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April 19, 2002
++ If Electronic Music Is So Progressive, Why Is The Album
Art So Sexist?
++ From everything I've read, disco I've got to go by
secondary sources since I certainly wasn't there for it
signaled a brave (and brassy) step forward for the liberation
movements of the '60s and '70s. Gays and lesbians, people of color,
and women used disco as a platform for a radical leveling, a spangled
equalizing in which white men in suits no longer had the upper hand.
I'm sure this is a simplification, but I think it holds some truth.
Which leads me to ask a pointed question: If dance music today is
considered a descendant of disco, why is its visual aesthetic so
often on a par with Maxim magazine?
++ More and more, it seems, naked women are an integral part of
electronic music's graphic design. L.S.G.'s techno/trance opus The
Hive (Superstition), which crossed my desk this morning, is the
release that set me off. The cover features ambiguous green
architectural forms, reminiscent of Kubrick's 2001 and
then, supine in front of them, a naked woman with her knee
provocatively raised. Granted, there are multiple interpretations
here, as with all images in the booklet's center spread, the
same woman, photographed from above lying on her back in a similarly
sci-fi corridor, might suggest either a kind of techno-anomie or a
futuristic birthing. The airbrushing of her nipples may be out of
prurience or an attempt to desexualize her, rendering her a kind of
sexless cyborg. But the front cover's pose, familiar from so many
Ibiza chillout compilations, suggests otherwise. She's the anonymous,
sexually available object, the *Wallpaper-sanctioned lifestyle
accessory to complement such sophisticated listening.
If electronic music is so dedicated to futurism, is this the best it
can do? Sci-fi, so often comically pictured as the province of
sexually frustrated boys and men, makes for a dangerous bedfellow of
libidinal dance music. I'm not saying we have to take the sex out
hell, I'd like to think that in the utopian future I'll be
getting laid more too. But if we're going to look to sci-fi for our
role models, why not reference Sigourney Weaver's powerhouse presence
from Alien, rather than this airbrushed, prostrate anony-bod?
++ The L.S.G. CD might not have struck me, were it not that such
images were on the upswing. Need convincing? Check the cover for
Tosca's remix album, Different Tastes of Honey. The downtempo
duo's music (featuring Richard Dorfmeister, of famed Viennese duo
Kruder & Dorfmeister, alongside Rupert Huber) has been described by
so many critics as the ultimate soundtrack to sophisticated sex that
they appear to have bought the hype.
The cover features a multiracial quartet of women crouched on their
haunches, leering alluringly into the camera. (They're dressed,
incidentally, in decidedly disco-reminiscent fashion.) OK, at least
it doesn't pander to the slobbering lad-mag mentality that plagues
the Kylie Minogue cover. But the image Tosca is selling still bugs
me the idea that "sophisticated" music requires this weird,
sourceless glamour and unironic swinger kitsch. Other promo photos
for the record are more explicit, featuring the four female torsos
slathered in honey and clasped together in a sticky, tangled
ass-grab. Still other photos promoting the
album are even more telling, albeit in an unintended way. When
Dorfmeister and Huber are shown clutching life-size cutouts of the
same women even, in one image, crossing the street with them
Abbey Road-style it's oddly deflating for their image. "My
record company hired these hot babes for a photo shoot and all I got
was this lousy cutout?"
Of course, here my complaint has as much to do with dance music's
worship of glamour as it does with any concrete feminist argument.
I'm tired of cowboy hats and open silk shirts and weekend clubbers
who think that dance music is about little more than looking fly.
There's nothing wrong with getting your glam on, but to reduce
electronic music to nothing more than a vehicle for fashion robs it
of its purpose. And when record companies and artists not only buy
that image, but take it to the extreme of peddling totally regressive
images of women, they also rob electronic music of its liberatory
potential. Women can't shake their asses freely on the dance floor if
men are trained to think of them as property. Men can't get their
freak on if they're all hopped up on glossy machismo.
Just look around you. It's getting ridiculous. France's Kid Loco
whose Web site is rather
tellingly called PopPorn, and who filled the cover of his 1999 album
Jesus Life for Children Under 12 Inches with a sprawling array of
naked women, hasn't done much better with the knickerless
crotch-grab that graces his forthcoming Kill Your Darlings
(Yellow/Royal Belleville). The almost parodically glamorous Naked Music, preaching jet-set
style and perennially unclothed cover models, have based their entire
branding on the D-cupped denizens of Stuart Patterson's drawings.
(Patterson, incidentally, also supplies the jet-set graphics for the
designer discounter Bluefly.com). More clothed but no less silly, Hed Kandi is the Pepsi to Naked's
Coke. The label's Winter Chill 3 compilation features a
cartoon drawing of a martini-clutching, transparent-dress-wearing,
big-lipped and noseless model type lying prone in front of a raging
fireplace; the e-card for the album even scans along the curve of her
leg, mimicking a voyeuristic cameraman, before zooming out to reveal
her full form, at which point she gives a little come-hither wink. (I
know I shouldn't be surprised after all, they actually refer
to themselves as a "lifestyle brand.") And then there's the endless
parade of chillout compilations like Ultra Records' Ultra.
Chilled, featuring yet another flawless babe flat on her back.
++ I think you get the point. My point isn't that sex is bad, or
sexiness for that matter, but rather that this reliance on pouty
women to sell records betrays a serious creative cul-de-sac in
electronic music and it betrays electronic music's egalitarian
It's doubly unfortunate when the vast majority of electronic music
producers are men. It's not like these cover models had anything to
do with the albums in question. Issues of sexism and representation
in electronic music are thorny. The under-representation of female
producers is due at least in part to their numbers, which in turn are
tied to broader sociological issues around women, popular culture,
and technology. These issues need analysis beyond the annual "women
DJs" article that so many publications crank out as a matter of habit.
Publications like The Wire and XLR8R are both making
strides toward leveling the playing field, granting not only column
inches but also magazine covers to under-represented women artists
like Alice Coltrane and Antye Greie-Fuchs. (Full disclosure: I
recently organized a panel discussion at P.S.1 which ended up
featuring only male artists; several people commented on the
shortsightedness of the decision, and the experience has left me a
lot more mindful of the need to take affirmative action in redressing
this kind of imbalance.)
But when publications like the otherwise astute Urb surround
Armand van Helden with half-dressed vixens or illustrate the Chicago
house scene with a crop-topped cover girl (as opposed to
XLR8R, which featured the four women from Chicago DJ
collective Superjane on the cover of their house special), and when
album after album features clichéd images of passive women
who serve as nothing more than a sexualized lifestyle accessory, the
genre as a whole takes a gigantic step backwards, making Whit
Stilman's nostalgic paeans to the fabled last days of disco seem
positively optimistic in comparison.