Rape, verbal and physical abuse, indentured servitude and mental torment were but a few of the allegations put forth in a lawsuit filed by pop singer Kesha against hit songwriter-producer Dr. Luke (Lukasz Gottwald) on Oct. 13 in Los Angeles Superior Court. The bombshell 28-page complaint was the talk of the industry in the days that followed, in large part due to the shocking nature of 27-year-old Kesha Sebert's claims -- among them that Luke, 41, drugged and "forced himself" on her, threatened to take away her publishing rights and constantly belittled her appearance, driving her to bulimia. Luke in turn filed his own complaint claiming that Kesha; her mother, Pebe; and manager, Jack Rovner of Vector Management, are attempting to extort him in order to extricate her from contracts with Luke's Kemosabe Records label, housed under Sony, and as a songwriter through his Prescription Songs.
But Kesha's suit also raised plenty of questions. Namely, why didn't she report the abuse to police? Was there any medical evidence of sexual assault? And why choose civil action as opposed to a criminal course? In response, attorney Mark Geragos, who's representing the singer, claims that the first incident of alleged rape goes back to when Kesha was 18 and that, while no so-called "rape kit" exists, therapy records and "witnesses that she complained to repeatedly" will corroborate the claims. The civil suit, he adds, "allows us to do all the discovery." Whether that might amount to future criminal action, "All options are on the table," Geragos tells Billboard, adding that he anticipates others will come forward in the wake of Kesha's filing. "She's still scared to death of him."
Luke, meanwhile, points to an existing (and renegotiated multiple times) contract that obligates Kesha to six albums, two of which have already been released, one to platinum-plus success (Kesha has sold a total of 2.4 million albums and 31.3 million single downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan). Luke claims in his suit that Kesha and her mother used "defamatory statements in an attempt to extort [him] into releasing Kesha from her recording agreement."
While his claims might seem like a retaliatory strike, it's possible that the opposite is true. "There's a long tradition in the entertainment business of artists resorting to litigation to get themselves out of contracts and other things they're unhappy with," says attorney Larry Iser of Kinsella Weitzman Iser Kump & Aldisert LLP, who represents neither side. But Iser questions Luke's lawsuit too. "It's ultra-aggressive. Dr. Luke’s strategy makes Kesha's abuse allegations front and center in a defamation case which turns on: ‘What’s true?’”
That's what many are now wondering about the former Saturday Night Live guitarist, who has notched 37 top 10 hits on the Hot 100 for the likes of Britney Spears, Katy Perry and Kelly Clarkson. Supporters insist Kesha's claims are "bullshit," as one major manager noted; on the flip side, a source describes Luke as someone who was "psychotically controlling," "arrogant" and would often "get angry" if he couldn't have his say or his way. Multiple industry insiders say Luke is known to be “difficult” when it comes to business, but also describe his creative process as professional.
What has been overlooked in all of this commotion is that the often-fractious relationship between Kesha and Dr. Luke has been explored in court before. In 2010, both were defendants in a lawsuit brought by DAS Communications, which formerly managed the pop singer. According to papers in that litigation, Dr. Luke might have discovered Kesha as a Nashville, Tenn., teenager a decade ago, but she quickly thereafter signed a rep deal with DAS' David Sonenberg, who came close to bringing Kesha to Warner Bros. Records.
As early as 2005, Kesha was speaking about how Dr. Luke had "engaged in certain unethical and unlawful actions against her and that she did not want Gottwald to be part of her career going forward," according to papers filed by DAS. That year, Kesha's attorney began examining the enforceability of her recording agreement, and Dr. Luke's attorneys were provided notice that Kesha was disavowing the deal.
Three years later, though, Kesha fired Sonenberg to return to Dr. Luke's fold, which prompted the manager to later sue over commissions. In the subsequent litigation, Kesha brought counterclaims against her old management firm. She asserted that one of the reasons she had hired DAS was to help her manage her relationship with Dr. Luke. Kesha's legal papers go on to say that she "was fortunate to have the attention and support of Dr. Luke," that her fired manager repeatedly instructed her 'not to have any contact whatsoever with Dr. Luke," and that, thanks to this advice, it "poisoned the relationship with Dr. Luke… caused Kesha to lose two invaluable years of her career in an industry where youth is of the utmost importance and denied Kesha the opportunity to work with Dr. Luke."
Kesha or her mother might have corroborated much of this in depositions, but since a good deal of the record is under seal, it's unclear whether she'll have to walk back any kind words about her producer. But Dr. Luke's attorney Christine Lepara has certainly hinted as much, referencing in a press statement released Oct. 16 about "another action" that would provide "more than Luke's word" that the abuse claims aren't true. "We challenge Mr. Geragos to open confidentiality of that prior record," she says.
Of course, fear and intimidation can cause a person to stay silent -- or even lie under oath. And now comes word that Kesha confessed Dr. Luke's alleged sexual abuse to rehab doctors who were treating her eating disorder.
Geragos urges everyone to look at the wider story.
"There is a music industry problem and it's not confronted, almost like the NFL doesn't confront its own problem," says Geragos, who, it's worth noting, represented Chris Brown in his 2008 assault on Rihanna. The difference between Brown and Luke, Geragos claims: "Chris Brown from minute one had remorse, wanted to plead guilty and get help."
Somewhere in between the back-and-forth shots lies an ugly truth, suggests another source who’s privy to the litigation process. “Why would a young woman who has achieved fame, money and hit records through the world’s most successful producer be so desperate to get out of her record contract with the very person who made her a star? Obviously something very bad must be going on in that relationship.”
The suit adds to a rough patch for Luke: He hasn’t notched a top 10 hit since June and his label is bleeding money (to the tune of $20 million, Billboard reported on Sept. 19). On Sept. 5, Simone Battle, a member of Kemosabe-signed girl group G.R.L., committed suicide. Meanwhile, another source contends Miley Cyrus doesn’t plan to work with Luke on her next album, choosing to go in a different direction musically. (Reps for G.R.L., Cyrus and Sony Music would not comment for this story.)
But is alleged abusive behavior, if true, cause to tear up a contract? Geragos says that duress can void an agreement, though he can’t cite another case where physical abuse rescinded a recording deal -- a thought echoed by other attorneys like Iser -- and admits this might be a “first-of-its-kind case.”
“The lawsuit is not good for Luke; it’s not good for Kesha,” an insider says. “Sony doesn’t like it because the Kemosabe deal so far has not been wildly successful, and now it has the baggage of the lawsuit hanging over it.”
A version of this article appears in the Oct. 25 issue of Billboard.