IASPM-US Interview Series: Rebekah Farrugia, Beyond the Dance Floor

by justindburton on August 30, 2013


As part of the ongoing IASPM-US Interview Series, Rebekah Farrugia talks about her recent book, Beyond the Dance Floor: Female DJs, Technology, and Electronic Dance Music Culture (Intellect 2012) with Luis-Manuel Garcia.

Beyond the Dance Floor

Luis-Manuel Garcia: So, the “pre-colon” part of your book title, Beyond the Dance Floor, strikes me somehow as an allusion to Angela McRobbie’s essay, “Shut Up and Dance” (in Young, vol. 1 issue 2, 1993) which presented a critical analysis of the gendered division of labor (and leisure) in Electronic Dance Music (EDM) scenes. Do you see your project as a continuation or response to her analysis? Do you see similarities or contrasts?

Rebekah Farrugia: I love this question! I was so excited when I first read McRobbie’s essay, because it was at a time when I was becoming aware of the gendered divisions she discusses, which I had taken for granted when I first immersed myself in rave culture in the 1990s.

In her essay, McRobbie articulates her observations that, in Britain at the time, girls appeared to be less involved in the cultural production of rave than their male counterparts. Since McRobbie’s essay, women’s involvement in EDM has moved beyond the peripheral work that she describes (helping out on the till, at the bar, or doing PR) to participating in more central roles as DJs and, to some degree, producers. Consequently, this book articulates the day-to-day concerns, opportunities, and experiences of women that have literally moved beyond the dance floor to the DJ booth and production studio, primarily in a US context. I see my project as a continuation of McRobbie’s analysis because understanding and articulating the gendered politics that continue to dominate EDM culture is central to both projects.

At one point in her article McRobbie uses the phrase “changing modes of femininity” to describe the uncertainty about what it means to be a woman in Britain in the early 1990s. While women’s entry into DJing signals changing ideas of womanhood, the sense of what constitutes femininity continues to be in flux, possibly having an even more ambiguous relationship to feminism than what McRobbie observed two decades ago. Building on McRobbie’s observations and arguments, one of the underlying motivations for pursuing this project was to gain some insight into contemporary women’s understanding of and relationship to feminism. For instance, during my fieldwork in the San Francisco Bay Area, women spoke about their struggles with how to physically represent themselves on stage. Several DJs wanted to have the liberty to be as feminine as they wanted to be, yet they expressed concerns with how they were perceived and to what extent their value was based on their gender as opposed to their DJ skills. Additionally, contemporary cultural discourses maintain the masculinity/femininity binary and, in relation to EDM-production, several women discussed challenges related to the ongoing masculinization of technology, which continues to position technology as men’s work. These views are changing, but this remains a dominant cultural narrative that women struggle with in terms of both others’ expectations of them and their expectations of themselves when it comes to engaging EDM production tools.

We are living in a world that, on the surface, tells girls and women that they can be anything they want to be—but only up to a certain point and not in a way that discomforts men or pushes feminist goals (Susan Douglas, 2010, Enlightened Sexism). So now, EDM culture is OK with women DJs and producers, but for the most part the glass ceiling remains in place as women are rarely if ever headlining acts at festivals or considered good enough to warrant spots on top 100 DJ lists. In 2012, DJ Mag’s top 100 DJ list didn’t include one woman and overwhelmingly consisted of white men. Yet despite these conditions, most of the women I interviewed do not self-identify as feminist because they are uncomfortable with the term and/or fear that doing so will alienate their audience. Based on these findings, I thought it was important to continue McRobbie’s discussion of the ambiguous relationship between femininity and feminism as well as to highlight the ambiguous relationship that women themselves have to feminism.

LMGM: The fieldwork that serves as a basis for your book is now a few years old, but some of the issues you’ve raised are just coming to public attention in 2013. What is your take on the controversy surrounding Nina Kravitz’s appearance in Resident Advisor’s “Between the Beats” video series last March? The response to the now-infamous “bathtub scene” seems to highlight some of the same problems that women DJs face in your book.

