There's a YouTube video of Britney Spears crying outside her house that has over 650,000 views. It was shot by paparazzi in 2008, the year after the popstar had her very public breakdown, shaving her head and attacking a paparazzo's car all under the glare of flashing bulbs (again, both incidents you can replay online). I remember the day I discovered, through a grotesquely intriguing search auto-complete, that there's practically a whole sub-category on YouTube of Britney's pain. What struck me most about these videos was the cloying voices that flit around them, chucking their sympathy into the ring like peanuts while never getting close enough to touch. "Britney, why are you crying? What's wrong Britney?" coos one pap in the 2008 video, not looking for insight but for a headline.
This video is one stall in a thriving market for broken pop stars, and especially for broken female pop stars. It seems that there are constantly new stories to remind us that, even when she's at the top of the pop game, a woman can always be brought down a peg—and worse than the stories is the voyeuristic gloating that follows them, an affirmation of her loss of power. There's the videos of Britney; the leaked images of Rihanna's injured face after her then-boyfriend Chris Brown attacked her in 2009; and this month, a morbid fascination with 27-year-old Kesha, who is suing her longtime producer and co-writer Dr. Luke for emotional abuse and sexual assault. 41-year-old mogul Dr Luke denies all of the claims and is counter-suing.
The way in which the particulars of Kesha's alleged abuse have been laid out in the press is already a voyeur's dream, so it's hard to imagine that there could be any more desire to examine her pain—but where there's the web, there's a way. Various outlets have been analysing unreleased Kesha songs, written without Dr. Luke (who has a production and/or writing credit on the majority of her hits), asking whether the lyrics hint at the abuse she was reportedly suffering at the time. One that's been doing the rounds is called "Dancing With The Devil" (below); on hearing it, BuzzFeed extrapolated that Kesha was "self-critical of her part in the relationship." Gawker chimed in with: "the lyrics are somewhat disconcerting in light of her allegations."
This coverage—along with the way the press leapt on the news that Kesha's current allegations are at odds with a deposition she gave in 2011—puts Kesha under the microscope rather than Dr. Luke, or the faults that the case highlights with the industry at large. In its eagerness to find signs of victimhood in her music, it reveals the same attitude Rihanna spoke out against last month, when CBS pulled her song from a segment on Thursday Night Football because the Ray Rice domestic violence case was blowing up the media. It's an attitude that subordinates and silences abused women, making their "victim" status into something that overshadows their artistry. As Rihanna tweeted, "Y'all are sad for penalising me for this."
The reason these songs are available to be picked apart in the first place is down to the
Free Kesha Movement, a group of online campaigners who have been yelling that Kesha is creatively better off without Dr. Luke for years now. What's heartening about this movement is that it's focused on Kesha's talent as a songwriter, and how Luke has diluted it, rather than on her personal life. Leaking demos like this harmonica-infused belter "Dirty Liar," this radio-ready anthem to being "young and reckless," and this fantastic pre-cursor to Katy Perry's "E.T." (above) the Free Kesha Movement hasn't set out to prove Kesha has been hurt personally by Luke, but that she has huge potential as an artist independently of him.
That vote of confidence is so much more meaningful than the clamour of "why are you crying, Britney?" or "who are you writing about, Kesha?" When we ask these questions, we demand of our female pop stars that they hand over a part of themselves that we're not entitled to, instead of just listening to what they are willing to tell us. Close the browser and stop gawping at someone else's heartache: the more we rack up the view count on a YouTube video of a woman crying, the more we monetize her tears.
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