Beyond the DJ Booth: Locating the Politics of Gender in Dance Music

Usually when a musical genre receives criticism for being sexist, it’s rap, hip-hop or sometimes R&B (a heavily flawed discourse—but that’s a conversation for another time). But last year, when Russian house and techno DJ/producer Nina Kraviz was shown in a bathtub for fifteen seconds of her eleven-minute ‘Between the Beats’ video in RA’s series about DJs on the road, all hell broke loose, and the question of sexism in the dance music industry could no longer be ignored.

According to Greg Wilson, a pioneer in the UK dance music scene back in the 80s, the (sexist) criticism Kraviz received for her interview—like from DJ Maceo Plex, who wrote on his Facebook “All i gotta say is i’m so happy blatant uses of sexuality and superficiality can take the place of hustling vinyl and spending countless hours in the studio”—was not entirely unfair. Kraviz, he claims, is ‘the mistress of her own myth.’ Wilson describes her as playing into gender stereotypes for appearing on camera in a bikini—though as Kraviz pointed out, “The party in Bulgaria was on the beach. So you wanted me to be on the beach in winter cloths? Just not to be miss understood?”—and finds it ironic that she would discuss the gender-specific obstacles she faces as a female DJ in this context.

By framing Kraviz’s gender expression as always already a sexual performance, Wilson naturalizes masculinity, as if it is not also a sexualized performance (often based on physical strength), and creates a Catch-22 in which Kraviz is damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t. There is no conceptualized space in which Kraviz can embrace or even reveal a feminine sexuality without it being seen as selling out or cashing in. This issue thus becomes to what degree female DJs have agency in the expression of their own sexuality in a commercial industry in which, it seems, it will likely be manipulated by the male gaze and used as a means of professional invalidation. I’ll leave it at that—this specific territory has been well-covered (Lauren Williams at Fact Mag tears apart Kraviz’s criticism and Wilson’s response beautifully).

The Kraviz controversy revealed how the presentation and actions of female DJs are interpreted through sexism, but perhaps at the core of the issue is the number of women behind the booth in the first place. Out of the hundred who made the cut for Resident Advisor’s recently released annual ‘Top DJ’ poll, a grand total of eight of them were women. This proportion is actually favorable compared to a similar list from DJ Mag, a more mainstream, commercial platform, which included three female DJs. Two years earlier, when the DJ Mag poll results was composed of only men, Peaches wrote on her Facebook “DJ MAG! Your Top 100 DJ boy club list can eat a dick! Where the ladies at???” Her use of this combo homophobic-misogynistic insult notwithstanding [1], she had—and still has—a point.

User Emma Partnow on the Digital DJ Tips forum suggests that this gender gap exists because “women lack confidence in their abilities to succeed; and dressing up and dancing are things they learn early in life; so being out on the ‘floor’ in the crowd is something they feel ‘comfortable’ with; where the thought of being ‘behind the decks’ and ‘failing’ would be a catastrophic event, and something to be avoided rather than cherished.”

Partnow’s observations are not without merit, but this interpretation obscures the structural issues that certainly shape the problem. It is mostly men who are in control of booking and other behind-the-scenes roles, and as DJ Cassie Lane suggests, senior artists are more likely to mentor younger artists of the same gender. In short, the gendering of an industry means that it can change on the surface—in this case, an increased amount of female DJs—without its foundations—production and management—fundamentally altering or becoming more accessible. While Partnow’s description does suggest that a low female self-esteem is a learned rather than inherent characteristic, it does not touch on representation; that is, a lack of confidence in one’s DJing or producing abilities as a consequence of a lack of female role models in the industry, or even of active dissuasion by peers or people already involved in dance music. As Claire Boucher aka Grimes told AUX Magazine of her favorite music growing up, “Aside from maybe the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, there weren’t a lot of female standards. That was something that discouraged me from going into music. The minute I learned to produce and learned it wasn’t that hard was when I started working on music. It was about having the right kind of psychological encouragement.”

