The spotlight's on Kesha, but she can't control where it shines. On Sunday night, she will perform a tribute to Bob Dylan, an artist she calls "one of [her] favorite songwriters of all time,” at the Billboard Music Awards. Or at least, she's supposed to.
Kesha's scheduled performance has been up in the air all week. On Tuesday, her label, Sony, cancelled her appearance after a TMZ report claimed that she would use the platform to discuss her ongoing legal battle against producer Dr. Luke. Then, on Thursday, the label changed its mind. According to a statement issued to BuzzFeed News, Kesha will be allowed to perform on Sunday night so long as neither she nor her supporters use this platform to discuss her accusations of sexual and emotional abuse against Dr. Luke.
For months, Kesha's fans and well-wishers have flooded social media with support. She's proclaimed her abuse through Instagram posts and press coverage, and on Sunday, she will have a stage. But no matter how loud her cries of injustice might be, she is still subject to the whims of her alleged oppressors. She may have a platform, but she's still being treated like her label's property.
In the eyes of the public, Kesha was a persona before she was a person. Although her first big hit as a performer was Flo Rida's "Right Round" in 2009, her name never appeared on the track. No, Kesha's entry into the general American consciousness was "Tik Tok," the first single off her 2010 debut album Animal. The first verse has her speak-singing, "Before I leave, brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack / 'Cause when I leave for the night I ain't comin' back."
In the video, she looks unapologetically grimy, her hair slept on and her clothes wrinkled. She's edgy in a way that only a suburban teen can be: hundreds of bracelets, a leopard-print pedicure, and a playful bad attitude. Hell, she even spelled her name with a dollar sign instead of an "s." The song rocketed up the charts. In January 2010, "Tik Tok" became the first No. 1 hit of the new decade.
Kesha was 21 years old, a newly minted adult who wasn't here to play. At the end of the incessantly catchy chorus that made her name, she heads right into the second verse. "Ain't got a care in the world / But got plenty of beer," she sneers. This is how her label built her can't give a fuck, won't give a fuck brand.
The foundation for Kesha's entire persona was that she did what she wanted whenever she wanted, and absolutely no one could stop her. Only in her long drawn-out legal battle with Dr. Luke has it become abundantly clearly that this image—like all public personalities are, to some extent—was a construction.
The real-life Kesha signed a contract with Lukasz "Dr. Luke" Gottwald's Kemosabe Records—which is owned by Sony—in 2005. As a teen, she dropped out of high school and moved to Los Angeles to pursue a music career. Dr. Luke is and was one of the best pop producers in the business. He's had dozens of No. 1 hits, and has made plenty of young stars into household names. It's no surprise that Kesha signed a contract with him: He promised her five albums and a shot at stardom.
We’ve never seen Kesha’s contract. But because Kesha was a young star who signed to a major label, it is very likely that she is signed to the kind of contract that sites like DigitalMusicNews characterize as "from hell" and insist that you should "never ever sign.” These major label contracts are notorious in the music business. Hundreds of young musicians sign every year because they want fame, and money, and to create songs for a living. It's the kind of contract that Prince once called "slavery," saying, "I would tell any young artist… don't sign."
It's the contract that made Kesha one of the brightest early stars of this decade, but it's also what lines the walls of the cage she's stuck inside.
Behind every pop star is a team. The songwriters come in to help them work out the song. The producers help them build the beat. The engineers master the album. And the pop star sings it. Historically, labels signed these artists to make themselves money, and in exchange, the artists had access to the label's staff as well as a full distribution company to design, print, ship, and stock their album (be it on vinyl or 8-track or CD).
Today, the function of the label is a little trickier. Artists don't really need labels to help them distribute their music, because it's not hard to upload an album to SoundCloud or YouTube or iTunes. Today, what labels provide artists is financial support.
Entertainment Weekly reports that, according to a February statement from Dr. Luke's attorney, Sony Music has spent “over $11 million promoting Kesha, and Sony Music and its label Kemosabe are committed to continuing to promote her work.”
And $11 million dollars is certainly not chump change. But the music industry is so riddled with transparency problems that it's impossible to know whether that $11 million was money Sony Music gathered on their own to spend on Kesha, or if it was $11 million dollars Kesha herself earned for them and then never saw. As David Byrne wrote for the New York Times in July 2015:
The labels also get money from three other sources, all of which are hidden from artists: They get advances from the streaming services, catalog service payments for old songs and equity in the streaming services themselves. Musicians are entrepreneurs. We are essentially partners with the labels, and should be treated that way.
But instead, musicians—be they pop stars or guitarists—are treated as chattel. They are expected to do as they are told, and produce work that makes money, and not ask any questions or cause any problems. If a label decides to continually push back an album's release date for years and years (as happened to Azealia Banks in 2012), an artist can't do anything about it. This imbalance of power is all the more horrifyingly apparent when the face of an artist's label is also the face of her alleged abuser.
For the most part, all Kesha has been able to do for the past year is complain. She has accused her producer Dr. Luke of sexual and emotional assault. But because the statute of limitations has passed on his alleged crimes, Kesha has had to fight a legal battle not for him to be punished, but for her to be let out of her tightly regulated contract. In February, Kesha lost a preliminary injunction hearing, which denied her the option to separate from Sony before a full trial, which is scheduled to take place in 2017.
Until then, her label reigns. They decide if and when she performs, and they can revoke that right for any reason. Meanwhile, Kesha can post on Instagram and rally her fans against Sony. She can raise awareness about the often infuriating way our justice system works, and how rarely women are believed. But she can't do the one thing she needs more than anything else—to get out of her contract.
Ultimately, Kesha's performance is good for Dr. Luke's label. Her BMAs appearance, even in the midst of all this negative gossip, will generate money and publicity—which is almost as good as money. She will get to do her job on Sunday night, and a chorus of tweets and headlines will sing of how great it is that she can still perform after this hefty legal drama has played out in the public eye.
But if this week has shown us anything, it's that Kesha doesn't get to perform anymore—at least not to "perform" in the sense of expressing herself how she wants, when she wants, where she wants. She is effectively Sony's property, a human show pony. Maybe the most subversive thing Kesha could do is walk out on that stage and stand there silently for her four-minute scheduled performance. But even that wouldn't be enough.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.