Marking the 'Unmarked' Space: Gendered Vocal Construction in Female Electronic Artists

Rachel McCarthy

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


In October 2011 Simon Reynolds published an article in The New York Times observing a recent surge in the number of women making music in the independent-label electronic underground. Some critics and artists have suggested this signals a move to postgenderism, both in electronic music and in wider society (Awbi 2004). This paper challenges that notion, drawing on Donna Haraway's theory of 'marking' identities (1991) in observing that, despite the growing presence of women on the scene, electronic music continues to be an unmarked male space. I look to the history of electronic music to demonstrate that in order to gain access to this space, female artists have often had to erase all traces of their femaleness, re-gendering themselves as male. The gendered division of labour, positioning men as players and composers and women as singers, is so embedded in all electronic genres that in the case of a female electronic producer, the masculine associations of this role overshadow the sex of the person making the music. Without a female voice or body to mark it as female the music, rather than disrupting the unmarked space, is subsumed into it, and actually enhances its maleness.
This paper introduces a new generation of female artists in the twenty-first century underground scene who do in fact succeed in marking the space of electronic music as gendered. By foregrounding their own voices as well as producing the instrumental music themselves, Holly Herndon, Laurel Halo and Maria Minerva bring an aspect of femaleness into the space which serves to reveal the hitherto unacknowledged male dominance of the genre. Further to this, their unconventional uses of vocals challenge normative representations of female gender and sexuality in electronic music. By looking at the history of women's voices in electronic music, I demonstrate how most of the time the inclusion of female vocals does not mark the music as gendered, as it brings only an objectified, idealized version of femininity into the space, rather than genuine femaleness. The vocal practices of these new artists, however, work to disrupt this. For example, Holly Herndon electronically manipulates her voice in order to strip it of gendered markers, presenting the female sex in a way that does not foreground sexuality. The female voice evokes the body, but – in contrast to the usually sexualised presentation of the female voice in electronic music – the body is presented as a technical instrument, with no sexual overtones. Laurel Halo's harsh vocal timbre and Maria Minerva's off-pitch delivery contrast with the unblemished, atuotuned and sexualized female voice often featured in tracks by male electronic producers. These artists hence offer new and liberating possibilities for the expression of femaleness in electronic music, and it is hoped that their achievements in the field will open up the space to other women, showing them that they need not erase their femaleness in order to succeed in a man’s world.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationProceedings of the 9th Conference on Interdisciplinary Musicology
Place of PublicationBerlin
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2014

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