The main reason that the conflict between Kesha and Dr. Luke feels both so unbalanced (the people are seemingly on Kesha’s side, the court on Dr. Luke’s) and obscure (we wonder how anyone is arguing that an artist should work under the name of her alleged abuser, and why this conflict has been worked out in this protracted, ugly way) is that Dr. Luke, real name Lucasz Gottwald, enjoys a shroud of secrecy on his work that Kesha has never and does not. In the 12 years since he co-wrote “Since U Been Gone” with Max Martin, Dr. Luke has become the closest thing radio pop has to a magic bullet; he’s built up a large, unreleased roster of hit-making songwriters and producers on his label Kemosabe Records and publishing imprint Prescription Songs; he has also barely done any press whatsoever, and so functions within the pop industry like a non-fraudulent Wizard of Oz.
To be so, so incredibly successful in pop music and have almost nothing about your private life publicly known—it’s fascinating; a producer like Dr. Luke lives an inversion of the lives of the artists he produces. And so the very few times he’s sat for a journalist—for a 2010 Billboard story by Chris Willman, and for the New Yorker’s John Seabrook in what would become both a magazine story and part of Seabrook’s 2015 The Song Machine—have been extremely fascinating, even before the Kesha allegations.
Dr. Luke is a meticulous, obsessive, punishing technician (as you’d expect, and as he should be), a fact that bears out in both the praise he gets from his collaborators and the allegations put forward about his abusive tendencies, as well as even in the little side details—like the fact that he owns a rave toilet. From the New Yorker:
With “Wrecking Ball,” for example, Gottwald wasn’t sure it was a smash, and he wagered against it, telling Cyrus he would buy her a Numi toilet like his, the ultimate in potty technology (it has a Bluetooth receiver that can stream music from a smartphone), if he was wrong. Cyrus told me, “Contrary to what he thinks, Dr. Luke isn’t always right. I bet him that ‘Wrecking Ball’ would go to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and it did. Now he has to buy me a ten-thousand-dollar toilet. I’ll be thinking of him every time I go.”
That piece was published in October 2013, just a month after Kesha superfan Rebecca Pimmel put a “Free Kesha” petition online, echoing the singer’s statements that she lost creative control of her second album Warrior (statements that are corroborated by all accounts, including Seabrook’s, of the album’s production). In the Billboard story, Dr. Luke talks about why he’s particularly obsessive about a second record:
Like with Katy [Perry], she’s now had two records, and I believe if you can get those both right, you’re a career artist. If you can make huge first and second records, if you have a third record that sucks, you can still do a fourth record, no problem. And you have enough material out there that you can tour for as long as you want. But one record? No. You need two. I feel like that’s someone’s career. As opposed to an established artist who just expects it, I do feel it’s more exciting to make a difference in somebody’s life. So I want to do everything I can to make sure that works.
Kesha’s lawsuit would later allege a host of offenses much more serious than being musically controlling (“sexual assault and battery, sexual harassment, gender violence, civil harassment, unfair business, and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress”); she filed that lawsuit a year after the New Yorker piece was published, in October 2014.
Seabrook alludes to the conflict between Kesha and Dr. Luke in the original piece, but only lightly, and in language couched in the producer’s perspective:
He signed Kesha (whose full name is Kesha Rose Sebert) as both a writer and an artist in 2005, when she was eighteen, and helped establish her with the hits “Right Round” and “Tik Tok.” But now that her pop-star dreams had come true she was proving hard to control.
Kesha, it’s worth noting, also helped establish him, particularly as a label head: she was the first signing and an early bold name for Kemosabe Records, a label financed to the amount of $60 million by Sony and controlled by Dr. Luke, a partnership that came with the condition that Dr. Luke produce exclusively Sony artists for five years. She is still the most famous artist signed to that label, and her moneymaking potential gets more important as Dr. Luke gets further into a bit of a personal lull: the last big radio hits he worked on were Maroon 5's “Sugar” and Becky G’s “Shower.”
In other words, Dr. Luke and Kesha’s relationship is more symbiotic than it’s been portrayed—it’s not a matter, purely, of her needing him to make money for both of them, as the New York court and many others seem to believe. In late 2008, Kesha gave Dr. Luke the plaintively unhinged hook for “Right Round,” which functioned as her debut, too. From The Song Machine:
Kesha’s contribution to “Right Round” was the single most memorable detail in the song, and it launched her into superstardom. However, Dr. Luke didn’t give her a songwriting credit, so she earned nothing from the smash. It was around this time that she changed the “s” in her name to “$.”
At this point, Kesha, according to Seabrook’s reporting, was “living out of two cars.” Dr. Luke sent Kool Kojak to look for her during the “Right Round” sessions; Kojak found her in effectively a flophouse in Echo Park, at which point she came to the studio, nailed the song, and didn’t get a cut.
That, however, was already three years after Dr. Luke and Kesha had started working together. He found her demo in 2005, noticing her “bravado and chutzpah.” She was a “high-school senior in Nashville, a good student with excellent SATs who was planning to attend college the following year.” Dr. Luke persuaded her to drop out, sign to his production company Kasz Money and his publishing company Prescription Songs, and also, to come to L.A. and live in his house.
