Dr. Luke v. Kesha (and other female recording artists)

Joyce Stevens – on IWD in 1975

Sony Records has just announced, rather abruptly,  it will end Dr. Luke’s (aka Lukasz Sebastian Gottwald) contract one year early. Many believe that it has to do with the the backlash from Kesha’s allegations and a possible long protracted legal case against Dr. Luke alleging rape by way of drugging, abuse, manipulation and control against her and her work. Since Kesha lost her request for an injunction to be freed from her contract with Dr. Luke until her case for the rape allegations is resolved, many recording artists, especially prominent recording artists have come out in support. High profile singers like Adele, who is also signed to Sony, dedicated her British Music Award (UK’s Grammy equivalent) in support of Kesha. Taylor Swift gave $250,000 to Kesha to help her with her finances in this bruising court battle. Lady Gaga, who is a personal friend of Kesha’s posted many pictures of them sharing hugs and solidarity together have rocked the patriarchal music establishment. Many other artists, many of whom didn’t know Kesha have come out in support on social media with the hashtag #FreeKesha.

What’s happening to Kesha is nothing new for female recording artists. Kesha, like so many before her, decided to make a deal with the devil, if they do everything their record company or producers ask of them, and if the record that result becomes a success, then for the next albums they get to do what they like, work with who they like and create whatever songs they like. Pink, Christina Aguilera and many others have claimed to use this strategy to their benefit. Many artists have kept quiet about this unholy arrangement, some see it as a necessary evil or trade off to superstardom, fame, success and artistic freedom.

It’s long been suspected that there’s much more that goes behind the scenes than just producers and record companies controlling the image and songs of the artists, there is something far more sinister going on which no one, certainly not the artists themselves have disclosed. Many have alleged or hinted at inappropriate sexual advances by record producers and record label executives long after the fact, but none have gone so far to bring a lawsuit against a powerful, well liked and successful producer such as Dr. Luke.

The terms of the contract is complicated, Dr. Luke’s company Kemosabe Records is signed to Sony, and Kesha is signed to Dr. Luke’s company so they both technically are signed under Sony, except Kesha is exclusively signed to Kemosabe Records and her records are to be produced under the supervision of Kemosabe Records but released and distributed by Sony Records. The agreement Sony had with Kesha is that she is free to work with any record producer she likes if she doesn’t want anything to do with Dr. Luke but she cannot break the contract with Dr. Luke, which translates to Dr. Luke will still have exclusive rights and control over Kesha’s music. And now that she’s aired their dirty linen, he can make life difficult for her and cut off her career and financial lifeline. Lena Dunham explains it better in her essay for support of Kesha from her newsletter Lenny:

Imagine someone really hurt you, physically and emotionally. Scared you and abused you, threatened your family. The judge says that you don’t have to see them again, BUT they still own your house. So they can decide when to turn the heat on and off, whether they’ll pay the telephone bill or fix the roof when it leaks. After everything you’ve been through, do you feel safe living in that house? Do you trust them to protect you?

So, this is the current plight of Kesha. It’s unclear what Sony’s early termination of Dr. Luke’s contract has any impact on the contract between Kesha and Dr. Luke or what would happen to that contract should Dr. Luke be found liable for the charges alleged in Kesha’s lawsuit against him. Sony Records didn’t have any intention of terminating Dr. Luke’s contract until these last few days. I think the reason is Kelly Clarkson gave an interview about her experience with Dr. Luke and had this to say:

[S]he (Kelly Clarkson) was displeased with the producer’s character. “Unfortunately, when you have that poor of character – so many artists don’t like you and don’t like working with you – that’s not normal. I get along with everyone I work with, but he’s just not a good guy for me,” Clarkson said of Luke. “Obviously, he’s a talented dude. He just lied a lot. I’ve run into a couple of really bad situations. Musically, it’s been really hard for me because he will just lie to people. And it’s like, ‘What?’ And it makes the artist look bad.” Clarkson continued, “He’s kind of difficult to work with; kind of demeaning.”

Before I go into the reasons of why the words of Kelly Clarkson lent credibility to the allegations against Dr. Luke – I first like to call bullshit on all of the sudden outpouring of support for Kesha from the other artists and the press.

Please allow me to explain.

