In 2003, when Ronnie Spector learned that her ex-husband, legendary producer Phil Spector, was booked on suspicion of murdering a B-list actress he barely knew, the former lead singer of the Ronettes released the following statement about Spector: "I can only say that when I left him in the early '70s, I knew that if I didn't leave at the time, I was going to die there."
If Phil Spector isn't the first pop music Svengali, he's certainly the most infamous. But he's only one in a long list of men who've built girl groups or groomed pop stars only to find their creations turn on them when they cross the boundary of mentor into tyrant. The old tale of Svengali and ingenue continues to endure in the present-day music scene.
Since women make up only 9 percent of the 2016 Billboard Power 100 List, the gender imbalance at the top of the music industry has far to go before it rights itself—which means the unhealthy dynamic of men in their 30s, 40s, and 50s taking teenage girls under their wing and abusing their dependency probably won't be remedied quickly, either.
Even if the relationship between doesn't turn sexual, it can easily become toxic. These are his connections, his studios, his negotiations, and she's made to feel, whether overtly or subtly, that she's replaceable. Combined with social conditioning to be agreeable, she shuts up and does what he says. Once the young artist breaks out as a star and recognizes her power, she's often stuck under a crappy contract she signed when she was broke.
Consider the most egregious Svengali relationships:
Mariah Carey and Tommy Mottola
Mariah Carey was 18 years old when she met 39-year-old Tommy Mottola, the head of Sony Music at the time. Mottola signed Carey on the condition that she ditch her collaborator, Ben Margulies, because he suspected Margulies was her boyfriend. Mottola controlled who Carey worked with, what songs she sang, and when she worked, which was always.
In Mattola's book Hitmaker, he claims that it was Carey who began flirting with him—he adds that "it was absolutely wrong and inappropriate for me to become involved with Mariah," but he did it anyway. When they married in 1993, it's alleged that Mottola kept her locked away in his mansion, which Carey called "Sing Sing," referencing the New York prison. Years later, reflecting on what Carey describes as an emotionally and mentally abusive marriage: "I longed for someone to come kidnap me back then," she said. "I used to fantasize about that a lot."
Ronnie and Phil Spector
In an interview with the Guardian, Ronnie Spector said Phil Spector "went nuts" over her the moment he heard her voice. But it didn't stop there: "We went out to get sandwiches in his limousine and soon he was taking me for candlelit dinners. When I rehearsed songs at his penthouse, he'd keep me later and later. Things just got hotter and hotter. He was infatuated with my voice, my body, everything." It was mutual, she said, but his power certainly played a strong role in the relationship—the Ronettes were struggling, Ronnie said, and Phil was the "hottest producer in America." She was 17 years old.
As her star rose and her dresses shrunk, boys, including very famous ones like John Lennon, went wild for her. She and Phil married in 1968 and the relationship was hellish: Spector punished Ronnie by imprisoning her in his mansion with actual barbed wire and dogs, which brought a cold stop to her career. Ronnie Spector fought a 15-year legal battle against Phil Spector over unpaid royalties. She eventually won, but they were hers to begin with.
The Runaways and Kim Fowley
Kim Fowley liked girls who were too young—not just too young for him, but too young, legally. That's the bit no one, not even Kim Fowley, disputed. In June 1975, a month before his 36th birthday, he posted a personal ad in a Los Angeles zine that
, "If you are eighteen and like it or if you are under 18 and legally emancipated (with paperwork) then you may have just stumbled upon the opportunity of a lifetime. I demand a blonde, blue-eyed Sex-dog." He and a guitarist used to cruise high schools for girls. In
Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways
, Evelyn McDonnell's biography of The Runaways—the all-female rock band whose creation Fowley facilitated—Fowley
that he preyed on defenseless young women "like a shark. I'll smell the blood."
Joan Jett, Lita Ford, Cherie Currie, Sandy West, and Jackie Fox—The Runaways—are legendary, but so are reports of Fowley's reprehensible behavior. They were in their mid-teens and having microphone stands thrown at them by a grown man. He thought it was cute to call himself their "pimp" and he dressed 15-year-old Currie in a bustier. Last summer, Jackie Fox came forward in a Huffington Post article and detailed the New Year's Eve when she was directed to swallow several Quaaludes and, drugged to the point of paralysis, raped by Fowley.
