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
Getty
Show Hide image

The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage