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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.

How progressive.

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 potential.

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.


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