Gender Ambiguities in Electro Music

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.

“Electroclash ist der Punk des Electro.” –Ministry of Sound
Undoubtedly a solid jumping-off point for any discussion of electro music would be a definition of what is meant by the term “electro”. Different people will give differing definitions, but after perusing a number of sources, there seems to be a general consensus. In the late 1970s and during the 1980s, electro was a particular form of post-punk New Wave distinguished as pop-oriented electronic dance music. It was characterized by synthesized danceable beats, futuristic themes, hedonism, post-modern appropriation, and an appreciation for art and fashion. Androgyny has also been noticed as a common characteristic by some authors. For reference, electro bands of note include Human League, Soft Cell, and the Pet Shop Boys. Beginning around 1998 there has been a resurgence of similar music, centering in NYC, Detroit, Montreal, and Berlin. This music was dubbed “electroclash” in 2001 by promoter, producer, and DJ Larry Tee. It differs in that it has taken 80s electro and selected and emphasized certain elements, such as sterilized beats and dispassionate vocals, to create a new and slanted version of what originally took place, a “parallel universe, an alternative history scenario. . .” (Reynolds 1) It has also taken fluffy dance music and added a DIY punk sensibility and a harder edge. “When people say how 80s it is, I wonder if people actually think most kids grew up on Nitzer Ebb and DAF,” says Larry Tee. He has a point of course, though the influence of the 80s in current electro music cannot be forgotten, especially in a discussion of gender.

“Even queens can feel like kings . . .” –Tony Ware
Unusual gender expressions can be found strewn throughout electro’s history. Music of the 80s “threw the stark gender distinctions heartily established by previous rock generations into great confusion.” (Williams 2) From the very start of electro circa 1978 we find pictures of electro artist Gary Numan wearing tight, tailored suits, carefully styled hair, and black eyeliner. For many electro men and women, this halfway-between-man-and-woman look of Numan became standard. It was embraced by Marc Almond of Soft Cell, Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics, Grace Jones, and Steve Strange of Visage, to name a few. Women began wearing suits, short hair, and walking, singing, and moving with a masculine air. Men frequently found it acceptable to go out in clothing cut in a suggestively feminine way, clothing that previously would have been stereotyped as “gay.” They also began to wear a noticable amount of make-up, and not as a mockery in the vein of 70s cross-dressing rock group New York Dolls. Red lipstick, silver eyeshadow, and black eyeliner adorned male faces peering out from 80s record covers, and the make-up was worn with self-accepting pride.

This blatant and celebrated androgyny was a development peculiar to New Wave and to electro in particular. Musicians “tended toward a futuristic, robotic sound (synth, drum machines) and stylized androgynous dress.” (Williams 6) Messages were mixed. Make-up and suits, a slim, feminine figure and an authoritative, masculine gait now complemented each other. Women didn’t necessary look like men, or men like women, but instead many hovered somewhere vaguely in-between. They were androgyns, and they presented themselves openly on album covers, in photo-shoots, and in videos as attractive sex symbols.

There is also a contingent of male artists who, though commonly known as male, chose to dress in unmistakably female garb. Two important examples are Boy George of Culture Club and Pete Burns of Dead or Alive. These two men wore long feminine hairstyles, loads of makeup and jewelry, and commonly donned women’s clothing and underwear. Once again gender ambiguity is at work, and it is up to speculation whether it wasn’t the very fashion decisions that made them seem so outrageous which helped them climb to success and score notable mainstream hits, such as “Karma Chameleon” and “You Spin Me Right Round”.

