‘Underplayed’ doc shines long overdue spotlight on women in dance music [Review]
Underplayed, a new documentary which premiered on September 19 at the Toronto International Film Festival, examines the glaring disproportion of female voices in dance music compared to their male counterparts. In addition to paying homage to influential women like Wendy Carlos and Suzanne Ciani—who built essential tools like the synthesizer and pioneered some of the most popular electronic music techniques—the film profiles many of today’s premier dance music artists, including REZZ, Alison Wonderland, TOKiMONSTA, Typapaw, NERVO, and more.
In a media landscape rife with one-dimensionally static and overly simplified characterizations of women, Underplayed stands out through the fully-formed, dynamic portraits it paints of each female selector featured in the film. From the onset, it is clear that director Stacey Lee doesn’t rely too heavily on the tried-and-true, easily digestible “girl power” narrative. The women who are profiled in Underplayed are not distilled down to caricatures; they are presented as themselves, rough edges and all.
Over the course of the documentary, the artists open up with a stunning degree of raw emotion. Their internal and external battles are showcased alongside their triumphs.
“After years of being asked the annoying question of, ‘What is it like to be a woman in the industry?’ I am grateful to be a part of a documentary which best showcases the world of women in electronic music. This documentary shares a contrast of sides in regards to the hardship and struggles women face, while also showing the gratifying highs, success, and progress made thus far,” REZZ tells Dancing Astronaut of her role in the film.
Though the documentary is focused on the profound talent of each musician, Underplayed does not only depict these women in terms of their artistic prowess, either. We see that Miriam and Olivia Nervo are mothers and not just limited to being the club-crushing DJ duo with fans the world over. Typapaw discusses the realities of her experience as a Black woman pursuing a career in dance music. SHERELLE and Nightwave compare the scrutiny they’ve received in regards to their outward appearances and how that judgement translated into the differing receptions of their Boiler Room performances. The depiction of each artist in Underplayed is as true and complex as any women’s story.
“They let me speak my truth. I do really feel like they let everyone be as real as they possibly could,” said Alison Wonderland in an exclusive interview with Dancing Astronaut.
“I have felt in the past that people have just made it about the fact that I am a woman and haven’t been focused on my actual skills and how long I’ve trained to do this and how passionate I am about my music.”
And the honest depictions in the film aren’t just for show. They are fully indicative of how these artists interact with their fans. Alison Wonderland is known for her honesty when it comes to her struggles with mental health. And REZZ is open about her sexual orientation, providing a safe space for queer-identifying dance music listeners. Through Tygapaw’s honesty about her struggles with racism, fans of color can see themselves, too.
“When someone hears your music and they say they get exactly what you’re speaking about, you do really start to build a connection with them,” Alison Wonderland said. “I really do feel quite equal to the people that listen to my music. I feel like we have a really big bond and every time I’m playing a show, it feels stronger and stronger.”
The newest generation of dance fans have more female paragons in this space to look up to than ever before. And while it is perfectly okay that droves of dance fans fell in love with yesteryear hits like Avicii‘s “Levels” and Porter Robinson‘s “Sad Machine,” before women like REZZ, Alison Wonderland, Anna Lunoe, Nina Las Vegas, and Louisahh, to name a few, got their due visibility, more women than just the writer of this review had to feel immersive limitations in the dance music experience.
Works like REZZ’s Certain Kind of Magic and Alison Wonderland’s 2018 LP Awake have been infatuating, incredibly formative bodies of work for a whole new crop of electronic music fans. Of course young, blossoming dance music fans find escapism in the scene—being able to dress the way one wants, dance without a care in the world, express themselves with glitter and neon clothes without the fear of attracting too much attention. Those feel like standards to the raving experience. But to look up at the main stage in this day and age and see a woman commanding the crowd behind the decks should hopefully promote feelings of belonging, safety, and inclusion even more.
Now, finding one’s place in dance music through women, much like this writer did, isn’t exactly unique, but perhaps that’s this documentary’s deepest underlying point? If the handful of women who have managed to break through to the main stages have touched this many lives, just imagine what can happen when all the women who have something to say are given the chance.