The Pop Music You Listen to Really Does Matter

The story of Dr. Luke and Doja Cat shows how the industry relies on consumer passivity. But audiences can still stand against alleged abusers.

Black-and-white images of Doja Cat and Dr. Luke side by side
Kevin Mazur / Getty; Tommaso Boddi / WireImage / Getty; The Atlantic

Eras of music are commonly defined by particular sounds. The ’80s had gated reverb, the aughts had Timbaland’s beats, and the early 2020s have had the froggy, rasping splendor of Doja Cat’s voice. On a slew of recent hits and on her new, third album, Planet Her, the 25-year-old rapper and singer continues to prove she has an extremely now sensibility: steeped in online humor, thrilled by physical pleasure, and adaptable to whatever sound or situation gets thrown at her. She also continues to build upon the legacy of her viral hit “Mooo!” by making a number of amusing comparisons between food and sex.

Doja Cat’s entertaining rise, however, has enabled something uncomfortable: the rehabilitation of Dr. Luke’s career. In other words, it has enabled the music industry—which was notoriously slow to react to #MeToo—to quietly move past one of the most famous sexual-abuse accusations in its recent history.

The producer born Lukasz Gottwald signed Doja Cat to his record label and production company eight years ago, and he has co-created many of her most popular singles. Previously, he’d been famous for smashes such as Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” (2004), Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the U.S.A.” (2009), and Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” (2010), but that hot streak ended in 2014, when his onetime protégé, the singer Kesha, accused him of rape and abuse in a civil suit that sought to void her contract. Much of the music industry seemed to rally around Kesha while Luke professed his innocence and successfully defended against her suit on technical grounds. Today, the underlying issues raised by the allegations remain unresolved, yet he appears to have returned to power-player status by working with charismatic young performers such as Saweetie, The Kid Laroi, and, most significantly, Doja Cat.

Dr. Luke’s apparent comeback cements the idea that “cancel culture,” when it comes to mainstream music, is more of a theoretical concept than an actual system that enforces norms and values. Name almost any musician who at some point inspired thunderstorms of outrage, whether for allegedly committing violence or saying slurs, and their career likely ended up surviving because of the catchiness of their songs. More than a decade after assaulting Rihanna, Chris Brown remains inescapable on radio—and just this past month, another woman accused him of hitting her. (Brown did not respond to a request for comment.) Earlier this year, the country star Morgan Wallen was caught on tape saying the N-word, apologized, and still saw his popularity soar. Record companies may talk about supporting social justice, but in the end, if an artist proves salable, that artist is going to keep getting sold.

Listeners can be complicit in that calculation—but only to an extent. For example, when a Luke-written song such as Doja Cat and SZA’s “Kiss Me More” hooks audiences, that’s not necessarily an endorsement of Luke. Most people have no idea who sings the songs they hum along to at CVS, much less what that singer—or their producer—may have done outside of the recording booth. Radio programmers, label professionals, and playlist makers are the ones who have the ability to widely disseminate his music. The passivity of the public just gives them cover in exercising that ability.

But listeners don’t have to help return Dr. Luke’s power to him. While Doja Cat, Saweetie, and other performers gain fame with songs produced by him, people who are concerned by the allegations may feel gaslit by popular culture. They may struggle with the ethical and factual thicket that the music business has chosen to ignore. They may feel it reductive to write off Doja Cat because of a man behind the scenes who signed her to a deal before any allegations surfaced. Yet a crucial truth remains: When entertainment industries profit from comebacks by troubling figures, individual consumers are one of the last lines of resistance.

The civil complaint Kesha filed in 2014 laid out a narrative that’s familiar in pop mythology: A powerful man helps mold a talented young woman into a star while allegedly belittling, controlling, or abusing her to the point where she cannot take it any more. The details always differ, but the public has become accustomed to cheering for famous women to get freed from tyrannical male collaborators. Sometimes, as was the case with Tina Turner and Ike Turner, violence and sexual assault are part of the story. In other cases—see Mariah Carey and Tommy Mottola, or what’s allegedly happening between Britney Spears and her father, Jamie Spears, right now—the contours are more about financial and psychological control. In any case, many such stories are shared with the hope of preventing other generations of women from undergoing similar trials.