This trend has by no means disappeared from the aesthetic of today’s [this refers to 2003 –Havlovà] electroclash. Androgyny is something of an ideal, both for the musicians and their fans. Walking into a current electro club, one is often confronted with a slender, dark-eyed DJ of indiscriminate gender and a crowd of fashionable, black-eyelinered patrons, girls dancing with boys, boys dancing with boys, girls with girls, and androgyns ubiquitous. Twenty-something males are wearing make-up and tight shirts again, while the females frequently sport supershort hair to go with their shirt-sleeves and ties. Matt Munday of the London Times described an electro club in NYC as “a youthful, polysexual glamour-fest.” (Drinko 4)

The electro artists of the turn of the century certainly lead the androgyny rebellion. Females are nearly as active as males in making electro music. There is a general respect and acceptance of multiple gender and sexuality expressions. In bands of mixed sex, the male and female members are at times hard to distinguish, as can be seen in the band Ladytron, which includes four members of varying gender and nationality. In a recent photo-shoot all four members dressed in identical Devo-esque futuristic jumpsuits, their short hair similarly styled. Nicola and Adam of Adult. are at times barely distinguishable from each other in their monochromatic black pants and button-down shirts. The male members of Fischerspooner don makeup and outrageous clothing for their live performances. While “normal” masculinity and femininity are still expressed by some electroclash musicians, the number of those that choose to deviate is certainly significant.

What are these artists trying to say? Why are androgyny and other forms of gender ambiguity so omnipresent in electro music? What is it about this seemingly innocuous dance music that attracts gender deviants? These are complex questions with a variety of possible answers.

“In den Electroclash-Shows vereinen sich die gegensätzlichsten Elemente zu neuen Metaphern eines elektronischen Zeitalters, in dem die Grenzen zwischen Musik, Kunst, Mode, Glamour, Trash und Sex längst nicht mehr existieren.” –Ministry of Sound
Perhaps it would make sense to consider the musical climate at the end of the 70s. That decade was a time dominated by masculinity-celebrating rock bands, comprised largely of straight white males and intended for a similar audience. For those of us that don’t remember, the 70s were the heyday for bands à la Lynard Skynard. Things were beginning to change when by the latter half of the decade phenomena such as David Bowie, the New York Dolls, and Lou Reed reigned. These musicians cross-dressed freely, some in jest, some in earnest. The result was that young music fans became accustomed to gender irregularities by the time New Wave and electro hit. The electro musicians took their cue from the rest of 70s (masculine) rock and decided it was time to do something entirely different. The involvement of women increased and the image of men become softened and cultivated. Gender-bending began in earnest, and not as a mockery, almost at the birth of the genre as was noted previously in the example of Gary Numan.

A very different yet chronologically parallel music movement that influenced electro’s androgyny was the gay disco of the 70s and early 80s. The most widely known example is the Village People. Styles and musical cues were appropriated, as well as part of the audience. Also influential was the NYC gay community tradition of vogue-ing- an elaborate style of competitive dance which occurred in a party environment where cross-dressing was encouraged and admired. The dance style and feminized attire for males later broke out in a minor way into the mainstream. Appropriations from gay culture were accompanied by an interest in cross-dressing and an open attitude towards gender expression.

Electro appealed to both gay and straight audiences, and everyone in between, and so exposed all to gender-crossed modes of dress previously only regarded as “gay”. Some (though not all) of the most showy cross-dressers and cross-genderists were gay and bisexual. Because of gay disco’s influence on electro, it was an accepting genre for such people to express themselves in. Many popular electro songs deal with gay themes, including songs by the Pet Shop Boys and Depeche Mode. Currently, electro is again enjoyed and inspired by a certain queer constituency. “Area 10009 [an electro club] serves a mixed clientele of gay boys, lesbians, bisexuals, transsexuals, heterosexuals, fag hags, asexuals, pansexuals, et al.” (Drinko 4) Larry Tee described another electro club, Badd, as drawing a crowd of “drag queens, disaffected gays, fashion straights, . . . Alterna-rockers, and electro freaks.” (Reynolds 2) It is no doubt that electroclash’s embrace of numerous sexualities is based on the precedent set by the 80s installment of electro and that this helps explain the occurrence of gender ambiguity.

