If you only know Kesha Rose Sebert as Ke$ha, the auto-tuned, eye-rolling brat of a few years ago, do yourself a favour - listen to her version of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”. It’s closer to Cat Power than the Kesha we’re familiar with, but like Lady Gaga singing jazz, or Miley doing country, the two sides of her personality form a complete picture of a woman and artist. Kesha subtly shifts a lyric into the first-person - “I gave you my heart, but you wanted my soul”. If the song wasn’t gut-wrenching enough to begin with, now it’s impossible to hear without thinking of what she’s currently going through. Here are the basic facts: Kesha is suing Dr. Luke, real name Lukasz Gottwald, the man who cowrote and produced the majority of her discography. Kesha alleges sexual assault and emotional abuse dating back to 2005, which led to long-term psychological issues, and her admission to rehab in early 2014 for an eating disorder. Dr. Luke, who denies all claims, is countersuing for defamation. But this recent case, heard in the New York Supreme Court, was to obtain preliminary injunction to Kesha’s contract with Sony and Dr. Luke’s imprint Kemosabe Records, to allow her to record outside of their purview. Midway through proceedings, Sony backtracked on their original demands, claiming that they would allow Kesha to work with other producers, and that Sony and Kemosabe remain committed to Kesha as an artist. This is dubious at best. Dr. Luke still wields enormous influence within Sony, and as in the past, there’s no reason to believe Kesha will ever have total creative control as long as she’s under Sony. Worst of all, any profits she makes will still be filtered through Kemosabe Records.
Image: Instagram In the eyes of the law, Kesha is no longer being “forced” to work with Dr. Luke - and that’s enough to deny her injunction. From the specific perspective of contract law, it makes sense - it takes a lot to void a $60 million contract. From any other perspective, it’s as if Kesha’s stuck in some Kafkaeqsue capitalist nightmare. It doesn’t matter if you like her music; it doesn’t even matter if you believe her allegations. The law should protect people from corporations, not enable corporations to hold artists hostage. Is it so idealistic, to say that an artist’s work should not have to belong to a man she accuses of sexual assault? Clearly, Sony can’t retain both Dr. Luke and Kesha. But they insist that everything will work out, even after witnessing Kesha’s obvious emotional distress, even though their conflict gets messier by the day. Kesha alleges that her inability to record is causing irreparable harm to her career, which could functionally be over by the time all her legal disputes are resolved. In pop, you’re only as relevant as your last move - and Kesha’s last album was in 2012, practically a pop generation ago. Here’s something we’ve already forgotten: Miley Cyrus took Kesha’s spot. In 2012, Kesha was already recording with The Flaming Lips; they each have a guest spot on the other’s album. An entire collaborative album, tentatively titled Lip$ha, was shelved due to what then seemed like “creative differences” with Dr. Luke. Meanwhile, Miley’s entire wild-child reinvention - from “Wrecking Ball”, a Dr. Luke cowrite, to her Flaming Lips collaboration, last year’s Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz - has taken place in the four years since Kesha’s last record. In a perfect world, we could have two mainstream popstars doing hippie psychedelic rock. But the damage to Kesha’s career - all the VMAs performances, MAC sponsorships and tours that actually make popstars money - has already been done. This is just a preliminary proceeding, but the judge’s dismissal sets a disturbing precedent. Kesha still has options left, though what they are, and more importantly, when - are murky. Kesha’s womanhood, her artistry, and her relationship to the industry are inseparable. Her situation speaks to the entire male-producer, female-singer dynamic that runs through mainstream pop. This isn’t the end. But it sure feels like the worst-case scenario for artists and women under the legal system alike.
By Kesha’s 2012 album Warrior, she was clearly brushing up against the constraints of Dr. Luke’s dance-pop template. Still, she was able to find real, palpable joy in those clichés. If there’s one positive to take away from all of this, it’s never to underestimate Kesha. She’s consistently refused to play the victim. She’s recorded hundreds of demos in the past few years. She’s played live with her new rock ‘n’ roll band, delightfully called The Yeast infection. And her increasingly vocal fans won’t let her be forgotten. Her songs will only become fiercer. That is, if they’re allowed to exist at all. Richard S. He is a pop culture critic. People still don’t take him seriously. Tweet your grievances to @Richaod
Additional contributions by Evie Potter.