On Friday, chart-topping pop singer Kesha broke down sobbing in a Manhattan court room after a judge refused to release her from a contract with a producer she claims sexually assaulted her. In response, Twitter lit up with support from her fans. But nothing about the case — from the relevant parties’ names to the court proceedings — is simple. Let’s review:
Who the heck is Kesha? You know: Kesha. Or maybe you remember her best as Ke$ha, as she used to call herself. Tik tok, on the clock, but the party don’t stop… Sorry to plant that earworm in your head, but it was almost certain to jog your memory. Born Kesha Rose Sebert, the 28 year-old singer/songwriter moved from Nashville to Los Angeles when she was 17 to record with a producer named Dr. Luke, who runs Kemosabe Records, a label owned by Sony Music. Her 2010 debut album, “Animal,” went platinum with such hits as “Tik Tok,” and “Your Love is My Drug.” She made a lot of money (and apparently spent plenty of it on glitter).
So what’s the case all about? In October 2014, Kesha filed suit against Dr. Luke, accusing him of drugging and raping her and emotionally abusing her in a manner that ultimately led her an eating disorder. The suit asked that she be released from her contract with Kemosabe. Dr. Luke quickly filed his own countersuit, claiming that the abuse allegations were fabricated in an attempt to get out of the contract.
Is that Dr. Luke, M.D.? Uh, no. Dr. Luke’s real name is Lukasz Gottwald, and he spent a decade as the lead guitarist for “Saturday Night Live” before moving into music production. Since making the switch, he’s banged out a stream of hits, including Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl,” Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the U.S.A” and Pink’s “Who Knew?” Although Dr. Luke has admitted to being a marijuana dealer in the past, he says the nickname was bestowed on him by rapper Mos Def during a studio recording session, and has nothing to do with dispensing drugs.
More background, please. Okay. In January 2014, Kesha checked into a treatment center, revealing that she had bulimia. By that time there was already buzz that Kesha was feeling creatively stifled by Dr. Luke during the production of her second album, “Warrior.” Later that year, she filed the lawsuit, claiming she suffered almost a decade of abuse at the hands of Dr. Luke. Kesha’s mother, Pebe Sebert, has publicly said that Dr. Luke contributed to her daughter’s illness by telling her to lose weight and comparing her body to a refrigerator.
What happened on Friday? New York Supreme Court Justice Shirley Kornreich denied Kesha’s request for a preliminary injunction in the case, which would have allowed the singer to record songs outside of her contract until the case is finalized. That Kesha’s request wasn’t granted doesn’t mean her case is dead, but it does mean she has a long road ahead of her. The judge said Kesha’s filing would require the court to “decimate a contract that was heavily negotiated and typical for the industry.” Dr. Luke and Sony have said Kesha is free to work with another producer on upcoming albums to fulfill her contract with the label, but that’s an offer Kesha has refused. “My instinct is to do the commercially reasonable thing,” Judge Kornreich said Friday.
What’s at stake? Creative freedom and buckets of money. Kesha is contractually obligated to record her next six albums with Dr. Luke’s label. That’s six. That is an awful lot of work to do under the management of a man whom you clearly loathe and who you say abused you. Kesha says that the permission to work with another producer is an empty promise: Even if she accepted it, her lawyer argued, her new music wouldn’t be supported or promoted by Sony. In the eyes of her supporters, Kesha’s career and artistic independence are being held hostage by Dr. Luke.
What’s next? The case will continue until either the court decides it or the two parties settle. Washington entertainment lawyer Joy Butler said that if an injunction had been issued last week, “that would be an indication that the court did consider the case to be a slam dunk” for Kesha. But because that didn’t happen, there is more work to be done, and the fighting will continue.
Who’s on Team Kesha? The Internet. Well, most of it anyway. Hundreds of thousands of fans issued Twitter pleas to #FreeKesha. And a host of contemporary singers voiced their support, including Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande, Lorde and Wale. Perhaps the most intriguing tweet came from Clarkson, who also worked with Dr. Luke in the past: “Trying 2 not say anything since I can’t say anything nice about a person… so this is me not talking about Dr. Luke.”
And who’s siding with Dr. Luke? Sony, obviously. And for now, the New York State Supreme Court.
An earlier version of this story included an inaccurate characterization of an Instagram post by singer Jayme Dee.
This post has been updated.