Survivor Speaks Out: Why We Must Believe Kesha, by Chelsea Levinson

Back in 2011, I distinctly remember listening, for the first time, to Kesha’s gut-wrenching, tearstained cover of Bob Dylan’s classic “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” As soon as I heard the pain in her voice, and her open weeping, I was blown away. I immediately recognized her as a fellow survivor — of what, exactly, I could not tell. But being someone who has survived both sexual assault and an emotionally abusive relationship, her pain was so real; so familiar to me. This was a cry for help; a declaration that this beloved glitter-covered, whiskey-drinking, dirty man-loving pop star was not, in fact ok underneath all that fame and fortune.

I read every article I could on the recording, which was set to be included on “Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International.” The song really struck me, because it deviated from everything Kesha had released up until that point. I had always been a fan of her music, but I’d never really thought much about the woman beneath the glitter. Through my reading, I learned that the powerful cover was actually intended to be a demo. She had recorded it on her laptop, sitting on her bed in the middle of the night. Her tears were not manufactured. According to Rolling Stone magazine:

“She brought her friend, producer Bob Ezrin, on board, and the two of them discussed an interpretation of the lyrics that positioned the song as a suicide note from the female perspective. But then it became something different entirely; something personal.

The first time Ke$ha sang it through, she was all alone, in her bedroom, singing it straight to her laptop. It was one of the first quiet moments that she had to herself in three years, and the first time she had even been home in a few months. Suddenly she was sans entourage, without any managers or body guards surrounding her.

“And there were particular lyrics in the song that you can just tell, once they came out of my mouth – the emotion caught up with me and I just started weeping,” she says. “It’s something that I didn’t plan on, that wasn’t contrived at all. It just sort of happened.”

Kesha and Ezrin decided to use the original recording, and to add a bit of production, but to keep the raw emotion intact. “It seemed like a suicide note to the love of my life and to my former life,” said Kesha, “Because everything in my life has changed so much. And it went from being this ambiguous interpretation – this idea we had – to it being so completely relevant to everything I’m going through. I’m so lucky and blessed, but there are moments that are just so incredibly lonely that it’s indescribable. And I’ve never written a song that’s admitted that. Singing Bob Dylan’s words and feeling my own emotion through it – it was a very intense moment for me.”

So here was this personal, vulnerable moment that I could relate to so deeply. I almost felt as though I was keeping a secret for her. As I listened to the track obsessively, staring at my laptop in bed in the middle of the night, I noticed that she changed some key lyrics to the song in her cover:

The original Bob Dylan lyric: “I once loved a woman, a child I’m told/I give her my heart but she wanted my soul

The Kesha lyric: “You once loved a woman, a child I’m told/I gave you my heart but you wanted my soul

Another original Bob Dylan lyric: “You just kinda wasted my precious time”

And the Kesha lyric: “You just kinda wasted my precious life”

The subtle lyric changes illustrate that Kesha is the child who is being controlled; her career and her life are no longer her own. The gulping tears and isolation are painfully apparent in her voice. Before any of the details of her alleged sexual assault and extensive abuse at the hands of Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald even emerged, I believed her. I had no choice but to believe her. I could feel she was a fellow sister in the too-large survivor sorority; a club that none of us ever wanted to be a part of.

In January 2014, 9 months before filing her lawsuit against Dr. Luke, Kesha checked herself into rehab for an eating disorder, which her mother alleged partly resulted from Dr. Luke telling Kesha that she “looked like a refrigerator,” among other abuses. While in rehab Kesha wrote letters to fans, alleging that Dr. Luke tortured her and her family and said that she was trying to get her magic back. I looked at these letters, with desperate words scrolled across them, and I felt her pain. How resilient she must be, I thought, to seek help and continue to send her love out into the world when so much in her life is unstable.

Now that her lawsuit is out there, and the awful details of her ordeal are public, Kesha has gathered quite a bit of public support from fellow pop stars, including Demi Lovato, Ariana Grande, Lorde, and Iggy Azalea. What really struck me, though, were the women who spoke out who have actually worked with Dr. Luke:

Kelly Clarkson, who recently claimed that she was blackmailed by her record label to work with Dr. Luke (and loathed the experience), showed solidarity:

Miley Cyrus, who worked with Dr. Luke on her massive hit “Wrecking Ball” has also shown public support for Kesha, by re-posting an Instagram of Fiona Apple, with the following message:

Repost @margaret_cho Fiona Apple wants to #FreeKesha #fionaapple #2016

A photo posted by Fiona Apple (@fionaappleig) on

Taylor Swift also joined Team Kesha by donating $250,000 to help her with financial needs during her long legal battle. Swift’s donation matters because she co-writes with Max Martin, who is a well-known mentor of Dr. Luke. This tells me that Swift believes Kesha. She may not work directly with Dr. Luke, but I’d venture to guess she knows enough about him through her relationship with Martin to know what kind of person he is. Kelly Clarkson had this to say about Luke’s character: “I can remark on his character and unfortunately when you have that poor of character, like so many artists don’t like you, don’t like working with you, that’s not normal. Most of us—I get along with everybody I work with, I love everyone I work with, and he’s just not a good guy for me, to me.”

If multiple women who have worked directly with Dr. Luke, or adjacent to him, are publicly supporting Kesha in her fight, then I am of the opinion that we should trust their judgment. If Kesha, who has been crying out for help for at least five years, is actually telling us that this man sexually assaulted and tortured her, I think we need to listen to her. If she is willing to put her reputation and career on the line — and make no mistake, that is exactly what she’s doing — in order to feel safe, then we absolutely must believe her.

These are the three most important things I ask people to do not only for survivors, but for all women: Trust our judgment. Listen to us. Believe us.


Chelsea Levinson, J.D., is a Telly Award-winning media content producer who specializes in research and writing. She has helped develop and produce over 500 digital videos, and her writing has been featured on Thought Catalog and HyperVocal. Previously, she was a legal and policy researcher, specializing in labor, gender and reproductive rights. She researched for and contributed to Babygate: How to Survive Pregnancy and Parenting in the Workplace.