Electronic music is dominating pop, bringing brilliant female artists with it

With Rihanna, Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Robyn, La Roux, M.I.A and Janelle Monae, we just see further examples of women excelling at electronic music – just like they always have.

Way back in April, Kate Mossman commented on the lack of male popstars in today’s musical climate. “I can’t be the only one,” she wrote, “who has wondered what’s happened to men in pop – or how funny this period will look in hindsight, the world of music straddled by female Goliaths while the boys sit in the shadows. . .”

Though the male-dominated list of winners at the VMAs alone calls Mossman’s theory into question, I believe I know exactly how this period will look in hindsight. It will look like the first time in the history of pop music that electronic sounds have truly dominated to the point that rock bands count as the exception rather than the standard. That there are so many female Goliaths is incidental. Women have always excelled at electronic sounds.

Since its very inception, electronic music has always been daring, controversial and utterly fascinating. Give the matter a moment's thought and it's hard to ignore the fact that when it comes to electronic music, women have always been at the very vanguard of innovation and crossover appeal.

In the 1960s, when the form was still in its infancy, electronic music was seldom created for home listening. Rather, it was created for the stage, for the screen or purely for the sake of bold experiments in sound. It was painstakingly crafted in workshops and laboratories by individuals who were more scientist than musician, and many of these individuals were women.

Having realised Ron Grainer's theme to Doctor Who by entirely electronic means, Delia Derbyshire is about as close to a household name that any early electronic artist will ever be. Her work with The BBC Radiophonic Workshop now feels ingrained in the national psyche, but perhaps even more impressive is the legacy of the Radiophonic Workshop's founder, Daphne Oram.

Oram was creating electronic sounds for the BBC as early as 1948, but it was upon leaving the BBC and developing her “Oramics” technique that she really began to make waves.

But while the work of Oram and Derbyshire often feels cold, alienating and terrifying, on the other side of the Atlantic we find a like-minded pioneer whose work proved a lot more accessible.

While working for Bell Labs in the 1970s, Laurie Spiegel – who, not to mince words, is a genius - set the template for the way in which electronic music is still created today through developing bespoke compositional software.

Spiegel's groundbreaking music is warm, human and meditative. And, through creating accessible, intuitive software that made it possible for anyone to create music, she sowed the seeds that would ultimately allow for millions of bedroom wizards today to realise their electric dreams.

Indeed, the democratisation of composition might indicate why we find so many women in electronic music. In a recent interview, Spiegel spoke about the new possibilities for women that technology offered: “[Technology] allowed women to get their music to the point where it could be heard... so the public and powers-that-be could learn that we also could do this.”

That's perhaps why, if you look at the subsequent forty years of electronic music, wherever you find crossover appeal or startling innovation, you'll also find a strong female presence.

While experimentation for Dylan involved playing a different kind of guitar, by 1975 Joni Mitchell had recorded The Jungle Line – a spooky mood piece composed of distorted drums and honking synths that still sounds like very little else out there.

Meanwhile on the dancefloors, who wouldn't have been captivated by the electrified worldly disco and Bond Girl Glamour of Grace Jones? And, while the arpeggios of I Feel Love might have been programmed by Giorgio Moroder, would the song still have ignited the world without the ecstatic vocals of Donna Summer? Having revolutionised electronic music, women would go on to make it accessible, danceable and, above all, sexy.

The list goes on. Laurie Anderson's unprecedented storming of the UK top three with her minimalist O Superman. Bjork's irresistible marriage of orchestral arrangements and electronic soundscapes. Kate Bush's pioneering use of the Fairlight CMI digital sampler on her Never For Ever album – itself the first ever female solo album to top the charts and enter at number one.

Today, as the tedious and aggressive worlds of club-focused R’n’B, EDM and dubstep cast a grim shadow over popular music, I find myself increasingly looking to female musicians for a joyous and life-affirming alternative.

One of the most exciting artists working today in any medium is Laurel Halo. In the past three years she's produced three EPs, one album and one cassette, none of which sound alike yet each of which plays like a different interpretation of how music might sound in the future. The Haunted Man by Bat For Lashes still gets better with every listen. Then there’s Grimes, seemingly poised for superstardom, who has reminded us of how fun electronic music can be.

But how will this period look in hindsight? With Rihanna, Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Robyn, La Roux, M.I.A and Janelle Monae, we just see further examples of women excelling at electronic music – just like they always have.

So to answer Kate Mossman’s question, there’s not necessarily a dearth of male pop stars as much as a prevalence of electronic sounds. The female Goliaths just come with the territory.

 

Bjork performing in 2008. Photo: Getty
JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.