Moving As One: An Update on Gender Equality in Electronic Music

08 Apr 2015 — Evelyn Malinowski

In geology, a fault line is caused by tension which refuses to move harmoniously with the neighboring sections of crust. Subduction zones and transforms are aspects of these geological breaches that influence where the rock is going and pressure other areas to move in ways against their normal flow. Prior to the rift, all the rock was connected and moving as one. 

Social and cultural interaction operates the same way, really. You have a cluster of likeminded people, some of whom end up on the edge of the group, eventually acting as an overlapper or shifter, torn between two movements, pressured into choosing a side. Influencing all the movement are their respective subduction zones (ulterior motifs) and transform fractures (self-important leadership). A rift, then, must be a result of a disagreement or a series of accusations, actions that intimidate others. It has ripped the plane so wide open that magma is spewing out. A movement led by such subduction and transform eventually focuses on separating from the greater block and appropriates other people's low-self esteem or greenness in order gain backing. They join the ranks because they don't want to be melted. With thus, the deviating or rifting movement begins to browbeat other portions, triggering even more aggression, harsh differentiation, brash collision, and eventually prejudice.

Although differentiated movements produce cataclysms such as landslides, earthquakes, and eruptions, they generate fresh and wholesome land in doing so, all on the same hunk of rock floating through space. Cultural rifts along the enormous, so-enormous-there's-room-for-unbelievable-diversity planetary plane, occur in patterns of assertions which normally divide people, and those rifting patterns begin with stress and strain built up undernearth the surface. What we need are ways to assert without dividing.

The gender imbalance and women in electronic music issue, which I now consciously deem a “topic” (in order to encourage open debate and to avoid offense), has permeated the greater EDM scene, as it has due right. With the effort, pathos, and censure afforded by several journalists and artists, we are now talking about this “topic” more than ever, and it has even shaken the mainstream. For example, Robyn, the relatively mellow and agreeably talented pop singer, has stepped in on the issue and plans to organize a festival where female producers will gain fair exposure and promotion. The young touring collective Discwoman has been getting a lot of attention for their out-of-nowhere leadership and forward thinking business model, where significant percentages of their event profits are donated to places like the Sadie Nash Leadership Project, and local Girls Rock Camp groups. Their vibe seems to be one where, they don't only want to spread the word about sexism, but are proceeding in the creation of an all female or female-identifying scene completely independent of the more central one(s).

Undoubtedly, there is a feeling of movement under our feet; yet, it is proving to be a movement of stress which inspires rifting and fractioning off rather than convergence. Over the last few years, we here at NFOP have been collaborating with artists, journalists, and festivals alike to help promote discussion of this topic. Our interviews with Jessy Lanza and Natasha Kmeto in particular hit home for advocates of equality. After reading Tone Deaf's recent bulletin which offers a clever visual example of gender imbalance within festival booking mentality, I realized, whoa, there absolutely is a present and emergent series of related articles appearing one after another. They evidence the issue - or topic - but latently, some of them are adding stress to the rift in our music culture. Yes, we are talking about it more and more, which was part of the collective fight; however, in doing so, we sometimes resort to language that decries rather than proposes solutions. How can we host dialogue without nourishing dispute? A saunter through some of these recent publications might facilitate a release of the preexisting strain as well as new subterranean rifting, and deliver us to a platform where we can discuss without accusation. 

Well-reputed Philip Sherburne has received a decent amount of flak in regard to his not long past Pitchfork diatribe against Skrillex. While the overarching concern is overtly more about visual objectification of women rather than inequality when it comes to booking and promotion, Sherburne seems sure of himself in countering the alleged offense that the Skrillex/OWSLA aesthetic has caused him. This is precisely where underlying, rifting stress can be spotted. At once we are hit with aggressive blame that Skrillex is personally doing Sherburne harm because the EDM producer "keeps putting butts in [Sherburne's] Twitter feed." Shortly thereafter, we again come across accusatory, victimizing language which is somewhat upsetting: "[consider], too, the way the viewer is treated to both back and front views of the woman's nether regions: it's like she's been put on a spit and left to rotate for our visual pleasure." A graphic analogy to be sure, Sherburne establishes the viewer as the victim by saying he or she is "treated," i.e. the object, sight of sexualized areas of the female body. If anybody has an issue with these types of "treats," shouldn't he or she look away? Shouldn't a pesky Twitter user simply be unfollowed? These problematic images and attitudes aren't being done to any of us per se, for they certainly are meeting some kind of demand. Nevertheless, it is vital to criticize such pressing matters in healthier, pacifistic ways. 

Indeed, the language throughout Sherburne's piece is pseudo and incriminating, and that only sparks more accusation. Agata Alexander, director of Destructo's very explicit video, was centrally scrutinized by Sherburne. She backfired publicly, haranguing him for “not doing [his] homework," as it originally appeared that Sherburne assumed the video was envisioned by a man. In a slightly more friendly response, Zel McCarthy, Editor-in-Chief of THUMP, jumps into the surge of disapproval by pointing out that Sherburne's article is problematic specifically because of the language implemented. By naming his piece EDM Doesn’t Have a Women Problem, It Has a Straight White Guy Problem, McCarthy subverts Sherburne's assessment entitled EDM Has a Problem with Women, and It's Getting Worse, before wandering off into broader territory. Sherburne's title undeniably reads as if the problem is women, although that is not what he acutally meant. Alas, McCarthy also slips into inaccurate language out of good intention by stating that it "isn't merely the representation of female bodies that is at issue: it's the sheer lack of women in the dance music industry."

