The ruling to keep Kesha hostage despite allegations of abuse is a sign that we value the needs of corporations over human life
For three years now, Kesha’s career has been on hold. There’ve been no new tours, no new merchandise or talk show appearances, and – crucially – not a single new song. 2013’s ubiquitous Pitbull hit “Timber” kept her on the map for a while, even without a swift follow-up, but eventually it disappeared, replaced by new music made by artists not imprisoned in their own contracts. While the music world hurried on without her, Kesha’s mental health spiralled downwards. In January 2014, she checked into rehab for an eating disorder, and slowly but surely began to open up about, and come to terms with, a decade of alleged abuse. All of this, of course, was “entirely her making.”
That’s according to a spokesperson for Dr. Luke, the man who produced her music, owns the label to which she signed at the age of 18, and who she claims sexually and emotionally abused her over the course of ten years. The man to whom, thanks to a New York Supreme Court ruling made two days ago, she is contractually bound for four more albums.
Here are the bare bones of a legal battle that has been dragged out and delayed for well over a year. In October 2014, after alluding to abuse in several letters to fans from rehab, Kesha sued Dr. Luke for sexual assault, harassment, emotional abuse and gender violence. In the suit, she detailed several specific accounts of assault. On one occasion, she claims, he forced her to snort something before getting on a plane, “and during the trip he forced himself on her while she was drugged.”
She also alleges that Dr. Luke gave her something he called “sober pills”, and that she woke up the next day “naked in Dr Luke's bed, sore, sick… and with no memory of how she got there.” In Kesha’s testimony, she says the producer told her that “if I ever tried to get away from him for any reason, he would tie me up in litigation until my career was over.”
There’s more to it than that. There are many, many more details than that, and many more examples – both explicit and insidious - of the alleged abuse. But that’s probably enough for anyone to understand why Kesha begged Sony – who own Dr. Luke’s label, Kemosabe Records – to allow her to record under any one of their other labels. Any label not associated with the man who she says raped her. “I know I cannot work with Dr. Luke,” she said. “I physically cannot. I don't feel safe in any way.” Sony refused. So too, as of Friday, did a New York Supreme Court. And so Kesha – according to a judge ruling – should go back to the studio, and make four more albums under Dr. Luke’s label.
What on earth, then, are Sony expecting these albums to sound like? Do they truly believe creativity can be forced out of an artist whom they have effectively held hostage? Is the upholding of ironclad contracts more important to them than the emotional wellbeing of their artist? “My instinct,” said the judge at Kesha’s hearing, “is to do the commercially reasonable thing.” It seems Sony’s instinct is the same. To them, Kesha is a human jukebox, one whose suffering is just an inconvenience to their business.
One of the big questions in all this, of course, is how other artists have managed to wriggle free from their contracts with relative ease. How did, say, Zayn Malik manage to release himself from his One Direction contract because he wanted “to be able to relax,” while Kesha remains tangled up with her alleged abuser? Some have been quick to point out that, technically, Malik is still under Sony – he’s just transferred to another of their labels. But isn’t that exactly what Kesha’s trying to do? Let’s revisit the opening sentence of her injuction: “Kesha Rose Sebert wants nothing more than to be able to record an album. Her only condition is that she be allowed to record with a record label that is not affiliated with someone who has emotionally and sexually abused her.”
Still, breaking a contract is not an everyday occurrence. And perhaps the minutiae of Kesha’s contract are different. Or perhaps Sony are merely pulling out all the legal stops at their disposal to punish an artist for dragging their good name into such unsavoury accusations. Contracts are always a complicated business, but it’s starting to feel as though, in the music industry, they’re designed to be impenetrable. Negotiable only if the label deems it convenient to them. Designed to trap vulnerable, naïve young artists into a quagmire of contractual obligations by offering them the chance to achieve their dreams.
Equally unsettling is the language Sony have used in statements on the issue. They described Kesha’s claims as a “transparent and misguided attempt to renegotiate her contracts.” Disputing the fact that she took many years to speak out against her alleged abuse, and is now suggesting that Sony failed to protect her, the company said that Kesha “cannot have it both ways.” Because having your career grind to a halt for three years while you face a prolonged battle with your alleged rapist is truly having your cake and eating it too.
“To them, Kesha is a human jukebox, one whose suffering is just an inconvenience to their business”
Their language mirrors that of Dr. Luke’s lawyers, whose vitriolic and shaming statements appealed to society’s inherent mistrust of female victims. “Kesha’s lawsuit,” they said, “is nothing more than a continuation of her bad and offensive acts.” She must, they insisted, “accept the consequences of her improper actions.” Make no mistake, these words – bad, offensive, improper – have been carefully chosen. This is a woman who sings unapologetically about sex and drinking, who – in her own words – “can work and party as hard as any man”, and for that, she must be punished. For that, we must not take her accusations seriously.
In her book Sex Crimes, Alice Vachss – who was an assistant district attorney in Queens County, New York, specialising in sex crimes – wrote of the legal system’s perception of ‘good victims’ vs. ‘bad victims’. “Good victims,” she wrote, “have jobs (like stockbroker or accountant) or impeccable status (like a police officer's wife); are well-educated and articulate; and are, above all, presentable to a jury: attractive but not too attractive, demure but not pushovers.” Dr. Luke and his lawyers are doing everything in their power to frame Kesha – improper, offensive Kesha – as a bad victim. It’s this frequent and overt use of shaming language that creates a culture of silence around abuse. And Sony wonders why it took her ten years to come forward?
Sony cannot possibly know for sure whether or not Dr. Luke raped Kesha. They can’t know whether he emotionally abused her, or whether he “physically backed [her] into a corner, where she curled up into a ball, crying.” But they’ve made it damn clear where their loyalties lie – and it’s not with the artist they signed as a teenage girl, but the 43-year-old man she says raped her. They would rather punish Kesha than trust her claims, they value Dr. Luke’s word over Kesha’s, and money over a female artist’s wellbeing. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. This is the same company who, just a few months ago, entered into a label joint venture with Cee Lo Green – a man who defended himself against accusations of rape by saying that it isn’t rape if the victim is unconscious.
It could be tempting to hypothetically set aside the rape and abuse accusation – to say, “even if her claims aren’t true, she shouldn’t be kept in a contract against her.” But we must not set aside, even hypothetically, the enormous magnitude of these accusations.
“If Kesha wants to release six albums of John Cage-style silence,” tweeted Caitlin Kelly on Friday, “I will buy all of them.” Let’s just hope she doesn’t have to. Because more silence is not what we need.