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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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