Where Kesha Is Free

Photo Illustration by Elena Scotti/Splinter/GMG, photos via Getty Images, AP

The accused rapist’s lawyer has a secretary call me twice, and email me once, to make sure I know who’s really in charge.

The accused rapist is music producer Lukasz Gottwald, better known as Dr. Luke. The person who accused him is Kesha, the pop star. The legal battle surrounding the accusation is, at this point, three years old.

Kesha has a new album, Rainbow, out this week. I’m trying to figure out how the album came to be, and that’s what Dr. Luke’s lawyer is trying to tell me: She needs me to know that Kesha’s new album exists only because Dr. Luke approved it.

When the first single off of Rainbow, “Praying,” was released in July, critics hailed the song as an “anthem,” presaging a “triumphant comeback.” But the profits made from that song, and the rest of the album, will go to the the record label Dr. Luke co-founded—the same one with which he is still involved.

What does that mean for its message?

When a man you’ve never met in person viciously mocks you over the phone—telling you that you’re a pathetic excuse for a reporter, wielding the word “sweetie” like a weapon, and asking how you could possibly be such an utter idiot—what music do you turn to afterwards?

A year and a half ago, when it happened to me, the answer was obvious. I’m a Texas girl through and through. I put on the Dixie Chicks.

I was a senior in college, working as an intern at a publication I loved, when I got the assignment that led to the phone call in question. I’d been told to call a local conspiracy and porn enthusiast who’d just been elected to public office. Our interview, just before midnight on Election Day, quickly spiraled into disaster territory and ended with him berating me over the phone, spewing racial slurs all the while.

By the time I left the office, it was almost four in the morning. I’d managed to keep my composure during that phone call, and I’m proud of the story that I filed. But there’s nothing fun about being verbally abused on the phone, and as I drove home, I wanted to sing along to something loud and defiant to release all my pent-up frustration. So I blasted my go-to empowerment song, which at the time was “Not Ready to Make Nice.” That song meant everything to me—it still does—because the women of the Dixie Chicks know about dealing with people who would prefer that women sit down and shut up. And “Not Ready to Make Nice,” the title track on their 2006 comeback album, speaks to their experience, to the way the band was banished from the airwaves after criticizing former President George W. Bush, the way radio stations encouraged listeners to burn Dixie Chicks CDs, and the way the women were still here and louder than ever.

In other words: The song is powerful because it’s true.

This summer, when I heard “Praying,” I felt like I did when I listened to the Dixie Chicks’ comeback for the first time. “Praying” felt defiant, victorious, and powerful. I was so glad, I thought to myself, that Kesha had overcome the trauma of a protracted legal battle with the producer she accused of rape.

I hadn’t followed the Kesha headlines all that closely—hadn’t she lost in court?—but assumed there was a happy ending I’d just missed. After all, she sang, she could breathe again. “Praying” felt powerful to me because it was real. It felt powerful because, like “Not Ready to Make Nice,” it was true.

But the truth is always more complicated than it seems.

Kesha—who dropped the much-maligned dollar sign from her former stage name, Ke$ha, in 2014—hasn’t released a new album since 2012. After skyrocketing to stardom with radio-friendly hits like “Tik Tok” and “Your Love Is My Drug,” she largely disappeared from public life four years ago.

But her disappearance wasn’t an artistic choice. In 2014, Kesha accused her producer, Dr. Luke, of repeated sexual assault, along with physical and verbal abuse. Ever since, she’s been trying to get out of her contract with him.

Kesha signed her first contract with Gottwald almost 12 years ago, when she was 18. Signing with him was Kesha’s big break—Gottwald, a would-be pop music Svengali, is one of the main orchestrators of Katy Perry’s prolific career, and he’s worked with everyone from Nicki Minaj to Britney Spears to Kelly Clarkson.

According to the conditions of the contract she signed, Kesha agreed to record six albums for Gottwald’s label, Kemosabe Records, albums over which he would have ultimate control. That meant Gottwald had final approval on everything from the type of songs she sang to the way the albums were marketed.

That kind of deal is typical, according to entertainment lawyers I spoke with. They’re designed not to be broken.

Kesha released her first two albums, Animal and Warrior, under Gottwald’s supervision and to significant commercial success. Although there were some early, oblique signs of a discord between the two, the depth of the conflict going on behind the scenes wasn’t fully revealed until the lawsuits began.

In 2014, Kesha filed suits in two states against her producer, alleging jaw-dropping behavior on Gottwald’s part. Kesha’s legal team said the producer had physically and verbally abused her and drugged her on more than one occasion. They cited Gottwald’s comments about her appearance as an exacerbating factor for the eating disorder she had battled publicly. Perhaps worst of all, Kesha’s lawyers alleged, was that Gottwald had raped his protégé twice.

Kesha wasn’t asking for Gottwald to to be arrested—and in any case, the statute of limitations on her assault allegations had already passed. Instead, her main request was to be freed from the contract she had signed at the age of 18. She wanted to record music without his permission.

Within hours, Gottwald made it clear he would not grant such permission. He filed a countersuit against Kesha and her mother, Pebe, suing the two women for defamation and calling the lawsuit a form of extortion.

