Singer Kesha cries as she learns she will not be released from her record label contract in Manhattan Supreme Court on Friday. Photo: Getty Images/Jefferson Siegel
You didn't have to be a pop fan to find Saturday's news distressing: New York Supreme Court Justice Shirley Kornreich dismissed Kesha's request for an injunction that would allow her to sever ties with producer Dr. Luke --Lukasz Gottwald-- who the singer sued in 2014 (an ongoing case separate to the injunction request), alleging he had subjected her to sexual, physical, verbal and emotional abuse for a decade.
The judge sided with Sony, which houses Gottwald's label Kemosabe Records, and in particular the $60 million that the producer claimed to have invested in Kesha's career, and the fact that Kesha is the only artist who continues to make Gottwald and Sony money. "My instinct is to do the commercially reasonable thing," Kornreich told Mark Geragos, the attorney for Kesha. The singer sobbed openly during the court proceedings.
As the news broke, many of her peers were quick to voice their support, including Lady Gaga, Kelly Clarkson (herself a frequent collaborator with Gottwald), Lorde and Lily Allen.
Kesha attends the New York State Supreme Court on February 19, 2016 in New York City. Photo: Getty Images
There are people all over the world who love you @KeshaRose. And I can say truly I am in awe of your bravery.— Lady Gaga (@ladygaga) February 19, 2016
Trying 2 not say anything since I can't say anything nice about a person... so this is me not talking about Dr. Luke https://t.co/lLhtUHbmgG— Kelly Clarkson (@kelly_clarkson) February 19, 2016
standing with @KeshaRose through this traumatic, deeply unfair time. send good vibes her way everyone— Lorde (@lorde) February 19, 2016
My thoughts are with @KeshaRose today. I'm sorry you've had to endure this experience.— lily (@lilyallen) February 19, 2016
In a country where corporations can attain personhood, perhaps the news that Sony's business interests are considered more pressing than Kesha's wellbeing shouldn't come as a surprise, but it's still horrifying.
It's little wonder Hunter S. Thompson's remarks about the "cruel and shallow money trench" of the television business were filtered through the internet until they became a cutting (if entirely apocryphal) dissection of the music industry, for what business seems less concerned with decent and ethical behaviour than the pop biz?
This isn't the first nor the most acrimonious dispute between an artist and a label --surely we all remember when Prince became "love symbol", appearing with "SLAVE" written on his face, during a contract battle with Warner Brothers-- but it is especially galling because the basis of this contractual dispute is not simply whether or not albums will be recorded and released, but Kesha's treatment at the hands of Gottwald.
The focus on the contract here comes at the expense of Kesha's personal safety and emotional wellbeing. It's also a slightly baffling decision, given that Kornreich's dismissal of the injunction attempt hinges on the potential loss of income for Sony if Kesha is allowed to sever ties with Gottwald, but seems to ignore the possibility that an artist who is terrified of her producer won't record with him anyway; as she put it in her injunction request, "I know I cannot work with Dr. Luke. I physically cannot. I don't feel safe in any way." Sony can't sell records that don't exist.
So, it has been suggested that, as a compromise, Kesha could record with a different producer while still contracted to Sony --Kornreich's ruling even said as much-- but even that wouldn't free her from Gottwald's purview.
As Madeleine Davies points out in a blood-boiling overview for Jezebel, "She's still signed to his label, and her work still belongs to him. She remains the creative property of the man she says raped her. The ruling is so cruel as to seem almost mythological—Persephone stuck in hell as the result of a bad contract—but it's not; the ruling is real."
That Kesha --for now-- must remain tied to a producer and label indelibly linked to her own trauma, because it's considered "commercially reasonable", must be the most perfect crystallisation of the concept of a manufactured pop star: Kesha is almost literally property, a mere cog in the "star-maker machinery behind the popular song" that Joni Mitchell sang of in 1974.
Though bleak, the dismissal of the injunction request isn't the end of the road, legally speaking, for Kesha. Rolling Stone reports that "After denying the preliminary injunction, the judge reviewed the counterclaims presented by Kesha and her lawyers about the sexual abuse and harassment she claims to have endured during her time working with Dr. Luke. The hearing ended with the judge reserving on a motion to dismiss the counterclaims until Kesha's camp filed more evidence on the alleged abuse."
I've long been a Kesha fan; I've put Your Love Is My Drug, one of the finest pop songs of the past decade (I'm allowed to say that as a music critic of more than 15 years), on just about every mix tape I've made for someone since 2010, and TiK ToK is a masterpiece. To say so, if only to offset the "I've never liked her music, but…" set, seems immaterial in light of what she's been through.
But I've also long admired Kesha's wit, eccentricity and charm. Presenting her "particularised allegations" during the next phase of her legal battle will test her. It feels strange to say I now also admire her dignity and courage in the face of what must be almost insurmountable pain and trauma, but I do.
There's a beautiful photo of Kesha, taken at last year's New York Fashion Week and then deleted from her Instagram almost as soon as she posted it, in which she stands boldly in a sequinned dress that reads "YOU WILL NEVER OWN ME". I hope those words become her mantra as she continues her fight.