WXTJ Writes! by Isabel Xiao: “Electronic Music is Trans Music”

“Trans artists have always offered a valuable and rich perspective on music, and the relationship between music and transness, music and queerness, is something that is so indescribable and so unique to every artist.”

The world of electronic music is an incredibly vibrant and diverse one, with influences from people of all ages, nationalities, and sexual orientations. I’ve always been a huge admirer of the wide variety of soundscapes created by electronic musicians, and the essence of innovation and boundary pushing embedded in the genre. But I don’t think any other electronic artists embody the essence of breaking sonic conventions in a more unique way than trans electronic artists have. Trans artists have always offered a valuable and rich perspective on music, and the relationship between music and transness, music and queerness, is something that is so indescribable and so unique to every artist. This is a love letter to my favorite trans electronic musicians, highlighting their achievements and their shared spirit of shattering norms with their art.

In a 1989 BBC interview, composer Wendy Carlos, gives a tour of her many synths and keyboards around her Greenwich Village studio. I remember watching this and being so surprised to learn that she was considered one of the earliest and most influential pioneers of electronic music, as I hadn’t heard of her before. She rose to prominence from her work with engineer Robert Moog in designing the first commercial synthesizer, as well as composing the soundtracks to Tron, A Clockwork Orange, and The Shining. Her debut album, Switched-On Bach, is an charming and incredibly precise selection of pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach performed on a modular synthesizer. The Shining soundtrack, in contrast, is a soul-stirring, atmospheric sonic environment of droning ambience and pure dread. From the iconic distorted wails from the main title theme to the sustained chords of dissonance in “Rocky Mountains” that almost mirror a broken tornado siren, it’s a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack that’s left a deep impression on me since my first listen.

Her work was revolutionary for her time, largely popularizing the use of synthesizers in film scores and mainstream music in the 70s. So when I had learned that Wendy Carlos had been advocating for transgender issues since the 60s and was one of the first public figures to openly disclose having gone through gender reassignment surgery, my love for her and her work grew even more, knowing that she had not only been innovating and expressing her truth sonically but also socially, breaking conventions in such a conservative era. I’d say it’s an understatement to say that she was the blueprint; her invention, her music, her impact will continue to influence electronic musicians for years to come.

In the Tron and The Shining soundtracks, I had always taken note of the dissonance of some of the sounds created by Carlos’ work on the synth. It was always used meticulously, sometimes sprinkled occasionally throughout a song or featured as a softer, ambient drone. Fast forward a few decades, and this type of synthetic dissonance is ramped up to 100 by one of my favorite, and perhaps one of the most well known trans EDM artists: SOPHIE, a Grammy-nominated Scottish music producer notable for embracing experimental noise and incorporating avant-garde sound design with influences from underground dance pop, pioneering the hyperpop subgenre. But what I really love and what I think stands out the most about SOPHIE’s music is its almost symbiotic relationship with its creator’s ‘transness.’ SOPHIE once described being trans as “taking control,” in a sense, becoming liberated from arbitrary structures forced upon oneself, and transforming that sense of self-determination into a drive and a passion to create. To push past societal boundaries and translate that into pushing past artistic boundaries, is what I think SOPHIE’s music is really about. “Immaterial” off SOPHIE’s record “OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES” explores the idea of embracing fluidity and independence, framing pre-ordained societal roles as superficial and subsequently, immaterial. The combination of the song’s upbeat tempo, introspective lyrics, and hyper-feminine vocals from Cecile Believe really give the track its own voice as a pure hyperpop anthem about freedom and taking charge of one’s identity. The third track off the album, “Faceshopping,” incorporates the messages from “Immaterial” with themes of beauty standards and gaining complete control over one’s physical appearance. But the melodic pop chords and fast-tempo, rave-esque percussive beats in the latter are replaced with crushing, distorted bass, and face-melting, almost screeching, trebly synth lines.

Lyrics from genius.com

 The record is an organic blend of surreal hyper-feminine electropop and chaotic industrial soundscapes, and it becomes clear that SOPHIE’s experience with transitioning has had a profound impact on the record’s sound. I’ve truly never heard anything like it, and I’ll never forget what it was like to listen to something that felt like I was being lobotomized while meeting Jesus at the same time. In the best way, of course.

It’s this type of synth-heavy, noise-driven sound that’s so prominent among many trans electronic music producers, who are all able to take that and twist it in their own ways that reflect their own experiences with transitioning. And I can’t talk about trans electronic artists without talking about Venezuelan artist Arca, who I really believe is one of the most unique producers doing this today, not only because of her vibrant blend of reggaeton, hip-hop, and industrial pop, but also because of her unmistakable visual style. Arca’s relationship with her transness shines through her album art and music videos, which are a collaboration between her and 3D artist Frederik Heyman, and display a captivating, gruesomely delightful blend of cyberpunk and fantasy. The theme of body modification has always been such a captivating element of her work; the synthesis of organic matter and technology in her artwork is indicative of a strong desire to cross all sorts of boundaries, whether that’s physically, mentally, or socially. Like SOPHIE, Arca boldly displays the idea of “taking control” by framing herself in these striking images, encircled by mythical creatures who surround her in worship, her physical self in a constant state of machinery-induced change. 

Arca is not only a musician, she’s a worldbuilder. Her work blends all types of art forms; all of her videos and visual art feature shared characters, some inspired from Venezuelan mythology and some from the depths of her imagination. These images, featured on her multi-album project “Kick” are almost visual representations of the music as well, sharing that same radical energy of dynamic, determined, loud-and-proud queerness that is so prominent in the LGBTQ+ community thanks to the work of trans people. Arca herself even acknowledged this in a meme she posted on her Instagram story: 

What makes electronic music so “trans,” is really the shared spirit of breaking conventions, gaining control, and synthesizing identity with art (using literal synths). The works of Wendy Carlos, Arca, and Sophie are all reminders of a valuable truth: that electronic music is queer music. Electronic music is trans music. Queer and trans people have always been here, and will continue to keep innovating in all types of art forms.

Isabel Xiao (she/they) is a 2nd year student and DJ for WXTJ. In addition to being the DEI Chair and co-chair of WXTJ Writes, you can find them co-hosting “Record Roulette” w/ Tucker Ferrell on Fridays from 10pm – 12am.
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