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Kesha and the End of the Dr. Luke Era

The Svengali producer and the singer have officially severed ties after a messy legal imbroglio. Kesha is soaring with a new album, ‘Rainbow,’ while Dr. Luke is merely a sound of the past.

A black and white image of Kesha singing and playing the guitar Getty Images

Certain turning points in pop music can be distilled down to a single song, even a single sound. Think of that kick-kick-kick-snare heartbeat that opens the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and all it’s come to signify about a particular era of pop music: the reign of the girl group, the baroque lushness of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, and, of course, the rise of the stereotypically oppressive Svengali producer. If you’re looking for a more recent sound that’s just as iconic, and that speaks as voluminously of the pop musical moment into which it was produced, you could do worse than the thrumming power chord that kicks off Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” the 2004 hit that was cowritten and produced by Max Martin and Dr. Luke.

“Since U Been Gone” is a song of almost ecstatic liberation. The verses, sung over a pent-up, palm-muted guitar, stack high their list of bad-relationship grievances—and then that tension explodes with the arrival of that epic chorus, which Clarkson belts out with the startling force of a Dyson Airblade hand dryer: BUT SINCE U BEEN GONE! I CAN BREATHE FOR THE FIRST TIME! Her lung capacity proves her point. By now, the song has come to stand as the prototype of a certain brand of millennial pop that was about to become ubiquitous: proudly digital (dynamic-range compressed and the product of comped vocal takes), music-snob proof (it’s basically a more radio-friendly version of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps”), and with a familiar message of hard-won “female empowerment.” Or that’s how it seemed on the surface, anyway.

The man playing that iconic power chord was the producer and songwriter Lukasz Gottwald, professionally known as Dr. Luke. Although he’d previously had minor success as a producer and, since 1997, had been a lead guitarist with Lenny Pickett’s house band on Saturday Night Live, “Since U Been Gone” was his first smash hit. (It peaked at no. 2 on the Billboard chart and helped Clarkson’s album, Breakaway, sell nearly 12 million copies worldwide.) “Since U Been Gone” was also the moment when Luke emerged from the shadow of his mentor, the reclusive Swedish pop mastermind Max Martin, in the process becoming the most influential architect of pop music’s past decade. In fewer than 10 years, between 2004 and 2013, Dr. Luke cowrote or coproduced more than 30 top-10 singles, recorded by artists like Katy Perry, Britney Spears, and Miley Cyrus. From a purely commercial standpoint, his has been one of the most winning runs in the history of American popular music.

When he was a kid, Luke was a guitar prodigy who brought what a longtime friend calls “this almost inhuman focus” to almost everything he did. Those activities included playing speed chess, selling weed, and, eventually, making beats. In the early aughts, during his downtime from SNL, Dr. Luke was a DJ who played his relatively obtuse material for clubgoers in Manhattan. Then, one day, as he tells the journalist John Seabrook in his book The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, “I thought, ‘Why not make records for millions of people?’” He wasn’t quite sure how to do that until he eventually linked up with Max Martin and, after an intense tutelage in the science of hit-making, the inaugural American Idol, Kelly Clarkson.

From a certain altitude, the creation story of “Since U Been Gone” sounds as triumphant as the song itself. Former singing-competition contestant Clarkson gained credibility and won over a new audience by showing off her rock-vocal bonafides; Dr. Luke cracked the code to writing the perfect pop song and quickly became one of the most sought-after and imitated producers in the industry. But look closer and the story, inconveniently, isn’t so uplifting. In his 2013 memoir, the legendary producer Clive Davis recalls a meeting with Kelly Clarkson at her then-label RCA shortly before Breakaway was released. “I hate ‘Since U Been Gone,’” he recalls her saying, speaking also about “Behind These Hazel Eyes,” “I didn’t like working with Max Martin and Dr. Luke, and I don’t like the end product. I really want both songs off my album.” Clarkson, in her own account, says she wanted more creative control over the album: She wanted the label focus on more personal songs like “Because of You,” about her complicated relationship with her dad, the lyrics of which she’d written as a poem years before she appeared on Idol. According to Clarkson, Davis wasn’t a fan of “Because of You.” He told her it “didn’t rhyme,” she said, “and [that] I should just shut up and sing.”

