Irish female musicians on the Kesha case: ‘We’ve met our fair share of sleazes’

Women in pop have to be constantly on guard with everyone they meet, says one Irish musician. ‘Don’t ever do anything you don’t feel right about. Never,’ advises another

Last weekend pop fans saw a side of the music industry they probably didn't know still existed. The US singer Kesha sat sobbing in a New York courtroom after a judge rejected her request to be released from her contract with her producer and former mentor, Dr Luke, and his label, Kemosabe.

The singer (full name Kesha Rose Seber) filed a lawsuit in 2014 alleging that Dr Luke (full name Lukasz Sebastian Gottwald) had “sexually, physically, verbally and emotionally abused” her in order to “maintain complete control over her life and career” for 10 years.

Gottwald has filed a countersuit, denying the allegations. His lawyer said on Monday that Kesha’s accusations were “outright lies that have been advanced to extort a contract renegotiation and money”.

Sony, which owns Kemosabe, said Kesha was free to record without Gottwald’s involvement, but her lawyers maintain that Sony’s loyalties lie with the producer and that as long as she is tied to his label her career “will suffer irreparable harm”.


Her fans have begun a #FreeKesha campaign. Women pop stars who have tweeted their support include Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, Lorde and Kelly Clarkson. Taylor Swift has even donated $250,000 to help Kesha with her finances.

The case runs counter to the image that pop fans have of their women idols. They appear to us, in videos, on talk shows and in Super Bowl half-time shows, as mighty glamazons, invulnerable she-warriors against whom no man can wield power. It’s therefore rather unnerving to be reminded that, behind the bling, metallic bras and platinum hair, a frightened woman may be cowering inside the recording booth.

We don’t know if Dr Luke is the manipulative Svengali Kesha that paints him to be, or if Kesha is falsely accusing him to get out of her contract, but you don’t need X-ray specs to see that this is a woman who is not in control of her career.

"You could quite clearly see a woman who had been broken by this," says Niamh Farrell, singer with the Irish band HamsandwicH. "It was very sad, and that really hit me. You do automatically look at a female pop star, like Taylor Swift, and think, She is absolutely in control of everything. I would have looked at Kesha and thought, There's a strong woman. She knows what she wants to be, she knows what kind of demographic she wants to put her music out to, she seems to really be the boss of herself."

And then, Farrell argues, “you find out that she’s basically been bullied, and it really makes you think, What’s going on behind the scenes that people don’t talk about?”

Karen Cowley of the trio Wyvern Lingo says: "We're fed an image of all these female pop stars who are independent and in control, but really they're just puppets for a huge industry that's largely male dominated.

“Most pop stars we see are products. They’re the face of a larger machine, with managers and record labels and people with a lot of financial interest in it. It’s a breeding ground for this type of behaviour, because the lines are very much blurred between work and play. It’s not unusual for an artist to go for a drink with her producer, or for there to be after-parties where the suits and the talent mix. And that’s when problems can arise.

“It’s a lot easier for us,” Cowley adds, “because we’re a group, and we’re also incredibly in control, so we’re not relying on an outsider who perhaps might be able to take advantage of us.

“Our manager is very protective, but we’ve met our fair share of sleazes, and it’s a power struggle. You meet men who are older and they have money and they’re working with so-and-so.

“As young women we’re constantly on our guard with everyone we meet. It’s at the back of your head . . . Is this appropriate? Is he genuine? Because at the end of the day, when someone physically has the advantage over you, whatever about having more money and influence, you’re always going to be on guard.”

At least the music industry is emerging from its Neanderthal phase, says Farrell.

“I think definitely it has changed for the better since the 1970s,” she says. “In the 1970s, if there was a girl in the studio, she was more likely there for a different reason than making music. That’s what women were: they were there to be with the band and make the band feel better. I think attitudes have changed.”

While women are no longer studio playthings, women pop stars often portray themselves as sex-mad fembots who will strip off at the drop of a beat. Does this put women in danger of being seen by the men in the industry as available?

“It’s victim blaming wrapped up in another way of saying it: ‘Oh, she was asking for it,’ ‘Look at the way she dresses,’ or, ‘She was drinking,’ ” says Farrell. “No one asks for anything horrific to happen to them. It just blows my mind that people have this attitude. Miley Cyrus can do whatever she wants. She can get on top of a wrecking ball naked and make a video if she wants to. That doesn’t mean she’s saying ‘Rape me.’ ”

For young women setting off on a career in music the Kesha case is a reminder that they will need their wits about them to avoid being chewed up and spat out.

“Don’t ever do anything you don’t feel right about. Never. Unless you’re 100 per cent comfortable,” says Farrell. “Whatever you’re being asked to do – record a song or work with somebody – if you’re not sure about it, just don’t do it. Because at the end of the day you don’t want to be moulded into something you’re not.”

“I think you have to be confident enough to walk away from situations, even if you think it’s going to hurt your career,” says Cowley. “I hope the industry can learn from this, and I hope Kesha’s story can be an example that changes things.”

“It’s shocking that this type of thing is still happening"” says Sarah Fox, former bass player with JJ72. "I had hoped that the macho record exec bullshit had died with the 1980s. Apparently not."

In her time with the Irish indie band, Fox says she had a “very positive experience with everyone that we worked with in both our management team and our label – a division of Sony”.

However, Fox says she did experience gender discrimination while working elsewhere in the music business. “I was hired twice by people I looked up to, seemingly based on my merits. Both times I was propositioned by the people I was hired by. It was very disheartening and I felt very manipulated. I don’t think I handled it well at the time – I just ran away from the situation rather than trying to confront the unfairness of it.”