In the 2002 song "Without Me," Eminem told Moby: "You're too old, let go, it's over/Nobody listens to techno!" He was wrong, of course. And in a cruel twist of fate, techno ended up outlasting Slim Shady himself. The Detroit native wasn't oblivious to techno (a genre his hometown played a crucial role in); it's just that — though it had already bored its head above ground in Europe — mainstream electronic music had a slow birth in America. But what began in the underground has since developed into mainstream music's dominant sound.
Dutch-born DJ Tiësto was one of the first artists to take EDM mainstream in America. His 2000 compilation Summerbreeze introduced trance to an untapped audience, which grew larger as he toured the States, something that wasn't common for DJs to do at the time. "In the '90s/early 2000s, there was this electronica explosion that captivated the world, and there was a nice presence in the USA," Tiësto says. "But looking back, I'd be lying if I said I thought it would get this big."
By "this big," Tiësto means the incredible rise of EDM over the past decade. What was marginalized music at the turn of the millennium has evolved into a popular phenomenon. "[Early electronica] faded but came back 100 times larger with EDM. Just the scale of this industry and the serious business involved is mind-blowing."
Some say EDM first met the American mainstream with Madonna's 1998 album, Ray of Light. The Queen of Pop made the genre's synthesized rhythms and bass lines accessible. She was an icon, a musical Midas, who released a dance-infused electronic album at just the right time. Madonna didn't invent anything new but repackaged electronic dance music for popular audiences to satisfy their latent desires. In this sense, the rise of EDM was inevitable. And the way the youths of today have adopted this genre seems like a natural fit for Tiësto. "Young people always want to dance and have fun — there's no better type of music for them. The potential for dance music was always there."
Madonna may have cleared a trail for EDM into mainstream America, but Tiësto solidified interest in the music. Songs such as "Silence," a remix featuring vocals by Sarah McLachlan, set a precedent for strong female vocalists and gave DJs a blueprint from which to build their next hit.
Men may be at the wheel, but women fuel EDM. Not only do women make up much of the audience, but also female vocals have become something of a staple in EDM tracks that reach the top of the charts. "Female artists have been crucial to the development of dance music," Tiësto admits. "Some of the biggest tracks in dance music history have featured amazing female vocalists."
Yet despite women's vital role in its scene, EDM is often plagued by misogyny. Women are regularly objectified, hypersexualized, and degraded on Twitter by well-known DJs. One of Diplo's favorite Twitter pastimes is to encourage his female fans to film themselves doing a sort of twerking handstand. The lucky ones get a retweet. Yet, for no lack of talent, female DJs are exotic and conspicuous in their rarity.
Thus the female form has two apparent roles in popular EDM: that of the singer and that of the dancer. The one depicts the female's voice — disembodied, angelic, and unattainable. The other brands her as an object to be groped and ogled. She's both worshipped and debased, and in both cases dehumanized.
Tiësto isn't oblivious to this issue: "I'm very aware and appreciative of [women's role in EDM]. I don't really know why there's not more of a female DJ presence out there. I mean, there are some great female names on the scene, but it would be great to see more." However, he doesn't inconvenience himself simply to include female artists in his music. Asked why he features so many female vocalists, he admits it's about what sounds good. "Every situation is different. I like both female and male vocalists. I think it's about what feels right in the studio."
Meanwhile, Calvin Harris is more explicit about his affinity for female vocals. Harris told The Guardian: "They're always at the perfect frequency to play in a club. A good, soaring, high-mid female vocal bounces off the walls nicely, and it doesn't interfere with the bass or drumbeat. It's basic science. A man's voice is likely to interfere with the bass line, which is why you don't hear many classic dance tracks with a male lead."
Like so many EDM producers, Harris glorifies the female voice, if not the female body. In his video for "Thinking About You," the camera spends 30 seconds trailing a woman's thonged butt cheeks, center frame, as she saunters through a mansion while undressing. She holds a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of what looks like prescription pills in the other. She's sexy, provocative, and somewhat vapid — a walking cliché. The song's lyrics are unrelated to the video's visual content — i.e., sex, some violence, and nautical piracy — without significant interpretive leaps. It's like a softcore porno mixed with an amateur MMA bout and CNN coverage of a bikini-clad hostage situation.
It's this tension between respect and objectification that has brought EDM under fire from feminists and others who value women beyond their sexuality. Within EDM, women rarely spin onstage, but their bodies are almost always on display and their voices have graced some of the genre's most popular songs.
We don't have the authority or the intent to isolate any one catalyst for the conflicting female forms within EDM. However, history shows that certain inclusions can sugarcoat oppression. Does the overwhelming presence of female vocals make basic objectification less egregious, like the classic "I'm not racist — my best friend is black" argument? By that logic, we're led to think Tiësto may be accountable for EDM's state of misogyny, an indirect result of his early empowerment of female vocalists.
But it doesn't take us long to acknowledge the absurdity of that last thought.
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The one thing here that's certain is Tiësto's love for his music and for his scene. He's been active and relevant for more than two decades, and he cheerfully reassures us that the excitement is still as fresh as it was yesterday: "I'm having the time of my life, and I think that translates into my sets." And to anyone who thinks EDM is a bubble about to burst: "I'd take whomever felt that way and drop them off at EDC Las Vegas and see if they change their mind!"
The inclusion of female vocalists does help pacify exploitation elsewhere within EDM, but it's unfair to blame that on a forerunner who seemed intent on simply making good music. In fact, many of Tiësto's songs have given undiscovered female talent a much-deserved audience. Any misogynistic byproducts and justifications are more telling about our society than about EDM.
Perhaps EDM is just adolescent, overcoming angst and confronting corrupted morals as it matures within the world of music. Perhaps EDM is on the cusp of a dynamic change in the way it represents women. Indeed, Tiësto seems to think so. One of his recent projects, a reality competition called Your Shot USA, is out to find underground talent, and, as Tiësto points out, it's gearing up to showcase strong female DJs. "Your Shot originated in Australia, and the first winner was Tigerlily, who's a great female DJ. There are some promising female contestants lined up in the U.S. version, so who knows? We might have a future female star on our hands."