A compromise was reached: “Since U Been Gone” and “Because of You” both made it onto Breakaway; both eventually went on to become hits. But when Clarkson felt emboldened to exert more creative control over her next album, My December, Davis warned her that it would bomb. And it did—so much so that she had to cancel her world tour. When it came time to put out her fourth album, All I Ever Wanted, she begrudgingly agreed to work with proven hitmakers Max Martin and Dr. Luke again. “It was a really hard time for me,” she recalled in an interview last year. “And you know, we have a whole crew to support and people that depend on us for their livelihood, so sometimes you just have to make those decisions and swallow that pill.” In February 2009, like clockwork, Clarkson’s reunion with Martin and Luke, “My Life Would Suck Without You,” went to no. 1.

Clarkson’s relationship with her one-time mentor Davis was particularly tumultuous (and she has contested much of what he wrote about her in that memoir), but her relationship with RCA (whose parent company is Sony, Dr. Luke’s employer at the time) shows the routine pressure a label can put on an artist to work with a producer they’d rather avoid. Last year Clarkson went so far as to call it “blackmailed,” telling an Australian radio station of her label, “They were like, ‘We will not put your album out if you don’t do this.’”

“My Life Would Suck Without You” would be Clarkson’s last collaboration with Dr. Luke. It wasn’t until years later that she revealed this was a conscious choice. On February 19, 2016, Clarkson retweeted a story about the pop star Kesha’s much-publicized legal battles with the producer, whom she was suing for, among other things, sexual assault and emotional abuse.

“Trying 2 not say anything since I can’t say anything nice about a person,” Kelly Clarkson tweeted, “so this is me not talking about Dr. Luke.”

As she tells it, Kesha Rose Sebert grew up poor but happy, the second child of a free-spirited country songwriter named Pebe Sebert, who’d cowritten a no. 1 song for Dolly Parton. “Before I was born, my mom wanted to have another child, but she didn’t want to be in a relationship,” Kesha writes in her 2012 scrapbook/autobiography My Beautiful Crazy Life. Pebe asked some of her friends to help out. “I’ve never known for sure who my father is, and I don’t want to know,” Kesha says—the fittingly defiant creation story of a girl who’d grow up to be a proudly unruly, independent woman. The transient Seberts (who also included Kesha’s older brother, Lagan) laid down roots in Pebe’s home of Nashville, but they changed houses and schools every few years, when money got tight. Kesha says that poverty and her family’s transient lifestyle made her adaptable and creative, virtues that came in handy later in life. “I remember it being fun to be broke when I was a kid,” she writes. “I love making something beautiful out of things that others have thrown away.”

Kesha on stage Getty Images

Young Kesha Rose’s musical development was a family affair, too: Her mom brought her to gigs and let her sit in on her songwriting sessions from an early age; her brother, who played with local garage bands, opened her ears to artists as diverse as Fugazi, Outkast, and Jay Reatard. Throughout her teens, she strummed on spare guitars around the house and jotted down her own lyrics. She cut a two-song demo when she was in high school—one track was a goofy party-rap song, the other a mournful country ballad she’d written herself. With a little help from her mom’s connections, the CD made its way to Dr. Luke’s hands, not long after he’d gained recognition for “Since U Been Gone.” It was the end of 2004, maybe the beginning of 2005. Success had made him extra ambitious; he wanted to create a label, a roster of protégés, an entire empire. Kesha’s country song didn’t do much for him, because he didn’t think it could be a hit, but he heard something in the other track.

“I was like, ‘OK, I like this girl’s personality,’” Dr. Luke later told Billboard. “When you’re listening to 100 CDs, that kind of bravado and chutzpah stand out.” He said he’d sign her to his new label, eventually called Kemosabe Records, if she moved to L.A. Kesha was a hardworking student who’d been offered a scholarship to Barnard, but if she went to college without at least trying to chase her dreams of superstardom, she figured she’d always be asking what if. Pebe Sebert hadn’t raised her to ask what if. Kesha dropped out of school and moved to L.A. when she was 18.

As her miraculously preserved prestardom Myspace profile attests, Kesha was a rock star in her own mind before anybody else knew it. (Her username was “keshaishot,” and she described her music as sounding like “god having an orgasm.”) The rest of the world lagged behind. Kesha mostly just bummed around L.A. for the first few years, recording countless ill-fated demos and drinking cheap tequila. Then one day in 2008, Dr. Luke tracked her down in person and told her he was working on a track with the rapper Flo Rida and needed a vocalist to come in and sing the hook. One of Luke’s collaborators recalls going to pick up Kesha from a party house known as the Drunk Tank and telling her, “C’mon, girl, time to go make you a star!”

