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
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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era