Techno-shams

IF YOU'VE EVER had any doubt that who writes the news determines what is considered news, check out the hype around the Internet. Or, rather, try to escape it. In the flood of idealistic claims and giddy theories (this computer kills sexism/racism/able-ism!) one fact keeps getting obscured: Only a tiny percentage of Americans are Net-working, and the predominant race, class, and gender make-up of that group could stand as a definition of privilege in America. At the same time we are told that, within the web, identity is in flux; you can be anything or anyone you choose. In an impressive sleight-of-hand, the Other--poor, illiterate, techno-shy or untrained (most often older people, women, and minorities)--actually disappears from this new, improved democracy from the get-go, even while culturally homogeneous Netriders congratulate themselves on their virtual diversity.

Which is a long way to say that the vaunted sex- and color-blind anonymity of current ambient/techno/trip-hop DJ culture should be exposed as a load of cow shit. As on the Internet, the means--code names, machine-as-medium, metaphor of flow--disguise the real-world identity of the makers, who are more white than not and almost uniformly male. Again, the language of the Other, in this case the cyclical, mushy ego sensuality typed "feminine" or "primitive," is first co-opted and then cited as evidence of the co-opter's radical politics. And yet women, for instance, are allowed into the game only as disembodied voices, sampled and looped and reconstructed, cut off from their own words and meanings by technologies they have yet to master.

Forgive me for finding all of this just a trifle familiar. It was not so long ago that girls were discouraged from picking up a guitar or a drumstick, their concerns assumed to be spoken for within rock's "universal" themes, and their clothes, fashions and desires adopted and massaged by a parade of "transgressive" rock gods: The difference between rock & roll and electronic technologies in keeping marginals marginal seems more a matter of degree than of practice. Indeed, you could easily interpret the recent rise of solitary guy "bedroom" recording--whether lo-fi indie guitar stuff or computer/sequencer manipulations--as a defensive (albeit probably unconscious) response to the invasion of rock's public spaces by uppity female musicians.

What's undeniable is the timing--as soon as the authority of rock's traditional voice was challenged, as soon as that voice was unmasked as male and then effectively shattered into a million pieces of female/male, queer/bi/hetero, black/white/yellow/red testimony, up comes a flexible, nonlinear music which denies the possibility of a single totalizing truth and thus honors, ostensibly, all the myriad individual realities. Except that the music is conceived and sculpted again by men, and largely white ones at that (i.e., Aphex Twin, The Orb, FSOL, Portishead, Wagon Christ, Moby, etc.). In the space between electronica's multi-culti, genderfuck mystique and its strictly guyville practice lies a snakenest of unexamined premises that listeners, DJs, and critics would do well to address.

This imperative worried my mind a couple weeks ago as I watched the instrumental/effects collective Tortoise down in Chicago. Standing there grooving on their sound, as fluidly repetitive and occasionally incendiary as the band's third album, Millions Not Living Will Never Die (Thrill Jockey), I found myself wondering whether masculine and feminine aesthetics could or should be defined, and whether five women onstage playing the same riffs would've changed the experience. It's interesting, I mused, that the female artistic sensibility has been characterized as "oceanic," "womb-like," non-narrative, and mutable--most conspicuously in Simon Reynolds and Joy Press's 1995 book, Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion and Rock 'n' Roll--although that representation seems more of a cultural prescription than anything innate. Boys from Eno and The Soft Machine to the band then in front of me never had a problem making "oceanic" waves of their own. But contrary to Reynolds and Press, it doesn't appear to make them especially enlightened, at least as far as opening up the stage to musicians without penises goes.

The simple fact is that we don't know how and if the forms women use to make music will differ from those of men; female rockers have mostly been on a deconstruction kick (but then so has Pavement). Certainly, the only female-made trip-hop record I have heard--Cibo Matto's fine VIVA! La Woman--deviates significantly from the norm only in terms of its lyrical content, which is loopily sensual and poignant and way more strange than any words a male DJ has ever put in a woman's mouth. What can and should be said is that in the last 30 years women have crossed the border dividing "masculine" and "feminine" with as much facility as men, proving themselves clever and self-conscious adepts at any number of "male" expressions from aggression to vulgarity, speed metal to gangsta rap. In other words, female artists have claimed the whole range of human identity for their own, perhaps their most subversive act outside of their very existence as musicians.

Rock & roll has always served such an exploratory purpose for men--electronica's mute fluctuations included. That colonialization, if you will, is what I see again happening behind electronica's Wizard of Oz curtain. Divas and disco are to DJs as girl groups and orgasmic pop were to Phil Spector--spectacles of acceptance and celebration masking the consolidation of control and power through technical know-how. In that sense, Tortoise's hands-on, seam-showing approach to sampling technology pulls aside the concealing curtain in two ways, first by disclosing the magician's hands as incontrovertibly male, and second by revealing how this magic is done. From there, it's up to women to take up the challenge and storm yet another exclusive boys' club masquerading as the truth. I've no doubt that we will. But I'm annoyed that we have to, yet again and again and again.

 
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