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Matt Stahl

Matt Stahl is an associate professor of media and information studies, University of Western Ontario. Matt’s book Unfree Masters: Recording Artists and the Politics of Work (Duke, 2013) won the IASPM book prize. He is now researching “royalty reform”—a series of efforts by R&B artists of the 1950s and 60s and their supporters to win unpaid compensation and AFTRA/SAG-AFTRA pension and healthcare coverage—and the genealogy of the recording contract, of which this proposed paper is the first installment.

"We’re All Kesha Now: How 19th Century Music and Misogyny Transformed Professional Work into Legal Servitude"
 Kesha Sebert’s career as a developing pop star has been affected by a greater-than-average rate of contract-related lawsuits, of which her dispute with producer/employer Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald is only the latest. This paper examines a previous contest between Gottwald and another producer/manager David Sonenberg over which of them had the right to her singing labor. This 2010 battle hinges on the same social fact as the later one, that Kesha’s contract and its governing labor law transform her into a legal object and her employer(s) into legal subjects. In fact, this is what employment does to virtually all employees: by commodifying their labor, employment turns working people into legal objects and employers into legal subjects. It’s just that with workers like Kesha (or George Michael or Prince) this feature of employment stands out as extra unjust.
The objectifying, commodifying nature of employment was inaugurated and formalized by a British court in 1853, deciding a case identical to Gottwald and Sonenberg’s argument over Kesha: two impresarios each claimed rights to the singing labor of Prussian diva Johanna Wagner. In the Wagner decision, the court found that employers have a property right in the labor of employees, and as a result the legal status of employees was and is equivalent to that of wives in the 19th century and children today: subordinate, without full personhood. The feminist legal history is clear: because Wagner was a woman, and because the later cases elaborating this doctrine concerned other women performers, it was easy for judges to project gendered subordination onto employees. Employment retains that servile character even as women have gained legal subjectivity. Remarkably, this case—factually identical to Kesha’s and many other contemporary cases—remains largely unknown in popular music scholarship. This paper aims not only to historicize Kesha’s situation and employment’s servile character, but also to ask: did Wagner’s occupation as music performer influence the outcome of her case in anything like the manner that her gender did?