Gender is Burning: A History of Women in Electronic Music18 September 2017
“Dance music needs riot grrrls. Dance music needs Patti Smith . . . Dance music needs cranky queers and people who are tired of this shit. Dance music needs writers and critics and academics and historians. Dance music needs poor people and people who don’t have the right shoes to get into the club . . . Dance music doesn’t need more of the status quo”
– The Black Madonna (Producer and DJ)
Gender, electronic music and club culture have always been associated with each other due to their interconnecting histories. The creation of electronic music was inherently political, forming an inclusive space which defied gender, race and class barriers. However, with the increasing popularity of electronic-based dance music today, diversity within the scene is becoming rarer. The founding minorities have been displaced, which has seen the infiltration of gender norms and stereotypes that were originally rejected by this genre of music.
Recently, the co-founder of Giegling, a German electronic based record label and collective, remarked in an interview with Groove Magazine that “women are usually worse at DJ-ing than men”, and women working within the industry must lose their “female qualities” in order to achieve similar levels of success to male DJs. Such comments bring to the forefront the inherent sexism that underlies all modern-day dance music.
This viewpoint is not unsurprising or new, when considering the general attitude towards women who DJ. On websites such as Boiler Room, whose aim is to showcase the underground sound globally, the difference in reaction to male and female DJs is remarkable. Often female DJs and producers are heavily criticised on their appearance, sexuality and skill set, in comparison to males who receive little critique.
Likewise, in July this year, techno producer Octo Octa faced transphobic and dehumanising comments from another representative of an electronic music record label who described her using transphobic slurs and dismissed her skills as a musician. From a scene which traditionally challenged gender, race and class barriers, it is evident that electronic music’s diverse and accepting past is now overshadowed by a darker sexist reality. These problems exist in all other professional sectors, yet they are becoming increasingly prominent in dance music and worryingly it is often the record labels expressing these views. As a result, women are sidelined from the industry, facing a lack of recognition or promotion from record labels.
The prominence of these sexist comments begs the question of whether or not electronic music has lost its historic defiance against cultural norms. If so, how can club culture and electronic music reclaim the basic values that were once core to its scene? Primarily through education, beginning with an overview of the movement.
The emergence of disco and garage music from the urban suburbs of New York in the early ‘70s was primarily catered towards a crowd of mixed sexualities, gender, ethnicities and social classes. Parties such The Loft, held by the DJ David Mancuso as ‘invitation-only’ events, created a fluid and free environment from the outside world. Mancuso created an informal space for the gay community to dance together without fear of harassment from the police or others, which was happening in gay bars and clubs across the city. New York disco and garage parties, such as The Loft, led to the advent of house and techno music a decade later, which was further influenced by the LGBTQ+, black and Latinx communities in Detroit and Chicago.
Meanwhile in the United Kingdom, acid house and rave music genres were emerging. Electronic music undertook a political turn against Thatcherism, as the subculture created a deviant and hedonistic presence in the face of harsh authority. Gender politics remained imperative with acid house being the dominant sound of many gay clubs across Britain, enduring as a space of freedom of identity. The gay nightclub, Heaven, was one of the first nightclubs to host an Acid House night. Today, cities across the world, such as Berlin and San Francisco continue to hold ethnically and sexually charged parties as a way to convene and overcome oppression. However, women remain sidelined from the movement.
Considering electronic music’s intrinsic connection to gender, politics and minorities, women have never been placed at the forefront of the movement, despite their continuous presence within the scene. Nowadays, many club and festival line-ups do not reflect the numbers of women producing and creating music.
The 2017 line-up of Sydney house and techno festival, Days Like This, contained no women performers within its setlist of over 30 artists. Additionally, a study led from 2016 to mid-2017 by the collective Female: Pressure found that women artists make up less than 16 per cent of festivals acts, highlighting the difficulty female artists face in receiving the level of attention and promotion that their male counterparts obtain.
It is evident that change is needed to return club culture to its inclusive past. Collectives such as DISCWOMAN and Women on Wax were born out of a lack of representation of women in the genre and aim to confront these inequalities and lack of diversity now found within the scene. They do so by booking and promoting female identifying DJs to create a more progressive future for dance music. Recently, DISCWOMAN curated an all-female, 15-hour show with local collective Girls Gone Vinyl to raise funds for a scholarship to attend production classes at Detroit’s Music Industry Academy. Many artists promoted by the collective, such as Jayda G and Umfang, have been showcased on music streaming sites such as the Boiler Room.
In modern day underground dance music, many have lost sight of its founding values and political roots. The past of electronic music and club culture has shown us that electronic music is not about maintaining the status-quo, but alternatively creating an inclusive space for all divisions of society, protesting the inequalities of the outside world. It is important that women are included, which would enable the continuous breakdown of gender barriers within these subcultures and scenes.
All girls to the front.
The Black Madonna – Stay
Peggy Gou – Gou Talk
Honey Dijon – Houze (feat. Seven Davis Jr.)
Avalon Emerson – The Frontier
Jayda G – Listen Closely
Nightwave – Lava
Shanti Celeste – Selector
Octa Octa – Who I Will Become
Helena Hauff – Tryst
Donna Summer – Sunset People