Toys of One's Own Breaking Down the Boys' Club in Electronic Music

Toys of One's Own Breaking Down the Boys' Club in Electronic Music
I've just received another refusal for an interview. Add that to the list of those who have agreed to interviews and then ignored my questions on the gender imbalance in electronic music, about the possible presence of a boy's club in the industry, and that brings my total of rejections up to four prominent female producers who don't want to talk about the subject. A letter from a representative for Berlin techno-producer and Bpitch Control label founder Ellen Allien seems to sum up the sentiment: "I'm very sorry to tell you that Ellen doesn't want to answer this female/man questions," the letter reads. "We are thinking that the time has changed. Everybody can do want she/he wants to do (in electronic music and in any other job) and there are more and more really good female DJs and producers and we are thinking it's time to stop the discussion about it."

But is the discussion really over? Contending with gender questions has become somewhat of a moot point in music criticism, but gender divides in music haven't disappeared, nor have we truly developed into that culturally innocuous society we often like to think we are, where audiences and artists alike have been desensitised to almost every thorny subject out there. Perhaps it's because the arguments against gender lines have all been stated time and again, but female producers these days would simply rather not talk about it.

Still, one look at record store shelves demonstrates that inequalities in electronic music are quite alive. Despite the fact that female producers may not be denied any opportunities in making beats, comparably few are out there. Take, for example, over 600 releases by Frankfurt's Force Inc. Music Works, one of the barometers of serious electronics throughout the ‘90s. Six hundred releases, and not a single one by a woman. An isolated example for sure, but that's a lot of records with no estrogen in sight.

Yet the past five years have changed all that. At the turn of the century, the anonymous collective of minimal producers like Thomas Brinkmann and Pole de-personified beats by stripping them down to the process and machinery. This year, MIA's Arular is already being touted as the best album of the year. Over its soupish mix of international influence, a 27-year-old Sri Lankan woman's irreverent drawl comes off like a raggafied Mark E. Smith reading out a list of politicised demands.

To get from Thomas Brinkmann to MIA, a whole preconception of how this music ought to be made had to be taken apart. The boys' club in electronic music develops whenever the genre gets too comfortable in doing things a certain way, or when a codified conservatism begins to settle in amongst its practitioners, who then begin to insulate themselves from outside influence. Gender lines are always moving, affecting how music gets made, and yet gender is arbitrary. Creativity is genderless, but how we see it is more complicated than that.

A History of Blurring the Lines
In 1968, a graduate of Columbia University's famed Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center by the name of Wendy Carlos released an album called Switched-On Bach, one of the first showcases for the Moog synthesiser. She had met Dr. Robert Moog after graduating, while living in Manhattan and holding down a job as a recording engineer. The debut album interpreted Bach's most renowned fugues and movements through the filter of state-of-the-art technology.

Classical purists wanted nothing to do with the recording. Nonetheless, Switched-On Bach became an enormous, if surprising, success for an album of such progressive nature, going on to win three Grammy awards. The recording went on to become the first classical work to be certified platinum by the RIAA, and for a long time after that was granted the dubious distinction of having sold more albums than all other classical recordings combined. The album was the first full-length showcase for the Moog synthesiser, opening up a spectrum of possibilities for the world of technological composition. Carlos gained enough notoriety to score Stanley Kubrick's controversial A Clockwork Orange three years later, which led her to introduce the vocoder into popular vocabulary.

Inadvertently, Wendy Carlos also became one of the first people to blur the music industry's gender lines. In 1968 Wendy Carlos was still Walter Carlos, a transitioning transsexual. Walter wasn't fully Wendy until 1972, and her secret transition wasn't revealed until 1979, in an interview with Playboy.

"In those less enlightened times," Carlos writes on her website, in reply to questions of why her early albums are credited to Water, "strong, selfish opinions were voiced (synthesisers are a ‘male' enterprise). I was flabbergasted to be denied fair credit. The first Switched-On Bach had no cover credit at all, in fact, just: ‘Performed on the Moog Synthesizer,' creating another misconception — that the Moog synth did it all. CBS signed our instrument, not us, to a contract. Talk about getting no respect."

