From nightlife in party islands like Ibiza or Mykonos to the biggest musical festivals in the world like Tomorrowland in Belgium or the Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas, nearly 400,000 people pack into festival grounds every year. Electronic Dance Music (EDM) has consistently dominated party and club life across the world since the 1980s. DJs like Martin Garrix, Tiësto, Avicii, Calvin Harris, and Marshmello are often the first to come to mind when thinking about who gets the most radio or festival airtime and who are the most popular DJs in the world. The one commonality within this list and nearly any list that one compiles when gathering the “world’s best DJs”, is that nearly every DJ that is listed are male.
Over three weekends, with 700 artists or DJs performing, Tomorrowland, both the biggest EDM festival and the biggest festival of any kind in the world, only 61 of the performing artists at the 2022 festival were female or non-male DJs. Regardless of only approximately nine percent of performers being female, the festival touted itself as “revolutionary.” This was largely because, in 2022 they would become the first EDM festival in the world to have a female DJ headline – Charlotte de Witte – one of the nights over the three-weekend festival.
Although overwhelmingly positive for women in EDM, having De Witte close the main stage at the world’s biggest festival is not all that positive. For DJs like De Witte and the countless other female DJs across the world, receiving these honours and being able to perform on these stages never seems to be about their sheer musical talent or DJing skills, but instead focus often lands on their gender. This is simply because women aren’t seen as prominent figures within the EDM world, as the history of women in EDM seems to be largely shrouded in secrecy.
Lisa Rovner, through her documentary Sisters with Transistors, aims to uncover this history and highlight the stories of the women who pioneered the EDM music that a great portion of the world listens to today. Following 10 women throughout the documentary – Clara Rockmore, Daphne Oram, Bebe Barron, Pauline Oliveros, Delia Derbyshire, Maryanne Amacher, Eliane Radigue, Suzanne Ciani, and Laurie Spiegel, Sisters with Transistors aims to “map a new history of electronic music through the visionary women whose radical experimentations with machines redefined the boundaries of music.”
Using a combination of narration from avant-garde electronic music pioneer Laurie Anderson and rare testimonies and archived footage of female producers creating new music, Rovner highlights that although it is often “big-name” male artists that we think of as revolutionary (Elvis, The Beatles or The Rolling Stones) it was most often female composers, producers and DJs that were the first to embrace machines and their relevant technologies that would completely transform the way in which the most popular music is produced and listened to today. Utilizing air raid sirens during the Blitz in England to the sounds of aircrafts from nearby airports, the way in which these women utilized everyday sounds and machines would forever shift the history of music.
Although providing an astonishing and almost completely unknown history of women in electronic music and music production in general, Rovner’s documentary accomplishes something much more important – restoring the central role of women in both the history of popular and mainstream music and within our society as a whole. Utilizing the social, political and cultural context of the early 20th century, Rovner makes a point of highlighting the gender-based battles that the women had to face when attempting to make, record and publish their music. From being unable to get recording time in studios, to being told to go home and cook dinner, to having production credit stolen out from under them, Rovner shows how these women in electronic music had to fight past nearly every imaginable injustice thrown at them, just to make their music.
As one of the artists from Rovner’s film, Laurie Spiegel states, “We women were especially drawn to electronic music when the possibility of a woman composing was in itself controversial. Electronics let us make music that could be heard by others without having to be taken seriously by the male-dominated establishment.”
Unfortunately, Sisters with Transistors underscores a familiar pattern within the music industry today, one that does not seem to value the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of Gender Equality. Although time has progressed nearly 100 years since the first women began to produce and create electronic women, there still exists a great lack of female artists within popular electronic music.
Sisters with Transistors, although largely filling in gaps within history, acts as much more than a documentary, it is a guide for women in electronic music and the music industry overall. A guide to breaking through the “patriarchal penitentiary” that is the music industry, through the creation of something completely new, something that creates freedom and movement among women all over the world, something that goes beyond pleasing and protecting the men that rule the industry.
Whether its a workout playlist or an outing with friends for a night of fun at a nightclub or festival, the pioneering and ground-breaking women who fought for gender equality in the music industry should be remembered. The male-dominated genres that so many love is in fact one created from the power of female artists.
Sisters with Transistors is currently streaming on all Showtime platforms. If you are located in North America, it is available to watch with a Showtime or Crave subscription. For more information on the documentary visit https://sisterswithtransistors.com/.