign in mimicry of the pop star on Twitter and because of this mimicry I felt a connection to her. In a 2017 interview, Kesha explained that she got rid of the $ “after I went to rehab for my eating disorder. I let go of my facade about being a girl who didn’t care,” I am constantly learning that there is no such thing as the “chill girl” and only girls that pretend to be chill because it is what society demands.

Later in 2014, Kesha filed a lawsuit against her producer, Dr. Luke, in which she alleged that he “forced her to take date-rape drugs and sexually abused her afterward. She also “accused Luke of long-term emotional and psychological abuse involving fat-shaming.” Ultimately what she wanted, the lawsuit said, was to be freed from working with her abuser. Instead of Sony releasing her from her contract, the case languished. There were lawsuits and counter lawsuits and for the entirety of the process, Kesha was unable to make music. This was before the #metoo campaign, before handfuls of men got fired due to accusations of sexual assault. Lauren Duca writes in her Thigh High Politics column in Teen Vogue, “For every abuser who has fallen, there are victims who have been taken down by exposure to his toxicity, who have had their ability to succeed forever maimed by the warping force of sexism.” A campaign was launched on the Internet to #freekesha and allow her to make music again. In 2016, she broke down sobbing in a courtroom after a judge refused to release her from her contract that stipulated she make her next six albums with Dr. Luke. Finally in August of 2016, Kesha dropped her lawsuit, which meant that she was able to make music again, but also that she would never be entirely freed.

On the night that I went to see Kesha in Birmingham, Roy Moore had not yet been accused of sexually assaulting several teenage girls. It had not yet come out that he had been banned from a mall in Gadsden because it was known that he would try to talk to teenagers. On the night that I went to see Kesha in Birmingham, Roy Moore was in a Republican run-off against Senator Luther Strange. Senator Luther Strange was appointed to his position by former Alabama Governor Robert Bentley. Bentley, also known as “the luv guv,” was forced to resign from his position after engaging in an affair with one of his employees and using government funding to support this affair. After the runoff was over, newspapers would remark on Moore’s win as a rejection of Trump (who supported Strange) and a victory for Bannon (who supported Moore). What these newspapers failed to account for was that Luther Strange had dropped charges against Robert Bentley in an apparent deal for the Senate seat. It wasn’t a rejection of Trump or endorsement of Bannon, it was a condemnation of Strange’s support of Robert Bentley. Additionally, for the first time, Alabama had banned crossover voting in run-offs — if someone voted in the Democratic primary, they would be unable to vote in the Republican run-off. This meant Democratic primary voters would be unable to sway the result of the run-off in either direction.

Over the summer of 2017, Kesha’s third studio album Rainbow was released. As of December, the video has 68 million views, though I suspect that many of these are repeat viewings as I myself have watched the video again and again and again. The video opens with Kesha lying in a coffin and two men wearing pig masks standing over her. She asks, “Am I dead? Or is this one of those dreams? Those horrible dreams that seems like they last forever. If I am alive, why?” The video cuts to Kesha sitting in a junkyard. She walks past a wall of televisions with propaganda written across the screens. “Free thought* only $89.99” one says. “Weapons of mass deception,” says another. At the bottom center there is a television that says, “Democrats are evil.” This is the television that I focused on most. The one that I want to smash with the bat that Kesha carries in another scene. Around the time that this video came out, I attended a day long training by the Alabama Young Democrats about how to run for office. One of the things that they stressed is that people in Alabama have been taught that Democrats are evil and described as though they are monsters. Simply by going door to door and talking to people, they said, you can help break the perception they hold. This, amongst other reasons, is why I have been trying to claim the label “Democrat” rather than hedge my political beliefs in something less decisive. At another point in the video Kesha says, “I am proud of who I am.” I am trying to be proud of who I am too.

As the video continues, Kesha is pursued through a brightly colored hell scape by the men in pig masks. She sings, “Cause you brought the flames and put me through hell, I had to learn how to fight for myself and we both know all the truth I can tell.” It’s clear that she’s talking to Dr. Luke and that he, as well as the people who defend him at Sony, are the ones who are pursuing her. Kesha breaks free of giant fishnets that are constraining her and works her way through a series of tunnels where she is followed by the pig men before she gets to a painted mountain. “God is love,” the mountain says. There is a cross at the top. “When I’m finished, they won’t even know your name,” she belts as she climbs up the side. When she reaches the top, Kesha gets down on her knees and pray. “Sometimes,” she sings, “I pray for you at night…some say, in life you’re gonna get what you give, but some things only god can forgive” and then she launches into a high pitched scream that can only represent anger as it’s being released. A friend, posted the video on her Facebook and said, “I cried a little.” I commented on her post, noting my own tears and another friend replied and said, “She overcame! She’s free!” I wanted so badly for it to be true.

