Kesha: Cautionary Tale or Tipping Point for Women in an Industry That Celebrates Misogyny?
It remains to be seen if Kesha will someday symbolize a tipping point when women stood up to an industry that exploited them.
Kesha Rose Sebert’s case against Sony Music was dismissed Wednesday after a New York judge rejected the pop singer’s claims that she should be released from her contract because of alleged sexual and emotional abuse by superstar producer Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald.
In her ruling, the judge said that singer had not proved the alleged assault was a “gender-motivated hate crime,” one of several reasons for tossing out the case.
Beyond the opposing claims, however, the case has struck a chord on social media and elsewhere in large part because of gender — specifically, the music industry’s historically poor treatment of women.
The record biz is one of the few places in entertainment where sexual misconduct, misogyny and diminished opportunity for women is not only accepted but celebrated.
A look back at the “golden days” of rock and rap in best-sellers by rockers such as Motley Crue, films like the N.W.A biopic “Straight Outta Compton” and TV series HBO’s “Vinyl” finds us reveling in a time when music was dangerous, scenes were small and women were groupies or assistants.
The debauchery of ‘60s and ‘70s rock has made the music business a comfy place for lechery and sexism guised as “rock ‘n’ roll, baby!” The implication is that the culture of rock ‘n’ roll has a set of different rules when it comes to how women are treated in the workplace — i.e. studios, backstage, clubs and on tour. Sexual harassment and discrimination are as common to the record business as cocaine and wrecked hotel rooms.
But women are now more critical to the music industry’s survival than ever before.
Churning out pop diva after pop diva has been part of an extended emergency business plan in a record industry that’s seen sales plummet over the last decade and a half, thanks first to piracy and now streaming. Pair a young female singer, preferably straight off a Disney or Nickelodeon show, with a Midas-touched producer and you have a straighter shot at a hit single than if banking on an organically grown rap, rock or EDM artist.
If you were to judge the state of popular music today based on the most recent Grammy red carpet, it would appear women were in charge again. Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez and Lady Gaga — names that have dominated pop music over the past few years. Many came up on the same track as Kesha, their careers curated by a small network of untouchable producers including Max Martin, David Guetta and of course, Gottwald.
But it’s a ghetto of sorts because today female artists have little if no chance breaking big in areas where artists historically have more control over their careers than mainstream pop (rap, rock, EDM). As a genre engineered by a handful of older male hit makers, pop is where women may find stardom, but on someone else’s terms.
Kesha, as she is commonly known, was groomed by Gottwald, polished by a record label and put on the same trajectory as Britney, Christina and Katy.
She was known only as Ke$ha when she first climbed the Billboard charts with her 2009 debut single “Tik Tok.”
But even back then it was clear that the singer from Nashville, who was discovered at age 17, wasn’t cut from the same couture cloth as pop’s other leading divas.
Her hair was often an unstyled mess, her makeup seemingly applied in a gas station bathroom. She frequented unfashionable bars in cut off shorts and thrift store cowboy boots. And on the red carpet, she of course mugged for the camera, but looked uncomfortable having to couch her wacky persona inside the perfunctory pop role of over-sexed teen (she was 22).
Her ultimate deviation from the plan, however, was in 2014 when she sued Gottwald and Sony to be freed from the producer’s Kemosabe label, claiming she was sexually assaulted as a young protege of Gottwald. Both Gottwald and Sony denied those claims.
She recently posted that Sony had offered to let her out of her recording contract if she redacted the claims of rape. Sony and Gottwald deny those allegations as well, claiming Kesha wants to renegotiate a better contract as she’s obligated to deliver several more records for Sony.
Kesha may have lost her case in New York court, but she triggered something remarkable. A few weeks ago, pop’s most famous women spoke out on social media, in songs and on stage in support of Kesha.
“There are people all over the world who love [email protected] And I can say truly I am in awe of your bravery” tweeted Gaga.
“KESHA — I AM SO ANGRY FOR YOU. THEY WERE WRONG. I’M SORRY” read a sign that Cyrus held up on her Instagram account.
Clarkson tweeted, “Trying 2 not say anything since I can’t say anything nice about a person … so this is me not talking about Dr. Luke.”
But these same artists have been reticent to speak in-depth about issues of diminish opportunity and exploitation of women in the industry.
Lovato, Clarkson, Gaga and Minaj declined to speak for this story or did not respond to requests. The radio silence even included the biggest mouth in pop, Cyrus.
Today Kesha may serve as a cautionary tale of what happens to female pop stars when they grow up and try to wrestle control of their own careers. Stuck in a legal tangle, she hasn’t released an album in four years.
But it remains to be seen if Kesha, the girl who never quite fit the mold, will someday symbolize a tipping point when women stood up to an industry that exploited them.