Sophie. Karenn. Georgia Girls. Neana. Millie & Andrea. What do these electronic music artists all have in common? They're all men. During a set at LA Boiler Room (watch below), the most famous of the aforementioned clumsily underlined his nominal gender play by employing a trans woman to stand in for him, and more recently has risen to prominence with QT, his collaboration with PC Music boss A. G. Cook that is fronted by a soda-pushing, hyper-stylized performer purportedly called Quinn Thomas. On their debut single "Hey QT," Thomas' heavily distorted voice squeals, I feel your hands on my body/ Every time you think of me, boy! over the upward arc of a pounding beat.
Beyond the vocal and occasional live performance art, it's actually hard to tell quite how far Thomas' involvement in the group extends. Curiously, the press release announcing QT's debut single on XL Recordings featured Thomas' blonde-bobbed face yet failed to mention her name and instead focused on the Sophie/Cook co-production, and in an ambiguous Gchat interview with The FADER her input centered on promoting the group's titular energy drink. Incidentally, a link to QT appears on the drop-down menu under Cook's name on the PC Music website, a label that is equally unclear on whether its own femininely positioned artists—including Lipgloss Twins, GFOTY (Girlfriend of the Year), and Princess Bambi—also involve Cook himself. It's unclear because Cook regularly appears on stage and at the sound desk with some of the above. It's unclear because he often incorporates songs attributed to other PC Music artists into his own live sets. And it's unclear because in a rare early interview with Tank Magazine he describes the PC Music concept as "artistic development" in collaboration with "people who don't normally make music."
In fact, much of PC Music and Sophie's schtick is about obscuring their identity—Cook's label has built its success on a hyper-feminine aesthetic that teeters towards parody while the latter is notoriously camera-shy. But as someone who's seen countless of their live performances—admittedly, some of the most infectious, fun, and diversely attended shows I've been to—I can tell you they're mostly men, predominantly white, probably straight, surely educated. Basically, they're privileged. Privilege, of course, isn't necessarily an issue in itself, until it's used to enforce the same tired gender stereotypes that perpetuated it in the first place.
In an earlier piece about the kawaii influence on Sophie and PC Music, I explored the allure of their sickly sweet sound. Their embrace of excess and acceleration could be seen to represent the dilemma of modern consumerism, where capitalist co-option is unavoidable and dissent completely futile. As both a musical project and an "energy elixir" drink, QT appears to be the ultimate expression of that notion—yet in their adoption of consciously confusing identities, Cook and Sophie maintain a certain level of autonomy in being absorbed by the market in their own way. Except that 'their own way' turns out to be familiarly patriarchal. Like the pretty model mascot of countless indie-rock videos before her, their music is represented by women acting out gender stereotypes: there's the ultra-femme Thomas confirming the male fantasy that she can feel his hands on her body when he thinks of her on "Hey QT"; a cartoonish schoolgirl singing you gotta be crazy/ thinking you can resist this on Sophie's breakthrough single "BIPP"; and the cutest girl of Cook's "Keri Baby" track featuring Hannah Diamond, who sings tell me if you want to see me play with my hair on the TV. Neither Sophie nor A.G. Cook's image appears alongside their work, and so the age-old cultural construction of woman as body and man as mind remains intact.
The thing about falling, or being forced, on the losing side of this arbitrarily assigned gender paradigm is that there are certain expectations, restrictions and prejudices that one has to endure. In a system that economically, socially, and politically favors men, women are conditioned to embody the self-subjugating behaviors of the feminine—sweetness, beauty, passivity—and encouraged to believe that they're their greatest asset at the same time as being their biggest crime. As Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie highlighted during a TED talk last year: "If a woman is getting ready for a business meeting, she has to worry about looking too feminine, and what it says, and whether or not she will be taken seriously." Women spend their whole lives being battered by this maddening catch-22: their social worth is measured by a femininity that, it turns out, is not really regarded as of much worth at all.
To this degree, PC Music and Sophie's high-pitched celebration of everything girly and cute represents a social leveling that should be encouraged: serious electronic music can finally be pink and sparkly. On the other hand, by appropriating and objectifying stereotypically feminine identities while obscuring their own, the men of PC Music and Sophie are literally colonizing the female body and using it as an instrument for projecting their own agenda. Sounds familiar.
The reason I bring this up now is not out of some contrarian drive to renege on any praise I ever showered on the sound and ideas of Sophie, PC Music et al., nor from a desire for them to halt production. What I'm concerned with is a wider social trend that points to a troublingly reactionary cultural shift that all these artists have a responsibility to own up—especially when there exists a very real gender imbalance in electronic music production today. At the beginning of this year, journalist Lauren Martin identified a possible motive for the trend in male appropriation of femininity in a quote from repentant UK club producer and Her Records co-owner Miss Modular: "I wonder if men working under female names is them purposefully trying to be anonymous; because of some inherent guilt of being a white male producer, and wanting to present yourself as something else."
This is a crucial point and a key reason why artists like Sophie and A. G. Cook have a duty to be more open about their own identities and the creative roles of the women they work with, particularly as the image they've built on the bodies of said women is starting to pay off big time. As well as QT's high-profile XL Recordings deal, Sophie recently worked with J-pop superstar Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and is rumored to have jumped in the studio with Diplo and Nicki Minaj for a track on Madonna's new album earlier this year.
Once upon a time, A. G. Cook and Sophie represented a post-human genderfuck by obscuring their identities behind a slightly seedy set of imagery that at once fetishised teen girl culture and carried an implicit critique of commodity capitalism. They looked and sounded like the consumerism that dominates society-at-large, where men make the music and women provide the bodies that sell it, except they performed it in the sweaty basement of a DIY punk venue. Now, though, their ascent into the marketable music industry means they will have a hand in establishing the look of Pop To Come, and it looks awfully similar to the look of Pop That Already Is. Perhaps it's time the boys owned up to the fact that they're taking all the girly shit without taking the shit for being girls.