Kesha and Dr. Luke
In George du Maurier's Trilby, the 1895 novel that coined the term "Svengali," a hypnotist named Svengali teaches a young girl with an untrained but remarkable voice to sing. Much later, she's seen in a concert conducted by Svengali, for whom "time and prosperity had wrought a wonderful alteration." But Trilby looks haggard, and it's revealed the arduous training and ordeals have worn down her health. In a lawsuit filed in 2014, Kesha's accusations against producer Dr. Luke seem almost lifted from the book: "For the past 10 years, Dr. Luke has sexually, physically, verbally and emotionally abused Ms. Sebert [Kesha] to the point where Ms. Sebert nearly lost her life. Dr. Luke abused Ms. Sebert in order to destroy her self-confidence, self-image, and self-worth so that he could maintain complete control over her life and career."
Again, an 18-year-old girl met a much older and successful man in the music industry, and he wooed her with promises. Dr. Luke signed her to his label and convinced her to move to LA, isolating her from her family and support system. Once she arrived, Kesha claims he ignored her and provided no guidance in terms of her career—a bleak scenario considering her age and the trust she'd placed in him. According to the lawsuit, Dr. Luke was not only preoccupied with bigger-name artists, he intentionally whittled her self-esteem to maintain the power imbalance with comments like, "You are not that pretty, you are not that talented, you are just lucky to have me," and "There are a million other girls out there like you." The suit alleges that Dr. Luke "sexually, physically, verbally and emotionally abused" Kesha over a period of ten years, leading to severe depression and an eating disorder. Even worse are the claims that he forced drugs on her multiple times and, on one occasion, raped her. He allegedly threatened that if she told anyone he would destroy her career and her family's lives. It's difficult not to think of Ronnie Spector's decade-and-a-half legal dispute.
The pattern that emerges here is clear: older, powerful male industry executive takes advantage of younger, promising female artist. Barring a complete overhaul of the system, how do we begin to enact change?
Encouraging female producers is one way. As a producer who asked to remain anonymous told me, "Unless [young women] can create the records themselves, all they have are dreams. They're reliant on producers, and in 99 percent of the cases those producers are male."
M.I.A. and Björk have produced their own work, and more female artists like Tinashe and Ryn Weaver emerge having produced their own beginner projects. Of course, while women like Syd tha Kyd and WondaGurl are gaining respect as producers, pop is still a stronghold of men (Weaver and Tinashe both seem to have mostly handed over producing duties). Still, the number of women keeping a grip on creative control, like Kali Uchis, seems likely to keep growing.
In an interview about his book The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, John Seabrook explains the financial benefit to being a producer. "It usually breaks down that the men tend to be the producers and the women tend to be the hook writers. So, you have men (producers) and women (topline writers) and the way the studio sessions are set up and run, the producers—the men—book the rooms and are usually paid by the hour by a label. Whereas the women—the hookline writers—are only paid based on whether or not their songs make the cut. Most songs do not get made into records. So all the time they spend in the studio working on songs that don't get made into records is basically time they're not paid for. Whereas the men are always paid, whether or not the songs turn into records," he says.
I mentioned the Svengali dilemma to a friend who, half-joking, asked why there couldn't be a support system of all the female artists who've already navigated the industry, from Queen Latifah to Lita Ford to Lady Gaga, to guide newbies through it.
It's not a crazy idea. Economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett and her colleagues authored a study called "The Sponsor Effect: Breaking Through the Last Glass Ceiling" and found that women had a lack of sponsors—people who actually open doors for them as opposed to mentors who advise them on how to open the doors for themselves. Women have more mentors, but men have more sponsors, and sponsors are the people who wield the power to recommend you and really push you up to senior positions.
But due to the dearth of female executives, the prospect of finding a female sponsor is bleak. One women's magazine's just threw up their hands entirely and advised women to include more men into their networks, which just brings women back to square one: being reliant on men to decide when to boost us up or hold us back.
"Years ago we were like creations of genius men. We were little Stepford singers, interchangeable, one from column A, two from column B. We were seen as employees, not artists," Ronnie Spector said. "I can't speak for all the girls but I always saw myself as an artist. That's why I think I'm still alive—to say we girls have to stick up for ourselves."
Point taken. But until those girls have women sticking up for and promoting them, too, Svengalis will continue to have the run of the lab.