It seems that what he means is that there's a sheer lack of representation of women in the industry. There is by no means a lack of women in the industry, whether they be recognized artists or not. More importantly, stating this dubious observation offhandedly turns the blame back onto the women, as if they're (we're) guilty of not producing music, even if the statement is designed to be a helpful attempt at admission of the sad truth. It is similar to Sherburne's attempt to stand up against objectification of women and demonstrate that viewers of OWSLA compilation covers and fliers are innocent bystanders with grotesque images being shoved into their faces: it's not their fault for looking.

Much to his credit, McCarthy takes his listing of the media's gender imbalance discussion into a bigger context of race, orientation, and class, reflecting on how dance music culture started out as a safe place, undividedly diverse. This ties easily into THUMP's coverage of Discwoman's go at discussing sexism on a panel, which lauds the collective for being a most diverse and not-yet-bitter start-up, reminding us of the real root of our music culture: "Considering that all of the panelists identify with non-white cultural backgrounds, the topic of diversity hit particularly close to home."

While things have changed, it's interesting to see efforts that reverse this rift, one that has been reversing a now forty five year old unifying investment. And while Sherburne's presumably empowered critique of EDM aesthetic offended an artist who happens to be a woman, it feeds the gender disparity most especially because of its combative, reactionary tone. Further, in publishing an article written in what can be called politically careless language, feet have certainly been stepped on. Some would argue that such tone has become necessary; but, it's a pattern we'e seen before, and like M.I.A. says, "if we only live once, why do we keep doing the same shit?"

Implementation of things like visual argument is wise and more incontrovertible. We've seen this from Tone Deaf and, quite famously, female:pressure with their statistical 2015 survey of female bookings. It offers pie chart after pie chart of concrete surveying without names (apart from club and placenames), blames, or shames. It neutrally displays the still existent imbalance and tends to leave critics unable to attack back, to counter-rift.

A certain secret Facebook group populated by empowered promoters, producers, and DJs has been steadily informing ideation in regard to collaborative resolution as well as new forms of leadership, promotion, and problem solving. It is an all-equality group, touching on more than just gear and techno. Even more recent than the Sherburne piece was shared in this group, an article by novelist Rebecca Solnit was posted. Solnit narrates her experience with what she avoids calling "mansplaining." Her purpose isn't to define or criticize such a meme; in fact, it plainly offers personal testimony. Still, she touches on how it seems that men "have a problem explaining things." Is part of this problem related to accusatory language? Or is it related to the problem with EDM's "problem with women?" Isn't the problem that there is a "shortage of women" and men talking about it aggressively, as if insulted? Coming across this piece within that sphere helped me contemplate the ways in which Sherburne and McCarthy both are and are not speaking for the Other. I don't necessarily think they are mansplaining; what I am concerned with is their language and unintentional (at least I hope so) aggression, how that feeds rifting. 

The purpose of this essay isn't to quarrel with these welcomed responses to the gender imbalance, nor is it to suggest new models with which we can effectively alter the imbalace (although we all have plenty of plausible ones, several in the works). Rather, I believe that a critique of the hasty and exacerbating language found within these critiques is in line, especially if we really want to make a change and slow the rifting down. The ways we can ask the right, unifying questions and make the right assertions are basically infinite, provided we don't set out to attack. In fact, it is quite easy to address concern on the matter without perpetuating the rift. For example, we can start off by discussing shared interests, like music. That's something we all have in common. Something else we share is a wish to have the matter solved. We are attacking each other, and yet we mutually express that none of us want the issue to exist. Even the oblivious, apolitical, stereotypical misogynistic EDM-heads who, when confronted by something that might spoil the beach party, hear of the issue, they have their own way of saying “I wish this didn't exist.” Meanwhile the campaigning, empowered side of the dichotomy likewise doesn't want it to exist. To this end, sexism and misogyny is archaic, cruel, ignorant, and, by this date and time, inexcusable. Some other individuals, who want to take a more radical stance, state things like, “I don't hear gender in music,” which quickly shrinks next to the grandiloquent rumor that one might be able to sometimes tell whether the producer of a track was a woman because of structure, because it's maybe somehow softer and more girly, even if it is hard techno. The fact is that the rift is very much so existent, and ignorance of its existence is worse than antagonization of it.

Attentiveness to such a huge thing surely dictates that we look around a bit and recall that we all stand under the same banner, or, more appropriately, on the same hunk of rock. Yes, this is idealistic to say the least, but it does serve the global interest in minimizing our giant rift. How can we transform electronic music's transform fracture so that it becomes fuelled by creative, collaborative resolution, where the divided movements work back towards all-equality, where they move as one?

Let's altogether use our varying skill sets and lithospheric frictions to come up with a way to converge without losing anything other than what needs to be let go of, like hostile locution. Such large-scale seismic activity will certainly cause some tremors, maybe even one big earthquake; still, if it's for a new and all-inclusive platform, it'll probably be worth it because, if we act similarly to the way the earth does, fertile and bright landscapes await us and our different ways of speaking passionately. In order to make this new land, we have to blow up, and maybe all this hostility is just that. But I'm not a geologist.