The Conundrum of Supporting Kim Petras and Kesha, Without Supporting Dr. Luke

Photo: Getty Images

If you’re a fan of pop music who uses Spotify or scrolls through Twitter, chances are that you’ve heard of Kim Petras. The 26-year-old budding pop star, who hails from Germany, has been rising to fame on her own over the last year through a series of catchy pop singles released independently on music streaming services, without an official record label. She’s not the only aspiring singer/songwriter to start taking advantage of Spotify and Apple Music to find an audience without a label and she surely won’t be the last, but Kim Petras seems to have what Old Hollywood might have called that “little something extra” … Not to mention she’s transgender and has already been working with one of the most infamous pop music producers in the industry today: Dr. Luke.

Petras, who is managed by Britney Spears’ longtime manager Larry Rudolph, came to prominence in Europe as a teenager not for winning a reality competition series like the typical North American star, but for being the youngest person on record to undergo gender-reassignment surgery. She had dreams of being a pop star from a young age and after transitioning from Tim to Kim Petras, she tried her best to make it happen in Germany, but ultimately found that the brand of English pop she wanted to make wasn’t going to happen for her there. At age 19, she dropped everything and moved to Los Angeles, where she says she wrote over 600 songs while couch-surfing her way through the city. While she has always been open and proud about being a transgender woman, she has said that she doesn’t want it to define who she is as an artist. “It was my goal to try and not make that the leading point of my career,” says Petras. “That I’m transgender doesn’t really say anything about me as a person, but I’m a great songwriter, that says a lot about me.” And in our digital contemporary world, she seemed to find it easier than ever to make that dream a reality: she released her debut single independently across streaming platforms in 2017, “I Don’t Want It At All,” which topped Spotify’s Global Viral 50 chart and has all the faux glitz, glamour, and diva-ness you’d want to find in a good pop song. Somewhat reminiscent of cheesy ‘80s pop combined with a make-believe Paris Hilton image (she even makes an appearance in the song’s music video) makes Kim Petras’ songs the pop music equivalent of a sugar rush—so catchy you can’t help but fall in love. Her best song yet is undoubtedly “Heart to Break,” which is everything you’d ever want from a great pop song, and whose music video has over 3 million views on YouTube.

Kim Petras’ undeniably campy, gay sound and image almost immediately drew her to LGBTQ audiences, who love a good pop banger and would love nothing more than to support a trans pop star on the brink of true stardom. But what has made supporting Petras and her music incredibly hard for some, it seems, is the fact that almost all her music to date has been produced by Dr. Luke, the infamous pop producer who was taken to court by pop singer Kesha on claims of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, in a still ongoing lawsuit that has lasted more than four years. In the early 2010s, Dr. Luke’s name was on almost all of the biggest pop hits of the moment—not only Kesha’s “TiK ToK” (and all of her other songs) but Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” and “Teenage Dream,” as well as “Party in the U.S.A.” by Miley Cyrus, “Primadonna” and “How to Be a Heartbreaker” by Marina and the Diamonds, and countless Britney Spears songs. Now, we listen to these songs and think of how much they practically defined an era, but what makes it a bit disturbing in retrospect is the fact that the man who produced them has been accused of abusing women. Dr. Luke’s list of other production and songwriting credits goes on, from Pink to Avril Lavigne, from Kelly Clarkson to Jennifer Lopez, and everyone in between. In the wake of Kesha’s landmark lawsuit against the esteemed producer, where a judge denied her motion to be released from the recording contract that obliged her to work with Dr. Luke in 2016, several artists came out in support of her and the cause (#FreeKesha), which predated the Time’s Up and Me Too movements by nearly two years. The case also led to some artists speaking out about their past experiences with Dr. Luke, namely Pink and Kelly Clarkson, both of whom stated he was not a good person: Pink severed ties with him after she learned only after she had recorded and released “U + Ur Hand” as a single from her album I’m Not Dead that the song’s production bared a striking resemblance to that of “4ever” by The Veronicas, also produced by Dr. Luke, and discovered he had a habit of doing this with artists. Clarkson had decided she would never work with him again after “Since U Been Gone” in 2004, but when her label forced her to work with him for her album All I Ever Wanted in 2009, she chose to forfeit songwriting credit on the lead single “My Life Would Suck Without You” as she did not want her name appearing next to his. Bad blood between Dr. Luke and Katy Perry has since been rumored as well, and Demi Lovato said she had worked with him on a track for her album Confident and when she refused to make the song the album’s lead single, he would not let the song appear on the album. Pink, Avril Lavigne, and Taio Cruz have since signed affidavits for Kesha’s lawsuit against him, stating they chose to stop working with him on their own merits prior to Kesha’s accusations.

