Music Producers Behaving Badly

The Dr. Luke/Kesha saga is far from the only situation where artist and producer have clashed. The Fader looks at a few other examples of producers behaving badly.

He was “a tall, bony individual,” George du Maurier wrote in his 1894 novel Trilby, “well-featured but sinister.” He had “bold, brilliant black eyes” and a “thin, sallow face” and a “beard of burnt-up black which grew almost from his under eyelids.” And “he went by the name of Svengali.”

That is the first-ever appearance of a character that has been both obscured and made elemental by the passing of time. Du Maurier’s Svengali was a diabolical, explicitly anti-Semitic caricature with no shadings as to his character. It was with pure villainy and literal hypnotism that he transformed our titular heroine—the joyous, poor Parisian milkmaid Trilby, with whom everyone fell in love—into a dead-eyed international singing sensation. Throughout the glorious opera houses of Europe, and all while under his masterful trance, she became known as “La Svengali,” and she bred a craze: “Svengalismus.”

Trilby was a populist smash in its time. It birthed a musical, a stage play revived repeatedly over decades, and at least seven cinematic adaptations. And somewhere along the way, as its lore grew, the prototype gave way to an archetype. Most of us don’t know du Maurier’s tall, bony individual. But we know the svengali: the dark figure that, with undue control and perilous personal cost, manipulates another into greatness.

A century and change since it first appeared, the idea of the svengali worms its way into wherever power dynamics exist: national electioneering, international espionage, the break room at the Tommy’s Pretzel Hut at the mall. But it still seems to have its natural home in our most individualistic mass-market art form. That is to say, the truest form of the svengali remains that of the master puppeteering the pop star.

How does the svengali manifest itself in today’s pop? And why is it still so present?

Keep reading.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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