Indeed, if a lack of self-confidence rather than a lack of skill can help explain the DJ gender discrepancy, the former must stem at least in part from sex role education in relation to technology. Men are portrayed as naturally more apt at it, women not logical or scientific enough to understand it. User Djam on the same forum wrote that “DJs were more the high school nerds who had plenty of free time and were into technology … the reality is that in the past, DJing was not totally seen as a glamorous thing, but more a ‘geek’ thing.” Women and ‘geeks’ are too often constructed as mutually exclusive and we are misled into believing that the supposed incompatibility of these identities is innate. After all, men and women have different brains—‘science’ said so.

More convincing than this supposed biological difference being the reason is what some have called ‘learned helplessness.’ Women and girls are more likely to blame themselves for an error—that is, internalize failure—whereas men and boys are more likely to seek out an external flaw. Stephanie Peterson at Fairground Media argues that this is why when faced with a technological issue, a woman might ask, “Did I break it?” or “What did I do?” That is, “she is very likely to blame herself– assuming some kind of ‘innate defectiveness’ and that technology isn’t her ‘thing.’ Meanwhile, the man is more likely to blame the program for the error– charging it with being buggy or unintuitive.” (Heidi Grant Halvorson at Psychology Today has an excellent explanation of how this gendered interpretation of difficult is instilled in children.)

But clearly there are women who haven’t internalized these moot discourses, and have in fact gone on to become successful DJs and producers. So what can kind of treatment can a woman expect once she has ‘made it’ in what DJ Cassie Britton aka Cassy called “a male dominated world”?

It’s not hard to guess: the possibility of female DJs is consistently erased even in the face of evidence to the contrary. Fans of Krewella, a group made up of sister Jahan and Yasmine Yousef and Kris Trindl aka Rain Man, have assumed that “a dude does all the work.” A booking agent asked Jack Novak, who goes by her childhood nickname instead of her given name Jacqueline, while setting up for her set, “Are you Jack’s girlfriend?” Annie Mac recalls a night when “the male DJ who played after me reached over the sound desk and start to change the speed of a track for me. Did he think I had sped the track up slightly on accident?” This was by no means an isolated event—Mac describes male DJs interfering with or instructing her on several occasions.

In a rather varied criticism of the music industry, Claire Boucher aka Grimes wrote on her personal blog, “I’m tired of men who aren’t professional or even accomplished musicians continually offering to ‘help me out’ (without being asked), as if i did this by accident and i’m gonna flounder without them.  or as if the fact that I’m a woman makes me incapable of using technology.  I have never seen this kind of thing happen to any of my male peers.”

Female DJs and producers are also delegitimized through the claim that they are booked due to a sort of affirmative action or tokenism, or purely because of their sexual appeal. This is actually framed as an advantage: Chris Alker claimed on Magnetic Magazine that “Female DJs have a few things going for them that men don’t. They are rare, they seem to have been trained since birth to be more style conscious and they are generally sexier than male DJs.” That female DJs are expected to be ‘sexier,’ whereas male DJs don’t seem to be held to any particular physical standards, is somehow spun as a benefit rather than obstacle.

This expectation also speaks to how the sexualization and commodification of women can manifest themselves as barriers in a range of workplaces. That is, women who are a closer fit to conventional beauty standards may receive certain privileges or, on an interpersonal level, will be treated more positively than other women (a system sometimes referred to as lookism, integral to but not synonymous with sexism) but these privileges exist within a power structure that will then value them for their appearance at the expense of recognizing non-physical characteristics and skills.

That a given industry would mimic the power relations of larger society is hardly a surprise. But is there something about dance music culture specifically that produces certain gender relations or norms? In 2001 Stephen Amico theorized that

“The beat is representative of masculinity in its potency; that the beat is positioned as paramount, that it is unremitting, and ‘dominant’ in a visceral form unmediated by thought – pure power as opposed to a lyric representation of such …  By impelling the participants to physical action – dancing which can go on for hours – the beat also engenders a performance of the construction of masculinity through a physical response. Although dance is often associated with the ‘feminine’ in Western (especially American culture)… there is a decidedly, almost purely physical (as opposed to aesthetic) component to this dancing, making it almost like a ‘workout.’”

