Playing Like A Girl: Women in Electronica

By Nicolás Díaz


While pop culture critics become increasingly specialized each year, they also become more condescending when they write for the general public. Any weekday they can focus on nuances of Argentine comics during the dictatorship, except when they are asked to write for a national newspaper or some “men’s magazine”. In that case, Watchmen changed the history of comics for the entire world.

In the last two years there have been many articles about the “new role of women in electronic music”, mostly describing how hard it is for women to shine in that field. In his article for the New York Times, Simon Reynolds went as far as declaring that “synthesizer music always had something of a masculine aura”.

I simply do not understand why having women involved in electronic music is considered something new. And that supposed masculine aura of synth music is just bullshit. Sure, the music world has an ancient record of machismo: the famous classical composers were men, even the pantheon of rock/pop songcrafters has a majority of men. But electronic music has, notoriously, a completely different past.

Any history of the birth and evolution of electronic music has women in prominent places. And they were not wild singers with an attitude problem, or bohemians with a troubled past. The female pioneers of electronic music were regular people, with full time jobs and insight of the medium and the industry. They were neither muses nor frontwomen of bands, they were, borrowing Kraftwerk’s definition, musical workers.

As for technical skills, Clara Rockmore was not another theremin player, she is still seen as the reference of how much you can achieve with a theremin. One of the reasons why Delia Derbyshire withdrew from musical creation was the advance of synthesizers. Being used to cutting tapes and altering machines, playing a keyboard was too conventional for Delia. Her laboratory, The BBC Radiophonic Workshop, was founded in 1957 by another woman, Daphne Oram. And any revisions of the music that came out of Bell Laboratories goes through the work of Laurie Spiegel.

Providing a few names might sound like tokenism, but these are fully representative of the roots of this music, along with Pauline Oliveros and Bebe Barron. So, where does all this media buzz about “the new role of women in electronic music” come from? Why is it pushed forward by critics with knowledge of the history of electronic music? My guess is they think “oh, the general public would never understand the subtleties of this art, I’ll just tell them some agonistic story, some conflict they can relate to.”

Another guess: it could be an extrapolation of the almost unreal conditions of the dance music scene (currently, all of the Top 100 DJs of DJ Mag are men). But commercial dance music is a small part of electronic music, and it has been living in its own preservation area for more than a decade. Things are getting very Lord of the Flies-ish over there.

If you are not looking for musical workers of the past, but contemporary stardom with an arty alibi, the line follows from Laurie Anderson to Björk to Karin Dreijer. I imagine the three of them would chuckle at the mention of electronic music being particularly masculine. And Wendy Carlos would even laugh about it.

 Nicolás Díaz is a Mexican blogger, librarian and drunkard. He blogs at  Trouble Every Day and Murmujú.

One Response to “Playing Like A Girl: Women in Electronica”

  1. Ela says:

    Excellent article.

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