According to a story broken yesterday by TMZ, Ke$ha is suing Dr. Luke for sexual, physical, verbal, and emotional abuse. I see two ways to spin this story into a broader dialogue, and I have no interest in either of them.
First, some-kind-of abuse is evil. Agreed, and cheers to those who wave that flag at every opportunity. I’ll hold off till there’s been some investigation.
Second, the music industry is evil. I take more personal interest in this line, but despite the total unholy power a label can hold over its roster, offenses of the type alleged here are (I pray) still highly irregular and only an outlier in that narrative.
I won’t even look at these two as whole people. I adore both Ke$ha and Dr. Luke as artists; Kesha Sebert and Lukasz Gottwald are off my radar. It’s never mattered to me what either of them would be like to party with, or to dine with, or to spend a week in Rome with. Up till now, I’ve never had interest in their personal lives and I don’t now grant myself license to start. Kesha isn’t going to call me to cry on my shoulder and Lukasz isn’t going to ask for legal advice over a cold beer because neither of these people considers me their friend.
That’s my explanation for approaching this whole ordeal as a fan, wondering what the impact will be on fans of their work as fans of their work. People I talk music with know that I feel strongly about each of these creatives, and occasionally you’ve seen my opinions on these pages. Ke$ha’s insane sales attracted my interest, but her ability as a writer on most of her own songs earned my respect, and these two recordings dropped my jaw. She is a young artist with passion and talent in spades who deserves to flourish. Dr. Luke, on the other hand, is part of the global first family of pop, a prolific man whose achievements ought to be cataloged in a special section of the Library of Congress.
What could this story mean for Ke$ha and Dr. Luke?
Animal introduced a sleazy, glitter-bound blonde whose image has remained dominant in the public’s mind ever since. But image alone can’t squeeze the number-one selling digital single of all time out of a brand new entrant: it takes memorable lyrics that tap directly into the zeitgeist and a tune that doesn’t tire after 100 listens. For my money, Ke$ha’s gift for talk-singing makes “TiK ToK.” And despite all the autotune, I think the album provides firm evidence of her strong vocal control and genuinely pretty voice.
Going into 2012, Ke$ha talked plenty about the break in style she intended for her follow-up LP. Referencing Iggy Pop and the like, she promised an album falling somewhere between “punk” and “cock rock.” I knew from interviews that the songs on Animal were each at least 50% straight from her brain, which is a real achievement when you’re working with Max Martin, Dr. Luke, and Benny Blanco, who tend to find glorified pieces of clay and manufacture all the sound and style in their studios.
So Warrior was an enormous disappointment for me. It still feels like an electric dance album, and a worse one than Animal. I must not be alone, because sales show that the only Ke$ha song anyone has enjoyed since Cannibal is “Timber,” which obviously isn’t even her own song. After investing so much hope, I couldn’t understand why Ke$ha failed to deliver on so many levels.
Yesterday’s news makes me believe that Dr. Luke’s influence was poisonous.
If Dr. Luke is responsible for destroying Warrior‘s potential through some combination of abuse and overreaching oversight, then I’m all for a break of contract. Ke$ha’s time in rehab shows that she’s been through some kind of hell or other. She’s young enough to bounce back, though, and talented enough that I know we haven’t heard her best. If she gets freedom out of this debacle and finds herself in creative control of her own music going forward, it could mean that we get the album she always wanted to make. We could see a different side of Ke$ha, something surprising, a fitting follow-up to Animal and a real evolution of her sound.
Then there’s the hit-maker.
Dr. Luke had a hand in the upbringing of Benny Blanco and was himself tutored by Max Martin. These men and their friends have defined pop music for the world since the turn of the millenium, and their influence only grows stronger every year. Not every song on the radio today deserves to be there, but judging Dr. Luke by his whole body of work, he is a genius. His mastery of pop songcraft and production are gifts to us all. No tongue in cheek—I’m being completely serious here about tracks like “U + Ur Hand” (P!nk), “Girlfriend” (Avril Lavigne), “Since U Been Gone” (Kelly Clarkson), “Party in the U.S.A.” (Miley Cyrus), “Circus” (Britney Spears), “Teenage Dream” (Katy Perry), and, of course, every Ke$ha song.
This suit will damage the man in two ways. Obviously, it could harm him financially. Apparently criminal charges aren’t being pressed, so jail time is off the table. More crucially, though, even the accusations by themselves may affect what artists are willing to work with Dr. Luke in the future. As my list of songs above suggests, he has worked predominantly with women. How many young women want to work with a man with a reputation for abuse? And if an impressionable 18-year-old talent comes along who is starstruck by Dr. Luke and doesn’t mind the claims of some trashy celebrity with problems of her own, will others intervene to protect her?
Because I don’t know the detailed truth about Dr. Luke’s behavior, I don’t know whether he should or shouldn’t be working with young girls in the future to make music. What seems probably is that he will be doing less of it than he does now. And even if that’s a moral victory, it’s a definite loss for the art form and for radio lovers around the world.
As people, we may be disgusted by this story, or intrigued, and we may wish the worst upon either or both of the parties involved. As a fan, I can only hope. I hope that the next five years bring many more smash hits from the hands and mind of Dr. Luke, and I hope that within her next two or three albums we get to see the real Ke$ha in all her glory.