Kesha's court battle and the power dynamics of pop music

A judge refused to let Kesha out of her contract with Dr. Luke, the producer she says abused her. It's a predictable outcome in an industry where women perform the hits, but men hold the power.

Last Friday, Kesha Rose Sebert wept in a New York courtroom after a judge declined the pop singer’s request to record music without her longtime producer Lukasz Gottwald (better known as Dr. Luke). Kesha, who started working with Dr. Luke 10 years ago when she was 18, says that he was emotionally abusive, controlling and manipulative, and that he once drugged and raped her. She asked the court to release her from her six-record deal with Gottwald’s company Kemosabe, which is owned by Sony Music, saying she didn’t “feel safe in any way” working with him. The judge sided with Dr. Luke, who had argued that after investing millions in Kesha’s career, he and Sony would experience “irreparable harm” if the singer was allowed to break her contract. (The producer has denied that he mistreated or assaulted the singer.)

It’s unimaginable that, under the circumstances, Kesha will produce any new music that will please herself or her corporate bosses. The judge suggested that she can work with other producers at Sony, but Kesha fears that she’ll be punished for speaking out: her future work won’t be promoted, she won’t be financed to tour and she’ll lose years of what is already a very brief career window.

Pop music, particularly the stuff produced in hit factories like Dr. Luke’s, is engineered for a short but intense shelf life — catchy, sticky songs that are unavoidable for a season, then relegated to a throwback playlist in favour of the next shiny new ear worm. With few exceptions, the most massive and bankable pop stars of the past decade have been young women. Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Adele, Pink, Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, Lorde, Kelly Clarkson, Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears and Katy Perry have churned out number-one song after number-one song, supporting them with internet-breaking videos and monster global tours. The last six women on that list have all worked with Dr. Luke, whose influence and reach in the music industry is inescapable.

For all that women dominate pop music as performers — and certainly the women named above have serious clout — they enjoy less power and respect than men like Dr. Luke and his mentor, Swedish super-producer Max Martin. These guys are the ones praised for their canny ability to create perfect hooks and danceable melodies and they’re the ones the music industry stands behind. In a 2013 New Yorker profile of Dr. Luke written by John Seabrook, the producer is portrayed as an exacting, brilliant artiste, while the women who actually perform his music, whose voices and skill actually bring it to life, are sidelined as being incidental to his awesome talent and success. Seabrook barely gives a mention to Kesha, who helped establish Dr. Luke’s reputation with hits like “Tik Tok,” “Right Round” and “Timber,” instead describing her briefly and unflatteringly as a difficult diva: “Now that her pop-star dreams had come true she was proving hard to control.” Note the wording: not hard to “work with,” but hard to “control.”

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You can see how the pop music machine’s endless thirst for massive hits and fresh faces sets women up to be exploited. Like a lot of her peers, Kesha started her career when she was a teenager, an unknown kid making a major deal with a huge corporation. Many performers don’t own their music or their image, don’t get credit when they write songs and, as Kesha’s case has shown, don’t even have the right to call the shots around the safety of their work environment. Here’s another telling bit from Seabrook’s profile of Dr. Luke: “To have real control… Dr. Luke needs to discover and develop his own superstars, so that he can participate in every aspect of their career.” Again, he doesn’t just aspire to manage the creative process, but aims to oversee the entire career of the performers he works with.

Like every other form of media, pop music is in the midst of transformation. Performers are using social media to connect directly with fans and platforms like YouTube to sidestep the need for industry overlords. Established female artists have begun to take the reins of their careers. When Taylor Swift’s label proved reluctant to have her shed her country sound, she successfully fought it to release the pop-focused (and award-winning) 1989. Beyoncé is using Tidal (the artist-friendly platform owned by her husband, Jay Z) to stream her music and videos and sell concert tickets and merchandise. It’s significant that Beyoncé’s mesmerizing and deeply political “Formation” — which touches on blackness, femininity, sexual liberation, motherhood, police violence and institutional racism — ends with a call for financial independence: the “best revenge is your paper.”

Opportunities for artists to gain ownership of their own work are long overdue and still insufficient in an industry that makes a mint off women’s labour without giving them comparable power and autonomy. Kesha — who’s written hits for Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus; who has the support of Lady Gaga, Clarkson, Cyrus and Demi Lovato — wants the chance to break her contract and make her own music on her own terms. That’s not being hard to control. It’s being in control.

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