In retrospect, the chorus of “Right Round” is unremarkable at best: a shout-sung sleazification of an old Dead or Alive hook, drowned in Auto-Tune. But, whatever. It made her a star. Ke$ha (as she was now known), Luke, and his collaborator Benny Blanco worked quickly to get her debut single out within the next eight months. It was the irresistibly stupid hangover anthem “Tik Tok.” It not only topped the Hot 100 for nine consecutive weeks, but it became at that point the best-selling digital single of all time.

Ke$ha’s look and overall vibe was very “I have been wearing the same thing for all 3 days of Coachella and haven’t slept except that brief nap I took in the dumpster closest to MGMT’s dressing room.” She annoyed plenty of people, sure, but there was something silly and gleeful and infectious about this girl, too. She aestheticized the hot mess; she unabashedly celebrated the kinds of behavior that men so easily get away with but women are shamed for—namely, getting wasted and bragging about her “junk.” (Not to mention referring to her genitalia as “junk.” Ke$ha was nothing if not an equal-opportunity sleaze.) Her debut album, Animal, (followed by the EP Cannibal) had electro-apocalypse beats and a shaggy sense of humor. And, most crucially for Dr. Luke and his Kemosabe Records, it obeyed all of pop music’s contemporary virtues: Fuck the haters! You only live once! Don’t let anyone bring U down, gurl, cuz U R who U R!

It’s not that these sentiments were inauthentically Kesha—as she proudly proclaims in her book, “I was born at a party… literally”—they just didn’t tell the full story. They were a fragment of her personality blown up to the size of a sellable persona, a convenient cropping out of the country B-side of her demo. And as she quickly became one of pop’s best-selling artists, the continued success of Dr. Luke’s Kemosabe Records (not to mention his status as hitmaker extraordinaire) depended upon the emotional labor required of Kesha to continue to play the defiant party girl, the femme hedonist, the unflappably empowered woman.

“Most accounts of recording processes and the creation of songs dwell on the accomplishments and perceptions of producers, arrangers, and songwriters; the standpoint of the singer is rarely adopted,” writes the music scholar Jacqueline Warwick in her incisive study of 1960s girl groups, Girl Groups, Girl Culture. “Often these stories sympathize with singers who are exploited and maligned … but still the hierarchy of producers at the top and singers at the bottom remains intact. The notion that voices are the most important elements of a pop song sets this logic on its head and opens up an avenue for new kinds of discussion.”

Darlene Love, a veteran of many of Phil Spector’s girl groups, including the Crystals and the Blossoms, put it more succinctly. “The singers were nothing to Phil,” she said of the man who kept many of her creative contributions invisible. “He used to say it was all about ‘his music.’ So I’d say, ‘If it’s all about your music, why aren’t you making instrumentals?’”

Dr. Luke, too, has relied upon singers to get his music heard by the masses, though he’s never been interested in writing lyrics: “It’s not fun,” he told John Seabrook in The Song Machine. Luke, instead, is all about the track—the precise architecture of a song and its underlying skeleton. Much of the reason why he’s been so consistently successful (and has made, over the past decade or so, pop radio sound so homogenous) is the fact that he has this form of songwriting down, quite literally, to a science. He is an evangelist of what his mentor Max Martin calls “melodic math”—a notion that a pop song is more of a precise formula for familiar gratification than a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. “My problem with eighties songs,” Luke told Seabrook, sounding more like a designer than a musician, “is that they take too long to get to the chorus.”

The 56th Annual GRAMMY Awards - Pre-GRAMMY Gala And Salute To Industry Icons Honoring  Lucian Grainge - Show
Dr. Luke and Miley Cyrus at the Grammys in 2014
Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for NARAS

And so—like so many star producers before him—Luke relies on the labor of others (lyricists, top-liners, and singers, a majority of whom are women) to inject his songs with a certain human element and personality. It’s worth noting that nearly all of the artists with whom he’s found the greatest success—Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, Kesha, Avril Lavigne, Nicki Minaj, Kelly Clarkson—are female. (The few prominent exceptions include Maroon 5’s “Sugar,” Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite,” and several Pitbull singles.) Of course, Luke is far from the first male pop producer to have found success producing almost entirely music by women—that tradition is as old as recorded music itself—and it once again brings up echoes of another infamous producer’s aesthetic choices. Writes Jacqueline Warwick of Spector, “His need to control made it difficult for him to treat those around him as equals—is it mere happenstance that he preferred to work with naive, professionally inexperienced … young females who were willing to follow his direction unquestioningly? His few collaborations with male artists such as the Righteous Brothers, the Beatles, and later the Ramones were difficult and gave rise to lurid rumors about Spector literally holding guns to heads in order to get the sounds he wanted.”

