Friday, 8 March 2013

Planningtorock/Gazelle Twin : What’s with all the theatrics in female electronica lately?

 In an industry historically unfriendly to women in production roles, the growing amount of women adding knob twisting, producing and music video directing to their vocalist credentials has broadened the electronic music landscape in multiple directions. (Cultural Synthesis: Today's Women in Electronica)

I keep meaning to write on sexism and gender in the music industry, however life keeps distracting me so this is a comment piece, while also partially reviewing a few gigs (I know, bit messy but my blog, my rules) however, in this case, it did link. It’s also such a huge topic to cover so for now I’m just going to mention the ones confronting it more obviously.

It seems costume and in particular masks are in right now, it’s experimental, it’s artistic, it’s avant garde, it’s what, what exactly? It’s mostly women doing it, from Lady Gaga in the wackier end of mainstream to Elisabeth Walling of Gazelle Twin more underground. For some it's a point about gender, femininity and sexual politics to flesh out some good tunes, others it could be seen as a little gimmicky, but then that's entertainment and pop does vary from a bit of fun to the deadly serious.

I saw Fever Ray in the latter half of 2010, you could barely see her, it was all costume, dry ice, lasers and strange prosthetics (on her hands which was the only bit of her you could see), and there was little way to know if she was male or female or even human really, unless you equated the many lampshades on stages as overtly feminine of course.

I adore her ‘challenging’ debut album for its weirdness and sometimes gendered politicised tribal stampede of ‘I will sing about dishwasher tablets, I will put mature ladies in my videos, I will sing about high heels and I will also sound like a man just to confuse you people *says Karin Dreijer Andersson in my head*. Apparently she wrote most of the album while breastfeeding her baby, sat up late at night, so it really does ooze with femininity from track to track but at the same time plays around with it.

She and her brother/musical other half, Olof recently started up a project in Sweden to encourage young women into music production, yes that’s production, not just singing and looking pretty while a man stands behind pressing buttons.

In this article written a few years back, the writer states Bjork's annoyance when the women are downgraded to the singer alone in credits and also noted Alison Goldfrapp’s disgust when while interviewed, the interviewee talked about knobs for a while to the other male half of the band, and merely commented on her dress. Has much changed? Certainly how some of the female performers now dress up has. And is this part of the whole package of females challenging a patriarchal music industry from all angles? Or walking into a trap of covering up so as not to encourage such objectification, as if it's the responsibility of females to stop it and not the male gaze and assumptions to correct itself?

I love Gazelle Twin’s album ‘The Entire City’; the project behind it is a visual and musical feast of great influences, authenticity, and a ‘project’ no less. I know music is for listening, but I am always captivated when it’s coupled visually with originality and intelligence. A holistic approach that pushes many buttons and is why I am a fan of ‘good’ music videos (and sometimes bad ones if I’m honest). I did grow up, coming in from school and switching on MTV, when it was music and not idiots doing stupid tricks and people showing you around their cribs.

As much as I like putting on a crackly record, I also like flicking on a cinematic and visual interpretation of some great sound too. (Yes I know video killed the radio star, now digital killed the video star…or something) And the more mystery the better, I’m no happier than when I watch a video and wonder ‘what on earth did I just watch?’ How female performers/producers/ directors are putting their art forward is evolving.

Iamamiwhoami's projects have courted the mystery up until recently with the revelation of Jonna Lee. The band’s name never indicated gender but now we know for sure it’s Jonna, it’s all so female of course. And she’s brilliant. I know, having seen her live, there were no gimmicks, no disguises on stage, just a mesmerising performance with music that stood alone in the hearts of an audience really jumping about for her. After the elaborate and relentless releasing of videos, the musical and multimedia led by Jonna has a man co-writing and producing but it's been successfully pushed on equal terms.

In many ways women's  moment in electronic music has bought some warmth, some theatrics and a little less machine in comparison to the way up on that pedestal pioneers Kraftwerk in their sharp suits, and time will tell whether the current women making these waves will crack an industry to the same iconic level, an industry that is so male dominated in the music press mainstream, in the underground and in music blogging. It does seem to be the men listening and running the show on the bigger punching sites. (Pitchfork and friends)  I suspect most of them still want it female fronted, man button pushing backed up. Not that that is bad, it works, but it shouldn't be assumed that the woman just sings.

Gazelle Twin's set at the Roundhouse in February was maybe five tracks maximum; my attention, however, was taken up by her stage persona and the music that I find very intense. It was a short set by the average. Music is many things for me, but Gazelle Twin makes me feel an awful lot, her vocals captivate and a whole hour live would no doubt leave me slightly glassy eyed in a corner, possibly a bit claustrophobic. None of this is bad by the way, just that Elizabeth Walling’s music is all consuming. ‘I am shell, I am bone’ leaves you mesmerised and unable to doubt her.

I do wonder more why she’s covering her face in this way though, it’s not quite the same as the enhancing/changing/ gender blurring of some of her peers doing the same. Her costume this particular evening was very ‘burqa’ like, which while wanting to avoid the difficult area of whether it's an artistic or political choice in this case, that needs some explaining? I then made a mental note to look this up via her interviews (I rarely read interviews if I’m honest) I found it unclear, from shyness, to embracing and paradoxically distancing herself from the project to pagan costume... and I would think probably all of these things.

