By Andrew Dittmar and Shannon Yard
If the name Kesha strikes a chord of annoyance with you, you’re probably not alone. Kesha arose in public consciousness between 2009 and 2010 with many hit singles: a feature on Flo Rida’s “Right Round”; “TiK ToK”; “Your Love is My Drug”; We R Who We R”; “Blow”. She essentially provided the pop music soundtrack to the entirety of 2010 and gained legions of fans, as well as legions of critics.
The content of her music was highly controversial at the time; it was party music focusing on things like binge drinking and escaping the responsibilities of daily life. Those themes clouded more personal, deeper messages throughout her songs.
“We R Who We R” was reportedly was intended as a personal empowerment anthem in the wake of a series of high-profile LGBT suicides, and “The Harold Song” was an emotional love song about her own ex-boyfriend.
Of course, songs like this were off-set by campy tracks like “Dinosaur,” a condemnation of old men hitting on young women, or “Cannibal,” a song co-written by Kesha’s mother about eating men. Kesha’s image had a variety of paradoxes.
These paradoxes also carried over to her personal life. Before her rise to fame, Kesha was gifted in high school, achieving a near-perfect SAT score and receiving admittance to Ivy League schools. That was, however, before she dropped out of high school.
Between dropping out of high school and becoming a famous artist, she worked as a songwriter, sang backup for Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, broke into Prince’s house, and appeared in the music video for Katy Perry’s breakthrough song “I Kissed a Girl.” But why does any of that matter?
Kesha’s career started to sink in 2012. Her last hit, “Die Young,” was bound to be the most ubiquitous song of 2012 when the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, CT shed a bad light on the lighthearted, party-centric lyrics.
Though Kesha admitted she had sympathized with the meaning of the lyrics, she herself had not written them. At this point, she became concerned with her inability to express herself artistically. When “C’mon” and “Crazy Kids” were released and underperformed, fans began to blame Kesha’s long-time collaborator, “Dr. Luke.”
“Dr. Luke” is also known as Lukasz Gottwald. Gottwald is one of a handful of music producers that has been responsible for much of the scope of popular culture’s soundtrack over the past decade. He and Kesha entered into an agreement very early in Kesha’s career regarding the degree to which Gottwald maintained creative control of Kesha’s musical output.
An MTV reality documentary on Kesha’s life, released in 2013, began to publicly blame Dr. Luke where fans were shown holding signs that declared, “F*ck Dr. Luke.” The again in January 2014, Kesha, then atop the Billboard charts with another guest appearance on Pitbull’s “Timber,” checked into rehab for bulimia and remained there for two months. Kesha’s mother began publicly suggesting that Dr. Luke’s personal abuse of her daughter had led her to develop the disorder.
In October 2014, the full story of Dr. Luke’s abuses came out: Kesha filed a lawsuit against Gottwald, alleging that not only had Dr. Luke derailed her career with limited creative control, he had also committed sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, having drugged and raped her. Kesha’s lawyers claimed that the situation was an open secret with Sony, her recording company, and that Sony did nothing to prevent the abuse.
At the time of the lawsuit, Kesha was still obligated contractually to record three more albums with Dr. Luke before being released from her contract. Dr. Luke claimed that the whole scenario was simply fabricated to release Kesha from her contract.
In September 2015, Sony released a statement that they had been unaware of the abuse. In October, Kesha made a public injunction, offering to work with literally any record producer besides Dr. Luke in order to complete her contract; Sony refused.
There are few legal precedents at work in this situation; the lawsuit itself is a business matter, connected but not directly related to Gottwald’s abuse of Kesha.
But, as sexual assault continues to be a tremendous problem in the world, there are important implications here regarding public perceptions and handling of sexual assault cases. Kesha’s upcoming court date is not just a bunch of “Blah Blah Blah,” because these stories aren’t just in popular culture.
In the last five years, dozens of colleges and universities have come under fire for ineffective handling of sexual assault. The statistics are terrifying: roughly one in four women are subject to some sort of sexual misconduct in college. This hits much closer to home than many of us realize.
Kesha is currently seeking dissolution of her contract with Sony. Notably, the complaint does not seek legal action against Dr. Luke for sexual assault. The original lawsuit was put on hold in June of 2015, and was delayed from a late January 2016 hearing due to the major snowstorm that hit the east coast last month. At the moment, the hearing is scheduled for February 19th.
As we approach the final hearing in Kesha’s case, her name needs to be on our minds and in our conversations. She is a woman in the public eye standing up against the wrongs of an extremely powerful company. Our popular culture has become a place where sexual assault is no longer swept under the rug.
And it’s about time.