Clubs, Cash and Cleavage

A brief look at the development of objectification in club culture — first published May 2015

In a recent Pitchfork column Phillip Sherburne catalogued the bleak and tawdry landscape of objectification in EDM. A real creepfest with promotion and events for the scene’s biggest stars awash with headless bodies and worse -

“Gary Richards’ ….. video for the song “Technology” is about a dude who gags, smothers, and returns as “defective” his sex-robot girlfriend when she has the audacity to fall in love with him”.

The issue has been raised to greater and lesser extent elsewhere.

While others are better qualified to write about the representation and real experience of women in club culture, I thought it might be useful to put EDM in context with a brief sketch of development through the years.

Disco, funk and rock of its day were all very much a product of seventies. While Eddie Kendricks was “all for women’s rights and equal nights”, the industry was perfecting a formula that would see it through the next decades.

Sex and sexual politics were a big if not defining theme in disco but if the double entendre that peppered the music seems harmless now in 2015, it displays a restraint that was rarely reflected on album covers which have not aged very well at all.

From thumping Moroder through ‘classy’ Salsoul, everything came packaged in skin. Aside from the nudity and ubiquitous headless bodies, the imagery and artwork was very clear in how roles were gendered. Women are rarely or barely dressed. Men by contrast, always look important and central. Men are in command and never mere prop, decoration or placement.

Prevailing culture and industry hunger demanded that music produced almost exclusively by men in recording studios needed a more appealing public face. This is the start, in dance music at least, of the hyper-visibility and use of a certain image of women that was rarely reflected on one side of the turntables.

Disco did not remain lucrative for long however and after a brief period when rave thought it could save the world, dance music objectification found a home in Britain where from the mid-nineties, mainstream dance music in the form of mix CDs, clubs, magazine, etc, were marketed almost entirely on the ‘Loaded’ magazine template.

Clubbing had become very big business. Brands and profit were on the rise. Whether you were queuing in dayglo in Sheffield or moschino in Vauxhall, all sounds and scenes had adopted the same promotional style, perpetuating an image of women that is narrow, straight, white and silent. Mixmag gave up putting anyone music related on the cover for around three years after the millennium. Hed Candi, a prolific commercial house label, came with a signature animation style of impossibly thin women. As the Summer season rolled round, high street compilation shelves bulged with bikinis and little else, while Ibiza Uncovered on SKY One was rooted in 90s ‘lad culture’, and all that entails.

We could see these examples as peripheral to the real business of clubbing, and much of it was in industry that always counted many successful women behind the scenes, but this is how events, records and names were sold to the world during one of clubbing’s big booms.

Just as this superstar DJ bubble burst, the record industry itself began to consolidate. House as-seen-on-TV ditched any pretence experimentation or clubbing cool, instead lip synching models with leg warmers and pneumatic drills competed with Britney and Outkast on Saturday morning charts. The overwhelming public face of dance music was concentrated in the hands of best resourced and very worst offenders. Many of whom went on to seek their next fortune in America.

Away from the big leagues, there was notable intersection when ‘UK Funky’ was in its prime around 2007. Despite being rooted in and catering to a majority black audience, flyers and posters always featured white women. Erasing women of colour from the public and promotional aspect was intended to give the impression [to the uninitiated, ie. police] that these were not garage, grime or bashment events and thus, avoided being shut down before even starting.

Around 2011, there was a pervasive trend of posting music (‘post-dubstep’) on youtube accompanied by American Apparel-style images of women wearing little more than oversized glasses. This was the result of an influx of new young male fans into the scene and dance music more generally, proof that macho bullshit was not confined to the ‘brostep’ they aimed to escape. Some prominent artists publicly took issue with this and how their music was being represented. A less admirable stance was adopted others.

All this is something forgotten when Hip Hop is problematised in isolation but with similar cash and target market now behind EDM, dance music is competing with everything else out there in the grim world of corporate spectacle.

Have things improved at all in the underground? Perhaps but some changes are not the result of increasing levels of consideration or latent feminist uptick. Flyers, posters and promotion look mostly identical now. There is a lot of creativity and photoshop wizardry but also a significant cohort susceptible to trend; same style, same fonts, same filters and the in-thing can very quickly turn to looking like a bargain bin Ministry of Sound CD, especially in the months when music looks towards Ibiza.

With a daily deluge of events and invites, promoters still opt for easiest way to grab our attention on facebook feeds or in some cases, stop you skipping that youtube advert after five seconds. Often, those manning the club visual desk still consider it necessary to project a fifteen-foot pair of flashing breasts on the wall at any given night out.

Collapse of record revenue has put an end to video and artwork of any description in most cases. Anyone who has the money for what is now considered an extravagance may tend to think a little harder about how they choose to represent the music they are already struggling to release and sell.

Back where it really matters, on the dancefloor, some clubs and promoters I am familiar with have explicit policies that reject the ‘meat market’ night out and aim to create a safer and more inclusive experience for all involved. Others make special effort to showcase the enormous female talent now out there.

What are other clubs waiting for?

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