This radical acceptance of a wide range of gender and sexuality expressions can also be viewed on a political stage. Androgynous and other gender-confused modes of dress are not yet so accepted that they can’t be considered a daring statement. In current society, the feminized men of electro are the most problematic and disruptive to the ideal of the rugged, masculine male. Other authors have a lot to say on this subject. Says Sara Hoagland, “I will argue that behaviors typically labeled feminine indicate not submission, but rather resistance, to [traditional] male domination.” In the same source, another writer states that androgyny “seeks to liberate the individual from the confines of the appropriate.” (cited by Trebilcot 165.) These statements seem to harmonize with electro’s hedonistic and occasionally counter-cultural position. From a political angle, electro artists were attempting a gender revolution. They were familiarizing large audiences with androgyny and other forms of alternate gender expression. They weren’t interested in what was appropriate- they were concerned with what felt right. Electro artists felt uncomfortable with the roles and modes society had to offer, and wanted to break society’s traditional gender values. Current electroclash has picked up the slack where the 80s left off. “. . . the lyrics of many electroclash songs [are] anti-establishment in a similar vein as punk and hardcore genres.” (Drinko 3) Michael Alig, a former electro promoter, was quoted saying that nightclubs are “places where the counterculture forms and places its attack on the mainstream.” (Drinko 7)

Electro musicians are taking part in a political dialogue on gender in their music, fashion, and their club spaces. They are rejecting the status quo and societal norms in favor of a post-modern hodgepodge of gender variance. The androgynous dress and egalitarian male versus female involvement of electro can be viewed as direct attacks on Western patriarchy. The electroclash of today has examined its musical predecessors and appropriated what it considers the best elements for its own reuse. Though merely ‘dance music’, “Representations of subtle and serious address in the lyrics are set against blissful, escapist, party-time musical texts . . .” (Hawkins 122) These statements on the serious issue of gender persist and indicate that this genre of music has something important to say. Electro appears to have a problem with patriarchy, and attacks this establishment through music and fashion.

“There’s a nostalgia for a time when pop was full of superfreaks and weirdos.” –Simon Reynolds
Electro music is a rich source to tap in examining our own culture. Through its unabashed displays of values through music and fashion, it gives us clues to the mindset of the generations that created and enjoyed it. Electro has a lot to tell us about androgyny and gender ambiguity. These elements can be found prolifically throughout the genre, and their possible explanations pull back the skin on deeper cultural happenings. Electro was influenced by such divergent social forces as patriarchy and gay culture, and it responds to its cultural environment with social and political messages. Electro music can be a breath of fresh air for those who feel confined by society’s strict gender roles, or it can be nothing more than the light-hearted music you dance to when you go to a club.

Cagle, Van M. Reconstructing Pop / Subculture. California: SAGE Publications, Inc. 1995.
Drinko, Clayton. Ephemeral Gender Politics of Eighties-Influenced Club Spaces in New York. University of New York, 2003.
“Electroclash – Was ist das?” Ministry of Sound. 2003.
Hawkins, Stan. “The Pet Shop Boys,” Sexing the Groove, edited by Sheila Whiteley. London: Routledge, 1997.
Hoagland, Sarah Lucia. “Femininity, Resistance, and Sabotage,” “Femininity,” “Masculinity,” and “Androgyny”, edited by Mary Vetterling-Braggin. New Jersey: Littlefield, Adams & Co. 1982.
Reynolds, Simon. “Electroclash, interred in a sarcophagus of faint praise…” Blissout. 2002.
Simels, Steven. Gender Chameleons, Androgyny in Rock ‘n’ Roll. New York: Timbre Books/ Arbor House, 1985.
Trebilcot, Joyce. “Two Forms of Androgynism,” “Femininity,” “Masculinity,” and “Androgyny”, edited by Mary Vetterling-Braggin. New Jersey: Littlefield, Adams & Co. 1982.
Ware, Tony. “Electroclash Titans,” Creative Loafing Atlanta. July 31-Aug. 6, 2002.
Williams, Sara F. “She blinded me with science”: Technology, Androgyny, and Mass Media in 1980s Music Culture. Northwestern University, 2003.

3 thoughts on “Gender Ambiguities in Electro Music

  1. “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.”

    Ouch, not even mention of the original website that published your article. For shame!

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