On Friday, the hashtag #FreeKesha began to dominate timelines. It was initially launched by fans after a New York Supreme Court judge ruled that, despite Kesha’s allegations that her producer Dr. Luke (Lukasz Gottwald) drugged and raped her when she was 18 and "sexually, physically, verbally and emotionally abused" her for a decade, the singer must remain under contract with Dr. Luke's Kemosabe Records, which is owned by Sony. The hashtag quickly became a way for people in general to express their anger, sadness, and support for Kesha, and stayed trending all weekend.
The lawsuit, originally filed in 2014, has been a long, frustrating, and emotional one. To briefly recap, Kesha has been pushing for a preliminary injunction that would allow her to record outside of Dr. Luke’s purview. While the case was open, Kesha was unable tour, record, or pursue her career interests in any capacity because of her contractual obligations to Sony, even though she has frequently spoken about the fact that she “cannot work” with Dr. Luke – a man she has described as a “monster”. Kesha’s lawyers claim she has suffered “irreparable harm” as a result. However, at Friday’s hearing, Supreme Court Justice Shirley Kornreich, chose to reject Kesha’s appeal, claiming there is no reason to let her go from her contract to work with Dr. Luke, and that Sony would undergo irreparable harm if Kesha was not required to abide by a contract which demands she make six more albums with the company. Dr. Luke has maintained his innocence throughout the trial.
The reaction from celebrities, fans, and journalists alike has been overwhelmingly and understandably irate. Within hours, Lady Gaga, Kelly Clarkson, Demi Lovato, Ariana Grande, Alessia Cara, Best Coast, Halsey, Lily Allen, Fiona Apple, and Lorde publicly voiced their shock and support for Kesha in the wake of the verdict, with Gaga’s sentiments – “There are people all over the world who love you @KeshaRose. And I can say truly I am in awe of your bravery” – being retweeted over 88 thousand times. One image doing the rounds gave a rundown of the music industry’s history of disregarding the mental-health and wellbeing of women artists, pointing to Britney Spears, Mariah Carey, Rihanna, Whitney Houston, and Amy Winehouse as examples. The hashtag #FreeKesha bore similarities to one that circulated before the verdict – #FreedomForKesha – both of which "call to light an issue that is all too real for any woman when reporting a rape", as Kat George wrote for Noisey back in September: "They lose their freedom."
However, it quickly became hard to ignore that notable women in the music industry who weren’t actively showing their support for Kesha were being jumped on.
This morning, a spokesperson for Taylor Swift told Rolling Stone that the singer has donated $250,000 to Kesha, “to help with any of her financial needs during this trying time.” The announcement arrived after Twitter basically sent for Swift, whose feminism has come increasingly under fire for being both exclusive and “performative”, and for not speaking up. But here's where things become tangled.
Yes, Taylor Swift has benefited from leveraging the concept of women rallying together under the banner of friendship – it was essentially the marketing strategy for 1989 – and so it seems fair for fans to expect that message to hold up in real life, too. What sucks about situations like this, though, is that when it comes to sticking up for women within the music industry, the onus usually falls on other women – and it falls aggressively.
After sympathising with Kesha, Demi Lovato had a pop at what many took to mean Swift’s brand of feminism in a series of tweets, including: “Women empowerment is speaking up for other women even when it's something uncomfortable to speak up about,” and “Women empowerment is taking action now, not when it's convenient.”
Of course, Lovato is right. If you’re going to cry feminism from the stage then that comes with very real responsibilities. That should be a given. There have been a few artists who have skirted around saying anything directly – Kelly Clarkson's "Trying not to say anything since I can't say anything", Iggy Azalea's "I'm not accusing anyone of anything but..." and Taylor Swift's whopping donation – which could be debated, but to be honest if shifting quarter of a million dollars around isn't a way of starting a conversation, then what is? Instead of scrutinising women for the ways in which they have chosen to address the issue, we should be looking to the very large music industry demographic that has been almost unanimously silent throughout all of this: men.
Why aren’t people encouraging on artists like Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran, Coldplay, Bruno Mars, Macklemore, Justin Bieber, and will.i.am? They have just as much power and visibility as the likes of Taylor Swift, so why aren’t we asking them to throw their weight around in an industry that, right now, quite clearly positions men above women?
When men are silent on issues like sexual assault, nobody notices. When a woman chooses to stay silent, we pull them up for it and give them a hard time. We forget the fact that, just like Kesha, many women artists have been working in the music industry since they were teenagers; many work with older men who hold sway over their careers; and every single one of them will have spent far more time considering and navigating predatory men in the music industry than most male artists will ever have to. There may be reasons why she feels uncomfortable about speaking out – reasons that won’t apply to many men because the power structure of the industry isn’t working against them as much.
But male pop stars have just as much a responsibilty to make themselves heard on issues like sexual assault, as any female popstar. At the moment, that’s simply not happening, and that could partly be because there is less pressure on them to do so. With a sexual assault case as public as Kesha’s, the aftermath, as one Twitter user noted, “becomes a competition of which famous women help most while men get off doing nothing”.
There were a few men who made their voices heard over the last few days, including the 20 year-old actor and songwriter Troye Sivan, YouTube personality Tyler Oakley, Brad Walsh, Perfume Genius, and Jack Antonoff. All of whom have a history of speaking out against injustice in general. Other than that, there has been a deafening and uncomfortable silence amongst the upper echelon of male pop stars.
As the Billboard Power 100 revealed once again earlier this month, the top tiers of the music industry are roadblocked by older men. If we’re going to take a cynical (but probably realistic) look at things, who are the voices that the 69 year-old male CEO’s at record labels more likely to pay attention to? Demi Lovato, or fellow powerful men?
I’m not saying that women artists shouldn’t say anything, or that the collective cry of solidarity from those who have is needless. Of course it isn’t. Those who have spoken out were right to, and unfortunately probably did so at the risk of taking a hit to their own careers. But that’s just the point. At the end of the day, it is much safer for a male artist to speak out about an issue like sexual assault, and that is a privilege that should be taken advantage of.
Many choose to lay low, perhaps viewing it as a women’s issue that is better discussed and dealt with by women – by which I mean they are muted by self-consciousness and fear of backlash because it’s an issue outside of their direct experience. That is understandable on a level. but it needs to change. It's been said before but I'll say it again: abuse and violence against women may often be referred to as "women's issues", but they are intrinsically men's issues. And it's important now more than ever for men to start speaking up and taking a stand against the standard protocol of an industry and legal system that values commercial interests above the lives of the women they work with.
Kesha’s has been a very public version of a very common case. There are no easy solutions to the injustice that women like herself have to suffer, but the answer certainly isn’t to berate other women within the industry who we don’t deem to be doing enough. In fact, the reflex action to point fingers and the drive to always search for blame should never surpass the drive to get justice out of the situation. We have failed to protect Kesha by putting the demands of a corporation ahead of the needs of a human being, so any finger pointing in the broader sense is secondary. However, if we are going to do that, then it might as be at the right people. If we want to get to a place where men and women are given equal consideration, then we need both men and women to fight for that. If we are looking to enact and influence serious change around issues like this, it should be less about dragging the women who we judge not to have spoken out quick enough, and more about encouraging the men who don’t speak out at all.
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If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article please reach out to the National Sexual Violence Helpline for support and advice.