Amazon Prime Video commemorated 2021’s International Women’s Day with the release of “Underplayed,” a new documentary about women in electronic music and their struggles to be seen and heard in a male-dominated industry. It features seven female acts, from large names like Canadian DJ Rezz and Grammy nominee TOKiMONSTA to underground performer TYGAPAW, following them as they work and perform in the face of systemic sexism — and, in some cases, racism and homophobia — in their field.
The film tries to provide a holistic view of the problems women have faced in electronic music since the genre’s advent, but in attempting to cover everything it often spreads itself too thin. For example, TYGAPAW, easily the most compelling subject of the documentary, is a queer Jamaican producer who makes music as part of the vogue scene in New York City. She is the film’s way into a discussion about intersectionality, and it acknowledges the fact that electronic music has its roots in the culture of Black and Brown queer people. Multiple talking heads agree that techno and electronic dance music would not be what it is without queer culture. However, the significance that the documentary tries to communicate in the mere minutes spent on the subject is insufficient.
In a similar vein, the documentary feels like it’s pulling its punches when it comes to the full extent of sexism in the music industry and deciding who is to blame. Most women in electronic music are not being platformed; those who are have only achieved success through struggle. But who is refusing to give them a platform?
The film’s answer is vague: Festival coordinators and talent agents don’t think there are enough female acts out there, but that explanation barely scratches the surface. Aside from professional complications, the documentary also looks at threats to women almost entirely in an online context, discussing cyberbullying and online objectification while ignoring multiple instances of sexual misconduct, misogyny and exploitation in the industry.
The fact that the film is executive produced by Bud Light also adds context to the viewing experience that should be taken into account. The product placement is relatively subtle; despite an unmistakable blue tint to the cinematography, there’s only a quick shot of a bottle here, or an appearance of Bud Light signage there. The film also points out that Bud Light Dreams Festival in Toronto only had three female acts in their 2019 lineup, and one of the more minor subjects briefly disparages capitalism. However, it’s hard to think of a movie produced by Bud Light as anything but one large advertisement, especially when that company has a lucrative stake in the electronic music industry.
None of this is to take away from the individual talents and experiences of the women featured. The most effective parts of the documentary are the moments when the artists are not only working or performing, but also talking through their processes and reflecting on the ways misogyny both in the workplace and online has affected them on a personal level. Their frustrations are palpable, but so is their love for the work they do and their pride in what they’ve been able to accomplish.
“Underplayed” is ambitious in its goal to represent all kinds of women in electronic music and their struggles, but in many cases, it falls short. Even so, the women who are featured are great heroines, incredibly easy to empathize with and root for. While the documentary in itself is somewhat formulaic and fails to do justice to some of the topics it tries to tackle, it at least succeeds in celebrating its subjects and giving them a platform.
Daily Arts Contributor Katrina Stebbins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.