Transcendent: Why Electronic Music Owes Everything to Trans Women
At the 65th annual Grammy Awards, German-born pop singer Kim Petras made history, and surprised millions of unaware viewers, in revealing that she had just become the first openly transgender woman to win a Grammy award for her collaboration on “Unholy” with Sam Smith. Petras was already relatively well known in queer music circles, mainly due to her frequent hyperpop party tracks that aren’t particularly profound but whose futuristic and electric production is perfect for screaming in a nightclub after four vodka cranberries. But, Kim Petras is just one artist in the grand scope of electronic pop music, and actually, her monumental statement at the Grammys was only partially accurate. In fact, what audiences may not have realized is that she descends from a decades-long list of transgender women who have pioneered the electropop genre, beginning with the actual first transgender woman to win a Grammy: Wendy Carlos.
Wendy Carlos attended Columbia University in the early 1960s, which then did not accept women into its academic programs. Carlos had experienced gender dysphoria from her early childhood, only encountering information on what was then called “transsexualism” in college before resonating heavily with the identity. By 1968, she had begun hormone replacement therapy and had successfully socially transitioned, living her personal life as a woman under the supervision of renowned clinical sexologist and advocate Harry Benjamin, a point of access that was incredibly rare for transgender people during the mid-20th Century.
While at Columbia and just before her official transition to womanhood, Carlos studied at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, the oldest computer music research center in America. There, she worked alongside Robert Moog to provide technical expertise in developing the Moog Synthesizer, the first ever commercially available keyboard synthesizer; every basic synth device that has existed since is based on her original model. Further, at the cusp of her transition but still under her male deadname, Carlos recorded and released an experimental album titled Switched-On Bach that reinterpreted the music of composer Johann Bach on her custom synthesizer. The album quickly became only the second classical music album to reach platinum certification. It earned Carlos three Grammy Awards in 1970: Best Classical Album, Best Classical Performance (Instrumental Soloist), and Best Engineered Classical Recording. Music historians have since cited Switched-On Bach as paramount in introducing synthesizers into widespread use in experimental music, which was massively utilized during the synth-pop movement of the 1980s. That means every synth-based DJ and producer, from Daft Punk to The Chainsmokers, relies on music tools developed and popularized by a transgender woman.
Although Carlos was openly living as a woman, she struggled with facing society’s perception and judgment of her gender identity. She received her accolades as a man, going as far as wearing stick-on sideburns during encounters with contemporaries to avoid any suspicion of her identity. She would continuously split between living her private life as a woman and feigning maleness in the professional world. The tradition of self-censorship among trans people in a gender-essentialized society cannot be understated. Carlos’ actions represent a harrowing reality for trans artists who must hide revolutionary personhood to promote revolutionary music.
Despite this challenge, as her unique work gained recognition, prominent filmmakers such as Stanley Kubrick and the Walt Disney Company scouted her to single-handedly score major films such as A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and 1982’s Tron. She also released several additional electronic albums during this time, most of which were reworkings of orchestral pieces through experimentation on vocoders, modulators, and her synthesizers.
At 83, Wendy Carlos remains a legendary figure in both the development of music technology and transgender history. Carlos publicly disclosed her transgender identity in a 1979 issue of Playboy magazine, when she felt as if her legacy had cemented itself enough to protect her from any hostility that would come from revealing her truth. Subsequent re-releases of her works were retroactively changed to bear her chosen name.
Now, nearly fifty years out from her initial sonic innovation, there is a curious yet deep connection that can be observed between electronic music and transgender women artists. Kim Petras is a significant artist in the microgenre of hyperpop, which sprouted from electronica in the 21st Century, where maximalist sound production is paired with conventional pop elements. While Kim Petras’ Grammy is certainly a milestone for out trans artists, she is but a small tile in a vast mosaic of transfemininity and electronica, whose long-standing foundation was set by Wendy Carlos and extends decades.
To start, many modern industrial pop sounds are taken directly from the influence of Scottish trans electronic producer SOPHIE, whose underground and experimental production attracted the interest of pop stars such as Charli XCX and Madonna. Through SOPHIE’s extensive collaborations in the early 2010s, a new trend of mechanical, hyper-complex sounds accompanying dance beats entered the mainstream; her work directly inspires the industrial conventions of modern hyperpop. After her tragic death in 2021, artists from all corners of the pop music world rallied together to bring attention to the vast influence she had on popular music production, and Kim Petras referenced SOPHIE directly in her Grammys speech to honor her for being such an icon to other trans women in music.
