Philip Sherburne has a op-ed up over at Pitchfork about representations of women in EDM (Electronic Dance Music, the most recent catch-all term for various subgenres of electronic music that are generally targeted at the communal club experience, rather than home listening). Head on over there and read it, it’s not too long.
I’m a longtime reader and admirer of Sherburne, who has been chronicling electronic music for many years; he’s one of the few bylines at Pitchfork that I will try to always read, possessed of both a deep knowledge of electronic music history, and an ability to contextualize and put into words ideas and concepts about a style of music which is often expressly-designed to go straight past your reasoning abilities and language centers, and lock directly into your limbic system and hips. He’s a smarter guy and a better writer than I am, and this is not meant to be a counter to his argument (which I think has some merit) so much as a riff on it.
Let’s start with the title: “EDM Has a Problem with Women, and It’s Getting Worse”
I’d strike the “E” from this sentence. Dance music in general has always been heavily-invested in the forthright, even objectifying, display of the female form. Have you ever seen the video for “Maniac”, from 1983?:
I mean, when it’s animals doing it, we explicitly call that a “mating dance”.
Another part of what is drawing Sherburne’s attention now, I think, is the fact that certain tropes that used to be less-utilized in his preferred styles of dance music have thoroughly infiltrated it, as the EDM catch-all has grown in popularity.
Take Aphex Twin’s 1999 video for “Windowlicker” – it is clearly satirizing tropes that were (and are) prominent in many hip-hop and R&B videos (musical styles which, to my mind, still fall under the broad umbrella of “dance music”) – that of the male star, surrounded by scantily-clad females who appear to exist for no other purpose than to be ogled and touched, and who are fantasy avatars of the “riches” and hedonistic pleasures that the star has obtained or will (along with cars, champagne, jewelry, drugs, and Benjamins).
Suffice to say here, 90s hip-hop videos seemingly took the whole “hordes of scantily-clad females” thing to the next level, in sheer number and states of (un)dress. What Aphex Twin was satirizing, had already become the norm in popular music media, and would become the norm in EDM as well.
Aphex Twin provides us with another window into this situation as well: “EDM”, as a term and to some degree as a loose culture, is a intentional reaction against “IDM” (“Intelligent Dance Music”), a 90’s electronic music variant that was used to describe Aphex Twin, who was also in part responsible for coining the term “braindance” to communicate the more home-bound and cerebral aspects of his music and that of other like-minded artists.
The problem with IDM, as a term, is that it seems to inherently insult the REST of dance music, which by definition must not be “intelligent”; the “problem” with IDM as a genre, is that it can be so rhythmically-complex or dissonant or experimental or speedy as to be damned hard to actually DANCE to; which seems to negate the “DM” part of the name.
None of this should be taken as a criticism of the music itself, a lot of which I quite like, and much of which has proven to be incredibly influential and durable, even far outside the insular scene that birthed it.
But the fact remains that “IDM” has snob/aesthete connotations that “EDM” doesn’t; EDM aims lower – it aims for fun, and mass market appeal, and lots of writhing bodies wreathed in smoke under strobe lights.
To get that mass market, you keep the beats simpler.
To get that mass market, you draw on popular music and culture, much of which is hip-hop driven.
And to get that mass market, you advertise. And sex sells, especially when the product being sold is pretty much ALREADY selling sex.
(And here I should note that the particular flyer that prompted Sherburne’s post is to my eye a perfectly-representative flyer for EDM, dating all the way back at least to 1990’s rave culture; that is, the aesthetic of such flyers has by and large nearly ALWAYS been random, kind of cluttered, crappily-computer-drawn, often featuring aliens, and frankly hideous. It’s just sort of a design tradition at this point I guess).
There’s another thread here – one of the major currents in EDM is variations on house music, which is what happened after disco supposedly “died”; its 4/4 thump was kept alive in gay clubs across the nation, particularly in Chicago and Detroit, and fused with then-cutting edge drum machines. Such music was simple to dance to in rhythm and tempo, and unabashedly sex-focused in context (being played mostly in gay dance clubs) and its (occasional) lyrics.
(A possibly-unflattering personal note: even as a fan of much electronic music, for many years I generally mostly-disliked the traditional Chicago house variant, finding much of it far too musically monotonous for my taste, as well as annoyingly lyrically vapid – often a diva, or a sample of same, endlessly repeating some sort of sexual/drug innuendo, or generic theoretically-uplifting phrase. No, I DON’T “wanna go higher”. Stop asking!
I eventually made my peace with this type of music, both by accepting its joyfully-utilitarian bacchanalian communal nature, and by finding some artists that were pushing its sonic boundaries as far as possible within its intentionally-limited musical framework; but for many years my go-to shorthand description for this particular style of music was “You know…’Gay House'”.)
The problem is: how do you sell such historically queer-friendly music to straight boys (and girls; but mostly boys, who will spend stupid amounts of money on tickets, records and drinks for themselves and the girls they are trying to impress)?
Well, one thing you can do, is make house music culture seem less “gay”. Throw some semi-naked chicks on that flyer, and get some booty in that video!
So someone like Sherburne, who’s been immersed in the scenes for a long time, is probably experiencing a bit of culture shock, both as “IDM” gives way to “EDM”, and also as a formerly queer-driven culture becomes less overtly queer-focused.
Anyway, I didn’t mark this one Mindless Diversions, so discuss as you like in comments; but be kind to each other. There may or may not be a deficiency of R in EDM right now, but there need be no such lack here.