Sexual designation, although rarely at the forefront of contemporary musical discussions, is at the core of music history. As far back as the 18th century, Samuel Johnson, the compiler of the first English dictionary, was noted as saying of women composers that "a woman's composing is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all."

"Politically incorrect fears and dissembling," Carlos continues, "perpetuated a fictionalised identity, including faked pictures, for ten years. I naively let them run amok, forced to hide from the public until 1979, when fed up, I pulled the plug on the whole mess."

These are the basic ideas entrenched in the notion of a boy's club in music, a temperament that still persists today (although with a more benevolent face), where a large number of female artists still play off a male agenda that pits them as objects of either affection or distortion.

But what Wendy Carlos's dilemma of identity — both with machine and herself — indirectly proposed is that electronic music may yet prove to be the great hope of a music that transcends gender. Carlos's use of the then-revolutionary Moog synthesisers (which at the time were very difficult to program) shifted the emphasis in music from personality and gender to the more abstract terrain of technological advancement and the progression of sound.

As Carlos's technological initiative found its ground in the ‘70s, forking into the divergent paths of ambient and club music, electronic music continued to attract artists intent on escaping rock's gender mould. Whereas as the ambient front was pushed in part by art-glam Roxy Music co-founder Brian Eno and his landmark Ambient series, the first-ever entirely digital LP was Giogio Moroder's From Here To Eternity. Moroder's records had a huge influence on New York and Chicago's predominantly gay club scenes of the early ‘80s, which would soon lead to the development of house music. Throbbing Gristle founder Genesis P. Orridge, also a transsexual, would go on to lay down the primary elements of trance with Psychic TV.

In the context of dance music, technology went on to change the nature of dancing itself, from a courtship ritual to something one does alone in a crowded room. At the core of the alienation most people feel to "artificial" music is this shift from the traditional efforts of social interaction to the effortless solitude of not socialising at all.

In all its early facets, electronic music seemed like a worthy alternative to the lifestyle surrounding the whitened and straightened conservative mentality behind rock music. For men who didn't fit the definition of manhood, for women who didn't agree with its confines, for people who would rather turn away from collectives than be shaped by them, a third space had opened up and it was filled with technology.

DIY Attitude
When electro-sleaze Peaches considers what got her into electronic music in the first place, the answer is straightforward and simple. "Working alone and finding kick-ass dirty sounds," she writes. Her answer reflects the attitude of many women working in the genre these days. Solitude and creativity, after all, go hand in hand. "A lot of people work alone in the electronic scene, so if you are writing you are also producing yourself."

Listen to 2000's The Teaches of Peaches and Wendy Carlos's Switched-On Bach back to back, and you'd be hard-pressed to draw any obvious connections. But Peaches' albums embody all the issues Carlos first brought so quietly to the table. The gender ambiguities that formed Carlos's secrets are now the up-your-face commands of Peaches' dominatrix-like pose. Over three decades on, what was once taboo has turned fetish.

The Teaches of Peaches came along at a time when electronic music was on the waning end of a decade it had spent steadily refining itself from rave hedonism to "intelligent dance music" and further on, pushing its minimalist tendencies toward the utmost academic seriousness. One by one, labels like Warp, Richie Hawtin's Plus 8 and M_nus, Berlin's Chain Reaction, and Frankfurt's Mille Plateaux all pushed toward the millennium by building an idea of label-based collectives, where all the artists worked toward a particular sound. Peaches showed up alone and unannounced on Berlin's leftfield Kitty-Yo Records. She was loud, brash, explicit, and base.

She also got people wondering where all the women had been hiding in the faceless calculations of musical algorithms. What had once begun as an androgynous genre for social misfits had, by late ‘90s, developed into a male-dominated arena of unidentifiable producers all working under the auspices of critical theory. Many of these producers worked under monikers inspired by software names, unwittingly embracing the very perception Wendy Carlos complained about when CBS first credited the making of Switched-On Bach to "the Moog synthesiser."

