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This is something I wrote back in 2003, and recently unearthed on an ancient website. It’s very college-essay-y but I wanted to rebroadcast it anyway. SO WHAT.
“By disrupting stereotypical codes of gender and sexuality through a parody of artifice and masquerade that challenges patriarchy, these artists remind us that music can function as a key vehicle in deconstructing fixed notions of gendered identity in everyday life.” –Stan Hawkins
“It’s avant-garde, it’s honest, it’s taking chances and most of all it’s original.” –Tiga
A post-modern stage on which every possible Western conception of gender confusion and ambiguity is flaunted: this is Electro. The music genre of electro (originally extant ~1978-89), a term I will use that also includes its younger sibling electroclash (~1998-present), is home to gender-meaningful displays, interpretations, and interactions in nearly its every aspect. There is enough material to analyze from a gender perspective to write at great length, and so I have narrowed my peripherals to concentrate on a unique aspect of electro: its proclivity towards and acceptance of androgyny. Gender ambiguities of all varieties have been accepted since its birth, and continue in the resurgence of electro-styled music at the turn of the twenty-first century. My examination of electro music will point out signs of androgyny and gender confusion and search for possible explanations. However, examples of androgyny in lyric and dress are as prolific as the possible causes that originated them.
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In Williamsburg, NYC.
I have been watching a heavy, possibly excessive, amount of jubilant electro pop/electro hop music videos of late. I’ve noticed some commonalities, and have formulated some theories.
The electro pop music videos that have entranced me range from low-budget local projects to polished, lavish videos accompanying international chart-topping hits. They come from Tampa, Seattle, Kansas City, London, Paris, and Oslo.
2. Other neon 80s colors
3. 70s disco-inspired beats and outfits
4. 60s-esque trippy imagery (think Yellow Submarine or further back to Ernie Kovacs‘ style of comedy)
5. Flat color fields (a flat monochrome background, for example, somewhat reminiscent of the 1950s Color Field style of painting)
6. Happy fantasy-land settings
7. Heavy borrowings from/incorporation of gay culture
8. In many, queering of gender roles (as well as equal space for men & women, queers & straights)
Watching Mika’s “Relax, (Take it Easy)” you can see the seamless confluence of many of these elements. What interests me specifically in music videos like this is how influences have been plucked from several different decades and woven together to create a look/sound both distinctly modern, yet unmistakably retro. And, why these influences?
There are some concessions to make immediately. Many of the elements of these music videos could be dismissed as pure escapism. Other elements can be dismissed as simply “trendy”. And for a certain set of the artists making these videos, budget constraints significantly define the aesthetic of the final result.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I’d like to prod a little deeper. Color fields and disco beats are minimalist and stripped-down. They reduce their respective mediums (color and beat) to their most essential quality – i.e. clear out a lot of bullshit. They provide the background and foundation for the vision and message of the artists. Built on top of that is a very interesting structure indeed.
First, I would like to say a word about fuchsia. This color is significant in electro pop for a couple reasons. The color that actually appears in the majority of these videos is “Fashion Fuchsia” or “Hollywood Cerise” which is a color developed in the 20th century specifically for women’s clothing and having movie-star connotations. The color Fuchsia also has a life in the world of gay code-terms, possibly because it is a relative of lavender, and it is no stretch to assume that its frequent invocation represents both a reference to gay culture and to feminine Hollywood glamor. It was also popular in the 80s, and appears accompanied by many other neon or fluorescent colors that enjoyed a similar popularity in that decade.
The 70s and 80s references of the videos seem to cluster around the disco/synth aesthetic of the years 1976-1984 (more or less). Limited synthesizer and drum machine technology formed the boundaries of the electronic beats and sounds the artists were able to develop. Fortuitously for cash-strapped electro pop artists in the 00s, these sounds are relatively cheap and easy to replicate, and so continue on in a retro life.
Fashion choices for current groups also draw from this time period. This is probably because the subcultures (the gay club scene, early NYC hip hop, the backlash against the hyper-masculinity of some underground 70s rock music, art school students, performance artists) that birthed electro pop’s predecessors, disco and synth pop, also form a direct lineage to today’s subcultures that produce the electro pop. After a rather masculine music terrain in the 1990s, where grunge, alternative rock, gangsta rap, and rap-rock were prominent, electro pop music that started exploding in the late 90s and early 00s could again be a backlash against hyper-masculinity in music.
One can see the references to hip hop in some rapped lyrics, posture and movement in the videos, and blingy jewelry. This is no accident, as some early forms of hip hop, electro funk and/or electro hop (Afrika Bambaataa, Hashim, Jonzun Crew), did successful experiments in electronically-produced beats.
The influence of gay culture on disco and synth pop at this time (76-84) was huge (Sylvester, Marc Almond, Patrick Cowley, etc), and this is by no means lost in contemporaneous electro pop. If anything, it is even more pronounced, most likely because of a more accepting social climate today. Having historically sprouted from subcultures more equitable towards gays and women than the mainstream, electro genres foster higher participation from these groups than other genres do. The jubilant tone of much of the music from this time and these genres (pre-AIDS epidemic) is reflected in contemporary electro.
What may be the truly fascinating element of current electro pop is this jubilance. I see it expressed most clearly in the use of trippy and fantastic design and images. While many would write off trippy images like in “Relax, (Take it Easy)” or Justice’s “D.A.N.C.E” as mere celebration of drugs and odes to escapism, I detect more nuance. The trippy images hearken back to the experimentations of 1960s drug culture, and its peace and love tone. While having a psychedelic experience involves liberating the mind from its ordinary thought routines or exploring new levels of consciousness and could refer to any decade, the style of these electro pop music videos directly refers to graphic styles of the 60s. They relate to a nostalgic feeling for the exuberance of the youth culture pre-1968. In many ways 1968 was a year of innocence lost: end of the Prague Spring, My Lai Massacre, Mao Zedong’s reeducation programs, MLK and RFK assassinations, the French demonstrations, and killing of college students by the military in the US and Mexico.
By doggedly focusing on the jubilance of subcultures pre-loss of innocence (1968, AIDS), electro pop is defying the general consensus that liberal-minded people should be feeling downcast. Electro pop artists are searching for time periods from which to draw their happy aesthetic. Though they, as anyone, are inundated with messages of how the world is awry, from global warming to unethical corporations to international conflict, they are defiantly happy. They carefully select cultural references to signal to their listeners and viewers. And they choose to celebrate, dance and be uninhibited.
Well, maybe that is escapism to you, but to me, these days it seems like an outright political statement.
(c) idyllicmollusk 6/16/08