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22 February 2016updated 27 Jul 2021 6:10am

How Kesha’s rape allegations spiralled into a celebrity feminism contest

The conversation is moving away from the traumatic events at its centre.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

The story begins with a bright, 17-year-old high school student from Nashville. Kesha Rose Sebert was a misfit at school: spending more time rehearsing for marching band than making friends, scaring people off with purple hair and matching homemade leggings. She loved physics and maths, and enjoyed studying, driving to nearby colleges to listen to advanced history classes on the Cold War. She was enrolled in the prestigious International Baccalaureate program, after earning near-perfect SAT scores.

Kesha was “curious about a lot of things that are much deeper than partying and dancing”, but her first love was music. She squeezed songwriting classes around her already busy extracurricular schedule, writing tracks with her mother and recording demos.

One of those demos ended up in the hands of upcoming producer Dr Luke, who encouraged the teenage Kesha to drop out of high school, despite her academic record. Over the phone, he told her she should take her GED exams later, move to LA without her family, and pursue a music career with him at the helm. At just 18, she signed to Dr Luke’s label.

Ten years later, Kesha has been denied the chance to escape this very same contract (which, unlike most industry contracts, has not been renegotiated since then) after a lengthy lawsuit. Her complaint describes a traumatic ten years under Dr Luke’s control, claiming that since she signed the contract, he “sexually, physically, verbally and emotionally abused Ms Sebert to the point where Ms Sebert nearly lost her life […] in order to destroy her self-confidence, self-image, and self-worth so that he could maintain complete control over her career”.

The claims themselves are harrowing, detailing a decade of abuse: from early signs that Dr Luke was not the responsible adult he had claimed to be, to sustained emotional abuse (the document lists insults including “You are nothing without me”) to a disturbing allegation of rape:

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After forcing Sebert to drink with him, Dr Luke instructed Sebert to take what he described as “sober pills” in order for her to sober up. Sebert took the pills and woke up the following afternoon, naked in Dr Luke’s bed, sore and sick, with no memory of how she got there. Sebert immediately called her mother and made a “fresh complaint”, telling her that she was naked in Dr Luke’s hotel room, she didn’t know where her clothes were, that Dr Luke had raped her, and that she needed to go to the emergency room.

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Kesha’s lawyers used this evidence to claim that she should be released from her contract, and no longer forced to work with her rapist. But on Friday, New York Supreme Court Justice Shirley Kornreich denied Kesha her right to a preliminary injunction, arguing that Dr Luke’s promise to take a step back from future albums “decimates” Kesha’s argument.

“I don’t understand why I have to take the extraordinary measure of granting an injunction,” she said, adding, “my instinct is to do the commercially reasonable thing.”

An outcry on social media followed, and many prominent women in music shared their disappointment and anger at Kesha’s treatment.

But there was a notable omission: one of the music industry’s most outspoken self-proclaimed feminists.

Demi Lovato also seemed to single out Taylor Swift.

Swift’s team later released a statement saying that she is donating $250,000 to Kesha in a “show of support”.

The incident has descended into an argument about who is doing more to support Kesha, and who is doing it sincerely. Many saw Swift’s late response as a cynical PR move to escape criticism rather than a genuine gesture, including Lovato.

The whole conversation is quickly spiralling away from the traumatic events at its centre. Kesha’s court case is a clear example of how systematically entrenched and institutionally validated rape culture is, in the US and worldwide. Witnessing that injustice, and using influential platforms to point it out, is an invaluable part of destabilising its structural power. The importance of speaking out can never be underestimated, and I hope men within the music industry follow the example of so many of their female acts.

I agree that it’s frustrating when certain artists seem to use feminism for their own PR and personal gain, rather than devoting themselves to any specific cause. I, too, roll my eyes at Taylor’s gaggle of stick-thin, model-beautiful, blonde girls, and the way they seem to believe that praising one another on Instagram is a powerful movement for change. I feel uncomfortable when a woman benefits from Girl Power! branding, but causes a media storm with a single detailing a “rivalry” with another female pop star. I cringed at her outstandingly ignorant tweets to Nicki Minaj, and so I squirmed when her Grammy speech began, “I want to say to all the young women out there…”

But a feminist pissing contest does little to help Kesha. It increasingly feels that high-profile instances of sexism like these are used to pit female celebrities against each other: my Problematic Fave against yours. It centres the conversation around the actions of women, and shifts responsibility onto them for patriarchal structures they may be struggling to navigate themselves (for example, Luke’s publishing company and Swift’s record label are involved in a joint venture). It can also lighten the burden we place on men to clean up their own mess: I can’t even begin to comprehend the men writing self-proclaimed “eloquent” blogs on why they can prove Taylor Swift Is Not A Feminist.

It can be important to interrogate the views of high-profile individuals, and to probe the ways in which our loudest cultural mouthpieces reflect the beliefs of society at large, but it’s also important to question our own interest in these stories. Do we follow Demi v Taylor!! because we are interested in feminism, in rape culture, in protecting survivors of sexual violence? Or because we are interested in celebrity culture? It’s perfectly possible to be keenly interested in both things, but there are dangers in confusing the two.

Addressing discrimination in mainstream society is often a juggling act between using celebrity culture as an accessible space in which to critique existing power structures, and refusing to allow celebrity gossip to masquerade as activism. While we must maintain a shrewd awareness of the different ways inequalities permeate all aspects of our culture,we should not let ourselves become distracted by the latter. There are too many other vulnerable 17-year-old girls at stake.

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