Electro Feminisms: Authorship and the Gendered Division of Labor

Emily McAvan
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So, I’m going to start off the series proper with a really basic but often forgotten point: making music is work. Rewarding and fun work, to be sure, but work all the same. Like just about everything in a kyriarchy, the divisions of labor in making electronic music lead to an unequal distribution of value, financially, and artistically. Who gets paid and how much, and who gets credit.

In many ways, when we talk about music we use a kind of expressive individualist vocabulary—the songwriter’s the most important creative element, the person who will often get the most praise and the largest share of the royalties. If an artist is a singer-songwriter, so much the better, because we imagine an unmediated link between the artist’s soul (oh how romantic!) and the finished product. The songwriter becomes the musical equivalent of the author.

But most modern popular music from the post-War boom onward doesn’t really work like that. Think about the traditional division in pop music—vocalist-artist in the spotlight, consumed as a “product,” and then the writers, producers and musicians in the studio out of the spotlight. That’s the Motown model, the Brill and Phil Spector model. And that has had some seriously gendered consequences, with female artists often consigned as “proteges” to the male producer-auteur-genius. Even when women write their own lyrics or co-produce, they’re still often considered “products” of the broader, mostly male process.

When we get to electronic dancefloor music of house and rave in the late ’80s and early ’90s (what Simon Reynolds calls “the hardcore continuum”), the process has undergone yet another twist—suddenly the (usually male) producer is the artist, and the vocalist (usually female) is relegated to a “featuring.” Or worse yet, the vocalist isn’t credited at all, a scenario most likely in days gone by when sampled vocals appeared uncredited and unpaid for on many a record.

All of this means that the agency and artistic contributions of female vocalists are often drastically undervalued. Songwriting and the finessing of sound in the production process become valued as forms of authorship, but the equally valuable role of interpretation by a vocalist (which can make or break a record) is less likely to be seen as a form of authorship, because our ideas of what constitutes authorship are really print-derived and leave little space for the dynamism of performance.

To make this really concrete, let’s have a listen to some tunes ^_^

Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting” was a song from her 1985 album Hounds of Love. It’s a great song, featuring some wonderful vocal runs from Kate.

Seven years later, house act Utah Saint’s “Something Good” sampled some strings and six seconds of vocal from the song (1:02-1:08), just one line: “ohh I just know something good’s gonna happen.” They then pitched the sample up higher into a helium register and fashioned a whole song around that riff. It’s a clever use of a sample, and still sounds amazing today.

But the process is indicative of the inequitable gender division of labor; producers Utah Saints are the artist here—with the hype man handily shouting out their name—while Kate Bush is credited as one of the writers but not the artist. It’s not so much Bush’s role as a songwriter in this case that makes the sample incredible—on the page, the line sounds relatively banal—it’s the way that she’s phrased the vocals, the melismatic “ohh.” So it’s the performative quality of the vocal that is in the end the stamp of authorship in this case, I think, but it’s the fact that Bush wrote the song that gets the credit in the liner notes.

A decade and a half later, the song was re-recorded as “Something Good 08” with another singer mimicking Bush’s distinctive vocal, leaving her as something of a spectral presence in the song, present and absent.

And this is a process that occurs over and over in electronic dance music, usually with far more obscure female artists than Kate Bush, and many of them being women of color. We’ll see more of this when I discuss disco diva Loleatta Holloway, and her own sample afterlife.

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4 Comments Have Been Posted

Very interesting

I love how this analysis disentangles the many aspects of authorship with social justice issues in mind --music authorship both in general, and in reference to a particular phrase (which was created/written then performed, recorded, mixed, produced, and branded and sold, etc...)
As you say, "it's the performative quality of the vocal that is in the end the stamp of authorship in this case" but the writing gets the credit. And that part of what motivates the reuse of the sample in other songs are the acts of "authorship" that get no written credit. And what is written gets weight. I wonder also about the effect that legal obligations have? What kind of credit is legally required, and, how does it emphasize the importance of the "writer" vs the "performer"?
I do feel that the production process is part of the authoring, but the division of labour and differential valuing of labour is important to critique. Technical "authoring" skills that use what is readily understood as "technology" (the recording studio as used by sound engineers and producers) is also culturally coded as male; women historically have received far less social and material support for being involved in this aspect of authorship.
Also, technological skill expectations in general are often raced and classed (for example, the social belief that whites and asians are naturally good with technology, but that black and aboriginal people are not). Access to contemporary technology and training is unequally distributed in the kyriarchy!
Finally, the idea of "the natural" as it gets applied to female performers concerns me. There often seems to be an insidious assumption that the female vocalist's or artist's contribution is somehow natural to her, therefore eliminating the credit due her training, skills, work and experience, and informed artistic choices. And does this insidious idea apply differently based on the race of the artist?
These issues may even apply to the recording studio --a female vocalist/artist may not always take a turn at the controls in the control room, but she must learn and perfect the skills necessary to successfully perform with the recording studio environment/technology, and minimize wasted time and money. Is this not also a technical skill?
Sorry for starting to ramble. I'm looking forward to more posts!

Not rambling at all - that's

Not rambling at all - that's a great comment. I definitely agree that the technical skill of the vocalist is minimised, there's a really profound mind/body split with huge gender and race implicfations (blackness as the body, as natural)...

And yes, that's a vital point about access to technology and the way it's linked to authorship (plus, ownership of masters!) - it really sets up a system in favour of the cis white dudes behind the scenes who've historically controlled access to the means of production.

Can't wait to see more

I'm excited about this series. I wonder if you'll venture into the spat between Diplo and MIA over creative authorship of Arular? As a Diplo fan, feminist, and anti-racist, that whole situation left me torn. I'd love to read a more thoughtful analysis than what Pitchfork tried to provide.


As a woman who had a love/hate relationship with the electronic dance music industry for many years (1990s-early 2000's) as both a DJ and a critic/reviewer (and later editor of Dance Music Authority Magazine, outta Chicago), I'm excited to see this series and only wish I'd had the brains and the ovaries to take it on myself when I was actually IN the scene. Instead I mostly grumbled under my breath and to those around me about the same issues, and eventually I let it wear me down. I've been retired from the dance music scene altogether for 5-6 years now, but all of your observations here - particularly the imbalance between the status of the mostly female singers/performers and the mostly male producers/remixers - were not lost on me while I was in that life. In fact, drove me crazy. Kudos, and I look forward to reading more.

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