In 2017 and 2018, the momentum of the #MeToo and Time's Up movements swelled to an ineluctable peak. The entertainment industry came to a screeching halt as film, television and music production companies reckoned with the blatant sexism rampant throughout their workplaces—and the dangerous circumstances such inequity can produce.
The spotlight is now turning to EDM with the release of a new feature-length documentary called Underplayed. Featuring interviews with women and several male allies working in all aspects of the industry, including sound engineers, producers, journalists and major artists, the film offers timely insights into just how much work is left to be done in electronic music.
Of 2019’s top 100 DJs, only five were women, according to the film's website. While gender representation is astonishingly low across all genres, the disparity in EDM is especially stark. According to a 2020 study from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, only 21.7% of the genre's artists identify as female.
The stories of those five artists who have broken through that glass ceiling, Alison Wonderland, NERVO, TOKiMONSTA and REZZ, are interwoven throughout Underplayed alongside dance music counterparts Tygapaw, Sherelle, Nightwave and Louisahhh. Over the course of the documentary's 85 minutes, its fundamental message is clear: In EDM, gender bias does more than just pervade all aspects of life for a woman—it has become inescapable.
“I feel like I’ve really had to prove myself more so than men, and I think a lot of women will tell you the same thing,” Alison Wonderland told EDM.com. “I had to work really hard for credibility as an artist.”
“It’s gatekeeping,” Tygapaw added. “It’s not one person. It’s a conversation that needs to start, and we need to continue it, and not shift from it and become complacent, because with complacency, it stays the same.”
The genesis of Underplayed dates back to 2017, said Natalie Lucas, who has worked on the film since the very beginning. She joined the project as a producer through Bud Light Canada, one of the documentary's executive producers. It was at one of the company’s events that year that the seed for the film was planted, when an interview with DJ Duffey, who appears in the film, sparked a conversation on gender representation in the electronic music space. The discussion led Bud Light’s advertising agency, Anomaly, to do some digging, and Underplayed was born.
“The stats spoke for themselves. We realized that there was definitely a big inequity here and we needed to shine a light on it, because we don’t think people really know about it,” Lucas explained. “Bud Light is very invested in the music space...We need to make sure that we’re raising awareness on issues that come up.”
From there, Bud Light brought in executive producers Director X and Taj Critchlow before eventually tapping Stacey Lee to direct the documentary. Backed by a strong, female-dominated team, the film then rolled into its production phase for the 2019 festival season. It finally premiered in September 2020 at the Toronto International Film Festival, and is now in its final stages of distribution.
In front of the camera, Underplayed is intimate and genuine, following its nine main subjects into their homes, recording studios, rehearsals and performances. This unprecedented level of access granted to Lee and her crew required a certain level of trust that is reflected in the film, as the featured artists candidly consider the many ways gender bias has manifested in their lives. Most typically recognized are the extra efforts women must take to be considered for festival slots and, once booked, to be paid the same as their male counterparts.
“Real talk—we want to talk about those discrepancies and the divide. Because I’m incredibly underpaid. It’s not even funny at this point,” Tygapaw said. “Just to sustain myself and my livelihood, there’s a threshold between living and sustaining my career. It’s just this juggling act, where I know the top 10 DJs and how much they get paid.”
The constant need to jump through more hoops than men has more hidden consequences as well, mainly on a woman’s mental health, body image and confidence in her abilities. Alison Wonderland has dealt with all three, even though she herself opened up a lot of the doors newer artists have benefitted from. She initially started wearing her now-signature oversized t-shirts because she wasn’t comfortable with the notion of being sexualized, which was a common hurdle when she was first starting out, she said. She has also withstood barrages of belittling comments online, with her 2015 livestreamed set for Mixmag being one experience that particularly stood out.
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"It’s important to give the power back to musicians as opposed to having a middleman kind of control everything."
“There were a lot of people being like, ‘Who is she? She’s just dancing around. She’s not even mixing.’ I’m like, dude, look at my fucking hands. It would be harder to fake that than actually do it," she remembered. “In the last few years, it’s been a little bit better...I’m in a good space where I feel like I have proven myself, and if anyone ever doubts me, I would love to invite them to my studio hours, or love to invite them onstage and just watch me play, or even try and do it.”
Just because Alison Wonderland has grown more well-versed in dealing with haters doesn’t mean it gets any easier, though. “I live and breathe [music]. It’s hours. Everyday, all day, this is all I do," she asserted. "For people to take that away from me and say that I don’t do anything, or I don’t make my music, it really, really hurts me."
Alison Wonderland's most recent track, "Bad Things," was a particularly hands-on endeavor. She wrote both the lyrics and the music video for the song, which was the first single to be released from her forthcoming third studio album.
Tygapaw, who grew up in Jamaica and moved to New York as a teenager, has had similar interactions with what she refers to as "the patriarchy," while also encountering its intersections with her racial identity. For example, according to the aforementioned Annenberg study, of the 1,093 production credits on the 800 songs evaluated, only eight were attributed to women of color.
“I would like to think that, when you’re really passionate about music, you create from a place of pure joy and enjoyment, you know? You’re not necessarily thinking politically until you start to build your career and grow as an artist,” Tygapaw said. “And then, you get exposed to what’s out there in the world, and the bureaucracy, and the politics.”
These politics are especially pertinent in the careers of Black women like Tygapaw, who face the uniquely robust challenges of systemic racism and systemic sexism. A lack of representation permeates from both, making it much harder for young Black girls to find themselves in the faces of the people whom they look up to. Moreover, since the mainstream electronic industry was built in part because of the seminal house and techno music pioneered by queer Black communities in Chicago and Detroit, it’s especially challenging to know that those identities have been nearly erased from the entire scene.
“It’s easy to say I want to empower young Black girls. But it goes deeper in establishing our worth—our self worth,” Tygapaw continued. “It’s important for young Black girls to be like, ‘It’s the things that have been put in your way that make you feel like you’re lesser than, but you’re not. You’re completely able. You’re completely brilliant, and you’re completely worth everything that you want in your life.'"
According to Tygapaw, who's gearing up for the release of her appropriately named debut album Get Free on November 13th, true gender equality will exist only once the industry is committed to rewarding only merit-based ability, regardless of one’s identities. Ask any other woman or non-binary person in the music industry, and they’ll certainly agree with her qualification. But how do we get there?
“Ultimately, Underplayed raises the question; do we want our ears to be controlled by logarithms, safe bets and preconceived formulas...or become a space that is radically free to sound as rich, diverse and ever-changing as the world around us?” Lee posed in a press release. “Equality isn’t about one side defeating the other, but by all sides coming together.”
The first signs of change are already visible, with representation-driven organizations such as She Is The Music, shesaid.so and TIME’S UP leading the charge. Academic commitments like the research lab at Annenberg help track progress made in advancing representation, and promoter-based initiatives will develop and diversify the talent pool. These include booking mandates like those of Bud Light Canada, which require 50% of the lineups for the company’s sponsored festival after shows to be made up of women. Tygapaw herself has launched her own Fake Accent initiative, a monthly New York-based party series that creates a safe space for queer and non-binary people of color to revel.
"Moving forward, I want women to feel comfortable that they can put themselves out there,” Alison Wonderland said. “I want them to see that I’ve worked hard...and go, ‘Okay, if I put myself out there and I’m fearless, I can do that.’ If we can do it, you can do it.”