I don’t mean to be indelicate when I say this but Kesha when rated amongst her peers, is a second rate pop star. It’s fair to say that she has neither the vocal skills of Adele nor the charisma and marketability of Katy Perry or Taylor Swift. And Kesha’s brand of music is peculiar to say the least, she’s not really a vocalist nor is she strictly a rapper. When she does rap, it’s not done in the manner of how traditional rap is done. I suppose Dr. Luke wanted to market her as a white Nicki Minaj, who raps and sings on the same track. The image of Kesha that was introduced to the public is one of trailer trash chic, she has greasy hair in her music videos and looks in need of a good wash. She is said to be a competent songwriter herself, but under the control of her then mentor Dr. Luke, her creativity was stifled. When Kesha was putting out records and touring, she was routinely mocked by media for her image, her inability to sing, and the bizarre way she used to spell her name, the ‘S’ in her name is represented with a $ sign (Ke$ha). She was also very open and free with her sexual expression and candid about her sexual experiences. She boasts a close relationship with her fans and is not immune to doing strange things and posting them all over social media to stay relevant. In other words, she is your typical millennial pop star. The line between her true reality and one that she puts out for the public see is blurred. Many didn’t understand her and prior to her filing the lawsuit, it’s safe to say, her ‘girl squad’ was quite sparse. Out of all of her current new supporters, perhaps only Lady Gaga was a personal friend of hers prior to this event.

Even when Kesha filed her lawsuit against her former Mentor Dr. Luke, there wasn’t that much noise made. Dr. Luke categorically and vehemently denied the claims and said this was his former protege’s attempt at trying to get out of her contract that she signed, where she was bound for 10 years and must make a minimum of 6 albums under Dr. Luke’s label. Kesha entered an eating disorder facility to get treatment last year. She emerged a more sophisticated girl and dropped the bizarre $ from her name. She got serious about the lawsuit against Dr. Luke and when the more excruciating details of the verbal abuse, mental manipulation and rape came out, people took notice. And by people, I mean members of the media and her peers. Climatically, when her injunction was denied on February 19th, as Kesha was weeping in the back of the courtroom with her mother beside her, social media went into overdrive with the hashtag #FreeKesha.

Kesha who was at best dismissed as an artist or at worst mocked for her musical style (or lack of one), especially by the press, and she is now suddenly everyone’s cause celebre. Kesha became the poster girl for how a music industry abuses its artists, especially female artists. She became a symbol of a woman who is oppressed by the patriarchy. Kesha was close to the point of being chewed up and spit out and before that happened, she filed a lawsuit against her abuser to stand up for herself. She must know the chances of winning a lawsuit or even damages is slim to none. As in most sexual assault situations, it is largely a he-said she-said scenario. Besides her mother, there was no one to witness the verbal abuse and putdowns. No one besides her mother saw Kesha curled up in a ball in the corner of the room sobbing. Lastly, Dr. Luke is a powerful and wealthy white man, he’s worked with a lot of current artists and has made huge amounts of money for himself and the record labels he produces for, so the scale obviously balances in his direction. Kesha is now celebrated for her bravery and courage to speak out against a brutal contract system against artists.

Also, any possible doubts about Kesha’s claims against Dr. Luke also evaporated. Kesha’s natural candidness about her sexual preferences and experiences, yet she failed to disclose such a serious allegation against Dr. Luke is something that’s perhaps not spoken about openly but definitely in the back of people’s minds. While her peers, most of whom would consider themselves progressive feminists, believe Kesha but many probably wonder if Dr. Luke and Kesha had a consensual sexual relationship at one point during the 10 years they worked together, it is not entirely out of the realm of possibility. The fact that they may have had a sexual relationship doesn’t discredit her claims or in anyway minimizes them, but when you are trying to prove a timeline of events in court, it would matter greatly when an alleged sexual relationship began or ended. Dr. Luke maintains that he’s never had a sexual relationship with Kesha, she was like his “little sister”.

All this aside, what I found equally strange is the lack of people coming to Dr. Luke’s aid, besides members of his family. One argument could be made that people don’t want to be seen as defending an alleged rapist, especially if even any small part of Kesha’s allegations turns out to be true, it would look bad. But, if I had a friend who was being accused of rape and lots of horrible things, and I know for a fact that he isn’t that type of person or he didn’t commit those heinous acts and I am confident in such a way that I will risk my reputation to defend him because I know he’s innocent, I will defend him. Where are his friends? Where are the guys? Bro code, anyone? Their silence is more deafening than Kesha’s allegations against him.

