Trends of 2013: Let’s talk about gendered production, baby

Steph Kretowicz takes a look at what vocal processing by SOPHIE, Planningtorock, Mykki Blanco and Beyonce revealed about sexual politics in 2013.

One track to consider as central to 2013: Full of Fire by The Knife, an inflamed call for radical change that smashed through a seven-year hush from the Swedish production duo. And it’s not the clipped and crumbling drum machine that insists on moving angrily forward or the churning histrionics of a synth-that’s-had-enough that grabs me. Instead, it’s the final 16 seconds of the nine-minute offensive, where Karin Dreijer-Andersson growls, “let’s talk about gender, baby" - her voice half disintegrating, half drowning in the bile of its own vocal filter before stopping cold - that speaks volumes.

Last year, I commented on vocal production and its role in challenging gender paradigms across releases by the likes of Holly Herndon, Laurel Halo and Planningtorock. These were examples of performers taking control of their transmission and self-representation through filters (or lack thereof). One year on, Laurel Halo has released a follow up to the awkward and unsettling union of her untreated voice and soggy sonic ambience of ‘Quarantine’ with ‘Chance of Rain’ and Planningtorock, after chasing her 2013-defining Patriarchy Over & Out with the equally as explicit Misogyny Drop Dead, has announced a new album for February 2014. The sentiment seems the same, but things have definitely changed.

Recently, Jam Rostron of Planningtorock told me that not all her vocals in the upcoming ‘All Love’s Legal’ are pitched, instead finding a “queer voice” that has evolved as much naturally over the years as it has been manipulated electronically. Meanwhile, Laurel Halo’s ‘Chance of Rain’ features virtually no vocals at all. Instead, it’s pop artists like Beyonce and Lady Gaga that are playing with their registers, and men like Slava, Visionist and SOPHIE who are either taking the feminine voice and changing it to suit a personal agenda or feminising their own. But this shift in focus – the absorption of what was a subversive play on paradigms from the sex marked as "other" – doesn’t necessarily mean dominant perceptions of gender have changed. It’s highly likely that awareness of transgression-via-vocals has. “It’s totally the norm now”, says Rostron over the phone from her base in Berlin about the growing trend for pitch-shifting in popular culture, “nobody really has a problem with it so that’s really great.” I wish I shared her optimism.

“Why should I want to convert or compete with people who basically don’t have an interest in what I’m thinking about and are incapable of opening up and thinking differently?” - Planningtorock

It’s telling that, aside from a heavily processed sneeze in Oneirai and the occasional spoken transmission buried in the sonic stream of Still/Dromos, Laurel Halo’s ‘Chance of Rain’ features no vocals. After releasing the divisive and much talked-about ‘Quarantine’ last year, the response to the follow-up has been comparatively subdued. One wonders whether a lot of that has to do with the fact that the record engages its audience on a purely sensory level, where tone, mood and sonic palette are privileged beyond any easily communicable concept. Laurel Halo’s positioning on the creative margins, as a woman in the typically male-dominated electronic music scene, goes unacknowledged, the artist refusing the embodied narrative that follows external perspectives and concerns regarding her gender. Not much to talk about then.

On the other hand, Rostron finds vocals that are only partially changed, while refusing to fully integrate technology. If you think about it, technology is inherently patriarchal - not only led by progress, but developed in professional fields dominated by men. Any vocal manipulation through technology is bound up with that history. Hence, Rostron’s genderless voice on ‘All Love’s Legal’ – part manipulated, part not – works in contrast to the binary defining what is typically "masculine" or "feminine". That’s in parallel to the fact that – after ‘W’ was put out by James Murphy’s DFA – Rostron is releasing ‘All Love’s Legal’ entirely independently, on her own Human Level label. She also shares a studio with other feminist artists – including Olof Dreijer of The Knife and French-born producer rRoxymore (whose warped and wobbly Lonely Ritournelle XIII is brilliant, by the way) – and prefers to keep transnational feminist company on stage: “Why should I want to convert or compete with people who basically don’t have an interest in what I’m thinking about and are incapable of opening up and thinking differently?”

That’s not to say Rostron is a separatist, but she is interested in thinking about using separatism “as a means to getting equality”. That poses some interesting possibilities when it comes to this idea of evading commodification – something that misappropriated auto-tune appears to have failed to do in 2013. On the one hand, by refusing to engage with dominant culture directly, you do risk being compartmentalised and ignored through the very marginalisation you’re protesting. On the other, by operating outside these imposed structures you open yourself up to a whole range of possibilities.

