Beyond the Dance Floor: Female DJs, Technology and Electronic Dance Music Culture

Rebekah Farrugia
Bristol and Chicago: Intellect, 2012.
ISBN: 978-1-84150-566-4 (paperback)
RRP: US$28.50 / UK£20

Hillegonda C. Rietveld

London South Bank University (UK)

Rebekah Farrugia provides a timely ethnographic investigation into how young women in the US engage with EDMC in the DJ profession and related music production. As Hutton (2006) and Rodgers (2010) note in the UK and US respectively, over the last 25 years the number of women in the DJ profession has increased significantly. Still, although as dancers women are the crucial participants at EDM events, women still have significantly less opportunities than men to lead in music production beyond the dance floor.

Roughly around 10 percent of DJs are female, and they are confronted with a range of personal and social obstacles in acquiring relevant know-how in essential social networks to build a successful DJ career. DJ Mag's influential 2013 DJ Top 100 includes just one female DJ, Tenashar, who presents herself in a highly sexualized manner, illustrating well how gendered differentiation takes place in the populist realm. Women, it seems, are given more opportunities as singing, dancing and objectified participants than as the lead in public musical proceedings—politics that are also evidenced in the anonymized production of the sampled, deconstructed and sexualized female voice in EDM (Bradby 1993).

The step from performing DJ to music producer is even tougher, even though the transition from mixing records to the remix may seem quite smooth. This seems partly due to a significant experiential difference between the sociability of DJ performance and a sense of isolation in studio production. With regards sound engineers, Smaill found in the North-West of the UK that around 2 to 5 percent are female, and are “mostly concentrated in live sound engineering” (cited in Leonard 2007: 52) rather than in studio-based music production. Although an example of female-male collaboration is addressed as an enabling experience, often studios are male-dominated spaces, where masculinised in-jokes and the mystification of technology can work to exclude women.

To evade the usual studio apprenticeships and informal male networks, education could bridge this gap. Yet, even in this context, Armstrong (2011) shows that lack of an understanding of the gendered discourses that construct how we understand music production technologies can hamper the progress of girls and women into the world of music production. Similarly, in their research of gender politics in the DJ world in Europe, Gavanas and Reitsamer (2013) have found that DJ technology has been gendered as a male tool kit; this is partly addressed through supportive female DJ networks, such as female:pressure. Here, relevant technical know-how to work the home music studio is shared, as well as inormation about productions and DJ gigs. An online network cannot solve unequal access to equipment, however, especially if one is not part of a local production network in which (mainly male) producers share equipment and skills.

Farrugia first addresses “male-centricity” (21) in EDM through a comparison with gender politics in other areas of the popular music industry. The sense of self-effacing equality one may have experienced on the rave dance floor of the early 1990s does not necessarily translate into the hierarchical politics of the DJ booth. Patriarchal politics are active in the journalistic exscription of female DJ pioneers from historical accounts. Sicko's unique study of Detroit techno (1999) is cited as an example of EDM history in which the contribution of women to that scene, such as Kelli Hand and DJ Minx, is ignored. Farrugia also shows that exclusion is achieved discursively by presenting DJs as heroic leaders, as is the case in Brewster and Broughton’s extensive DJ history, Last Night a DJ Saved My Life (2000), in which the DJ is consistently described in the male third-person singular.

In addition, the “homosociality of record collecting” (28), especially in the dance record shops that mushroomed during the 1990s, provided the male DJ with the necessary (sub)cultural capital and with the social networks necessary to build a DJ career, as the shopkeeper and record collecting DJ gained positions of power and control as public gatekeepers. This contrasts to the early 20th century, when record buying was first considered to be an exclusive feminine pursuit, an extension of the purchase of piano sheet music. This was because, at that time, the phonograph was part of the private sphere, a relatively passive form of domestic entertainment. This shift in how record buying is gendered shows “the extent to which such practices are socially constructed [in] a given time period” (29).

As marketable commodities, DJs engage in visual branding, which intensified during the late 1990s. Through staging a DJ spectacle, visual differentiation is enhanced (Rietveld 2013). Female DJs negotiate this performative dimension of their profession through self-conscious use of dress codes. Farrugia identifies at least two dress types in her ethnographic study of US-based West-Coast DJs. Firstly, the “sex-kitten” heightens and celebrates gendered difference, offering “eye-candy” (53); this works well in the commercial EDM scene but ironically this strategy also undermines their authenticity as DJ. Secondly, the “t-shirt DJ” dresses similarly to her male counterparts in order to be taken seriously as a DJ, yet in the hegemonic mass cultural domain this does not guarantee a commercially successful DJ career. In addition, there is the “dyke DJ”, who is likely to gain the support of male DJs as they can “embody the roles of both the objectified and the objectifier” (63).

The individual decisions that women make to construct and represent their DJ identity do not necessarily address the systemic issues that confront women in the EDMC industry. To achieve this, various collective alternative responses have been initiated by and for women. In the US, this includes online forums, similar to female:pressure, and e-zines, such as Shejay, as well as potlucks at which female DJs gather to exchange technical skills and musical knowledge. The resulting social networks also provide the necessary opportunities to get DJ work. Farrugia concludes that “[c]ontrary to popular discourse that presents feminism as passé, this . . . demonstrates a continued need for feminist politics and action” (89).

San Franscisco's DJ network Sister SF is presented as a specific case study of a successful female DJ network. They rejected “the label ‘feminist’ even as it embodied feminist practices” (94). Such a paradoxical attitude is commonly heard across borders amongst female DJs who wish to connect but are afraid of ghettoization. Between 1997 and 2008, this successful online network developed various Sister branches, or chapters, across the US, keeping tight control over its memorable logo and visual image in order to maintain strong brand identity. In the end, “Sister USA and all its chapters had become inactive” (111) mainly because they had achieved their goal to increase the visibility of professional female DJs. Some of the leading figures retired, the Sister NYC branch deviated from the shared brand image and, significantly, personal Sister websites were replaced by MySpace pages where it was harder to maintain control over the Sister brand image. Although such tight brand control may seem contrary to earlier feminist collective ideologies, this case study shows that it may be a successful strategy in a society that thrives on logos and trademarks.

It may be easy to feel angry at the gender inequalities that exist beyond the dance floor. Instead, Farrugia coolly presents her ethnographic findings in relation to comprehensive insights from research literature on gender and the world of popular music. Beyond the Dance Floor provides not only a measured critique, but also optimistically shows various individual and collective strategies that women can adopt in the struggle to gain relevant social and (sub)cultural capital in order to develop a successful DJ and production career in EDMC. One day, it is hoped, we may simply speak of the creative practices of DJs and music producers, without a need to qualify gender.


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