On October 14, 2014, Kesha filed a lawsuit against music producer Lukasz Sebastian Gottwald, widely known as Dr. Luke, accusing him of “sexual harassment, gender violence, civil harassment, unfair business, and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress.”
Almost a year and a half later, Dr. Luke has become a household name and Kesha has received an outpouring of support from fans and media sources alike. However, not only is the singer still legally tied to her alleged abuser, but the music industry as a whole continues to perpetuate a culture of sexism and exploitation.
While the widespread public outrage surrounding Kesha’s lawsuit shows a growing awareness of the inherent sexism of the society we live in, the case should serve as a means to begin to address the flaws of the industry, not simply as yet another celebrity scandal to fuel tabloids and social media debates.
Kesha, in fact, has attempted to turn the attention of the media to the blatant sexism of larger corporations within the music business. In June 2015, Kesha amended the complaint to reveal that Dr. Luke’s abuse was visible to Sony Music Entertainment executives, who, far from taking any action against Dr. Luke, actively concealed his misconduct.
The amendment goes on to accuse Sony of forcing an abusive relationship between Kesha and Dr. Luke. Around the same time, a judge in the California court system put the case on hold. Although Kesha originally filed the case in California, her contract with Sony dictated that the legal battle would play out in the New York courts.
In September 2015, Kesha pushed for an injunction on the grounds that, if she could not release new music in the near future, her career would be essentially over. Sony spoke out for the first time shortly after the injunction, denying all of the singer’s accusations. Around this time, public interest surrounding the case grew, sparking the spread of the hashtag #FreedomForKesha and the creation of a petition demanding the singer’s release from her record contract.
While the support of feminist icons in the music industry is, of course, a positive trend, the dialogue surrounding these women often reveals a lack of awareness of the plight of women in music both past and present. The portrayal of talented, outspoken female singers as groundbreaking and unprecedented can be as detrimental as it is beneficial.
While it has only recently become more acceptable for women in the industry to outwardly assert their power in a male-dominated profession, women have always been a crucial part of the music business. Even positive media depictions of these women tend to ignore the presence of female musicians throughout history, discrediting their role in the formation of today’s music world.
Moreover, Kesha is hardly the only female pop artist to fall victim to sexual, physical, verbal and emotional abuse. Although Kesha should continue to be lauded for speaking out against her abuser and supported throughout the ensuing extensive legal battle, the music world–and the society in which it exists–needs to focus on creating an environment in which victims feel safe to publicly fight back against their abusers.
Despite the growing media attention surrounding Kesha and Dr. Luke, the courts continue to delay their final ruling on the case. On Feb. 19, New York State Supreme Court Justice Shirley Kornreich rejected a preliminary injunction that would have allowed the singer to record outside of her six-album contract with Dr. Luke. The Court did not, however, determine whether or not the case was to be dismissed entirely. A month later, Kesha appealed the Court decision which keeps her tied to Sony and Dr. Luke.
According to Scott A. Edelman, an attorney who represents Sony, the company does not legally have the power to terminate Kesha’s contract. Therefore, Sony has denied all responsibility for Kesha’s predicament.
Rumors have surfaced lately in the media claiming that Sony intends to drop Dr. Luke. Sony, however, refuses to comment on the reports. Whether or not these speculations are true, Sony clearly has no plans to protect Kesha from her abuser.
Despite the stringent regulation of women in music at the hands of powerful corporations, the musicians themselves, and not the larger powers in the industry, are frequently blamed for the blatant misogyny that embodies itself in everything from lyrics to album covers. Our culture tends to hold female pop artists responsible for moving the music industry in a less misogynistic direction.
Major record labels, however, frequently restrict the creative license of artists. It is safe to assume that Kesha is not the woman in the industry whose producer “prevent[s] her from having any real control over her music” (New York Times, “Kesha vs. Dr. Luke: Inside Pop Music’s Contentious Legal Battle,” 02.23.2016). Dr. Luke both “threaten[ed] her career and her family” and repeatedly refused to negotiate fair terms on contracts, negatively affecting “her health, sanity, and career.”
The manipulation of female artists goes beyond mental and emotional exploitation: according to Kesha, Dr. Luke once told her, following a disagreement over her lyrics, that he could use recording equipment to manipulate her voice to say anything he wanted.
It is clearly time for the music industry to reexamine the structure that is currently in place; while stringent legal restrictions prevent artists who feel threatened in their present position–such as Kesha–from terminating their contract, the legislation that protects the autonomy of artists is evidently insufficient.
Although a growing number of female pop artists are attempting to break the mold, it would undoubtedly “be easier to claim autonomy in the music world if women were allowed to touch the machines without someone breathing down their necks, asking, ‘Can I help you?’” (Bust Magazine, “Grimes Slams Sexism in the Music Industry in New Interview”). The ambiguity of this kind of paternalistic conduct toward women–often dubbed “benevolent sexism”–makes it particularly difficult to separate the protection and support of female artists from disenfranchisement.
Much of the prejudice which female musicians encounter, in fact, has nothing to do with music itself. The media continually emphasizes these women’s physical appearance, reducing their careers to a matter of secondary importance. The intense scrutiny of female bodies and the hypersexualization of pop artists fuels a hostile environment in which abuse and exploitation are not only overlooked, but are accepted into mainstream culture.
Although this is undoubtedly not the first incident of abuse between a producer and an artist, Mark Geragos, Kesha’s lawyer, believes that the lawsuit may be a “first-of-its-kind case” (New York Times, “Kesha vs. Dr. Luke: Inside Pop Music’s Contentious Legal Battle,” 02.23.2016). Evidently, the music business needs to reexamine its system of music production, this time focusing on the protection of individual artists as well as record labels and producers.
The sexism of the music industry, of course, does not exist in a vacuum. Media trends reflect the underlying values of our culture as a whole, both reflecting and fueling larger issues. By reconstructing pop culture, however, we can begin to use music and art as methods of revising the modern social structure rather than reinforcing it.