Why you should give a s**t about #FreeKesha
On February 19 this year, Kesha (AKA Kesha Rose Sebert) failed to win an injunction in her case against Dr Luke (AKA Lukasz Sebastian Gottwald), denying her the ability to continue to make music while her legal battle against the producer and owner of Kemosabe Records (a label which falls beneath the banner of Sony Music) unfolds. The suit, which Kesha launched against Dr Luke on October 14 last year, claims the producer mentally, physically and sexually abused her over a decade in an effort to "maintain complete control over her life and career".
The decision is interesting, especially when compared to the way Sony Music handled the abrupt departure of Zayn Malik from supergroup One Direction and Syco Entertainment, a fact highlighted by several publications. Even Lena Dunham has penned her thoughts on the matter. Obviously, the details of these cases are not identical, but they do shed some light on the role that gender plays within the music industry.
In her book, Gender, Branding, and the Modern Music Industry, Kristin Lieb interviewed 21 music industry professionals, from record label executives to producers. She conducted her interviews over hundreds of hours from 2006 to 2012, and posed the question to each of them, “Does the industry treat women differently to men?” The result was a resounding “yes”, with one label executive giving the rousing response of “Absofuckinglutely."
What emerged from her research was something she came to term “the life cycle for female popstars”. Maintaining the language used by her interview subjects, Lieb illustrated the pigeonholes for popstardom. Beginning the cycle as “Good Girl”, cycling through to the phase of “Temptress” and ending their fleeting careers in the position of the “Diva”, “Whore”, “Exotic”, or “Gay Icon”. Then there’s the illustrious category that industry insiders placed Kesha in as early as 2010: “Hot Mess”.
Unlike their male counterparts, industry insiders all agree that female stars must play a vastly different game to succeed. They have to “harness the power of personal narrative to construct, maintain and extend their lifecycle”, finding a way to “leverage” their assets (in other words, their bodies) into as many other areas of entertainment outside of music as possible.
[quote]Unlike male popstars who are often free to enjoy successful careers long into their middle-aged spread, the female popstar has to continue to maintain an ineffable quality of attractiveness.[/quote]
Mark Geragos, Kesha’s attorney, argued in court there is a “very slim window” of time in which a female popstar can build their career. And he’s 100 per cent right. Unlike male popstars who are often free to enjoy successful careers long into their middle-aged spread, the female popstar has to continue to maintain an ineffable quality of attractiveness. At the same time she must adhere to societal norms about what a woman should be at certain times in her life and how she should act.
But you don’t have to read Lieb’s books to see the trail of damaged women the music industry leaves behind. A visit to the entertainment section of any major news publication, or gossip site, will provide you with a front row seat. “’Psychotic’ Brit gets Sectioned” was the headline UK newspaper The Sun ran after Britney Spears’ mental breakdown in 2008. However, when Justin Bieber’s out of control antics and shaky mental health have made headlines, media outlets have opted for a much softer touch: “’I honestly felt he could die': Justin Bieber's manager Scooter Braun reveals protégé’s dark times were 'worse than people realise’” was the Daily Mail’s Christmas Day headline. Missing from the Bieber article were the jarring pictures of an unhinged young star. Instead, we are greeted with pictures of Bieber smiling, relaxing with friends, appearing with the boyish charm we’ve come to expect from him. There’s only that one infamous, smiling mugshot to remind us that Bieber is in a bad way.
Female musicians who buck against the trend or engage in what is considered unladylike behaviour are usually left to support themselves in the frenzy of media backlash over their actions. Courtney Love and the late Amy Winehouse provide excellent examples of women whose music and careers were effectively hung out to dry by the industry after refusing to mould themselves to the stereotypes. (Winehouse had not released a new record since 2006, despite still being under contract up until her death with imprint Island. Love and her band, Hole, released a new album in 2014, however none of the singles off of the release made it into the charts.)
Since all of this started going down, there's been a huge push on social media to help Kesha's cause. A petition is doing the rounds, and the hashtag #FreeKesha is widely trending. There's no doubt this prevalent issue is finally getting our attention.
We can see that Kesha’s allegations against Dr Luke, which are being dissected and scrutinised in the public eye, reflect a much larger story at play. It’s the story of women in the music industry, and the roles they are forced to play throughout their careers. It’s the story of an inherent gender bias that has been operating for so long within entertainment, one that most of us, up until now, didn’t even notice playing out right before our eyes.
Eliana Bollati is a freelance writer completing her Masters in International Journalism at the University of Western Australia.
Image: Kesha official Facebook page