"Since Peaches released The Teaches of Peaches," says Berlin-based producer AGF (aka Antye Greie-Fuchs), "it's crazy how many girls have gone on stage with guitars and little drum computers, and made their own music. Maybe it was necessary for a few women to just go out and produce, to get more and more women doing it."

AGF has been making beats since 1996, both on her own and as a member of the duo Laub, another Kitty-Yo signing. Since 2001's Head Slash Bauch, she's been carving out her own hole in techno, taking abstract minimalism and making it sound alternately nervous and vulnerable. Overtop, she rasps and mumbles about relationship dynamics, making her albums sound eerily like large machines falling out of love and then trying to talk about it.

"It has nothing to do so much with men," she says. "I think it has a lot more to do with women, that they don't feel confident, or are not interested enough, or don't have role models, or they don't know really how to do it. I think it has changed a lot in the last five years."

This year she releases her third album, Explode, which marks her first full-length collaboration with boyfriend Vladislav Delay (aka Luomo). Like Peaches, AGF turned to technology because she found her creativity was being stifled in often male-dominated rock bands.

"The electronic aspect makes that easier," she says. "It's less about drinking beer in the rehearsal room. When I started doing music, it was all about that, ending up with five or six boys in the rehearsal room getting drunk and playing Jimi Hendrix. I did that for a few years, until I was so fed up with it, and all their music sounded shit. I hated what they were doing.

"By then I just felt like I had to do my own stuff, so I bought a sampler to make drumbeats. I was just not satisfied with what came out in band rehearsals, so that's how it started for me. I got more and more into producing and composing on computers. But it was my natural way, and I was the only woman back then, for me, who was visible."

DIY Technology
Cecile Schott, who records as Colleen, knows what it's like to feel frustrated at having to compromise her ideas in bands, but up until five years ago she could see no other viable option.

"I think working with other people is really hard, both from a human point of view and an artistic point of view. I think there are great bands, but I do think it's quite rare that people benefit from being together. More often than not, there's one leader and the others follow. There are conflicts of ideas, and I'm kind of stubborn. Because I have lots of ideas, I like to express them the way I want to express them."

In 2003, Colleen released her debut album, Everyone Alive Wants Answers, to critical acclaim. Like AGF, she's taken the minimalism of the late ‘90s and evolved it into a sound more delicate and tender. Her follow-up, The Golden Morning Breaks (set for release next month), is ambient music on par with Brian Eno's Music For Airports, using cellos and guitars to create sounds she then samples and manipulates through an assembly of pedals and software.

"I was in a band that lasted a year and a half, and after that I was on my own, but I only had a four-track recorder and my guitar, so it wasn't very easy. When I discovered sampling and music software that was the perfect way to make music by myself, but most of all to make the music I wanted to make."

For Schott, however, it wasn't a matter of needing the right role model to get her going as a producer. She cites the development of easier-to-use digital software like Ableton Live and Reason, which made electronic music more accessible by moving it to the laptop, as the reason more and more women have been making inroads in electronic music.

"I think the technology has definitely become more available to everyone, and everyone includes women. Someone like Peaches, she's singing, and I think lots of women who make electronic music often have lyrics or some kind of singing involved. I'm thinking of people like [Mego artist] Tujiko Noriko. It's bound to happen, that women get their hands on the technology and start doing the music."

DIY Community
Five years after The Teaches of Peaches, the electronic music scene seems to have found the balance it lost in its race toward academic acceptance. More and more women are in the studios and finding audiences, and more and more men have begun to highlight the feminine sides of their personalities on disc. Luomo's The Present Lover, Superpitcher's Here Comes Love, the Junior Boys Last Exit —all albums that have entered into that grey space between male and female to create music that bears the best aspects of both.

If you ask Cologne's Michaela Dippel, who produces techno as Ada and whose 2004 album Blondie has been pricking up ears in techno circles, gender isn't as much of issue these days when working in small, independent circles.