Kesha’s account about Luke involves both physical assault and more subtle manipulation. The most shocking claims were that he drugged her, had sex with her while she was unconscious, and then threatened to destroy her life if she spoke out. But her lawsuit also referenced insults, intimidation, and mind games. No judge has ever ruled on the veracity of the claims in Kesha’s suit. On Twitter, Dr. Luke professed his innocence by saying, “I didn’t rape Kesha and I have never had sex with her,” and, “It’s sad that she would turn a contract negotiation into something so horrendous and untrue.” In court, his lawyers succeeded in having Kesha’s suit dismissed because of jurisdiction and a statute of limitations. He is now suing her for defamation.

Outsiders can’t know the truth about what happened between Luke and Kesha. But they can take note that many other artists have said—including under oath—that they no longer work with Luke for reasons unrelated to Kesha’s claims. Clarkson, reflecting on her own “demeaning” experiences with him, said that Luke is “not a good person.” Pink used similar language—“He’s not a good person”—and added, “He doesn’t do the right thing when given ample opportunities to do so.” The pop star Bebe Rexha talked about being belittled and intimidated during a writing session at Luke’s home. Even defenders portray him as callous and cutthroat. “Luke’s an asshole—everybody knows it,” a high-level industry figure told Variety last year. “But I don’t think he’s a rapist.” (When asked about these claims, Luke’s lawyer and a label representative did not provide comment.)

Being an “asshole” is indeed not the same as being an abuser, and the music world can be a vicious place, but it’s striking that most high-profile, currently working producers don’t have a reputation like Luke’s. No one is, for example, on record complaining in such a manner about Max Martin (a former Luke collaborator), Mike WiLL Made-It, or Jack Antonoff. The bad buzz around Luke may make some people more sympathetic to Kesha’s claims—but it also makes it easy to conclude, even without being certain of her claims, that the music industry would be healthier without Luke in a position of influence.

For a little while, the industry itself appeared to agree. After Kesha filed her suit, superstars such as Cyrus and Perry stopped working with Luke. Sony Music distanced itself from him and his label (which he left as CEO in 2017). The 2018 Grammys used Kesha’s cathartic, post-lawsuit single “Praying” for a #MeToo-themed ensemble performance. Luke still had a foothold in the industry, though. He kept producing songs for lower-wattage performers—Ne-Yo, Tyga—and growing his publishing company, Prescription Songs. He also took to using pseudonyms as a producer, including Made in China, Tyson Trax, or Loctor Duke.

Perhaps most notable, he kept guiding aspiring stars he had signed. When outcry erupted about the dance-pop diva Kim Petras working with him, she spoke of her “positive experience with Dr. Luke,” but said “that does not negate or dismiss the experience of others or suggest that multiple perspectives cannot exist at once.” This is the approach that his collaborators—artistic and commercial—often take: asserting Luke’s chillness in their own interactions, without commenting on specific allegations.

Doja Cat’s beliefs about her producer, by contrast, are almost entirely unclear. She’d been a 17-year-old SoundCloud musician when Dr. Luke signed her in 2013, months before Kesha filed her suit. Whether Doja is still bound to the agreement she signed back then isn’t publicly known, but judging by precedent, she may well be: The deal Kesha signed with Luke in 2005 was enforceable as of 2017, and it stipulated that he produce six songs on every one of her albums. Fans speculate that Doja is obligated to record with Luke, but she has not commented to the media—including in response to my emailed inquiry sent to a publicist—about him, whether by choice or for contractual reasons.

