Surveying the Dr. Luke Moment: A Critical Look At Lazers, Glitter, and the Un-Sexing of America's Pop Stars
On May 7, Katy Perry debuted "California Gurls," the first single from her forthcoming album, Teenage Dream. It was a cleverly-engineered, synchronized piece of pop craft--a classic no-chances move--and it had to be: there were things riding on this song. Things like the viability of Perry as a bona fide superstar, Snoop Dogg's continued (ir?)relevance, and an early bid for the title of Summer Anthem. So Perry and her label, EMI, did the thing that labels do when it's no-chances time: They called Lukasz Gottwald, better known as Dr. Luke.
On April 21, Gottwald was named ASCAP's Songwriter of the Year. He received 10 ASCAP Pop Music Awards that night, as a songwriter and publisher, a near-sweep that certified what many have known for a while now: Dr. Luke is an unstoppable force and the most statistically relevant pop producer in some time. He's not so much an innovator as an aesthetic guardian. He knows the anatomy and boundaries of hit songs--tensile, uncomplicated guitar lines; thrashing, synthetic-sounding drums; the veneer of rock; the sheen of pop; the occasional lazer. He is the one to blame (or champion, if you'd prefer) for the musical success of Perry, Kelly Clarkson, Miley Cyrus, and that glitter-slathered lightning rod, Ke$ha. He can also be congratulated for creating hits--sickly sweet, irrefutably engrossing hits--for Avril Lavigne, Pink, and famous-abroad UK trio Sugababes. His discography is pop writ large. He is a dangerous 36-year-old man.
Luke's resumé is fascinating and unlikely. In 1997, the New York native became the guitarist for the Saturday Night Live band--a gig he held for 10 years. Around this time he became an active underground hip-hop participant, entrenching himself in the Rawkus scene and picking up gigs as mid-profile DJ. He produced credible, but ultimately ineffectual songs for artists like Arrested Development(!), Nappy Roots, and B Rich. Gavin Edwards recently reported in Rolling Stone that he received his Dr. Luke moniker during a Mos Def recording session. Then, sometime in the early aughts, Luke met the Swedish pop impresario Max Martin, and things changed.
With 2004's "Since U Been Gone," Luke, Martin, and Clarkson created a totemic modern pop song, and a blueprint. Writing and producing together, they built a Billboard Pop #1 hit that confirmed Clarkson as a major artist, cemented the American Idol model as more than a one-and-done vessel, and inspired gobs of bad karaoke. The song also laid the groundwork for similarly clenched-teeth female pop independence from Luke and the likes of Pink ("U + Ur Hand"), the Veronicas ("Everything I'm Not"), and Avril Lavigne ("Girlfriend").
That three-year period of efficient hitmaking did quite a bit to alter the course of gender identity in pop music. Unlike early aughts stars Britney and Christina, Luke's women rarely used sex to further their cause. In its place was indignation and a physicality; vocal heft; even swing. And, sometimes, a burnished sense of grandeur as well--"Keep Holding On" was the hit, but Avril's "Hot" remains one of the great uncelebrated pop rock songs of the last 10 years. Luke seems to be attracted to strong women who are also self-effacing goofballs. In the video above, Avril acts like a 12-year-old. Pink, historically, is a surly prankster prone to fart jokes. Even Kelly Clarkson, beloved belter though she is, has a bit of shaggy dog-in-pajamas affect. And when her stormy, vaguely rock-ish 2007 album, My December, failed, who did she turn to? Dr. Luke, who in turn revived her career in 2009 with "My Life Would Suck Without You."
In the midst of this run, Luke returned to rap. In 2006, he was tasked by Def Jam with launching white female Brit MC, Lady Sovereign, with the ghastly "Love Me Or Hate Me (Fuck You!!!)." Then Jive paid him to create the follow-up to Lil Mama's "Lip Gloss," the not-terrible nursery rhyme "G-Slide (Tour Bus)." But the most important rap production of his career remains "Right Round," a collaboration between Flo Rida, an artist more vacuous and transferable than any of Luke's supposedly empty-headed divas, and a then-unknown Ke$ha. Released in February 2009, "Right Round" is one Dr. Luke's least impressive songs. Its interpolation of Dead or Alive's "You Spin Me Round (Like A Record, Baby)" is banal, and Flo Rida has all the charisma of a doorstop. But it was a fucking smash, eventually going triple-platinum. Ke$ha was uncredited on the song in the United States, a mistake that would be rectified shortly.
As "Right Round" scaled the charts, Katy Perry had already done so twice, going #1 with "I Kissed A Girl" and top five with "Hot N Cold," both Luke productions. When she emerged, Perry seemed to embody the body-as-weapon ideology, acting pouty and dressing scandalously (if still goofily) while singing about kissing girls. But with Luke's guidance, Perry's sexiness began to play as mostly a ruse, as plastic as the inflatable fruit that checkered the stage during her live performances. Her biggest hits are post-sex. She's since emerged as the goofiest of the bunch--the truest product of a svengali who prizes personality over provocation-- a fact confirmed by her recent choice of beau, the self-involved British comedian Russell Brand. "California Gurls," though not as magnificently constructed as "Hot N Cold," is a no-doubter, written for summer, built to last. It's already #1 at iTunes. The Hot 100 is imminent.
Which brings us to Ke$ha, that living, breathing embodiment of magical realism. Ke$ha is America's new favorite punching bag, the human equivalent of What's Wrong. It's true, her lyrics and bag lady with a Black Card fashion sense are troubling. But sloppy weirdoes who wonder whether we are the aliens on Saturday Night Live are rare and exciting. We should celebrate them. After a backlash over her SNL appearance, Ke$ha told MTV News, "If you don't like dancing astronauts, laser beams that play music, me talking about aliens, glow-in the dark things, vocoders and a hot chick, I don't know what to tell you." Same here. When the alternative is steely, composed, regressive singers like Leona Lewis (who's also worked with Luke, shocker), we'll take the alien queen.
Dr. Luke is responsible for eight songs on Ke$ha's debut, Animal. They represented his biggest risk yet--and with his imprimatur on the line, he won again. That rap background, unheralded though it is, now seems crucial to Luke's success. He's colliding hip-hop with pop in the most aggressive way imaginable. You can hear it in Ke$ha's frayed post-Uffie facsimiles, in Miley Cyrus' talk-sing phrasing and Jay-Z-referencing on "Party In the U.S.A." (#2 on the Hot 100, produced by Luke), and you can hear it clearly, blatantly on "Magic," a new B.o.B song featuring Weezer's Rivers Cuomo--oh yeah, Luke's worked with Weezer, too--about making a hit song. The song is a perfect distillation of everything Dr. Luke stands for: silliness, unlikely success, misplaced swagger, and yes, lazers. The lessons of Rawkus rap and television comedy, commingling. "Every time I touch that track it turns into gold, everybody knows I've got the magic in me," Cuomo sings. It's the most autobiographical Dr. Luke song yet.
Plus, over at Sean Fennessey's Split Infinitives: "In the Lab With Luke: Remixes, Rawkus and Rivers Cuomo," a short mixtape compiling Luke's rap production history.
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