Last week’s Tomorrowland festival in Boom, Belgium, is notable for more than being the biggest electronic dance music festival in the world. It has also always been one of the festivals friendliest to female DJs, in a genre that has been a boys club for as long as there have been two turntables and a microphone, and this year that was more apparent than ever, with 19 female acts appearing.
Two of the hottest duos on the EDM circuit -- Sweden’s Rebecca Scheja and her partner-in-crime, Fiona Fitzpatrick, who together form the flashy tandem Rebecca & Fiona, along with Australia’s twin-sister sensation, Miriam and Olivia Nervo, or simply NERVO (in caps) -- played big at Tomorrowland and are leading the new wave.
But as increasing numbers of female artists rise through the DJ ranks, questions still arise as to whether they are being taken seriously as moneymaking talent or dismissed as scandalous party girls.
“The landscape has been male dominated for a long time, and so the more girls that break through, the better for everyone, for us as promoters and for the fans,” said Michiel Beers of ID&T; Belgium, which puts on Tomorrowland. “It simply comes down to the fact that there are many more talented DJs that happen to be female these days, which is a great thing.”
Many of the women, however, still say they face a seriously uphill battle.
“There’s definitely a prejudice. Like it’s impossible for girls to sing, party, produce and care about how they look,” said Scheja of Rebecca & Fiona. “Either you’re in the studio or you’re a party girl -- we are both. Audiences are really excited because they’ve never seen [female DJs] before, but in the business, it’s really hard because they don’t take us seriously because we drink and we’re funny, but we’re also producers and we’re also girls.”
Or, as Rebecca & Fiona say on their track “We Are Girls”: "We are girls but we still like to play. We are girls we don't care what they say.”
Both NERVO and Rebecca & Fiona made first inroads in the profession as singing and songwriting talent, contributing to the work of big-name producers such as David Guetta, Tiësto, Axwell and Steve Angello of Swedish House Mafia, Kaskade and Afrojack.
For NERVO, the twins made their first big splash as songwriters on Guetta's 2009 smash hit "When Love Takes Over" feat. Kelly Rowland, which they co-wrote. The single, which topped charts in 11 different countries, including the U.S., also won Guetta a Grammy for Best Non-Classical, Remixed Recording.
“Our whole journey has come from behind the scenes, and our success we’ve had with David on 'When Love Takes Over' has changed our lives,” Olivia Nervo said. “Then we got a record deal, and then we started releasing stuff under our own name.”
As for Rebecca & Fiona, their rapid success came after debuting their own single, “Luminary Ones,” which quickly became one of the most listened-to songs on Swedish radio, followed by a hit collaboration with superstar-DJ Kaskade that put them on the map in the U.S.
Both have built a significant following in the States, with NERVO having penned hits for Ke$ha, The Pussycat Dolls, Kylie Minogue and Jennifer Hudson and opening for pop stars Britney Spears and Nicki Minaj, while Rebecca & Fiona are fresh off their first North American tour in which they played 26 cities, making four stops in the Golden State. The two acts also booked gigs at some of 2012’s biggest U.S. festivals -- Electric Daisy Carnival, Lollapalooza and Ultra -- with NERVO having its own residency in Las Vegas at Tryst Nightclub at the Wynn and Rebecca & Fiona with theirs at Marquee at the Cosmopolitan.
Big bookings are proof that many women are earning respect in the testosterone-laden world of superstar DJ. These two female acts, however, refuse to be defined by the struggle, or turn this into a boys-versus-girls throw-down. They’re earning success on their own terms and being as girly as they want to be.
“We’ve always liked female deejays. I mean, we’re girls. It works for us sometimes, sometimes it works against us. But we don’t really think about it, we just get on with it,” said the Nervo twins. “We’re not going to have a sex change.”
Additional reporting by Adam Cucurull and Alessandro Stella