In the end, Doja Cat has been at least as integral to Luke’s recent trajectory as he has been to hers. Her 2018 debut studio album, Amala, came out through Kemosabe Records but became a commercial success only after Doja herself engineered a viral moment with the joke track “Mooo!,” which features the memorable chorus “Bitch, I’m a cow.” The song is hilarious and catchy, and Doja said she created it on a lark in her bedroom. As tens of millions of views poured in for the music video, “Mooo!” drew her the sort of attention that would-be superstars dream of. Amala’s subsequent reissue featured the first-ever Luke-produced Doja song, “Juicy.” In 2020, her sophomore album’s breezy single “Say So” became the first Hot 100 No. 1 hit of her short career, and Dr. Luke’s first No. 1 since Kesha took him to court.

Listeners have agency in how they respond to sagas such as this one—though pop music’s online discourse does make it hard to coherently navigate factual disputes and ethical conflict. When fan armies line up to defend or attack particular stars, assault accusations or instances of hate speech can become mere ammunition for Twitter battles that are ultimately about clout. The catchall term canceled papers over varieties and gradations of misconduct—and turns conversations about broader social problems into conversations about personal lapses and individual career consequences.

Doja Cat herself provides an example of such confusion. Many articles list Dr. Luke as just one of a number of reasons why she is “controversial.” In the past, she has tweeted anti-gay slurs, titled a song with a vicious anti-Black slur, and hung out in chat rooms that racists frequent. She has apologized for and given explanations about much of this, and the impression I get is that Doja Cat is—like many young adults—emerging from spending her adolescence steeped in online troll scenes. Choosing not to listen to her music doesn’t obviously help fix the problems that define those particular scandals. Her ties to Dr. Luke are a separate issue, however. If you’ve read and listened to so many testimonials by women decrying manipulative male moguls over the years, it makes sense to avoid contributing to his return to prominence.

But how exactly should an uneasy listener opt out? Do you avoid the producer’s full catalog, from “Since U Been Gone” to Doja Cat’s latest singles? Do you scrutinize every song’s credits list for every trace of his still-influential publishing company? Do you pick through Planet Her for the tracks that don’t directly involve him? Different people will navigate these questions differently; some may even conclude that whatever they choose to do doesn’t really matter. On one hand, streaming has made the connection between listeners’ preferences and a musician’s bottom line more direct than ever: When you play a song, you apportion more money to its creator. On the other hand, that apportionment amounts to a fraction of a fraction of a cent.

Even so, you have to believe that resistance can add up. It chips away at that thing that pop stars and their collaborators aim for—a sense of ubiquity, broad appeal, and consensus. Though most listeners don’t know who makes their music, the internet has made significant portions of the public more clued in than ever (see: Taylor Swift persuading her fan base to stream new versions of her old songs to undercut her business rivals). Gatekeepers and celebrities may try to tune out their critics, but sustained scrutiny is hard to fully ignore. When Saweetie was nominated for an award recently, an Associated Press reporter asked her about working with Dr. Luke. “I feel like this is turning into an interview that is taking the focus and the light off of such an amazing night,” she replied—PR speak that, she must now dread, she will have to recycle in every interview.

As with so many social issues, policing the music industry really should be the job of institutions, not individuals. But personal ethics are personal ethics. When it comes to Luke, my own rule is to avoid new music he produced or wrote—the songs that may move him from persona non grata back to sought-after hitmaker. This includes a lot of Doja’s famous songs: “Say So,” “Juicy,” “Kiss Me More,” “Need to Know,” and “You Right,” plus her duet with Saweetie, “Best Friend.” I also do what I can to inform his listeners of the context behind his music. (Yes, I’ve been the guy complaining about Kim Petras’s music at house parties.) Doja Cat’s talents are undeniable, but you can appreciate them on songs that don’t involve Luke. Near the top of my summer playlist is Bebe Rexha’s addictive “Baby, I’m Jealous,” which features typically fun verses by Doja. Rexha has said that choosing not to work with Luke was one of the best decisions she ever made. Listening to her duet with Doja may not be justice, but at least it doesn’t feel like injustice.