That’s when Kesha alleges this started happening:
At some point within her early time in L.A., writes Seabrook in The Song Machine, Kesha was introduced to manager David Sonenberg, who had “bad blood with Gottwald” (Gottwald had turned down an offer to be managed by Sonenberg back when he was recording as an artist himself).
Sonenberg, whose company later stated in a legal filing that Kesha was talking about Dr. Luke’s abusive behavior as early as 2005, examined Kesha’s contracts with Kasz Money, and reportedly told her and her mother, “This contract is worse than the one Lou Pearlman made with the Backstreet Boys.” Then Sonenberg managed to get Kesha out of her contract with Kasz Money, but failed to get her the deal with Warner Bros. he was trying to get on his own; after waiting around for Sonenberg, Kesha signed with Dr. Luke again at some point before “Right Round” in 2008.
That, in itself, is a lot of conflict from purely a business angle; you can imagine Kesha, barely out of high school, weighing her desire to be successful with her desire to get away from him, and the former winning in the end. It gets exponentially more contentious when you consider Kesha’s story that Dr. Luke’s alleged sexual aggression, via the lawsuit, ramped up:
When this lawsuit came out in October 2014, Dr Luke countersued her for defamation and breach of contract, pointing out that when David Sonenberg had sued Kesha and her mother (which he did after Kesha had gone back to Dr. Luke), the two of them stated in a deposition that the rumors about Dr. Luke drugging and raping artists (alleged, in this case, by Sonenberg) were not true. John Seabrook writes:
Perhaps, as Kesha and Pebe [Kesha’s mother] maintained, Luke had forced them to lie under oath then. But Dr. Luke’s camp doesn’t see it that way.
Seabrook then closes the Kesha section—and the recounting of the severely disturbing, Phil Spector-ish mess—with a paragraph that outpaces both the book’s epigraph from Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” and its first-page inclusion of the phrase, literally, “thumpa thooka whompa whomp Pish pish pish Thumpah whompah whompah pah pah pah Maaakaka thomp peep bap boony Gunga gung gung,” in terms of dubiousness:
An associate of the hit maker’s argues: Wouldn’t a young girl’s mother, on hearing her daughter had been drugged and raped by her boss, immediately call the police?
Yes, maybe, unless that boss was Dr. Luke.
Why would she wait eight years to file charges, a period during which she and her daughter signed a publishing deal with Dr. Luke’s company and signed with Dr. Luke as an artist?
Because, maybe, look at all the good filing charges ever did anyone.
And, he points out, why would the only remedy they seek be in a civil lawsuit for termination of Kesha’s contract—surely they should be pressing for a criminal prosecution if the charges were true.
That’s a very stupid and distinctly male thought to deploy as the final note of a piece of reporting on a pop star alleging sexual abuse against the most powerful pop producer in America. If Kesha’s team can’t even get her off Kemosabe in the civil suit, they sure as fuck wouldn’t have been able to get a criminal verdict against Dr. Luke.
The more successful a pop artist, songwriter or producer becomes, the more likely that he or she will at some point have been connected to Dr. Luke (particularly via the 50+ people signed to Prescription Songs). RX, for example, has joint publishing deals with both Diplo’s Mad Decent and also Big Machine, whose label arm includes Taylor Swift. This is surely at least part of the reason why artist responses have been vague in general and relatively nonexistent from Sony artists in particular. As far as I can tell, Kelly Clarkson so far is the only major Sony artist who’s said anything, and in the most couched of terms:
By Seabrook’s account in The Song Machine, Clarkson is another artist who found herself in creative conflict with male label heads over a sophomore album, which she (like Kesha) had wanted to take in a rock direction; the men at the label wanted her to stay pop. She also, reportedly, wrote the (perfect) bridge of the (perfect) song “Since U Been Gone,” the pop-rock compromise that took her to #1 and a Grammy, and—like Kesha on “Right Round”—Clarkson didn’t get a cut.
Seabrook recounts Clive Davis’s memory of Clarkson breaking down in tears at a sales meeting. “I didn’t like working with Max Martin and Dr. Luke, and I don’t like the end product. I really want both songs [“Behind These Hazel Eyes” and “Since U Been Gone”] off my album,” Davis recalls her saying, before bursting into “hysterical sobbing.” Clarkson disputes this account to Seabrook. “But there could be no disputing that ‘Since U Been Gone’ made Clarkson a superstar,” he writes.
That’s the point everyone seems to be making, and on an amoral level it’s certainly true: you can debate whether pop’s favorite producer raped his young protégé, you can debate whether or not she should be contractually obligated to make as much money as possible for herself, for him and for Sony. But money, on the other hand, is never debated. “Sometimes you have to do things in people’s best interests and they don’t even know it, and maybe they’ll figure it out later and thank you, and maybe they won’t,” Dr. Luke told Billboard. “Most likely they won’t.”
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Images by AP