Women’s Experiences in the Music Industry: Kesha’s Story
By Sarah Druhan
Photo: Rolling Stone – Source
Many are saying that, in terms of its historic treatment of women, the music industry is undergoing a much-needed renaissance. Taylor Swift’s wild success in reclaiming her old albums has posed encouraging odds for future negotiations between female artists and the industry. Likewise, the recent freedom of Britney Spears from her thirteen-years-old conservatorship has demonstrated how easily the abuse and objectification of women in the industry can often hide in plain sight.
It’s true that these achievements speak to a kind of progress that was unheard of only ten years ago. But, at the same time, it’s crucial to realize that these two stories are only the tip of the iceberg, and that there are unfortunately so many similar ones that never reached the same kind of closure. These steps forward for women in the industry can only continue if we demand that these forgotten stories be resurfaced and given the justice they deserve.
In the wake of the Time’s Up movement, the public’s inattention to one ongoing controversy feels more ludicrous than ever: the battle between singer Kesha and the world-famous producer she has said abused her for years. As of September 2005, Kesha Rose Sebert was a young but hopeful singer who had just turned down a spot at Barnard College and signed a six-album deal with industry titan Dr. Luke. She was far from the bedazzled name and party animal persona the 2010s would later make her famous for.
Kesha had complained of Dr. Luke’s actions toward her within the first few months under his label; she was later apparently unpaid and largely uncredited for her role as the female hook in Flo Rida’s hit song “Right Round”. Despite this, Kesha faced repeated conflict during her attempts to leave Dr. Luke’s label. “Anytime I get a contract, he’s going to come forward and basically say he owns me,” Kesha’s mother later reported her saying over a phone call. “What do I do?” In 2014, Kesha would assert that she had not even been signed with him for two months when the 32-year-old Dr. Luke first sexually assaulted her. At the time, she was only 18 years old.
It was around 2010 when her debut album Animal and the addictive single “Tik Tok” made ‘Ke$ha’ a household name. Interviews with Billboard and MTV emphasized the pop star’s devil-may-care personality: a female perspective that was younger and grittier than the current ballads from Adele or high-gloss hits of Katy Perry. While ‘Ke$ha’ was heavily marketed as an outrageous party girl, her discussions of music in interviews revealed a higher sophistication than depicted by her image. But, it was when Kesha later proposed branching out into the rock genre for her sophomore album Warrior that she and Dr. Luke again clashed: the producer refused to let her stray from the electropop club hits that had made her famous.
During a 2013 Rolling Stone interview—in which Kesha’s answers came off as noticeably more rambly than in previous publications—she stated she did “not really” have creative control over her own work anymore. These uneasy shifts in Kesha’s career continued. The next year, Kesha abruptly checked into a rehab facility for an eating disorder, and dropped the infamous dollar sign from her stage name. Almost instantly after finishing treatment, Kesha filed an explosively shocking lawsuit against Dr. Luke for sexual, emotional, and psychological abuse and for causing her “severe depression” and “post-traumatic stress”. Kesha’s parent label Sony was later added to the original suit: she argued that Sony had repetitively “turned a blind eye” to Dr. Luke’s abusive behavior, and had been enabling it for years.
The messy first stage of the lawsuit would crawl on for two years. During this time, Dr. Luke spread arguments that Kesha and her mother were “motivated by money”, and Kesha came forward as saying Dr. Luke had attempted to bribe her with release from their contract in return for her recanting her claims of sexual abuse. In April 2016, Kesha was denied release from her recording contract as the courts concluded there was “no showing of irreparable harm” and that Dr. Luke’s repeated comments about Kesha’s weight and her personal worth did not constitute emotional abuse. All abuse claims against Dr. Luke were dismissed.
As this lengthy lawsuit rocked the music industry, Kesha’s career quietly stalled. The “Ke$ha” whose tongue-in-cheek interviews once made splashes in every music tabloid had disappeared. After two years, Kesha’s only direct media exposure was the photographs taken of her quietly crying after the courts’ decision in 2016. Even as Kesha consequently began the slow return to her career–taking some interviews and making the album that Sony still bound her to create—sparkles of resistance still shone through.
Kesha and her legal team appealed the 2016 decision, and the lawsuit is still ongoing. Her first musical release since April 2016 was her single "Praying", a stunning contrast from her previous discography that emotionally detailed the singer’s pain and emotions toward her abuser. It, and the album it was later released on, Rainbow, both received nominations at the 2018 Grammy Awards. With the time passed since 2016 and the 2020 drop of Kesha’s positively-received fourth album, High Road, it was likely easy for the public to move on from her past issues: a luxury that Kesha still doesn’t have. She still must release her albums through Sony, the company she sued for allowing her abuse. And, while Dr. Luke stepped down as CEO of his record label in 2017, he still stands to make a profit off her work.
In all, Britney Spears and Taylor Swift’s stories are not an end, but just the beginning. Celebrating their victories must come with recognizing that the experiences of artists like Kesha need to be brought back to the attention of the music world. Discussions of these topics are not only difficult, but often haunting in their inherent realization: for every publicized battle like Kesha’s, how many stories like hers still haven’t seen the light?