In 2019, Billboard & DJ Magazine released their lists of the Top 100 DJs in electronic music (aka. EDM) and only 5 were women. The list exposed a longstanding bias within the EDM industry, one that continually marginalizes those who pioneered the music in the first place. In her eye-opening and empowering documentary Underplayed, director Stacey Lee highlights both the trailblazers and current innovators who are breaking barriers one pulsing beat at a time.
Underplayed makes it clear from the jump that the barriers female DJs face are not due to a lack of talent. Following artist such as Rezz, Alison Wonderland, Tokimonstra, Nervo, Tygapaw, Sherelle, Louisahhh and Nightwave as they navigate summer festivals and make or break gigs, Lee constructs a compelling tale of adversity and persistence. Each artist shares insight into how they craft their unique sounds and the hardships that come with being a woman in a male dominated industry. Lee displays how the meticulous detail that each musician puts into their sound is frequently discredited simply because of their gender.
Due to gender discrimination, female artists must constantly deal with rampant sexism, racism and misogyny from both industry insiders and fans. Tygapaw shares the hardship of finding one’s place within a conservative country and a male-centric music scene where women of colour are rarely embraced. In one piercing section Nightwave recounts how she was not only groped during a set at the famed Boiler Room, but then endured numerous death threats and hateful comments about her looks from those streaming the session online. The experience led to a bout with depression that nearly derailed her career.
This emphasis on looks is a double edge sword in more ways than one. Female DJs are criticized for not dressing sexy enough on one hand and for being too beautiful on the other, the latter of which is then misguidedly used to explain how they achieved their success.
The mentality that a woman’s success is either a result of their looks, affirmative action, or the involvement of a prominent male is damaging on several levels. Furthermore, it constantly forces female DJs to justify themselves. As Tokimonstra notes at one point, her Grammy nomination came with criticism that it is due to diversity and inclusion initiatives and not because of the music itself. Many did not consider the sheer raw talent needed for Tokimonstra, who was diagnosed with the rare brain disease Moyamoya, to create that album after undergoing two brain surgeries. In one telling sequence Lee observes the drastic differences that Wonderland experiences working with a male engineer, who refuse to listen to her, compared to a female engineer and all-female band who fully realize her vision.
The benefits of creating more spaces for women at every stage of the process is a prominent theme in Underplayed. By tracing the roots of EDM back to pioneers such as Suzanne Ciani, Clara Rockmore, Daphne Oram and more, Lee shines a light on how integral women were in pushing the boundaries of the technology. Considering the contributions of these pioneers, and that house and techno music were cultivated and championed by minorities within the queer communities in Chicago and Detroit, it is stunning how dominated the scene is by white males. As if a musical form of gentrification, what was once a safe space for the underrepresented has been turned into a financial windfall for those who co-opted the sound and claimed it as their own.
This systemic form of gatekeeping is what Underplayed wants to breakdown. As Lee’s beautifully shot film captures, there is value both artistically and financially in diversity. It is why diversity initiatives, such as Keychange and Inclusion Riders, along with social programs, such as Women’s Audio Mission, which teach young women how to produce electronic music, are so important. They give space to the 50% who have had their voices unfairly silenced for far to long. If EDM is designed for everyone to consume, then everyone should have the chance to make it as well.
Underplayed presents a sprawling and energetic portrait of a landscape in need of a change. Stacey Lee’s film will have one pumping your fist in solidarity with these insanely talented women while simultaneously bopping your head to their infectious beats.