Underplayed, a new documentary that calls out the current state of artist representation in dance music, is out now. With a focus on gender, ethnic, and sexual equality issues that artists face in the music industry, Underplayed calls out discrimination while uplifting women’s successes. The highly anticipated film features emotionally gripping anecdotal artist stories, grim statistics, and the garish erasure of women and other identities from dance music’s history.
You can find where to watch Underplayed here, and read more below about the documentary.
A history of excluding women and people of color
Underplayed brings light to unspoken challenges that privilege can sometimes mask. For example, if you’re familiar with dance music history or if you produce music, you might recognize the name Don Buchla.
Buchla invented some of the most important electronic music equipment as early as 1963. In particular he was well known for creating analog modular synthesizers, which is a kind of instrument used to make nearly endless combinations of sound through modules and patch cables. His legacy of invention has been immortalized in dance music history. But in Underplayed he’s called out for removing Suzanne Ciani, a female student (also a pioneer in the field) from his class purely because of her gender.
This highlights the intentional kind of exclusion that females in electronic music have faced, while people (namely men) continue to be championed for their legacy in the genre’s history. Although this is pointed out in passing during the documentary, it’s a great time to remember that dance music was created in large part by black, queer people who receive little to no credit.
Impactful artist portrayals
Arguably the most intimate and moving scenes of Underplayed stemmed from personal testimonials of female artists. Most of the narrative is woven together by the voices of Alison Wonderland, REZZ, Tokimonsta, Nervo, Sherelle, and others. It encompasses the different challenges and pressures that are combined with being a female music artist and beyond that, just a person with their own lived experiences.
While each story is wildly different, similar themes point out how problematic the lack of representation is in music. REZZ recounts knowing she wanted to make dance music and put everything into it, but always felt odd that she was one of the only girls doing it. Self-taught, she camped in her parent’s basement and worked on music all day every day for years.
Tygapaw is another artist who echoed that sentiment, but acknowledges the additional obstacles as a black woman without the same economic opportunities. She asks the question, “How do I create when I don’t have the tools to?” Even now with a few years into a music career, still has to choose between financial stability and artistic control.
Mental health and self-image as a female artist
Another common theme of Underplayed is the slide into exhaustion female artists inevitably face occupying spaces that have excluded them for decades. Acclaimed producer Mark Ronson remembers feeling shocked so many of his female counterparts repeatedly face discouragement for their ideas on the basis of their gender.
Grammy-winning producer TOKiMONSTA shares the complexity of receiving the nomination and having to consciously remind herself that it was warranted. The challenge to make her music undeniably her own pushes her creatively, but the constant pressure to prove ownership over her own music is an added pressure that men in the industry don’t face. The painstaking process of recording things like a truck door closing, a rock, and a snare for one sound ensure no one else could be attributed for making her music.
Louisahhh opens up about her lifelong struggle with her self-image with extremely personal confessions. Her honesty is not met with shame and regret, but instead with looking forward. “If I claim to be punk, the most punk thing on earth I can do is to love myself,” she says.
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