There is a lot of glitter at a Kesha concert as well as a lot of rainbows. People with glitter beards, glitter eyebrows, glittered smeared across their cheeks and in their hair. People wearing sequined shirts and sequined dresses. Someone carried a sign with an alien spaceship with rainbow colored windows based off the album’s cover. The significance of this image isn’t hard to decipher. It says: we are different, alien, and we embrace these differences. I attended the show with my husband, though we were one of the few couples. The crowd was younger than I had anticipated, especially with Kesha’s three year lapse from the music scene. My husband and I stood in the back of the small venue, checking our phone and watching the run-off results come in. It was made official early in the evening, before the opening act began. I took a deep breath and said, “Okay, I guess Doug Jones is running against Roy Moore then.” I didn’t know how to reconcile Roy Moore’s win with the inside of the concert venue that was filled with people who were unabashed in their queerness. In the corner, someone held up a rainbow flag.

The show opened with the song “Woman,” whose chorus goes, “I’m a motherfucking woman, baby, alright. I don’t need a man to be holding me too tight.” There is often a perception of female pop stars (and only female pop stars) that their singing talent is fabricated in the studio and they mainly serve as a model for their over produced songs. This isn’t true of Kesha (or perhaps anyone). She has a presence that is simultaneously impressive and genuine and as points out in “Woman,” she “writes that shit.” At one point, Kesha took the rainbow flag from the crowd. She said, “I am going to hang this in my tour bus.” Everyone cheered. I have since thought about that rainbow flag from Alabama, traveling across the country. Pop music critic Ann Powers, herself a Tuscaloosa resident, reviewed Kesha’s next show in Nashville at Ryman Auditorium. Powers writes of the show, “Love and equality meet rock ’n’ roll in the space where joy — generated by noise, outrageous pleasure, dancing, and voices raised together — overcomes judgment.” At several points, Kesha stopped singing to address the crowd and express her anger about bathroom bills discriminating against transgender people and the hatred that was proliferating in the United States. The crowd screamed in approval. I wondered if Kesha knew, if the crowd knew, that the venue decried transphobia and homophobia the same time that a nationally renowned homophobe was being official announced as a candidate for the United States senate. Two months later, Roy Moore would refuse to debate Doug Jones because of his “very liberal stance on transgenderism and transgenderism in the military and in bathrooms.” What Moore means by “very liberal stance” is that Jones believes that transgender people are people and deserve equal protection under the law.

When it came time to perform “Praying,” Kesha put on a sparkly robe and said, “You know something special is about to happen because I put on my sparkly robe.” Here is something that broke through the magic: just before Kesha’s Rainbow album was announced, reports surfaced that it was possible that Dr. Luke would profit from the album and the tour. According Vulture, “With days to go until the album’s release, neither side will say if Dr. Luke maintains a financial stake in Rainbow, even after his split from Kemosabe.” The implication of this is that although Kesha made a song about breaking free from her abuser, her abuser might profit from the song’s creation. I think about the women that have accused Roy Moore of sexual assault and how, if he wins the senate race, he will be responsible for representing them in the senate. I think about the LGBTQ citizens of Alabama and how if Moore wins, they will be represented by someone who doesn’t think they should have equal protection under the law. How, I wonder, would we be able to fight for our right to healthcare, our fight for equitable tax laws, when we would be represented by a man that doesn’t believe that all of Alabama’s citizens are fully human? How can I possibly survive the election of a man accused of sexual assault by a multiple of women again?

I want to end on something positive. I want to tell you about cranking “Praying” in my living room and singing along even though I have a terrible voice and thinking about how someday as these men will get the comeuppance that they deserve. I want to tell you about all the women, ones with full time jobs and children and lives, that have spent hour after hour volunteering for Doug Jones and all of the Doug Jones yard signs that surround my house. There is a better Alabama, I want to say. I can’t do say this with complete honesty though, not entirely. Sometimes the polls swing in Jones’ favor and other times to Moore. When the news broke about the sexual assault applications I had a headache for four days and a stomachache so bad that I thought I might have food poisoning. There are women, I know, who do not believe Moore’s accusers. I see people on the Internet write things like “Let’s kick Alabama out of the Union.” I want to scream, “I am here too! Other women are here too!”

I will then end with this: one day while canvassing for Doug Jones I approached a house that was festooned with military imagery. A son had just returned home from the military. This made me anxious as the right has co-opted the military as entirely their own. I approached the door anyway. I told myself that I needed to knock because that door, any door, could be the one that sways the vote in favor of Doug Jones. A woman answered and I told her I was volunteering with the Doug Jones campaign. She smiled and she said, “Doug Jones is going to win. Roy Moore touched children and when you touch children, you’re gone.” She repeated this sentiment several times, emphasizing that Doug Jones is a good man who has run a clean campaign and that’s why he would be victorious. I think about that women and I think about Kesha on the stage singing, “I hope you find your peace, fallen on your knees,” as tears fell down her face and glittered sparkled across the crowd. We are here too, I want to say. All the women in the concert that could relate to Kesha as a survivor of an eating disorder and of sexual assault. All the gay men with glitter in their beards. All the people who have been made to feel alien in their own homes. We are here too and we are praying.

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Brian Oliu

Writer! Bama Faculty! 4X Marathoner! Donut Enthusiast! Track Jacket Expert! Forever Hype! Catalan! He/Him! RTR! Yes!! brianoliu.com