" My label, Areal, is a male-operated record label, and even if I'm not part of the company, I'm involved in all business things. We always make decisions about releases, covers, and the rest democratically. I never felt that there's any difference due to gender."

She too did time in a rock band. After some flirtations with bossa nova and jazz, she grew impatient with working with others and decided to set out on her own.

"In 2000, a friend of mine came to visit, and he brought a small sampler/sequencer called Electribe S (Korg). We recorded a few tracks, and then he left it at my house. I tried to work with it, but it was hard for me to figure it out because I didn't have any users manuals. When I moved to Cologne, a friend of mine [Matthias from Areal Records] gave me some manuals and, after a while, I finished a few patterns. I showed them to the other guys from Areal, and they asked me to finish some tracks. After a few weeks of hard work, I had finished my first twelve-inch, Blindhouse/ Luckycharm. In the beginning, it was more like playing with this small machine and combining it with my experience in songwriting, singing and playing keyboards."

This small machine turned out to be the key to her flourishing success. Ever since the Blindhouse/Luckycharm single, Ada has been blasting through more speakers with each subsequent release. In a community populated by male producers, promoters, club owners, and record labels, she manages herself by keeping her records in the control of those she knows and trusts. But given the anonymity granted by her moniker and the androgynous signatures of her records, she has passed through a few doors by being mistaken for a man.
"When I played my first gigs, some promoters didn't even know that I'm a girl. Since I started playing live, I have met many girls who are DJing or planning to play live. I'm quite optimistic that things are gonna change. It's always hard in the beginning. Some guys say that it's always easier for a girl to get gigs, but I don't think so.

"I think that techno music has developed in many directions and people are more open-minded today. There are always some guys who say that you're more successful because you're a woman, but that's just a minority. At least they carry my bags."

DIY is a mantra that gets touted around a lot, yet it's easy to forget just how integral and difficult decision it can be to go it alone. For Peaches, for AGF, for Ellen Allien, for many women, working alone is often the only way to escape the trappings of working within the gender dynamics that are engrained in everything we do. Deriding technological music for its coldness, its artificiality misses the point of what machines have to offer. When a musical person, man or woman, can write, produce, and release music without having to pass through other people, when that person has the chance to leave gender out of the equation altogether and make an androgynous creation, then that's a step in the right direction.

Essential Discography
M.I.A. • Arular (XL, 2005)
Arular doesn't quite sound like anything else, in the way people couldn't quite put a finger on Dizzie Rascal or the Streets the first time round. But in its seamless stitching together of an entire world of contemporary dance cultures, in its militancy buried deep in angular slang, the album is less a local snapshot and more a global vision than Boy In Da Corner or Original Pirate Material.

Peaches • The Teaches of Peaches (Kitty-Yo, 2000)
On top of some of the rawest, minimal electro this side of Detroit, Toronto-cum-Berliner Peaches half raps, half narrates what sound like sequences from French porn movies. There's a gender-studies term paper hidden somewhere in here. Her following album, 2003's Fatherfucker, blurs the gender lines even more explicitly, sporting a bearded Peaches on its cover.

AGF • Head Slash Bauch (Orthlong Musork, 2001)
She's released two impressive albums since, notably this month's Explode, but Head Slash Bauch still qualifies as one of the strangest albums of 2001. The tracks on here actually sound damp, like they were found in a dumpster the morning before they were recorded. Throughout, AGF stutters and slurs relationship troubles deeply embedded with poetic sensibility.

Ellen Allien • Berlinette
(Bpitch Control, 2003) With her second full-length, Ellen Allien propelled freakish breaks into serious German techno and came up with an album often attributed with putting a new face on European electronic music. By then Radiohead's Thom Yorke was already singing the praises of her label, Bpitch Control, which has continued to be a hotbed for great new music.

Ada • Blondie (Areal, 2004)
Taking the time to cover the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Everything But The Girl, Ada's full-length debut shows her taking on more refined pop qualities and building them into the anthemic club-thumpers that made her singles such hot commodities. For those who wouldn't mind their Björk with a few more bpm's, there's always Blondie.