As much as LGBTQ audiences have pledged nothing but support for Kesha in her battle against the man who she says abused her and held her back in the industry, it then becomes quite a conundrum to support a fellow queer artist like Kim Petras—who has already started performing at Pride parades, gay bars, and appeared in an H&M ad, all of which help normalize her identity as a trans woman—but how can we reconcile our desire to embrace Petras as a talented trans artist who makes great pop bangers when the person who is helping her make those bangers is the person whom another female artist has openly accused of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse? A dime for Kim Petras becomes a dime for Dr. Luke. Personally, I don’t believe that straight up boycotting Petras’ music will accomplish as much as people think, given that Dr. Luke still stands to benefit from it regardless as well as the fact that it then becomes a matter of you depriving yourself of good pop music you know you’ll most likely enjoy. But it becomes even more difficult to justify supporting Petras when she openly and warmly admits to enjoying her collaborations with Luke (and word on the street is she was the one who sought him out, not vice versa), stating, “I’m a big fan of his, and we write music very well together. So, yeah, it was a really good experience. I would like my fans to know that I wouldn’t work with somebody I believe to be an abuser of women, definitely not.” And thus, the controversy ensued, given that if Petras doesn’t believe Dr. Luke to be an abuser of women, that essentially means she believes Kesha to be a liar.

But the issue at hand doesn’t seem to simply fall on Kim Petras—especially if you consider Dr. Luke’s angle in the matter. Since Kesha’s ongoing lawsuit, Luke’s position as a producer of bonafide number-one pop hits started to dwindle, for what I can only describe as obvious reasons. While he has worked on several tracks since then, his last batch of number-one singles was in 2013, which saw the mass success of Katy Perry’s “Roar” and Pitbull and Kesha’s “Timber.” Since Dr. Luke has attached his name to that of Kim Petras, critics and listeners have been pondering the question of whether making Petras his new protégé will pave the way for a comeback and even redemption for the disgraced producer. But this was before the rise of the Time’s Up and Me Too movements in Hollywood, which still tend to capitalize largely on the film and television industries. This was also before the rise of the concept of celebrities being “cancelled” for associating themselves with or aligning with the views of figures who are viewed as “problematic.” But this was not as huge a concept prior to the downfalls of Harvey Weinstein or Les Moonves, who stepped down and “disappeared” following their scandals. Dr. Luke never left the public eye, never stepped down from his position as CEO of his label (Sony had to remove him), and never stopped pleading his innocence in court and the media. He has kept working as a producer and songwriter on a smaller scale, not to mention the fact that Kim Petras currently releases music independently, without an official label: the perfect arrangement for Luke to hide his creations behind. And as Spencer Kornhaber writes in The Atlantic, “Lately he’s ramped up his efforts on both fronts—the legal and the artistic—in ways that underscore why the music industry, out of all the entertainment industries, seems to have a special inability to litigate questions of misconduct.”

In an era of Time’s Up and Me Too, in an era where the hashtag #BelieveWomen has to circulate because we are still questioning women when they accuse men of something terrible, in an era of Trump’s America, pop listeners are becoming more and more aware of the level of fabrication in the genre. Learning that the man who produced most of the number-one hits of the early 2010s was accused of raping and abusing one of those artists is one thing, but when we then pledge support for that artist and love her strength and perseverance even more, how can we live with ourselves when we want to support Kim Petras, the new pop girl who happens to be trans—pushing more boundaries for the LGBTQ community—who then makes problematic statements about working with abusers and believing abusers and not women? Pop music tends to override the listener’s intellect and that’s part of why we love it, but we now have to be cognisant of it—we can no longer only focus on the girl in the studio who is slaying the vocals. We now have to focus on them just as much as the men behind the boards who are making just as much profit. We have to extend our outrage for men that abuse women to everywhere it happens, including the music industry. We didn’t let Harvey Weinstein get away with it, and we shouldn’t let Dr. Luke get away with it, either. Kim Petras is a talented girl, so can she do better? Only if we hold her, her collaborator, and ourselves responsible.

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