RF: That controversy reflects a few of the numerous challenges of being a woman in the EDM industry. Several of the women I interviewed expressed concerns about their own representation, based on the same issues that have recently surfaced in the discussion surrounding the Kravitz documentary. For instance, many of them worried that presenting themselves as too feminine would complicate their status as DJs in the sense that they wouldn’t know if they were securing bookings due to their looks or their DJ skills. They also didn’t want to become known in EDM circles as women who used sex(iness) to advance in the industry. As a result, some of the DJs I interviewed said that they deliberately “dressed down” in jeans and T-shirts, because they didn’t want to open up even the tiniest possibility of being subjected to the controversy that Kravitz has been dealing with. For others, it took some time before they allowed themselves to dress up and present themselves on-stage in conventionally feminine ways—ways that they were comfortable doing off-stage in their everyday lives. Some also held the attitude that, if they got booked because they were women, so be it: they would then have the opportunity to demonstrate their DJ talents behind the decks.

In her response to the controversy, Kravitz herself expressed her frustration with how women are not taken seriously in the industry if they are pretty and feminine. The double bind here is that, for the most part in the current EDM climate, being conventionally attractive and feminine seems to be a prerequisite for women DJs to gain mass attention.

Fortunately for Kravitz, she has some power in the industry stemming from her success as a DJ and producer, in the sense that, due to her proven track record and success, all of this publicity is helping more than hurting her. What I find most interesting about her response, which speaks to the need for more women in powerful decision-making positions in EDM culture and media-industries in general, is her disclosure that she asked that the film be re-edited after she saw the first cut of it, although she hasn’t said what she wanted removed. She also stressed that the filmmakers didn’t want any discussion of music and that it was too focused on her as a female, with which I agree. It was completely gendered in every way. Instead of presenting her as a successful being with agency, she comes across as delicate and lonely, almost someone we should feel sorry for. This is clearly a case of benevolent sexism since, if she had been a man or if the filmmakers had been women, the final product would have been completely different. Instead of focusing on her physicality, or at the very least in addition to this, the discussion would have emphasized her musical knowledge, the production tools she favors or how she prepares for her DJ sets—that is, what documentaries about male DJs focus on all the time. We learn nothing about what makes her a successful DJ or producer and thus are led to believe it is her good looks. Even the scenes of her DJing focus on her body parts. At one point we get a glimpse of her records in a shot that focuses on the back of her legs.

Do I have a problem with the bathtub scene? I think it’s problematic because it reinforces the restricted definitions of conventional beauty that pop culture and media circulate; it also limits Nina’s power by tying it too closely to her physicality. Several blog posts I read recently mentioned her “hot body,” and in the context of third wave feminism, it’s her choice to flaunt it if she wants to. But again, the problem here is that these discussions reinforce the idea of what counts as a “hot body,” which for a woman is an emaciated figure. Do I fault Nina for the way she comes across in the documentary? Not really. I have no doubt that she’s an intelligent person who was well aware of how the bathtub and beach scenes would be used in the film. Would I have rather she had taken a stand and taken more control over the film’s production, insisting that it not focus on her body but instead give her the opportunity to talk about the things that male DJs and producers discuss? Of course. That would have been awesome. I don’t place all of the blame on her because, over the past decade as EDM has become more popular in the mainstream, it has further limited rather than expanded the possibilities for female DJs. In the current climate, it seems that conventional beauty, sexiness and femininity are requirements for women to emerge as successful DJs. Sadly, while women are slowly making inroads, it is still a world controlled by men.

LMGM: Speaking of “a world controlled by men,” what strategies/tactics did women DJs employ to counteract this state of affairs? I’m thinking of your work with women’s DJ collectives, but I imagine it goes beyond that. What about women label-managers, studio engineers, booking agents, etc.? 

RF: This was one of the reasons I loved this project so much. It was so exciting and interesting to learn about the different strategies that women were adopting in their efforts to improve the visibility of women in EDM culture. I limited my research to female DJs and producers—so I can only comment on what they were doing—but one of the most interesting approaches that I was fortunate enough to experience firsthand was one of the potlucks that women were organizing in Portland. Once a month, new and experienced DJs in Portland would bring food and hang out. They would plan events, trade records, talk about music, and even teach newbies basic skills. On the day that I attended, everyone present seemed to be having a lot of fun. I think solidarity and building women-centered collectives seemed to be the most effective strategy women employed, from San Francisco to Portland to New York City. The expansion of the Sister collective—which started in San Francisco—to these other cities enabled the women involved to gain visibility beyond their local scenes, since they set up gigs for each other in their respective cities. Having control over the planning and production of events was significant for these women. In San Francisco, Sister’s notoriety had men requesting to play at their special events. At their anniversary parties, Sister stipulated that they could only spin if they dressed in drag and several men did. As far as producing is concerned, DJ Denise, a popular Bay Area DJ, set up her own record label Mizumo Music once she began to produce. As of June 2013, the label has 167 releases by dozens of artists. In our conversations over the years, Denise has stressed that the Internet, mp3 technology and sites like Beatport in particular have made it possible for independent artists to not only create their own labels but also forge connections with other label managers. As a result, Denise has released some of her own music but also has had tracks distributed on other labels.