It wasn’t just that Luke created songs for women. He created songs for women about things like raising one’s voice (Katy Perry’s “Roar”); breaking free of toxic relationships (“Since U Been Gone”); and, most often in Ke$ha’s case, self-acceptance (“We R Who We R”). These are among his most successful songs, and also the ones that would become most ironic when Kesha Sebert made her case against him.

On October 14, 2014, Kesha filed a lawsuit accusing Dr. Luke of drugging and raping her in 2005, shortly after she moved to L.A., and also engaging in ongoing psychological and emotional abuse, including comments about her weight that contributed to her developing an eating disorder. Dr. Luke countersued Kesha and her mother for defamation that same day, and he has continued to deny the charges. Nearly three years later, the legal battle remains a mess. And although it is quite possible that Kesha will continue to have to pay her alleged abuser royalties for several subsequent albums, it feels safe to say she’s prevailed in the court of public opinion.

Dr. Luke is no longer CEO of Kemosabe, after his contract expired in March. It is perhaps too optimistic to see this as the end of an era—never underestimate the ease with which a once-powerful man can bounce back from exile—but for the moment at least, it feels like one. Kesha is free to release new music and Dr. Luke’s name will never mean the same thing. The public battle between Kesha and Dr. Luke has been a blow to the primacy of the Svengali-producer power dynamic—another hole struck in the Wall of Sound.

Reality these days feels different, stranger, and a little more complicated; perhaps we need a pop music that reflects that. I’m not sure we’ve heard that turning-point sound yet, but I hear flickers of it in some of the music that’s recently been stirring the hearts of the masses: Solange’s resonant refusals of empty optimism, Rihanna’s exuberant songs of self-celebration, and Lorde’s wordy outbursts of feeling. When she played “Green Light,” the first single from her latest album, Melodrama, for the tried and true old gatekeeper Max Martin, he told her it was an example of “incorrect songwriting.” It’s one of the best things I’ve heard all year.

Kesha’s new album is called Rainbow. It’s her first in five years, her first without Dr. Luke, and it plays out like a long, lively reésumé of all the things she wasn’t allowed to prove she could do before. There’s a pop-punk song, for one thing, and an exuberant and wonderful one at that, called “Let ‘Em Talk.” There’s a twangy, gleefully profane June Carter Cash–meets–Kacey Musgraves ditty (“Just know that if you fuck around, boy, I’ll hunt you down”). There’s a barroom rock song and a short, silly acoustic tune about Godzilla and a duet with Dolly goddamn Parton. (It’s the one Pebe Sebert cowrote all those years ago, “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You).” Particularly in the vocally pyrotechnic final minute of the song, Kesha does her mother proud.)

Rainbow is far from cohesive, but that doesn’t feel like a strike against it since its eclecticism is itself an act of defiance. And so is its sense of humor. Although the solemn, stirring lead-off single “Praying” seemed to suggest that we’d be getting Fuck Off, Dr. Luke: The Album, it turned out to be a red herring. The most heartening thing about Rainbow is how joyful it is; it’s a living testament to the fact that having fun is the best revenge.

Two of these songs are not like the others. “Hymn” and “Learn to Let Go” sound like they were written with the rules of pop radio in mind—squint and you’d swear the latter song’s verses were sung by Katy Perry. And yet, as familiar and generic as these songs’ themes are (“it doesn’t matter if we’re imperfect, we’re still beautiful” and “I have been through adversity but it has now made me stronger,” respectively), Kesha’s delivery and all we know it contains makes them feel precise, intimate, and of all things, meaningful. “Hymn” in particular sounds like one of those YOLO anthems that Dr. Luke could wave his magic wand above and turn into a smash. But in its current incarnation something about it is a little too strange and melancholy to imagine it will be a hit. In its own way, that’s as big a fuck-you as “Praying.”

Kesha’s through with trying to craft the perfect pop song; she’s lived enough to know there’s not always a correct solution, no matter how melodic the math. Commercially, Rainbow will probably be more My December than Breakaway, but she seems to have revised her definition of success. Like, maybe it’s just the sound of being free—or that piercing whistle note she hits two-thirds of the way through “Praying.” Who knew Kesha could hit that note, or any of those notes? It’s like she’s found some new, rarified pocket of air. Like she can breathe for the first time.

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