Until now, Sony has been relatively silent as the courts have made their decision. Sony is in a difficult position as it has a reputation and a multi-billion dollar business to maintain. They must make a calculation to see if all of this Dr. Luke hassle is worth it. For two weeks after the denial of Kesha’s injunction, Sony appeared to be satisfied with the current state of things, there were no whispers of Sony letting Dr. Luke go, he was still a valuable commodity. But when Kelly Clarkson made her feelings known to the public about how she felt about Dr. Luke, in the next couple of days, Sony announces its decision.

Lady Gaga, Adele and Taylor Swift do not work with Dr. Luke and perhaps do not know Dr. Luke personally, but Kelly Clarkson does. Though Clarkson was very clear that nothing untoward happened, she asserts that Dr. Luke is not an honest person with integrity and she didn’t enjoy working with him. And Kelly Clarkson is a girl that can get along with everyone, she’ll find a way to get along with her adversaries to get business done.

Not to be indelicate here again, but unlike her peers, Kelly Clarkson didn’t become famous by trading on her looks. She’s a sweet looking girl but it’s fair to say, she doesn’t mind her waistline that much. She had a baby about 2 years ago and she kept most of the weight on and was happy with it, she told Ellen on the The Ellen DeGeneres Show that she loves her wine and so her waistline stays and is quite unbothered by it. She’s now pregnant again and is happy as punch with herself. She has no problem letting it all hang out. Kelly Clarkson is always a vocalist and artist first and the external stuff is just that, external. Though she can’t be called ‘difficult’ to work with, she’s no pushover either. When Clive Davis’s memoirs came out and some misinformation was printed, she was quick to correct those misinformation, much to the embarrassment of Clive Davis and the record label:

“So I just heard Clive Davis is releasing a memoir and spreading false information about me and my music,” she writes. “I refuse to be bullied and I just have to clear up his memory lapses and misinformation for myself and for my fans. It feels like a violation. Growing up is awesome because you learn you don’t have to cower to anyone — even Clive Davis.”

Because Kelly Clarkson’s words are more substantive and specific to the times she was blackmailed into working with Dr. Luke (or else the label wouldn’t put out the records), and she’s only worked with Dr. Luke on two or three songs, they are seen as credible. She said he’s “lied” and “demeaned” her and went out of his way to make her look bad, which is also similar to what Kesha is alleging in her lawsuit. Therefore a pattern of behavior is established, by another woman no less but a woman who had no close mentor and mentee relationship with Dr. Luke. And in the pecking order of the pop music world, Kelly Clarkson still outranks Kesha, therefore, her words lend weight to Kesha’s allegations.

If Kesha refuses to record any new music while Dr. Luke still owns her contract or if she agrees to record but Dr. Luke chooses to sabotage her and not release her material the way she wants it, and Dr. Luke won’t budge and release her from her contract, it’s very likely that this is the end of Kesha’s career. The terms of her contract prohibits her from working with anyone else until she’s fully complied with the contract. Sony and Dr. Luke claims that they’ve spent $60 million dollars on Kesha and her career, they will not let her off so easily. I like to know just how $60 million was spent on an artist who’s put out three albums only.

Kesha should tread very carefully at her sudden newfound ‘friends’, especially her new supporters from the same press that just a couple of years ago was mocking her. She is very vulnerable right now. Though their sentiments are sincere and their current support admirable, it still begs the question, where were they before? It would be a shame to be used again, even for the advancement of feminism.

2 thoughts on “Dr. Luke v. Kesha (and other female recording artists)

  1. Interesting. So basically Kesha was just the tip of the iceberg. I read this over quickly and will read more carefully later but I’m a little confused about why Kelly Clarkson means the other artists aren’t sincere.


    1. Kelly Clarkson lends legitimacy to Kesha’s claims because she actually knows Dr. Luke professionally and had the ‘pleasure’ of working with him. The other ‘artists’ aren’t exactly insincere…per se, but it’s like where were they before?
      Two separate points. Kelly Clarkson didn’t specifically speak words of direct support to Kesha, she did something more important, she corroborated some of Kesha’s allegations.

      Liked by 1 person

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