For as long as musicians have signed contracts with record labels, there have been those who have loudly protested the perceived injustice and imbalance of what’s known as a personal-services agreement. But not since Prince scrawled “Slave” on his cheek has an artist generated the level and intensity of attention that pop star Kesha Rose Sebert did when she sued her producer, Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald, and record company, Sony Music, in 2014, to be released from her contract.
This was no mere financial or philosophical disagreement: Kesha’s legal action was predicated on the accusation that Luke was both sexually and emotionally abusive for the duration of their decade-long creative partnership (a charge that Luke denies). Celebrities from Lady Gaga to Adele to Lena Dunham vigorously supported Kesha on social media, while her devoted fan base, known as The Animals, crafted petitions and staged public protests. Unable to even perform her catalog of recorded songs as the case wound its way through the courts, the dance-pop singer began to recraft her musical identity, delivering a moving acoustic cover of Bob Dylan‘s “It Ain’t Me Babe” at May’s Billboard Music Awards, finding salvation in the folk and country music that the Nashville-raised singer has always been vocal about loving. (Luke initially forbade her to perform on the show, perhaps reflecting his discomfort with her growing status as an icon for people who had suffered sexual assault.) When Kesha dialed back the suit in late July and provided 28 new tracks to her label, she did not appear to be conceding so much as acknowledging, after a series of judgments in Luke and Sony’s favor, that she was unlikely to win her case. Her desire to work superseded her quest for justice, and her feelings on the matter seemed to be embodied in the title of her summer tour with a new band called The Creepies: “F– the World.”
Kesha’s legal setbacks clearly took a toll — images of her crying inside the New York courthouse in February went viral — but she proved her spirit was tougher than her tribulations, and that resonated in an era in which young women in particular have been outspoken and resolute about their feminism. Her resoluteness has, arguably, made her more popular among people who may not have been fans before her legal woes and has inarguably turned her into a sort of mythic figure. Despite allegedly being abused and belittled by a much older producer — a dynamic that isn’t so uncommon in the music industry or outside of it — she was strong enough to make it public and fight, a move that has been largely unprecedented on this level and with this degree of transparency. In doing so, she has become a beacon for a generation of women who are becoming increasingly bold about outing their abusers.