whoTF is Wendy Carlos: trans-surrealism and the electronic divine


It’s 1968 and a woman born in the wrong body sits down at her synthesizer. She straightens her skirt and regards the machine in front of her before getting to work. For a moment, the only sound heard is the click of patch cords preparing to route electricity into magic. Then, satisfied with her analog plug-ins, she taps her foot and begins to play. Her keyboard conjures a symphony of sounds made for the future. Sine waves breathe life into invisible flutes, while sawtooths pluck at unseen strings. She is a one-woman band playing to a room of unborn disciples. And in this realm of wires and dials, Wendy Carlos is God.

Fast forward 54 years and Wendy sits at home with her cats. It’s been decades since she released a studio album or scored a soundtrack. She’s not on Twitter or Instagram and certainly not TikTok, but still her whispered gospel spills into the cracks of the Internet where she dare not tread. Here, Wendy is dubbed the godmother of electronic music; a trans pioneer in the eyes of her queer followers. They communicate their devotion through synthesized bass drops that Wendy made possible so many years ago. And it is here that her disciples, whoTF, finally press play.

“[Wendy Carlos] controls the world around her,” says one voice that could be three. “That is what trans people at their peak do. They’re like meteors except they go through planets.”

With a scream that cracks the earth’s crust, the world goes dark. Or rather, a dark blue interspersed with a brilliant fisheye of psychedelic golds and greens. A face appears from the darkness, its features shifting indistinctly until three separate characters are revealed. Each eye shares the same inverted iris swimming in lost space, but these features have no gender and no indication as to who tf is behind them. whoTF…? As tension builds, the world erupts into a static frenzy of CRT scan lines and strained vocals. And in this moment, nothing matters but digital color and electronic sound.

Is this the world that Wendy Carlos created?

Bygone are the days of the first modular synthesizers; now DAWs rule the earth. whoTF, a once-amorphous blob of genderless digital goo, jacks into the everyday matrix and dawns their avatars. Folie and Forget Basement are selected first, then Fraxiom, a featured player. The trio exist online, but escape into the real world just long enough to establish Chicago as their homebase. In the windy city, they make music with machines deemed inconceivable in 1968. They sing about fursuits and vaping and going Among Us in your face, but they also continue the legacy of their creator by making it known that trans people are forever pushing the boundaries of electronic music. And in a sweet twist of fate, they create “Wendy Carlos.”

In whoTF’s world, Wendy is still God, but her candid online presence went silent several years ago. Now, she speaks through the prophet Fraxiom; their lyrics a frenzied display of trans excellence. “Hate on me is futile,” Frax sings, unwavering. “I know I'm gonna do it like Wendy Carlos, Wendy Carlos.” Wendy’s commercial success as an electronic producer and a trans woman in the 20th century was one of the first analog signals of things to come. Without Wendy, there is no whoTF; without whoTF there is no “Wendy Carlos.” She has always been the blueprint for where music is going.

“Everything about how she operates is just bursting and bleeding with agency,” Frax says of Wendy. “I think more people should put estrogen in their music.”

Injecting hormones directly into their songs, whoTF’s queer confidence is a byproduct of Wendy’s commercial success; however, she was not always worshiped as an outspoken electronic deity. Wendy was anxious to liberate herself in the 60’s and 70’s, worried that her identity as a trans woman would get in the way of her music’s reception. But public opinion does not start and end with Wendy’s career. Simply existing as a trans woman puts Wendy’s life in jeopardy, as violence against queer people continues into postmodernity. Now, at 83 years old, Wendy is an anomaly: a trans elder allowed to watch the world turn.

“It’s rare to see a trans person so influential and so important who lives to be that old,” says Forget Basement, seeing humanity in Wendy’s holiness. With a 60-year age difference between them, whoTF and Wendy Carlos have objectively different experiences producing electronic music; however, their methodology is strikingly similar. While collaborating with Bob Moog on the development of one of his first modular synthesizers, Wendy realized that: “It was a perfect fit: He was a creative engineer who spoke music; I was a musician who spoke science." This balance of art and science permeates whoTF’s music, where they believe that there’s “a science to songwriting and an art to sound design.”

