The legacy of electronic dance music is built upon ideals of togetherness, inclusion, and joy. For women looking to work as DJs or producers in the industry, these ideals fail to uplift them in practice. Directed by Stacey Lee, the documentary Underplayed focuses on the struggles and breakthroughs of women in the electronic music industry, including DJs, producers, and engineers. There are a variety of interviews with current artists like Alison Wonderland, Rezz, Tokimonsta, and Sherelle. This combination of personal narratives and analysis of systemic injustices highlights the mental, physical, and economic toll sexism has on women in music.
Focusing on less public facing women (engineers, producers) allows Underplayed to explore topics often ignored in favour of flashy stories about the rise and fall of a celebrity. For viewers without much knowledge of music history, Lee does a great job at presenting the pivotal roles women like Delia Derbyshire, Clara Rockmore, and Daphne Oram played in the development of electronic music and technology. It is invigorating to learn more about how important women are in the history of music, yet hard to come to terms with the impact it has on girls to be systematically kept from engaging with their history. As with any medium of art, feeling a part of a lineage of artists is inspiring and creates a sense of existing in an artistic dialogue. By denying girls the opportunity to learn about the history of women in school, especially women artists, the narrative that there aren’t women in the arts is continually perpetuated despite being a blatant lie. Beyond “You can’t be what you can’t see,” girls grow up with a sense of creating in isolation instead of being able to understand their role in a shared, evolving history.
Because electronic music relies heavily on technical skills, the importance of education is repeatedly emphasized. As girls are discouraged from learning how to use technical equipment from a young age, many feel too far behind their male peers which often stops them from pursuing a career in engineering or producing. Lee’s focus on education and technical careers in the industry is the most effective way the documentary addresses systemic issues. Rezz’s and Alison Wonderland’s personal stories speak to being self taught and the anxiety and depression that stems from touring and dealing with sexist comments online.
While all these personal narratives serve the audience by introducing them to more artists, the documentary jumps between too many topics and narratives without diving deeply into a single one of them. However, this does not seem contradictory to Lee’s vision for the film. Because electronic music is not widely understood as an industry or culture, bringing viewers into different aspects of that world is more engaging for the average person than an in-depth exploration of music contracts. For fans of the genre, Lee truly respects the individual styles of each artist featured to ensure they don’t become a monolith. Booking festivals and contracts are discussed, yet not in a way that feels effective for imagining a way forward. Speaking about the issues is one thing, but putting forth solutions is an entirely different project. Underplayed exists between the two. Executives and journalists appear to speak concretely about issues of discrimination related to touring and booking festivals, yet the documentary does not break down the power structures within these festivals.
Systemic issues are presented throughout, yet the solutions highlighted at times feel more cosmetic. Representation is important, as is education, but those things alone can’t have a large enough impact until systems of oppression are dismantled and those who uphold them are stripped of power and influence. If you have an entire generation of young women, highly skilled in technology thanks to the educational initiatives started by women in the industry, they still won’t be hired unless those on top choose to hire them. At times, Underplayed prioritises lifting up individuals, mostly through focusing on the few women who did make it, as opposed to shifting the values of the music industry itself. The calls for more bookings, more festival headliners, and more tours ignores the health impact that the status quo has on musicians and artists of all backgrounds. Even men in music complain of grueling tour schedules and the struggles to maintain one’s health and mental stability. Attributing many of Rezz’s and Alison Wonderland’s struggles to sexism minimises the inhumane way that artists are treated under capitalism. The commodification of the self, practically a prerequisite for being in the arts today, is dehumanising no matter your gender identity, race, or class background. These struggles are of course compounded by sexism, racism, classism, and homophobia.
Of all the artists featured in Underplayed, it is DJ and producer TYGAPAW, a queer Jamaican immigrant based in Brooklyn, who seems to have the most forward thinking approach. TYGAPAW created Fake Accent, a monthly party to uplift and connect queer and trans artists of color. She goes into depth about how she is regularly excluded from larger festivals and fed up with being used by men in the industry. By partnering with other queer artists of color, TYGAPAW and her collaborators are more concerned with celebrating the history of dance music in their communities than “making it,” in a way that reinforces the norm. TYGAPAW’s anti-establishment approach feels like the only way forward in a world hyper fixated on commodifying and deifying individual artists as beacons of representation instead of reforming the structures that allow certain artists to become millionaires while others struggle to pay rent.
Underplayed succeeds at starting a conversation about the role of women in electronic music, producing, and sound engineering. Where it falls short, is in imagining a way forward that doesn’t rely on the existing structures. Highlighting how women who break barriers continue to suffer, even with immense success, suggests that our values and definitions of success are warped to fit a patriarchal ideal that discourages care and community. Hopefully, Lee’s film is a wake up call to the electronic music community and it reimagines itself according to its founding principles.
UNDERPLAYED IS AVAILABLE ON THE AMAZON MUSIC MOBILE APP AND AMAZON PRIME VIDEO FROM MONDAY, MARCH 8 – INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY