Last week, a New York judge dismissed a defamation countersuit filed by producer Lukas Gottwald, aka Dr Luke, against pop singer Kesha and her mother, Patricia “Pebe” Sebert. This is only one of several legal skirmishes on the horizon for Kesha; the real battle happens later this month, when the 28-year-old will finally seek freedom from a longstanding contract with Gottwald. Unless she makes legal headway, Kesha won’t be able to record with anyone but him.
In short, Kesha’s personal refusal to continue working with Dr. Luke, famed music producer, has put her career in a legal deadlock. The court’s ultimate decision — whether or not to release Kesha from her contract — essentially determines Kesha’s ability to ever work again.
“Their contract hasn’t been renegotiated since ,” journalist Haley Potiker notes, “which is far from industry standard for a platinum-selling artist.” (On Twitter I described the contract as being very “Ariel/Ursula.”)
Unfortunately, some of the silence around Kesha’s legal plight is tinged with slut-shaming. Didn’t an ex-lover once release photos of Kesha in a compromising, prone position? Doesn’t she sing about drinking and self-destruction, about “dying young”? How can we believe anything she says?
Kesha Sebert was 17 years old when she dropped out of high school — her complaint uses the phrase “induced to drop out,” for whatever that’s worth — to move to LA and sign with Gottwald. (Kesha was barely 18 when she actually signed with Gottwald’s Kemosabe Entertainment, which is owned by Sony.)
By most accounts, Kesha was an ordinary, if unusually high-achieving and studious, teenager. She expected to be admitted to prestigious Barnard College (her lawyer refers to Kesha’s SAT scores as “near-perfect”). While working on her first album she was “fired from several waitressing jobs” — for crying, as she explained in a 2009 interview.
At the same time, Gottwald — himself a talented songwriter and producer, by all rights — was flying high on the success of Kelly Clarkson’s hit “Since U Been Gone,” which he had co-written.
In the October 2014 complaint filed against Gottwald, Kesha alleges that she “soon realized that Dr. Luke was not the mentor he represented himself to be,” that he “was preoccupied with the careers of other artists,” and that he “ultimately [left Kesha’s] career to languish.” (As outsiders, we can take the “languishing career” part as observably true.)
From there, the allegations become much more sinister and sordid — but, to anyone who’s followed Kesha’s career, not unexpected.
Tellingly, she began by first dropping the dollar sign in “Ke$ha,” itself initially intended as a sidelong smirk at her childhood poverty (and, presumably, as a nod to her hopefully glamorous future).
Then, around 2013 — obviously uncomfortable with her public-facing persona as a wild-child partier — she started opening up in interviews about her lack of creative control. She spoke a little more forthrightly, if wearily, about her unmet aspirations as a singer/songwriter.
In January 2014, Kesha admitted herself to rehab for bulimia — not for “partying,” as many people had first assumed. (“My dirty little secret is that I’m actually incredibly responsible.”) She remained there for two months, twice the length of her intended rehab stint. Her mother speculated publicly that Kesha’s physical and emotional decline was likely precipitated by Dr. Luke’s having compared the singer’s physique unfavorably to a “refrigerator” in 2012.
And then, in October 2014, the full extent of Gottwald’s alleged abuse was revealed: Kesha’s complaint accused him of having physically and emotionally manipulated her from the beginning; of “forc[ing]” himself “continuously” on her on an airplane; and of drugging and raping her in a hotel.
In October 2015, Sony outright rejected Kesha’s offer to work for them with, well, anyone but Dr. Luke. (Sony also responded publicly the month before, saying the company could not be held responsible “for failing to act on conduct that [Kesha] did not report.”)
What legal recourse does a woman have when a major record label is forcing her to work with her abuser? It’s an important question; not even Kesha’s lawyer, Mark Geragos, has the answer.
“Geragos says that duress can void an agreement,” wrote the The Hollywood Reporter‘s Eriq Gardner in a 2014 post on his THR, Esq. blog, “though he can’t cite another case where physical abuse rescinded a recording deal… and admits this might be a ‘first-of-its-kind’ case.”
Geragos is right. It’s highly unusual for a mainstream pop singer to come out guns blazing against her label. Part of the reason we have no legal precedent is because what Kesha is doing right now hasn’t been done before.
And it is a landmark case. Kesha was a teenager when she first signed exclusively with Dr. Luke. She’s already on the record that she’s uncomfortable with pop music anyway, that she wants creative autonomy.
But today she’s seeking emotional autonomy, too. In other words, Kesha’s legal plight isn’t extricable from her larger allegations about mental and sexual abuse. She wants full autonomy. And, point-blank, we don’t have a legal system in place to defend a creative professional from all this stuff.
On the one hand, it all seems silly. “Irreconcilable differences” is enough to conclude a marriage, so why shouldn’t “creative differences” be enough to emancipate a singer like Kesha from a contract? On the other hand, women rarely make full-on rape allegations unless they feel they have no other option. In short, Kesha has nothing to gain, here. She could conceivably stay right where she is, with Dr. Luke, and be a star. “Creative autonomy” — the ability to succeed or fail in your own right — is not much of a “win.” I, for one, take Kesha seriously precisely because she has so much to lose.
Sony has publicly asserted that Kesha “wants it both ways,” when, on the contrary, she’s asserting that her quest for creative autonomy begins on the ground floor, with her life. Through that lens, Kesha is the one acting with consistency.
And, really, she’s always been consistent. Whether or not her audience has agreed with every step of her career, Kesha’s life’s work have been about trying to define what makes a “powerful woman.” Now that she’s older and wiser — now that she’s examined it thoroughly for herself — she’s on the precipice of using her career to illustrate it creatively. The thing is, she might be legally barred from doing exactly that.
This isn’t only an ugly story about mainstream pop music, or about how dangerous mentorship under an older, more powerful person can sometimes be: It’s also a direct allegory about the way the entire world works, about how young women are expected to achieve success.
In this particular case Kesha has been, so far, legally obligated to maintain complicity with the man she calls her abuser. That’s bleak — and it’s also why we ought to be rooting for her.
None of this could’ve been written without “What Happened to Kesha?: A Timeline,” an indispensable and complete document that I often used to check dates and sources.