“These are allegations that Kesha and Pebe have themselves admitted are false,” Gottwald’s lawyer, Christine Lepera, told Rolling Stone.

The last three years have been a flurry of counter-suits and appeals. Throughout the legal proceedings, Kesha’s lawyer has made the same point again and again: The singer just wants to be released from the contract she signed more than a decade ago. She doesn’t want to work with Gottwald, much less produce new albums under his direction. She wants, as her fans put it in a social media campaign, to be free.

But last year, a judge denied Kesha’s request for an injunction, saying Gottwald’s conduct did not meet the criteria for “intentional infliction of emotional distress.”

In other words: Their contract was still binding.

The outpouring of support for Kesha in the days following the trial was deafening. Adele spoke out in her support; Taylor Swift donated $250,000 to help pay for Kesha’s mounting legal expenses. Kelly Clarkson chimed in, saying that she too had been “blackmailed” by Gottwald.

Meanwhile, Kesha’s fans, who call themselves her Animals, launched an internet campaign, #FreeKesha, to show their support for the singer and put pressure on Sony Records, which owns Kemosabe. Her fans circulated petitions and proposed Sony boycotts.

But it was to no avail. Kesha remained—and still remains—stuck in her contract, and last year told her fans that she wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to release music again, given that her work is still subject to her accused rapist’s approval.

But less than two years later, we have a new album, Rainbow, which has already been hailed as a triumphant return.

The degree to which Gottwald was involved in Rainbow’s production is unclear. Although Gottwald isn’t listed as the producer on any of the tracks that have been released so far, it is coming out under Kemosabe Records, the label that he founded.

And although Gottwald is no longer CEO of Kemosabe, he still works there in an unspecified capacity. Multiple queries to his legal team about his actual job title—or the role he played in the album—went unreturned.

In an emailed statement, Christine Lepera, Gottwald’s lawyer, would only say: “As legally required all along, the album was released with Dr. Luke’s approval by Kemosabe, which is a joint venture label of Dr. Luke and Sony.”

When Gottwald permanently departs Sony in a few months, Kesha will go with him. She still owes him three albums.

At a certain point in college, sometime after my fourth or fifth friend confided that she’d been sexually assaulted or abused by a partner, I lost the ability to consume media created by people I closely associated with sexual assault. To this day, I can’t get past it. Movies have become harder to watch. I fast-forward through songs I used to love.

When I see trailers for Pirates of the Caribbean, I don’t think about swaggering pirates—I recall Johnny Depp’s real-life penchant for violence. When Woody Allen is on the screen, I can’t focus on his writing. Instead, I’m transported back to the car I was sitting in the very first time a friend tearfully told me the story of her own experience as a survivor of abuse. I think about the steps a former colleague took to avoid her stalker. I see the faces of the women I know who were molested as young girls.

All of that complicates how I experience Rainbow. It’s a powerful account by a woman who says she’s a rape survivor. But we’re only able to hear it because Kesha got consent from the man she says never asked for her consent in return. There is something particularly twisted about listening to an anthem that sounds like a rebirth, a victorious rising up from the ashes, while knowing that at least some of the proceeds from its success will line the pockets of her alleged abuser.

I want to support Kesha. I don’t want to support Gottwald. As far as I can tell—and I’ve looked and asked and schemed—there’s no way to do one without the other, at least from a financial perspective.

For a while, as I was writing this essay, I stopped listening to “Praying.” I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that Kesha could sing about victory when there was no tangible victory in sight. But I was wrong to mistrust her. I forgot that survival is, in and of itself, victory.

Because Kesha’s legal battle has played out so publicly, it’s easy to forget that healing is a private process, and that she gets to define what victory means for herself.

But empowerment isn’t a zero-sum game. Gottwald’s victory in court doesn’t make Kesha a “loser.”

On the contrary, by making her claims publicly, Kesha has done tremendous good. She’s helped move forward the conversation about sexual assault, especially in the context of skewed workplace power dynamics. Her continued success makes her a living reminder that you can live through hell, tell the truth about what happened to you, and come out on the other side, singing.

The overwhelming majority of sexual assault survivors never report their assaults to police, for a variety of reasons. Often, survivors are afraid of stigma, or facing doubt. But sometimes, survivors don’t think turning to the criminal justice system is the right answer at all. And you shouldn’t need to seek out, or win, a court case to find peace, or to convince others—say, me—that you’ve triumphed, despite it all.

In her third single from Rainbow, “Learn to Let Go,” Kesha acknowledges as much.

“Life ain’t always fair,” she sings. But “your happy ending is up to you.”

Kesha is right—she gets to decide what her happy ending looks like. If she feels like she can release music again and tell her story, that’s her decision. When I started reporting this story and talking to Gottwald’s lawyer, listening to Rainbow felt like a complicated moral calculus. But justice is complicated, and so is victory. When Kesha says she’s excited, I believe her.

Kesha wants to be heard, so I’m going to listen. Which is what I think it’s always been about.

Jordan Rudner is a writer in Anchorage, Alaska