Vancouver female DJs take charge and break through the glass turntable

The underground dance culture is still a boys’ club, but women are rewriting the rules

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      Taken a look at the DJ booth lately? Vancouver is seeing a rapid rise in the number of women at the turntables. Gaining traction in the city’s dance scene, local female artists are on the up.

      But it’s tough being a woman in a man’s world. The stereotype of the scantily clad seductress rages: Vancouver’s club nights are ruled by alcohol and availability, and no skirt is too short.

      Boxed into a corner by the scene’s masculine customs, the city’s female DJs have often faced a difficult choice: take the easy sexualized route to mainstream success or remain underground. Even then, the decision isn’t always black-and-white.

      Local agency GirlOnWax has a roster of performers who have been endorsed by high-end clients like the Vancouver Canucks and Jennifer Aniston. Well aware that EDM isn’t always about sweaty warehouses and illegal spaces, owner DJ Leanne casts her artists as fashion-forward, outgoing, and well-presented.

      On the line from Hawaii, the long-time local dance music player is clear about her marketing strategies.

      “Femininity 100-percent helps in booking shows, and it’s something we embrace,” she says enthusiastically. “When it comes down to corporate events, all the companies are hiring female DJs.”

      An accomplished entertainer herself, DJ Leanne has a shrewd grasp of the commercial market.

      “I guess there’s something about having an attractive, fashionable woman playing the turntables,” she notes with a laugh. “We don’t want to present ourselves as sex objects at all. Playboy DJs can do that. But appearances are important—a smile on a girl’s face, as well as the kind of energy that women bring. I think it’s aesthetic.”

      Not everyone is keen to market their gender. Major EDM events on the West Coast encourage patrons to leave their clothes at home, and the same is expected of performers.

      A favourite in the Pacific Northwest’s underground electronic scene, Andrea Graham—DJ, producer, and cofounder of the alternative Bass Coast festival—is critical of these expectations.

      Graham, who performs under the deliberately demure alias “the Librarian”, favours a bookish image that’s a counterpoint to the sexualized flashiness of other artists.

      “Most festivals are really drawing on the mainstream Top 40 market,” says Graham, on the phone from her studio. “In that sense, I feel there might be pressure on female DJs to dress sexily.”

      The Librarian is not alone in describing how Vancouver’s larger events are dominated by sexist stereotypes. Jen Pearson is a local DJ who sits at the edge of conventional electronic music, spinning what she describes as “dark, dense, and syncopated techno” as alter ego Nancy Dru. Pearson’s outspokenness against male-oriented club culture is well-known in Vancouver’s alternative circles.

      “If you want to play the big gigs, you’re definitely going to encounter a lot of sexism,” she suggests, speaking from her Vancouver home. “You get people who don’t understand why you’re there, or people that watch you even more closely to see if you mess up—and if you do, they’ll make a big deal of it. If a man dropped the ball, no one would comment.”

      With her vehement determination not to “sex it up” (“That’s never, ever going to happen,” she says) Pearson refuses to alter her casual image.

      “I remember about a year ago I played at Vancouver’s Gorg-O-Mish, and the promotional imagery was actually really offensive,” she declares. “It was an all-female lineup that night, and it was just a bunch of girls’ bodies without any heads. I had to ask them to change it. I was not having tits and ass on my flyer.”

      For female DJs, refusing to sexualize their act has, in the past, often meant remaining in obscurity. But there are rumblings of change.

      As local performers find success on a global stage, more of Vancouver’s artists are emerging straight out of the city’s underground. A petri dish of vibrant eccentricity, Lotusland’s alternative dance culture challenges the ethos of dressing up for anyone’s titillation—and this mentality is beginning to filter upward.

      “Vancouver’s underground music is thriving, especially for women,” the Librarian effuses. “There’s so many local artists that are now getting international recognition.”

      Think of the city’s premier exports, like Miss Innocent, Betti Forde, and Queensyze.

      “That’s because they’ve had years of developing their craft in our underground scene,” the Librarian continues. “There are lots of crews that have been building their own little niche and supporting Vancouver’s performers—including female DJs—along the way.”

      Pearson is equally enthusiastic about the changes happening in the city, pointing to the growing success of Vancouver’s all-female underground collectives.

      “Some people are just sick of the scene being controlled by men. And some people are so sick of it that they’re actually starting to do something about it. It all seems to have hit critical mass in the last year. Groups like Expanding Universe are asking why only about 10 percent of DJs in Vancouver are female. It’s changing the way we see female artists in the bigger clubs.”

      The city’s booming EDM scene is rewriting conventions from the bottom up. As more women burst into the limelight with their unique images and styles, mainstream expectations for female performers are beginning to loosen. Vancouver’s underground female DJs have cranked the bass, and the glass ceiling is starting to vibrate.

      “The opportunity is there,” the Librarian says confidently. “We just have to take it.”