EDM Doesn’t Have a Women Problem, It Has a Straight White Guy Problem
A culture created and nurtured by gays and people of color now is dominated by the same people who run everything else.
When Krewella posted their new single yesterday, the rock-inspired, Garbage-and-Justice-channeling "Somewhere to Run," a flurry of YouTube commenters immediately challenged the group's credibility as producers in the wake of former bandmate's Kris Trindl departure last year. The attacks by the internet's greatest troll community were not new: the dude was the producer, these girls are just figureheads, say the haters. What an eye-rolling way to start the last week of Women's History Month.
Krewella is hardly the only target of sexism within dance music. In an op-ed yesterday on Pitchfork, Philip Sherburne decried what he called "EDM's problem with women," citing the anatomically bereft torsos of cover models from OWSLA's latest compilation as an example of how women's bodies are being objectified by mainstream dance music.
While OWSLA head Skrillex is ostensibly responsible for his label's comp cover, he's a minor offender of women's rights compared to his Jack Ü bandmate and BFF Diplo. Were it not for his undeniable chops as a producer, Diplo's greatest legacy just might be the ways in which he incorporates the female posterior into his work, often women of color. From the "Pon de Floor" video to "Dat a Freak" which became the base track for J.Lo's "Booty," Diplo has made his appreciation for women's butts—particularly women of color—a central part of his public image (along with intermittent online bullying of women from Taylor Swift to private citizens).
It isn't merely the representation of female bodies that is at issue: it's the sheer lack of women in the dance music industry. On festival stages, in club lineups, in positions of power as defined by influence over what people listen to and how much money can be made, women are in the extreme minority. Other than providing some publications occasional opportunities to publish inoffensive lists of "must-hear" female DJs "you need to know," this gender imbalance does nothing positive for the culture.
Further, the fact that brown and black women are seen as objects fit for consumption of straight white male gaze, and with rare exception, not suitable for a spot behind the decks on a festival main stage is problematic and indicative of the huge gap between mainstream dance music's ethos of acceptance and its new reality of exclusivity.
Some of Sherburne's Skrillex critique seemed imbued with a pearl-clutchy distaste for the exposed state of women's bodies. The rules of feminism dictate that there is nothing wrong with a woman choosing to undress and show off her body. It's why I celebrate electronic artists who do so on their own terms. Nina Kraviz, Scarlett Etienne, and Jessie Andrews have all been criticized for expressing the visual aspect of their art with their physical selves, sometimes in quasi-sexualized poses (or explicitly sexual, in Andrews's case). Their detractors say their choice to do this undermines the value of their work; it distracts from their music. Nobody said this when Calvin Harris chose to strip to his skivvies for an underwear campaign. His credibility went as unquestioned as ever.
The gatekeepers within dance music, including the straight white boys at YourEDM.com who made a nearly all-male list of supposed up-and-comers in dance music last month, go to great lengths to enforce the power of bro-deals and in-group favoritism. Even if it's not a conscious effort to be sexist, homophobic, or racist (and there's no reason to think that it is), the belief that one should support others of one's kind has led to an insidiously homogenous composition of the industry. As one dance music heavyweight wrote on Facebook about the YourEDM list: "It's so adorably simple. They only invited their friends to the treehouse!"
Backyard treehouse memberships are low stakes. The fastest growing genre of music is a big deal, to the tune of $6.2 billion a year. There is a lot of money to be made in this world and right now, as Derrick Carter opined on a recent blog post, the straight white guys are making most of it.
One talent buyer for a prominent nightclub who asked not to be named told me the club's management had blocked booking an act because the two women in the group didn't look "hot." That group went on to have a global Top 10 single. While there are certainly opportunities presented to some male DJs because of their looks (hello, Mr. Harris), Hardwell has likely never lost a DJ gig because someone thought he wasn't hot enough.
Another promoter who requested anonymity admitted that the issue of race or sexual orientation equality is never a consideration when building a lineup. The focus, he said, is on the music and the profit margin.
In some ways, that's as it should be. The core of the dance music scene is its music and delivering a quality product in an economically reasonable manner irrespective of the artists' identities should be a priority. Still, dance music as we know it was originated by black, Latino, and queer artists who wanted to create safe places for people disenfranchised by mainstream society. These spaces were where they could find acceptance, community, and a damn good time, away from the straight white male patriarchy. In a cruel twist of fate, that patriarchy is now the ruling class of this once underground culture.
Of the 24 DJ headliners at Ultra this coming weekend, none are women. Only five would likely identify as people of color. None are openly gay. If they were alive today, what would Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles have to say about the co-opting of their music and their counter-culture by a demographic that already runs the world?
Of course, dance music isn't the only place where straight white guys are the dominant force. VICE magazine just named its first female Editor-in-Chief, launched a women-facing channel, and has a new female COO. (As far as I know, I am the only queer or non-straight channel leader at VICE, as has been pointed out to me with pride by some of my gay colleagues within the company). From Congress to Silicon Valley, Hollywood to the British Parliament, roles for women, racial minorities and queer people are fewer than those for their straight white male counterparts.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this. I personally like straight white guys. My father and stepfather are straight white guys. I have several straight white cousins and they're excellent. Some of my best friends and co-workers are straight white guys and they are great people too. Yet from knowing them, I've learned that there aren't many places in our society where straight white guys aren't welcome. The same can't be said for gender or racial minorities and women too. When we lose those safe spaces—as dance music was once was for people of color, women, and LGBT-identified fans—we lose the essence of what dance music is and should be: a place for everyone. Moreover, as the promise of America itself has shown, we are made richer, better, stronger, and more vital because of diversity in race, gender, and sexuality not in spite of it. For those who care about the future of dance music, we must embrace that diversity and work to actively foster a space for it.
Anyone who stands in the crowd this weekend at Ultra will see the beauty of the rave generation audience. It reflects the diversity millennials are accustomed to: multicultural, multilingual, not merely tolerant but accepting of non-straight sexualities, and increasingly vigilant on issues of gender equality. Statistics consistently show that the EDM audience is pretty much evenly split between men and women, and the Ultra crowd is likely to show that to be true. Dance music's growth from the early days of Dave Mancuso's Loft parties and Frankie playing at the Warehouse has meant that more people are in the club than ever. It would be nice if the people at the top of this one-time counter culture weren't only the straight white guys who rule the rest of the world too.
Zel McCarthy is the Editor in Chief of THUMP. He is on Twitter.