“I’m realising how ashamed of my femininity I’ve always been. Since I was really young, I’ve been trying to prove that I was okay because I wasn’t that feminine.” - Bianca Casady, CocoRosie

It’s worth noting that Mykki Blanco, also mentioned in last year’s comment on gendered production, abandoned the feminised vocal manipulations of his ‘Cosmic Angel: Illuminati Prince/ss’ mixtape for the macho posturing and masculine signifiers of the ‘Betty Rubble: The Initiation’ EP in 2013. It might make you wonder what happened, if not for the instinctive answer being 'because it’s powerful'. It's the same instinct that leads Beyonce, when she wants to establish her authority in response to the claims of her being Jay-Z’s “little wife” in the two-part Hit-Boy, Timbaland and Polow Da Don-produced Bow Down/ I Been On, to take command (with a “capital B”) through excessively pitched-down vocals as she brags, “I was in that Willie D video when I was about 14, looking crazy”. The implication being that he legitimises her claims to authority in the same way as acting 'like a man' defines Mykki Blanco’s social value on masculine terms.

Power, and the desire for it, is hierarchical, oppressive and ultimately destructive and yet it’s valued above all else in a patriarchal economy. That’s how money works, and why one per cent of the global population has 43 per cent of the world’s wealth, the majority having virtually nothing - maybe masculinity isn’t so desirable after all. As Judith Butler wrote (and as The Knife's 'Shaking The Habitual' re-iterated this year), gender is identity performed, and acting ‘like a man’ is no different to being one. That could be why Planningtorock has stepped away from manipulating any distinguishing gender signifiers with pitch-shifting in ‘All Love’s Legal’, at the same time as emailing Dummy with a list of her top 10 favourite tracks of 2013 all ranked at number one because she detests hierarchy: “you don’t need this other way of having power over people”, she explains.

“I thought about writing songs like Patriarchy Over & Out or Misogyny Drop Dead and I thought that if people have a problem with that, then that’s interesting" - Planningtorock

Voluntarily acceding this power, defaulted by virtue of what side of the gender binary he falls on, is an artist like SOPHIE. A nebulous persona, he's referred to as 'he' while pitching his (or what are assumed to be his) vocals to acutely ‘girlish’ levels and squealing, “I can make you feel better!” over an ecstatic, demented carom. For some it can be read as the sonic equivalent of a drunken bridegroom wearing a dress, which is apparently humiliating - but only because of the weakness femininity implies within a patriarchal construct. That’s why Bianca Casady, the cross-dressing, baby-voiced half of New York sister duo CocoRosie, who released another explicitly feminist album, 'Tales of GrassWidow', this year, attributes a part of her early drag performance to a search for visibility: “I’m realising how ashamed of my femininity I’ve always been", she says. "Since I was really young, I’ve been trying to prove that I was okay because I wasn’t that feminine.”

In a way, acting 'like a man' marginalises your femininity; by presenting something in opposition to what Holly Herndon last year defined as the “mystical other”, you presume its existence. After all, why was it harder for me to believe that SOPHIE is a ‘boy’ assuming a 'girl' name and playing music that’s high-pitched, than that Rostron who is “maybe identified as a woman” mixes her vocal register half the time? It makes one think that I, at least, am still functioning on a prejudice that privileges certain characteristics above others; one that is ingrained in the very language often used to describe them.

So then, two decades on from Salt N Pepa’s Let’s Talk About Sex, discourse around sound has only just moved on to gender, via lyrics in The Knife’s Full of Fire, to a crunchy, disrupted disco rework titled Let's Talk About Gender Baby, Let's Talk About You And Me by Planningtorock. It’s a conversation that’s long outgrown the harmful binaries arbitrarily applied to an already reductive perception of biology, moving on to questions of power and exploitation: “I thought about writing songs like Patriarchy Over & Out or Misogyny Drop Dead and I thought that if people have a problem with that, then that’s interesting,” says Rostron about her decision to make things clear, lyrically, when it comes to her latest material. “Because who would have a problem with this thought of misogyny dropping dead? And why?” Perhaps we should reconsider. 

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