LMGM: One striking pattern throughout your book is the repeated refusal of the label “feminist” by many of these women DJs and producers, despite the apparently feminist politics, goals, and strategies they employ. What was that all about? Why do you think this was the case?

RF: I’m so glad that you asked this question. I’ve thought a lot about women’s refusal to use the term feminist or to self-identify as feminist, especially the women I tend to talk to for my projects. So many women out there are doing such cool and truly amazing things that challenge gender norms and gendered power relations related to the production of music and music related scenes—as DJs, producers, performers, organizers, etc. You name it and women are doing it. Collectively, the women I interviewed discussed their understanding of and relationship to feminism quite differently from one another. Many of the women I spoke with admitted that they hadn’t learned much about feminism beyond the mainstream media discourses about it they encountered in everyday life and so they did not see it as influential in their lives, either within or beyond a DJing context.

Overall, I think that women are reluctant to identify as feminist for a number of reasons. For starters, since the rise of the second wave in the 1970s the mainstream media has done an exceptional job of depicting feminism as a radical ideology with little to offer most women. Second, our contemporary cultural context is inundated with postfeminist rhetoric and practices that strategically position feminism as a historical movement that successfully secured an unprecedented level of equality between men and women and hence is now unnecessary and passé. Third, some women don’t claim feminism because they do not want to see themselves or have others view them as victims of the oppressive, patriarchal gender politics that continue to impact everyday life for women in a Western context, despite the progress that has been made and rhetoric that argues otherwise.

In some cases women did self-identify as feminist on a personal level but they didn’t see a reason to explicitly and publicly integrate their feminist politics into their EDM personas in part for reasons I mention above such as not wanting to alienate their audiences and professional colleagues, most of whom are men. On the whole, working on this project I learned that there is a range of misunderstandings out there about what feminism is and what its purposes and relevance continue to be. This has been debated but, personally, I believe that the term itself is worth holding on to and that there needs to be more education out there in communities beyond the university setting about women’s rights and ongoing struggles. I’m seeing the impact of engaging in feminist dialogue with women artists in my current project about women in hip hop in Detroit. Women who at one time didn’t see feminism as speaking to them have begun to reconsider their definitions of feminism and its place in their artistic and personal lives. These are exciting times and experiences that I’m working on documenting and hope to share in the near future.

LMGM: So what’s next?

RF: I’m really excited about my current project that I’m working on with my colleague Kellie Hay. Two years ago we started attending a weekly women in hip hop night in Detroit called The Foundation out of sheer curiosity. For years I figured that there must be women actively engaged in Detroit’s hip hop community but becoming acquainted with what’s happening and the key players involved has required some digging. Similar to Beyond the Dance Floor this project is also a study of women negotiating and creating spaces for themselves and others in a music community and genre where they continue to be marginalized. There are some exceptionally talented women here doing really amazing things within the hip hop community and beyond music, partnering with local media and social justice groups. We feel privileged to be working on this project and can’t wait to share our findings with the world in the near future.

Rebekah Farrugia (Ph.D., University of Iowa) is an associate professor with a specialization in media studies. Much of her research focuses on digital culture and the interconnections between gender, technology and popular music. Her work has been published in various national and international journals including Current Musicology, Feminist Media Studies and Journal of Popular Music Studies. Her book, Beyond the Dance Floor: Female DJs, Technology, and Electronic Dance Music, was published by the academic press Intellect Books in 2012.

LMGM/Luis-Manuel Garcia is a Canadian of Peruvian-Colombian origins, migrating between Toronto, Berlin, Chicago, and Paris. He has  managed to turn his love of electronic dance music into a PhD  in Ethnomusicology at the University of Chicago, and into a post-doctoral fellowship at the Freie Universität Berlin.

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