This performance did take on a more political stance for me, mostly in the way she was covered, but of course it could be argued that this was just a costume and in no way a comment on oppression or silencing women whatever their choice and whatever they wear, it was just what I was seeing.  Is it really about performing as ‘Gazelle Twin’ and distancing herself personally from it...or that as a woman, she doesn’t feel comfortable exposed in performance or able to put herself out there and chooses a curtain or veil. There’s a hint in interviews that she was ‘the odd one’ growing up and is now extremely shy, that to quote from an interview;

I have never felt more liberated on stage than when I am wearing a costume which covers my face and body. It's a strange paradox for me. The first time I tried wearing costume onstage I felt myself disappear inwards and allowed something else to 'take over'. It felt right. This is really what I had hoped to achieve from the beginning. It has never been about creating spectacle or having a 'quirk' to get noticed. Using costume is ancient, and for me, is a way to imbue the visual themes and allow myself to change freely. It also allows me to avoid the pitfalls of being a female performer - and there are a lot of them.

It’s the last line that sticks out for me, particularly the word ‘avoid’. It’s her choice to cover up of course to take on the persona of Gazelle Twin…but how many male performers feel the need to do the same (outside of freaky heavy metal death mask territory) Off the top of my head, I can think of one and that’s Monarchy and it’s certainly not done in the same way and much more gimmick and space...and those sharp suits of course.

Is it more of a time now, that rather than ‘avoid’, women ‘confront’ it? I find it problematic if the liberation of women, artistically, creatively, professionally is being equated with hiding your face, if not strictly identity, as we all know who Gazelle Twin is. I’ve written anonymously and under pseudonyms in the past, it is a tug of war of feeling liberated and repressed while trying to express a part of yourself. That sounds a little melodramatic of course, but if you are creating something, anything you care about, should you not embrace it as part of yourself and own your multi faceted artistry rather than creating distance?

The pitfalls of being a female performer are many, however you look, however you sound and whatever you want to achieve with your art will be disempowered and reduced to how you ‘look’ and many female performers and producers are tackling this head on. Although I love Gazelle Twin’s music, I still can’t quite embrace the whole ‘hiding’ because it doesn’t challenge enough about gender for me, you can still hear she’s a woman, and although its so she becomes the art, it’s  using the same ‘allure’ of all on show and could well fall back into the trap of being a mere figure head with little other input (something we know is not the case with her).

But at the same time, as I looked at another new female artist's track this evening on YouTube, comment after comment underneath was dissecting her appearance and very little was said about the track (which is a good tune I might add) So maybe Gazelle Twin's masks are challenging the online objectifying comment trend then? I'm not sure. Is it perhaps adjusting to accommodate (not challenge) misogyny and as I hinted at before, is it treading dangerously into the murky area where women are expected to be treated according to how they dress or look, you reveal yourself as sexually attractive, your right to be treated respectfully are renounced. Yes sounds to me like another form of repression.

Which brings me to Planningtorock, another female electronic musician, aka Janine Rostron, who, while blurring her identity, is doing anything but hiding in her challenge of gender and perception. Her persona seems less fearful, more confrontational and saturates the music to encompass vocal distortion that does leave you wondering whether she’s (we know now) a man or a woman; that for me is truly avoiding the pitfalls of being a female performer. In this interview, Janine puts it clearly as a way to maximise and not disguise when covering up;

No, not at all. It was like adding! What I liked about it was that it was an accident, it was 2005 and I was playing a festival called Fusion in Berlin, which is just the craziest festival, and the video didn’t work. I had my helmets with me because I had just done a shoot on my own, and I wore them onstage – it was incredible because nobody knew if I was a woman or a man for a start. They didn’t know what I was; this was hugely liberating, also for myself – “I don’t know what I am either” – I thought that was interesting. That’s how it began. Plus I had a lot of resistance from the press to not wear the helmet: “I want to see your real face”. I mean, what is a real face?

For me this is similar to the gender blending that The Knife have been known to do too, left reeling from a track that you’re really not sure who was singing what, the male/female vocals blurred while often the stage personas are confusing or androgynous.

So while not dismissing Gazelle Twin’s costumes as a ‘gimmick’ at all, I was very distracted while wondering the truth behind it. If I’m wrong completely on how I’ve interpreted it, one thing I’m sure of is that the decision for Elizabeth Walling to cover her face and body is anything but a staged prop and very much a response to a female dilemma over ownership of performance and art as well as challenging the music audience and press that might not like it.

I love all these new female musicians, all different, masked or unmasked, Emika, Grimes, Gazelle Twin, Planningtorock, and it is about time women were credited for more than just being the front women with no contribution to production or the visual art behind the music, but I do also really bloody wish there was no need for masks and that the music industry didn’t need to still be challenged on this level of sexism all these years later. After all, as Emika has pointed out a few times in interviews, while insisting that she herself is a composer, not a producer, the true pioneer of electronic music was a woman, Delia Derbyshire;

“There must be other things presented in the sphere of electronic music that aren’t just conceptual sound art or drones or dance music – there must be some other systems and possibilities and ways to touch people and make songs. I think she was very much from that school of thought and I think she was quite rebellious, with all the dudes around her. I am sure she was quite dominated by the job pressures and she seemed to really flourish with the limitations of equality, men, the BBC and all these kinds of things. It seemed to really inspire here – I mean she made that incredible Doctor Who piece.”

I leave you with Planningtorock and the lead from her new EP, Misxgny Drxp Dead.

MIsxgyny Drxp Dead - Planningtorock from planningtorock on Vimeo.

This video is somewhat delving into unknown territories and takes a few listens and views before it clicks and becomes clear.  I’m so disappointed I missed her DJ set at an Esben and the Witch gig recently. (Who by the way, if you like Interpol, sound like them but with female vocals to my ears)

The Planningtorock EP is out March 8th, which is also International Women’s Day, good timing Janine! May all you wonderfully productive women have an amazing day. It’s my birthday too so big *chink * of glasses ladies and gents.

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