This past Wednesday, the New York Times Magazine ran a lengthy profile on Kesha—the first interview the 29-year-old pop singer has done since accusing her onetime producer Dr. Luke of sexual and emotional abuse in 2014. In the piece, Kesha talked about the vicious lawsuit, which alleges that Luke had drugged, raped and emotionally abused her. Kesha, therefore, wished to be released from her recording contract. Luke then countersued Kesha for breach of contract and defamation, which, as you may well know, spiraled out of control into a media firestorm.
Last February, a New York judge denied her request for an injunction on her recording contract with Luke’s Kemosabe Records and its parent company, Sony, who said they were “ready, willing and able to approve a producer with whom Kesha can work other than Gottwald.” Kesha, meanwhile, had argued that her career was in trouble, and that she needed to record an album outside her contract with Kemosabe in order to remain a commercially viable artist.
The article also explored Kesha’s plans to eventually release new music despite the injunction denial; she claims that in early summer, she delivered 22 new tracks to Sony for approval. But “according to her representatives, Sony didn’t provide any meaningful feedback until after a judge intervened in late August.” If you ask Sony, which the New York Times writer did, they allege that Kesha was provided with outside producers, which has “made it possible for Kesha to record without any connection, involvement or interaction with Luke whatsoever.” But Kesha’s camp maintains that “Dr. Luke has insisted Sony’s participation is just an ‘accommodation’ and has not denied that all decisions regarding the album are still being made by Dr. Luke.”
And if you ask Luke’s lawyer, Christine Lepera, Kesha alone is responsible for her “exile” from the music industry. In a statement to People Magazine, Lepera wrote, “The reality is that for well over two years, Kesha chose—and it was entirely her choice—not to provide her label with any music. Kesha was always free to move forward with her music, and an album could have been released long ago had she done so. She exiled herself. It was not until months after the denial of her injunction motion—for the first time in June and July 2016—that Kesha started to provide the label with music.”
To say that Kesha “exiled herself” is not only deeply unfair, but fabulously twisting the truth. No one—especially not Kesha—would deny that at any time she could just up and drop the lawsuit against her abuser and continue to record and release music. Or even continue making music with a lawsuit still up in the air. Or maybe she could have never spoken up at all—she could arguably still be onstage swishing Jack Daniels and detonating glitter bombs. But that isn’t who Kesha is anymore. And perhaps it’s never who she was in the first place.
One of the first things decided of Kesha, she told the Times, is that she was “fun.” In order to “capitalize on that,” Luke knowingly made sure her lyrics were dumbed down—superficial calls for boys to “touch my junk” and “get drunk/crunk.” The resulting tracks were blurry-eyed electro-tinged bangers ideal for top 40 radio and other areas of sonic mass consumption. Nothing wrong with that—Kesha loved partying—but she wanted to write ballads, too. Something to vary it up. If she continues to release music under her contract with Sony, even without Luke being in the room, she’ll still be bound to a clause that states her music must remain “reasonably consistent in concept and style to the artistic concept and style” to her previous work.
Prior to the denial of her preliminary injunction, which would have allowed Kesha to record without any input from Dr. Luke or his associates, it’s reasonable to suggest that Kesha rested her hopes on untying herself from her abuser and Kemosabe/Sony. Then, she’d finally be able to record on her own terms. When that didn’t happen (and it may never happen—major-label contracts are quite intractable that way), Kesha was essentially forced to negotiate with her own personal devil. And if what Kesha’s team alleges is true—that a judge had to intervene in order for Sony to provide feedback—it would make sense. Sony, in all likelihood, doesn’t care if Kesha doesn’t put out records. They have Fifth Harmony, Usher, Alicia Keys, Beyoncé. Kesha is one of a million artists on their roster. They’re not civic-minded feminists—they’re a corporation. Why would Kesha want to work with a team who has not made her, a victim of sexual assault, feel safe and comfortable?
So no, Kesha has not “exiled” herself. It isn’t as simple as that. Kesha has tried to protect herself, against all odds, from her abuser—someone who allegedly raped her, drugged her, verbally abused her (she says he called her a “fat fucking refrigerator”), drove her to starve herself and seek help for an eating disorder. Even if she reenters the studio (and it does sound like she will) and arranges to release the follow-up to 2012’s Warrior, Luke owns the label that’s distributing her music. No matter what, he’ll have final say over her output. Who could blame her for wanting to keep her distance?
It appears that Kesha is at the worst kind of impasse: contractually tied to a master manipulator whose legal counsel uses the sort of she-asked-for-it rhetoric typical of many other kinds of abuse cases. And the justice system is frankly out of its depth, so it does what it knows how to do—treat this case like a regular old contract dispute. But Kesha didn’t ask for any of this. She was a young woman who wanted to be a professional singer and got taken advantage of in the process. Her speaking up is not a form of “exile.” In a way, it’s its own kind of freedom.