It’s no secret that nearly every genre of music outside of pop itself suffers from a moderate or severe gender imbalance problem, but the spotlight rarely falls on how women fare (or, as the case may be, don’t) in electronic dance music. So students of sexism in the arts may take a ready interest in “Underplayed,” a handsomely photographed documentary from Amazon Prime that argues persuasively for women getting more seats at the table — or standup spots behind the turntable — even if it’s better at offering up underdog tales of individual female DJs who’ve triumphed than it is at getting at root causes of why they might’ve been held down.
In lieu of narration, director Stacey Lee peppers “Underplayed” with a lot of flash cards with deeply discouraging statistics about how many women are making it in this corner of pop culture. In 2019, the 15 highest paid DJs made $261 million, and they were all dudes, the film tells us; on Billboard’s list that year of the top 100 DJs, only five were women? Why is this? It’d be interesting to know whether it has to do more with institutional chauvinism in the industry, or an audience that is conditioned to expect and want only men as the genre’s superstars. But “Underplayed” is too gentle a probe to risk targeting industry leaders or fandom for more than a moment here or there.
Early on, there’s a shot of bare-chested, beer-wielding yahoos, which hints at what anyone who’s been to a massively attended EDM set at Coachella or a similar festival knows: Dance music attracts a large number of frat boys who may expect to see a headliner made in their image running things on stage, not a queer Jamaican woman like Tygapaw, one of this movie’s heroines. Later on, we see a DJ named Nightwave streaming a set online and some of the comments that come in concurrently, like “Who’s (sic) gf is this” and “She’s gotta be giving somebody some good head.” These are very fleeting observations of toxicity in this masculine culture, though.
You get the feeling that Lee — or Bud Light, which puts on one of the biggest EDM fests, and which is a credited executive producer of the film — didn’t want to go in hard on blaming the target audience for either the movie or the genre. Any serious examination of sexism in country, hip-hop or rock would have to go there, but the documentary means to boost women without thinking too hard about what’s behind the stats that show how unwelcome they’ve seemingly been. The real horror stories you know are out there are, here, underplayed.
But as long as the doc is content at offering anecdotal looks at about a half-dozen of the female artists who’ve bucked the odds and made it big, or are still trying to, it’s about as inspirational as it means to be. It’s stirring to see Rezz — an unassuming Ukrainian-Iranian that we first meet riding her bike through suburbia on the Canadian side of the Niagara Falls border — talking about how she was self-taught, being greeted as a goddess by even younger women at a meet-and-greet, and ultimately headlining a venue that’s on any performer’s bucket list, Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Alison Wonderland emerges as another hugely inspiring figure, coming clean about her own history with depression as she expands the bounds of electronic music to include a big, all-female band with cellos and swelling vocal choruses. (Does it become pop music more than EDM at that point? Maybe, but not important.)
Even the DJs who spend less time espousing progressive ideals and are okay with providing some eye candy come off well. The two women who make up Nervo, a DJ duo from England, note that when they post bikini shots on social media, they get 10 times the likes they do from a normal gig shot — big surprise there. “When I get my baby body off, I’m gonna be rocking a bikini (again),” says one of the two, as they both lug the newborns they’ve recently given birth to on the road. It’s to the doc’s credit that it seems as okay with stars who are rocking the sex appeal as the progressive rainbow that populates the rest of the film. But, naturally, audience sympathy may drift more readily to a politically minded figure like Louisahhh, who “hated (her) body desperately” and “always felt like a weird beast” before overcoming her dread of being in a dark hall’s spotlight.
And then there’s Tokimonsta, who had multiple brain surgeries on the way to becoming a Grammy winner. She raises an interesting insecurity not unique to women making it in highly male-centric genres, wondering if “maybe I am just a gimmick” on her way to concluding that she does deserve the Recording Academy’s accolades. Of course, imposter syndrome is a problem that some of the less successful artists in the movie would like to have.
Lee’s film is at its best when it’s having these women tell their own stories and not throwing up downbeat statistics that beg more questions that the movie is prepared to answer. Anyone not coming into “Underplayed” already an EDM fan probably won’t be made one by the examples put on screen here — electronic dance music being an experiential genre that doesn’t much lend itself to cerebral home viewing — but the woman-by-woman making-of stories still at least put a skip in the step of feminist doc-lovers.