Planningtorock‘s message of gender equality and sexual freedom on All Love’s Legal seems simplistic and dated at first. But in 2014, the simplest messages are often the most urgent ones. Western media coverage of the Sochi Oympics has brought attention to Russian anti-gay violence and legislation. But we’re also sharing a planet with at least five countries where even vaguely defined homosexual behavior is worthy of the death penalty. Jam Rostron, the multimedia artist behind Planningtorock, sings “You can’t illegalize love” on the title track onAll Love’s Legal. That slogan could fit on a t-shirt, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Nuance isn’t translating so well today.
Rostron’s musical work, a kind of art-house house, has always been a smart platform for direct intentions. Her debut album Have It All laid down the small set of tools—violin, keyboards, drum machine, heavily processed vocals—that she would also use on her followupW. Setting aside Rostron’s collaboration with the Knife, Tomorrow, in a Year, she’s only gotten better at the balance. On All Love’s Legal she refines further, adding or subtracting beats and strings until finding the right tension between her unambiguous gender politics and her unknowable voice.
Despite the sparse instrumentation and arrangement, Rostron’s songs evoke huge, cavernous spaces. By manipulating the attack and echo on her strings and synths, she creates the clouds of theatrical fog that cling to the melody on “Human Drama”. You can hear the empty stage surrounding her. The bass and drums songs, like “Misogyny Drop Dead” and “All Love’s Legal”, drift out of sync, tugging at each other and galloping separately. Even the most straightforward dance track, the irresistibly in-sync “Let’s Talk About Gender Baby”, feels off, but in a good way. Rostron repeats the titular phrase over her usual brooding bass line, but she extends the syllables a little too long, slurring her words on either the world’s most self-aware dancefloor or your college’s drunkest women’s studies discussion section.
Even artists that resist sex and gender classification will adopt genre conventions when making their music. Putting aside the creator, the lyrics, or even the voice, there’s something that seems unidentifiable in All Love’s Legal. The instrumentation is neither pretty nor ugly, human or not human, masculine nor feminine. Rather than trading on identification (“I’m just like you, you’re just like me!”), Rostron opts for alienation. It’s a bold strategy—the impersonality of the music prohibits anyone from rejecting the message and accepting the messenger. There’s no distinction between the two.
All Love’s Legal isn’t as bleak as all that, though. There’s an organic, humanistic ethos operating behind her music: we are all people, and we’re all moved by the same primal passions and stimuli. Planningtorock as a multimedia project is committed to pushing that idea as far as it can go. It’s undanceable dance music sung by an arid, semi-digitized voice. It asks you to abandon the kind of categorical thinking that divides man from woman and gay from straight. This sounds like the kind of message that pop music has come to embrace. But rather than deliver that message in an instantly metabolized treacle-pop ballad or an arena-ready club anthem, Rostron’s music demands that you confront what abandoning deeply-entrenched ways of thinking about gender and desire would actually feel like—it doesn’t sound too comfortable, and it shouldn’t. (This is, by the way, the ocean that separates “Same Love” from Planningtorock’s “Public Love”.) Gender may be a “lie,” as Rostron sings on “Human Drama”, but it’s a lie that, for most people, rests at the core of our sense of self. So if we’re truly going to come together, Rostron seems to say, we’re going to have to come undone first.