Earlier this month, a documentary short titled Rock The Box, directed by Katherine Monk, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Other than being the first film directed by Monk, a notable journalist and author who's worked for CBC, the film was made by the National Film Board of Canada, a public production company funded by the Government of Canada. The film centres on DJ Rhiannon, a woman from Vancouver who spins EDM at clubs such as GOSSIP in Vancouver, Create in LA, and V2 in Tokyo. Unlike most DJs in the genre, she's posed for Playboy, and her music videos can be found on Pornhub.
"I've sort of taken advantage of my hetero-normative, society-sanctioned hotness to market myself, get the gigs," a giggling and exceedingly pleasant Rhiannon told THUMP over the phone from California, where she now lives. "I admit that my songs are totally obnoxious, they're totally in your face, like super-overly sexualized."
That hypersexuality is clearly demonstrated in her music video "All the Girls Do It," within which DJ Rhiannon humps and cleans a toilet wearing disco shorts, licks a hot pink coloured vinyl, and lifts weights while wearing pasties to a track that contains literally every metaphor in existence for cunnilingus.
Made over the course of three years but shot over a 36-hour period, Rock The Box follows Rhiannon as she arrives at the airport in Fort McMurray, Alberta in her home country of Canada for a gig after a lengthy list of international tour dates. We see her getting ready in a hotel room, and then later, performing at Club NV, an 800-person-capacity venue that is located in a hotel. It also opens with statistics detailing the business side of EDM, including a breakdown of the percentage of women booked for EDM festivals in 2014–nine percent, as opposed to 89 percent male artists—and an analysis of the gender gap in DJ Mag's annual Top 100 list, a chart which last year featured a ratio of 98 men to two women.
Both Monk and Rhiannon are from Vancouver, a West Coast city known in the past for raves and for being a hub for breakbeats and drum and bass. Rhiannon herself was part of that scene in the early 2000s. "I played nothing but vinyl records from like 2000 to 2007... I was playing underground breaks, funky house, house, electro house, like super-underground," Rhiannon told THUMP. "I played at clubs where the whole idea was to play music that no one had ever heard."
In 2008, becoming "impatient" with how few gigs she was getting compared to her peers, and realizing that she needed to make enough money to pay her bills after she graduated university, Rhiannon took an opportunity to pose for Playboy. "I was like, I want these gigs now," she says. "I saw these [sexualized DJs] getting these shows, so for sure it was a shortcut. I started getting more and more commercial gig offers... then I was getting booked for these nightclubs where don't you dare play anything no one has ever heard because you'll clear the dance floor." Soon after her Playboy spread came out in 2009, Rhiannon started getting enough bookings to support herself and, eventually, was able to move to LA. Today, her top singles have hundreds of thousands of views each on YouTube.
In Rock The Box, Rhiannon puts on her makeup while gazing in the mirror pre-gig—a metaphor for the literal "mask" she says she wears to perform. At the end of the ten-minute film, she takes it off, returning to her everyday self.
"I do admit that it was the sort of persona or alter-ego that I was putting forth; I decided to sexualize her more in order to get more work," Rhiannon tells THUMP. "It was purely a business decision... me being an entrepreneur and seeing other women who were more sexualized getting more work than I was."
Speaking on the phone with THUMP just before the TIFF premiere of her film, Monk, the director of Rock The Box, said it was this aspect of Rhiannon's experience that made her an especially compelling subject for her documentary. She had been asked by the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) to research and make a film about women in electronic dance music.
"Rhiannon had the most exaggerated experience as a female DJ; there are a variety of other female DJs, and all of them had trouble breaking in," Monk said. "Rhiannon was the only one who sort of took a sideways step and thought out of the box."
In the film itself, Rhiannon is portrayed as a woman who, fed up with her lack of success, has created a solution to the lack of gender parity in the industry—taking off her clothes. It's a character study at best, and at worst, it shows the somber desperation of a female electronic artist to make it big in a male-dominated industry. The film's greatest takeaway is the question it leaves the audience with: why can a woman achieve fame and success by shedding her clothing and sexing up her image? Still, the fact that we only encounter Rhiannon during in a 36-hour period is a problem, considering the audience would need to see more of her life to really get who she is as a person. Rock the Box also leaves out an important detail about Rhiannon's past as an artist, further muddying its portrayal of her: the history she has with the breaks and house scene in Vancouver, which would have shown a niche interest in electronic music before her shift to mainstream EDM.
Rhiannon was able to become successful gigging on the Top 40 and mainstream EDM club circuits, but that's a completely different scene than she originally was trying to make it in when she first started playing out. As many people who actually listen to electronic music would attest, Rhiannon and other DJs like her, represent only a small (albeit economically powerful) subsection of the electronic music world; her story, while powerful, cannot possibly be representative of the state of the industry as a whole. That's why it's not that surprising to learn that Katherine Monk, though a respected Canadian film critic and author, doesn't have much of a background with electronic music.
"[My experience with electronic music is] pretty limited," Monk tells THUMP. "I certainly danced a lot in the 90s at raves... [but] I kind of didn't keep going, and then I started researching this film and going out to clubs again and seeing how much everything had changed."
Monk also told THUMP that there were other women she considered for the doc. One was Maren Hancock, an academic-feminist electronic artist who's opened for the likes of Frankie Knuckles and Derrick Carter. Yet, she didn't name any of the other numerous female DJs in Canada who've gained massive success in recent years without resorting to putting their bodies before their music. Why wasn't this film made about Christina Sealey of the techno duo Orphx, a university professor and mother who has releases on Sonic Groove (Adam X's label)? Why not Sydney Blu, a respected house DJ who has headlined some of the biggest clubs in the world in Toronto, Miami, Ibiza, and LA? What about Annie Hall, a Windsor, Ontario-based artist originally from Spain with releases on Blank Code and Semantica Records? Why couldn't it feature the stories of many female DJs, instead of just one?
For many involved in the electronic music industry, "skin DJs"—or women who use their sexuality as the crux of their marketing as electronic artists—present a problem: they perpetuate the stereotype that females need to use their bodies over their brains to get ahead. Rock the Box, moreover, also perpetuates the cliché that DJs and producers need to sacrifice their art form in order to obtain above-ground success, opting to play generic EDM for the masses instead of whatever music they originally set out to spin.
And that's why choosing Rhiannon as a prime example of women working in electronic music—and showing no other visible alternatives within the same film—is an issue in itself. For female musicians, there may be an extra pressure to focus on extra-musical self-presentation, but maybe the bigger problem is that musicians, and not just those who are female, are systemically persuaded to transform themselves and their art into marketable entities in order to monetize. Take Armin Van Buuren, for example, or even the cake-throwing human vodka tap, Steve Aoki. Rhiannon's success, though she says it's made her happy, is certainly not the kind of success that everyone is looking for.
"It's not like I represent female DJs or I represent sexy or sexualized female DJs—all I can do is represent me," Rhiannon said. "Yeah, I've sexualized myself and, yeah, I exploited myself, but I also empowered myself in doing so."
'Rock The Box' will be screening at the Vancouver International Film Festival on October 5th. For more info, click here.