Kesha’s court hearing last week, during which she was denied the chance to be released from her contract with Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald, was an indisputable loss for the singer. Sobbing in the courtroom on Friday morning (Feb. 19), Kesha had to hear her claims of sexual and emotional abuse more or less dismissed with gross flippancy, and remained tethered to the producer who alleged raped her. Kesha asked for prayers from her fans for Friday’s hearing, and at the mercy of a single judge, those prayers were not heard.
But something interesting happened on Friday, beginning with a fan-organized protest outside of a New York courthouse on a chilly morning. What started as a few dozen diehards morphed into thousands of voices on social media. The hashtag #FreeKesha trended worldwide; and public support came in from a wide-ranging list of artists, from Lady Gaga to Wale to Lorde.
It was all in response to a ruling that the court of public opinion deemed disgusting. Kesha can likely recover from this brutal setback and eventually release new music, but paradoxically a win in court for Dr. Luke could effectively devastate his career.
Let’s look at things strictly from a musical standpoint. From 2007 to 2014, before Kesha came forward with her rape allegation, Dr. Luke was arguably the most sought-after studio presence in pop. Songs like Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend” and Britney Spears’ “Circus” cemented him as a producer to watch in the late 00’s; his work on Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream and Kesha’s Animal albums, both released in 2010, made him a mainstream force of nature. Along with Swedish genius Max Martin, Dr. Luke popularized gooey electro-pop at the turn of the decade and started getting calls from Rihanna, Pitbull, One Direction and countless others.
Immediately prior to Kesha suing Dr. Luke for sexual assault and battery in October 2014, he had slowed down his output of smashes, but was still working with stars like Nicki Minaj, Usher and Shakira. In the 16 months since Kesha went public, that has slowed to a halt. Dr. Luke scored a Top 10 in 2015, but it was a fluke hit: R. City’s “Locked Away,” featuring Adam Levine. R. City is signed to Luke’s Kemosabe Records, and while “Locked Away” performed well, other Kemosabe artists like Elliphant, Becky G and LunchMoney Lewis have struggled to spin off radio hits.
That doesn’t mean those artists are incapable of ever finding mainstream success—it just means that they’re smaller than the names Dr. Luke was working with prior to his legal standoff with Kesha. As Luke has squared off against his former “little sister,” as he called her on Twitter, Max Martin has swooped in, drama-free, and scored smashes with Taylor Swift, The Weeknd, Ariana Grande and Ellie Goulding.
"In pop years, he hasn't had a hit for a major star in eons," says a source, pointing to Maroon 5's "Sugar" from 2014 as Dr. Luke's last Top 10 for a big-name artist. "Max Martin and his ilk got all his jobs."
With the very public fallout of Friday’s hearing, Dr. Luke is now more radioactive than ever. Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff, who performed with Taylor Swift at the GRAMMY Awards, called Luke a “creep” on Twitter. Swift herself donated $250,000 to Kesha as “a show of support.” Fifth Harmony, who worked with Dr. Luke on a song on their 2015 debut album, are reportedly “appalled” at the situation, and none of Luke’s Kemosabe signees are rushing to his defense. Perhaps sensing that the public’s opinion of him had dropped from negative to wrathful over the course of a weekend, Dr. Luke went on a Twitter spree on Monday afternoon, proclaiming his innocence with a desperation many pundits found off-putting, to say the least.
So what’s the endgame for Dr. Luke and Kesha? At this point, if Kesha wins or loses her legal battle, pop fans will side with her and the #FreeKesha movement. A settlement is unlikely, but if one were to happen, artists will still be extremely hesitant to work with Dr. Luke for fear of public backlash, and for a new artist, signing to his Kemosabe label could potentially be like jumping on a grenade. If anything, Sony could easily sever its relationship with Kemosabe.
At this juncture, expecting Dr. Luke to regain his pop supremacy, or even a semblance of it, would be making a foolish bet. Yes, men in the music industry have behaved outrageously poorly in the past and somehow survived, but a unified coalition of major artists did not form a social media initiative against Chris Brown or R. Kelly. However, there are too many superstars vocally opposed to Dr. Luke to let him slink back into the industry, and too many fans aware of the situation to let anyone quietly work with him without major repercussions. That’s why Dr. Luke’s Twitter rant on Monday read like someone who was trying to win a game that they had already forfeited.
Meanwhile, Kesha has the support of all of those major artists, thousands of fans moved by her struggle, and the drive to release new music without Dr. Luke someday. Kesha’s last album, Warrior, is three years old; that’s a lifetime in pop music, but not an eternity. Whenever Kesha releases her next album, there will be tons of interest in her style, sound and recovery from despicable allegations. On Friday morning, Kesha lost a big battle, but it’s looking increasingly likely that she’ll win the war.