Bend the Binary with Dorian Electra
In Dorian Electra’s video for the song “Man to Man,” Electra sports a red latex bodysuit and a rather prominent codpiece, preparing to box with a fierce-looking, blood-soaked opponent. They strip off their costume to the waist and approach their enemy for a final round, but when they get close, the two kiss rather than throwing a punch. Blood smears both of their faces as they pull away. “Are you man enough to soften up?” Electra sings. “Are you tough enough to open up?”
Electronic pop artist Dorian Electra wants to bend the binary with videos like this. By helping their audiences question what it means to be female, male or neither, this very flaming flammable guy is more than a character and on-stage persona — they’re the embodiment of stepping beyond nonconformity into a new stratosphere.
“I have so much fun playing with these masculine characters and tropes as a genuine part of myself — but then also being self-aware of how they can become toxic and how they should be challenged,” Electra told TIDAL. “It’s not just as simple as ‘I’m taking down toxic masculinity’ or ‘This is all a character.’ It’s neither one of those; it’s somewhere, somehow in the middle.”
And, like a true artist, they’d rather have their viewers leave confused than “thinking it was one or the other.”
Electra has been messing with conceptions of gender and identity for nearly a decade now with their boundary-bending YouTube videos, but 2019 marked a turning point in their career when they released their debut album, Flamboyant (July 17). The album features “computery and futuristic” baroque-esque MIDI harpsichord, guitars inspired by their love for ‘60s psychedelic garage bands, metallic drums and futuristic synths. (We experience all of this on “Flamboyant,” the track the album is named after.)
Armed with a supportive team, the record was made during a week-long retreat to an Airbnb in Las Vegas this past January with the likes of Dylan Brady, ABSRDST, umru, Robokid, Socialchair, Will Vaughan, Britney Spears songwriter Jesse Saint John, video producer Weston Allen, fellow non-binary artist Mood Killer, Katy Perry songwriter Bonnie McKee and Diveo.
“We had three different rooms with different producers, so it was perfect for me because I was so ADD that I was able to bounce around [from] one to the next whenever I had a new idea,” they said. The final product was a result of a collective effort.
Born in Houston, Texas, to a queer artist and musician, Electra started their high school’s philosophy club and studied a variety of political thought. Electra’s parents never expected them to become interested in academia since the household leaned more towards the arts, but the family’s creative energy influenced their kid to mold the visual with the musical. Electra started making music videos as a kid with their friends, and, as a student, they jumped on any opportunity to turn a book report into a musical parody or an original tune a video — i.e. “I’m in Love with Friedrich Hayek,” a tune about an economist and philosopher who was very into classical liberalism, a type of conservative libertarianism. (Electra said they never truly identified with libertarianism and emphasized they now disagree with those ideas that especially support the interests of the wealthy.)
This routine — transforming academic concepts into catchy videos — guided Electra toward making a series of educational video content for Refinery29 after graduating from Shimer College. In 2006, the feminist outlet hired them to explore the history of the clitorous, drag and vibrators through video. They also created a similar video about high heels for RIOT and later dropped a more creative track, “Jackpot,” on INTO MORE, a publication by Grindr. No matter what the assignment, Electra used these videos to critically interrogate gender while learning more about themselves in the process.
Their first non-educational video was “Mind, Body, Problem,” released while they worked with Refinery but via on their own platform. The video begins with Electra (hyperfeminized) posing for a vintage sex phone line commercial, a visual metaphor for how their mind interacts with their body and how disconnected the two are.
“It was about femininity and gender as performance, exploring that with myself,” they explained. This moment, they said, instigated a more conscious journey of their gender as something fluid and ever-changing. As they recruited local queer performers for their videos, they also met non-binary people who used gender neutral pronouns — and quickly felt “Wait, that’s totally me” upon being introduced.
This video was critical to their development as an independent artist who, to this day, remains unsigned. Still, like many artists, they found their art restricted early in their career; creative control was limited because they were collecting a paycheck for their videos. “I always did have to form my art around financial constraints,” they emphasized.
When the gig at Refinery29 ended in 2016, they quickly befriended Charli XCX in 2017 after a mutual friend, producer AG Cook, introduced them to the pop-star-slash-record-executive. Charli helped them understand what it means to be a self-employed artist and entrepreneur. After being featured on Pop2’s “Femmebot” alongside Mykki Blanco, Electra tag-teamed with Charli on a series of after-parties while touring with Taylor Swift in 2018.
“Charli as a pop star occupies two very different worlds: she could be opening for Taylor Swift in a stadium and then be super down-to-earth, interacting with fans, partying with them,” Electra said. “She’s an amazing role model who is very connected and grateful for her fans, who doesn’t take them for granted, which is valuable for any artist to learn.”
Another notable pivot occurred when they released “Career Boy,” a song that challenged the go-getter, “have it all” career girl narrative. They released the video independently on YouTube while simultaneously coming out as non-binary in June 2018. At the time, Electra was worried that using they/them pronouns would alienate more people from their music rather than attract.
They recalled asking their team what they thought. “‘You should absolutely be true to yourself’ [they told me]. And I was like, ‘I was hoping you guys would say that, but I didn’t know if you were at least gonna say it’d be hard for people [to understand].’ So they were like, ‘Screw them! They gotta learn.’”
And it’s true — people are listening to how Electra wants to be defined. They’re an example of fashion, performance, genre and gender taken “all the way,” and they’re fearless in sharing their expression with the world. This June, they performed at Pride festivals in Chicago, Seattle, New York City, Miami and even their hometown of Houston. They view festival performances as a humbling challenge because of the opportunity to reach a fresh audience, unfamiliar with their work.
“You can be immediately connected to other really cool people who are interested in what you’re doing,” they added. “The more unique and personal it is the more it draws people for those reasons.”
As Electra’s fan base grows wider, they’re never out of touch with their fans, whether it’s reposting fans’ Instagram stories on their own, sharing fan art, geeking out over fan-made DIY merchandise or engaging with several fan accounts on Instagram. On their upcoming tour, they plan to continue the tradition of hosting after-parties in prospective cities. The goal is to bring people together.
“I want to make music that will attract the kind of people I want to be friends with,” they said. Mission accomplished.
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