That is, because the hegemonic ‘man’ is muscular and strong while women are oppositionally constructed as weak, soft and fragile, Amico argues that the physicality provoked by certain forms of dance music as well as the ‘dominance’ of the beat makes it a gendered genre. Another theorist of dance music, Barbara Badby, argued in 1993 that the frequency with which male producers sample female vocalists speaks to an appropriation of femininity used as a means to (racially) sexualize the music. This habit, she adds, has been “of crucial commercial importance in the transition from (underground) ‘house music’ to the mainstream success of ‘dance.’”

Making these overarching trends or structures visible is a key step towards understanding the nuanced gender politics of dance music, but the exceptions are also noteworthy (male vocals are, of course, not entirely absent [2]). I was pleasantly surprised when a friend pointed out to me that in his observations, “even at super-masculine techno parties that are a lot of super-feminine girls.” The way in which individuals engage with the music, then, does afford room for subversion or at least complication of the theoretical.

And indeed, despite the systemic sexism, others have identified more positive elements of dance music. In his 1992 book, A Researcher Reports from the Rave, Russel Newcombe found that “friendliness, sensuality and ‘body language’ are valued more than trendiness, sexual displays or long conversations,” a characteristic largely attributed to euphoria and heightened physical sensations caused by ecstasy. A DrugLink article in the same year found that “one of the main reasons young ravers are so proud of their club culture is because house clubs are not sexual cattle markets like so many nightclubs where alcohol dominates.”

More fundamentally, the origins of several dance music genres can be located in marginalized sexual and racial subcultures, like the house music scene that began in 1980s Chicago, which was predominantly gay and Black. As Frankie Knuckles, called the Godfather of House, put it, “Like so many things that were born through gay culture, straight people tapped into it, embraced it, and made it their own, thereby crossing it over into the mainstream.” (Luis Manuel Garcia at Resident Advisor provides a detailed historical breakdown of sexuality in club culture).

With three decades between now and then, house and other forms of dance music are certainly do not occupy the same cultural spaces they once did; and, though obviously interrelated, the culture around a musical genre and the industry that produces it are not the same. That is, while gender norms may be challenged on the dance floor, that doesn’t mean similar phenomena take place behind the scenes.

Nevertheless, the question remains: why has the gender identity of the average DJ remained so stagnant? Female:pressure, an international network of female electronic musicians, is pushing back against the excuse that women are simply less interested. With 1300 members from 58 countries, they argue that “women are hardly less active… their activities are less recognized and also easily forgotten.” The same can be said of the majority of industries in which men are the majority, but women who have ‘made it’ are often given less credit or have their work judged by different standards.

So while there are specific ways in which sexism interacts with the dance music industry, such as gendered stereotypes about technology, essentially it is an industry is like most others: male-dominated. That those behind the scenes are mostly men (though there are increasing numbers of female agents and managers) means that those behind the booth will be, too, and creates an environment in which women have to work harder to prove themselves ‘genuine’ rather than flukes.

At the same time, some women would rather not focus on these issues or have their gender highlighted. When asked about how her gender has affected her career, producer and DJ Maya Jane Coles told Crack Magazine “I don’t think it’s that important to think about. I just want to be respected for what I do without my gender being part of the equation,” and Deniz Kurzel, who only plays her own music when she DJs, told the Huffington Post that “I just focus on whatever music I really want to make […] I don’t really focus on the female-male thing.”

And certainly, victimizing all women in the dance music industry would perpetuate a paternalistic attitude that women can’t make it when, clearly, they can. But rather than being posited as representative, artists who hold views and experiences similar to Kurzel and Coles can perhaps more accurately be seen as the exceptions that prove the rule: that ‘DJ’ is preceded by ‘hey, Mr.’

By Sophia Seawell, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Further reading and resources

Footnotes

[1] that is, in degrading performers of oral sex on people with penises: (mostly) straight women and gay men.

[2] “It’s All Over” by Pional being a personal favorite.

Image via Google Images

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