Why Is Kesha’s Abuse Being Used To Shame Taylor Swift?

By Noah Berlatsky

Last week, a judge ruled that pop singer Kesha is required to fulfill her contract with Sony, despite the fact that, by her account, her former producer Dr. Luke raped her. Kesha doesn’t want to record with Sony, which has a close relationship with Luke. But, thanks to the judge, she can’t record anywhere else. She is horribly trapped.

Luckily, the Internet has identified just the person to blame for Kesha’s troubles — Taylor Swift.

You’d think that the main culprits to denounce here would be Luke and Sony, not some random pop star who has never done anything to Kesha. But many commenters felt otherwise. Swift, the argument goes, has a reputation as a feminist and as a critic of the music industry’s exploitive practices. Therefore, she’s being a hypocrite and a bad person if she doesn’t join celebrities like Lorde and Lady Gaga in speaking up in Kesha’s defense.

Then Swift did speak up . . . and revealed that she’d contributed $250,000 to defray Kesha’s legal costs. But even that wasn’t sufficient. Singer Demi Lovato on social media, apparently referring to Swift, said, “I… would rather start a dialogue ABOUT WOMEN COMING FORWARD ABOUT BEING RAPED than throw money at one person.” She had some support on social media, as various Swift haters argued that the singer’s contribution did not do enough, or did the wrong thing, to support Kesha.

Lost in all this is an important question. Or rather, a series of questions that tap into a deeper issue. Has Bruno Mars offered support to Kesha? What about Coldplay, or Robin Thicke, or Justin Bieber? They’re all pop stars; they’re all in the music industry. Why aren’t they weighing in on the #FreeKesha hashtag?

Of course, no one expects Robin Thicke or Justin Bieber to be politically engaged. They’re barely expected to be sentient. But why should expectations be so different for them than for Taylor Swift? Why is $250,000 from her not good enough, while doing absolutely nothing is considered more than enough from them?

Yes, Swift, like Kesha, is a woman. And it’s true that women are far more likely to be victims of sexual abuse than men are — though 9% of rape and sexual assault victims are men, so it’s virtually guaranteed that some men in the music industry have experienced sexual violence.

But beyond that, Kesha’s case isn’t simply about sexual assault; it’s about labor exploitation. Record companies have enormous leverage and power when they sign new performers, and multi-album deals leave performers with few options if the arrangement goes sour. That’s a formula for abuse, and Kesha’s situation shows chillingly what happens when employer’s profits are put above employee’s interests, and even above their physical safety.

Men in the music industry shouldn’t support Kesha out of some sort of chivalry. They should support her because exploitation and unfair business practices are issues that affect every performer, of whatever gender. But, somehow, women are the only ones expected to do anything about it. Numerous female performers have spoken out to support Kesha, but men have been notably silent. Prince, who had a famously ugly relationship with Warner Bros., has not said anything. Neither has Jay-Z, who in other contexts has been very vocal about the exploitation of artists. Or what about Jason Isbell? Bob Dylan? Or Bono, who I hear is all about political activism; why doesn’t he spare a moment from fighting global poverty to try to clean up his own industry?

In general, it’s not a great idea to demand that any individual speak up about sexual violence. In the first place, talking about rape is a sure way to provoke rape threats. In the second, you never know what someone’s past history is with sexual violence, or how painful it might be for them to discuss it. I don’t necessarily agree with Lovato’s comments about Swift, but I definitely understand the anger and resentment she feels at people demanding she respond to Kesha’s situation in some particular way. That expectation is unfair, whether it’s directed at a man or a woman.

But the fact is, it isn’t directed at men. It’s pointed at women. Guys can sit comfortably on the sidelines, tending their own careers and gazing into their own navels. No one expects them to care about sexual abuse, or about women, or even about the labor practices in their own industry. The burden of speaking up, and of making themselves targets, is left to women like Kesha and Taylor Swift. Instead of feminism being a way to critique inequities and violence, it becomes just another club with which to beat women who fail to show sufficient solidarity.

Kesha’s abuse shouldn’t be an excuse to shame some other woman who happens to be standing nearby. You don’t need to go looking for villains to blame here; Dr. Luke and Sony, and for that matter the trial judge, fit the bill nicely. Sony could let Kesha out of her contract tomorrow, if they could bring themselves to care more about a human being than about money and their relationship with their star producer. Yes, it’s more fun to write about loathing pop stars than it is to focus on faceless executives. But it’s Sony who’s at fault here, and Sony, and its exploitive business model, that needs to change. You shouldn’t have to be a woman, or a feminist, to see that.

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Lead image of Kesha: flickr/rocor