“I really feel like Ableton knows what it’s doing more than me sometimes,” Folie admits. “So I’ll just give it the parameters to do that and then it’s always super exciting to see what I get back.”

With faith in their machinery and a keen sense of curiosity, whoTF’s music accesses the divine self that also flows through Wendy Carlos. Both deity and disciple are driven by the desire to explore that which lies deep within them, creating art and identity piece by piece, rather than accepting what has already been created. They believe that sound design is “so shapeless and formless because you have to generate it from different shapes and forms.” When presented with the building blocks of electronic music, whoTF has the ability to make whatever they want. And with this philosophy in mind, gender identity seems as shapeless and formless as the infinite soundscapes before them.

Following in Wendy’s footsteps, whoTF’s unapologetic nature allows them to transcend cultural boundaries, but they can’t help but notice they aren’t the only ones leaving footprints in the sand. With Wendy leading the way, she is eventually joined by whoTF’s inspiration and contemporary, SOPHIE. If Wendy Carlos is the godmother of electronic music, then SOPHIE is next in line. Both musicians represent queer artistry across decades of misunderstanding, indifference, and hatred lobbed at queer people. And both musicians have overcome their anxieties, putting their trans identity center stage, in order to make a lasting impact on popular culture.

“You can see the straight line from Wendy to SOPHIE,” says Folie, observing the synthesis of philosophy and technology that eventually led to whoTF’s “Wendy Carlos.” But the single is not just a celebration of whoTF’s queer influences, it is also a bold expression of trans-surrealism. This theory (like the afrosurreal manifesto it is based upon) recognizes that “nature (including human nature) generates more surreal experiences than any other process could hope to produce.” Trans people have existed forever, yet are still treated as fallen angels; expelled to the fringes of a society they are forced to inhabit. Even in the world Wendy Carlos created, trans people can never fully escape alienation.

As a trans-surrealist piece, “Wendy Carlos” uses cognitive dissonance to highlight the surreal everyday experiences of queer people. From misgendering to violence, trans people’s experiences are often dictated by those around them; forcing trans people to shoulder the burden of cis people’s discomfort. In “Wendy Carlos” however, whoTF has been blessed by a saintly force willing to share the load: the once-transphobic deadmau5. Sure, the cis producer has insulted queer people in the past, but he’s repentant now; a changed man. Oh, haven’t you heard? whoTF can explain: “You know deadmau5? Yeah, deadmau5? I’m so proud of him. He’s nonbinary now! He uses they/them pronouns. Everybody say, ‘Good job, deadmau5!’”

Welcoming deadmau5 into the pantheon of queer electronic producers, whoTF’s tongue is placed directly in their cheek. In “Wendy Carlos,” whoTF forces deadmau5 to come out as nonbinary, only to misgender him a second later. Suddenly, trans people have taken control of a cis person’s narrative, flipping society’s script with no regard for reality. “You get to hear in real-time how jarring it is to misgender anyone,” says Frax. “I want people to listen to the song and be like, ‘Well why the fuck are you misgendering deadmau5?’ Well why the fuck are you misgendering me?”

“Wendy Carlos” is a surrealist act of queer resistance, but more so it is a love letter to the trans pioneers who led whoTF into the light. As the godmother of electronic music, Wendy Carlos’ trans identity is a beacon of hope for young, queer artists like Forget Basement, Folie, and Fraxiom. Though Wendy’s modular world looks very different from the chaotic digital space surrounding “Wendy Carlos,” it is clear that both Wendy and whoTF create queer art on their own terms. Blessed by difference, inspired to explore, trans artists continue to innovate within the field of electronic music. And in the world of whoTF and Wendy Carlos, transness surpasses godliness, like a meteor piercing the planet’s core.

Katie Manners

Katie Manners, catgirl CEO, is a hyperpop apologist. While raving on Zoom, she stumbled across the digital underground and never left, covering some of the scene’s most prominent figures along the way. As the founder of cat scratch magazine, she believes in the importance of community building and fat bass drops. She is currently located in one of the most boring cities in Canada.