Even more, some of the most prominent artists in hyperpop have exemplified this phenomenon of trans women vanguarding the hyperpop genre. Venezuelan techno-pop artist Arca, known for her violent cyberpunk visuals and psychosexual hip-hop influences, has been open about her complicated gender identity and its impact on her lyricism. She has notable production credits on influential albums such as Kanye West’s Yeezus (2013), FKA Twigs’ LP1 (2014), and Björk’s Vulnicura (2015) and Utopia (2017), providing their signature industrial soundscapes and from which come very recognizable sonic motifs. Spanish megastar Rosalía has even been accused of copying Arca’s unique production style on her multi-award-winning album MOTOMAMI, which received the Latin Grammy for Album of the Year in 2022. Much like Wendy Carlos, there are countless examples where Arca’s work has been both celebrated and appropriated, hinting at a pattern involving an intentional separation of trans art from trans artists. Trans women artists are consistently referenced by their work and not their personhood; most everyone recognizes the iconic metal pang after Ye raps, “b*tch, I’m back out my coma,” on “Hold My Liquor,” but most won’t know how that sonic style even came to be.
Recently, though, Arca has been mass-releasing albums as a part of her Kick series—five in the last two years, some of which have been nominated in major awards circuits. Each album is accompanied by several dark, surrealist music videos, some so graphic that sites like YouTube require age verification to access them. Instagram even issued a temporary ban on Arca’s account in 2014 after posting NSFW visuals for her song “Vanity” from her debut studio album, a further extension of the dominant culture aiming to censor this provocative gender movement while capitalizing off its innovation.
In more examples of the association between trans women artists and hyperpop, the oft-memed band 100 gecs is co-fronted by Laura Les, who initially began experimenting with their trademark vocal modulation to feminize her voice and ease her gender dysphoria. Their popularity peaked with their 2019 release 1000 Gecs, and songs like “Money Machine” and “Stupid Horse” reached TikTok virality due to their catchy hooks and erratic style. While she concentrates on Southern Gothic indie-folk music, even alternative artist Ethel Cain utilizes elements of industrial electronica to juxtapose her more somber acoustic moments. Songs like “Gibson Girl” and “Ptolemaea” from her critically acclaimed album Preacher’s Daughter employ grungy, grinding, metallic sounds that resemble a restrained offspring of SOPHIE’s beats.
And, of course, Kim Petras has cemented herself as a prominent artist in the dance/electronic scene, rising to fame after her hit singles “I Don’t Want It at All” and “Heart to Break” in 2017-2018. Her transition during her adolescence received heavy tabloid attention, with many media outlets naively claiming her to be the “world’s youngest transsexual” after receiving gender confirmation surgery at 16. Her independent releases of EPs lead her to sign to a major American record label. However, she has recently been criticized for collaborating with the controversial Dr. Luke, whose sexual assault and harassment allegations stain her current projects. Regardless, her 2022 tech house EP Slut Pop, described as an ode to sex workers and promoting sex positivity, did reach wide popularity within the club scene.
All of these artists, massive names in the world of hyperpop, identify as transgender women. When paired with the legacy of Wendy Carlos in pioneering digital music, it is clear that there is an inseparable bond between them and the electronic genre. Perhaps it is because this very trend of analog music into digitized sounds is so metamorphic—so poignant to the trans experience of needing to create a reality for oneself when the status quo rejects you outright. For Ringtone Magazine in 2020, independent trans-femme musician Ricky Masso described that “hyperpop is all about forcing your music to sound the way you want it, and then liking the distortion that comes because of it... and that’s a trans desire of mine.” Just as the beauty in trans stories comes from transformation into one’s authentic self in the face of long-standing and violent adversity, so too might the beauty of their artistic input represent a new era of innovation and progress in the music industry. There is an inherent level of control across the glitchiness, chaos, and psychedelia of hyperpop that allows trans women a modem of queer self-expression, one that traditional music scenes may not offer. As trans people gain social acceptance in Western music spaces, their contribution to music becomes more extensive and effervescent, coinciding with the self-actualization of the trans artists themselves. Much like how jazz sprung from a particular context among African-Americans in the South during the early 1900s and has been widely propagated by talented Black artists since, it seems that trans women have established and cultivated a musical tradition all their own.
The modern explosion of hyperpop into the mainstream is unprecedented, and every trend concerning electronica in contemporary pop music can trace back to Wendy Carlos’ introduction of the synthesizer. At every rave, electronic music festival, or anywhere you can hear the sharp buzz of a synth, every headbanger should remember how digitized music is only possible and prominent because of the invaluable artistic contributions of transgender women.
Everett Bonner III is a senior in the SFS studying International Politics with minors in International Development and Japanese. He is the INDY’s Executive Editor.