Tik Tok on the Clock but Kesha Won’t Stop, No: A Humanist Response to Kesha’s Lawsuit against Dr. Luke

The pop singer Kesha, then called Ke$ha, provided the soundtrack to my senior year of college. During a time in my life that was fraught with graduate school statements of purpose, applications for internships, and general anxiety about the future’s uncertainty, Kesha’s upbeat, ironically autotuned songs with their silly lyrics provided a welcome respite from my serious daily routines. Bragging about brushing your teeth “with a bottle of Jack,” as Kesha does in her hit song “Tik Tok” isn’t a deep or meaningful statement to make, but it is funny and entertaining. Kesha’s image as a gritty party girl covered in glitter was nothing like my all-business, honors student personality, but it did remind me to have fun every once in a while.

Photo by Viv Lynch
What also drew me to Kesha, and what I imagine to be her appeal among many of her female fans, was her fearless attitude. Many of her songs boldly declared that she wasn’t going to let men push her around—admonishing a tiresome club boy to “zip your lip like a padlock” in “Blah, Blah, Blah,” for example, or warning: “I eat boys up. You better run!” in “Cannibal.” In her music, Kesha displayed an assertiveness to which I aspired, all the more so because Kesha didn’t look like other pop stars. Yes, Kesha is beautiful, but her natural build is more realistic than the rail thin or perfectly hourglass figures of so many of her contemporaries. Kesha’s pop persona was that of a cool girl I might meet in my college town’s dive bar—someone confident and strong, yet still relatable enough that I could look up to her. So I was disappointed in 2014 when Kesha announced that she had an eating disorder. I wasn’t disappointed in Kesha herself, but I was upset that the media’s glorification of an unrealistically skinny beauty standard for women had broken Kesha’s seemingly invincible self-assurance. I was even more saddened to learn soon after that she had suffered from sexual assaults and sustained abuse from her producer, Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald. One of the most powerful producers in the music industry, Dr. Luke is described in an interview with the New Yorker as a magician who can bring together a mystical concoction of music, lyrics, pop persona, and marketing to churn out smash hits. He signed Kesha to his own label, Kemosabe Records, under a contract that required her to put out six albums. Under her contract, Kesha is unable to record with anyone unaffiliated with Kemosabe Records, giving Dr. Luke a measure of control and oversight over her music, even if he’s not producing her albums directly. This contract creates a problem for Kesha, who in October 2014 filed a lawsuit against Dr. Luke for sexual assault, battery, and sexual harassment. Understandably, Kesha does not want to work under the man she’s accused of abuse, including drugging her and triggering her eating disorder. However, Kesha is contractually obligated to work with Kemosabe Records. So Kesha’s lawyers filed an injunction that would release the singer from her contract while her lawsuit is ongoing so that she could still record music and continue her career. On February 19 a Manhattan Supreme Court judge dismissed the injunction and stated that Kesha cannot nullify her contract. Under this decision, she must either work with the label owned by her abuser or continue to allow her music career to languish, a serious problem for her because the more time she goes without putting out another album, the more her value to the recording industry drops. While Kesha’s interminable hiatus may be personally injurious to her and disappointing to her fans, many humanists probably wonder why they should care about one pop singer when there is so much more dire human suffering taking place in the world. After all, of the millions of women who are sexually assaulted and abused, few can afford to suspend their careers indefinitely to fight their abusers in court as Kesha has. Even fewer get $250,000 donations from Taylor Swift for their “financial needs,” even though the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that the costs of abuse exceeds 8.3 billion dollars each year and that as many as 60 percent of victims of abuse lose their jobs. Though Kesha is undoubtedly undergoing extreme stress, anyone claiming that she is not in a position of unusual privilege would be foolish. And yet, Kesha’s plight, as privileged as it is, should still matter to the humanist community, just as it should matter to the feminist community and to anyone who cares about women’s rights and human rights. Kesha’s experience of sexual abuse by Dr. Luke highlights the ways in which women are commodified and reduced to sex objects by the music industry, which denies them their full humanity. While recording artists may seem to live lives of luxury and glamour, they’re really treated like products to be marketed and sold instead of being given autonomy and human agency. Kesha’s highly publicized lawsuit shines a spotlight on the ways in which our society views women primarily as sex objects and commodities and only secondarily as human beings. As a fan of Kesha, I can’t help but feel as though seeing her vindicated in her lawsuit will also, at least symbolically, grant me my own sense of triumph against men who have harassed me. Kesha’s attempt to take down a man who is wealthier and more powerful than she is, I imagine, provides inspiration to her fans who have also been raped, abused, or harassed. So many women suffer sexual and physical abuse in silence that the image of even one woman standing up for herself and her right to be seen as a human being, not just a sex object, can be very uplifting. Perhaps this is why the Twitter hashtag #FreeKesha went viral so quickly after the court ruling on February 19. So many millions of women are unable to speak out about their abuse that when one woman does, she can become a symbol of strength, courage, and resiliency for other women. The humanist community too can be a source of this same strength for women, especially for women in religious communities, where sexual and physical abuse are often ignored completely or dismissed. Far too many humanist women who were once religious remember being told to keep silent about abuse or to endure it for the sake of being godly wives and mothers. Humanists stand with Kesha and with all victims of abuse because we hope for a world in which all women are recognized as fully human and given the rights they deserve.  Tags: , ,