Planningtorock’s All Love’s Legal
Planningtorock—the solo project of Bolton-born, Berlin-based Jam (formerly Janine) Rostron—has long been dogged by comparisons to the work of her friends and collaborators The Knife. These haven’t always been accurate or fair; contra Pitchfork, I can’t see all that much in common between the musical exuberance and mad funfair atmosphere of Planningtorock’s 2006 debut Have It All and The Knife’s taut, dark techno masterpiece of the same year, Silent Shout. Yet as her career has progressed, Rostron seems to have acquiesced to those comparisons. She worked more closely with The Knife on the magisterial soundtrack to Hotel Pro Forma’s opera Tomorrow, in a Year (2010); and her second album, 2011’s W, contains a good few tricks taken from Karin Dreijer Andersson’s playbook, including pitch-bending vocals as a form of gender-bending.
Rostron’s previous creative choices may have primed critics and fans alike to look for connections between her work and The Knife’s, but All Love’s Legal practically slaps you in the face with its parallels to The Knife’s most recent album, Shaking the Habitual. Like Shaking, All Love’s Legal is an explicitly political album informed by feminism, queer theory, and contemporary gender politics. It also contains a song named ‘Let’s Talk About Gender Baby’, based on Rostron’s own rework of The Knife’s ‘Full of Fire’. In case you might be tempted to miss the connection, even the covers of the two albums are rendered in a similarly retina-searing shade of pink.
That Rostron invites comparisons to The Knife’s work is unfortunate for two reasons. Firstly, it’s hard for anyone to live up to a comparison with a group who have made some of the most thrilling and challenging dance-pop of the last decade. Second, Rostron’s own work tends to be at its best when it is most identifiably hers. One of the pleasures of listening to Have It All lies in being struck by its sheer idiosyncrasy. What other artist have you heard construct a veritable banger of a track from a rickety drum kit, some pizzicato strings, and her own helium-tinged voice? Or make vorarephilia sound so tempting, as on ‘I Wanna Bite Ya’? Similarly, the best moments of W came from unusual juxtapositions that few other musicians would have the talent or daring to pull off. The moment on ‘The One’ when a gauche soft-jazz sax solo that could have been performed by Sade’s Stuart Matthewman rolls into a tense arrangement of Bernard Hermann-esque strings still gives me a frisson of pleasure, as does the way Rostron captures the rolling menace of Moondog’s ‘Invocation’ and transforms it into a propulsive dance cut on ‘I’m Yr Man’. (It’s interesting to note, too, that on ‘I’m Yr Man’ Rostron fucks with gender pretty comprehensively without having to resort to Dreijer Andersson’s vocal pitch manipulation techniques.)
In comparison to Rostron’s first two solo albums, All Love’s Legal feels not only derivative of The Knife’s work but also perhaps a little hastily constructed. Of the twelve songs on the album, four are little more than interstitials designed to cleanse the palate between heftier tracks, and these are more often than not maddeningly slight. ‘Words are Glass’, for example, is an ambient version of the twitchy hook from ‘Misogyny Drop Dead’, the song it precedes. (One notable exception is ‘Beyond Binary Binds’, a thickly-layered jewel of a track that feels as though it could be easily stretched out to a six-minute dancefloor workout despite clocking in at less than a minute and a half.) Take away these tracks and the album’s introduction, in which Rostron exhorts the listener to “fall in love with whoever you want to”, and you’re left with only seven songs of real substance.
Padding the album with ambient interstitials would be a forgivable peccadillo were the other songs seriously weighty—after all, even Kid A had ‘Treefingers’—but the remaining seven tracks can themselves come off as a little half-baked. Take the title track, whose chorus either declares that “all love’s legal / you cannot legalise love” or “all love’s legal / you can’t illegalise love”—Rostron’s diction here makes deciphering the lyrics a little difficult. In either case, the message is the kind of soft-liberal nostrum that sounds nice and comforting but falls apart on closer inspection. If we’re talking about acts of love, then states can and do make determinations about what forms of love are legally permissible, and for good reason: some forms of love are expressed in actions that can cause profound harm. (It’s not for nothing that the L in NAMBLA stands for ‘love’—I have no doubt that its members sincerely believe that their desires are based in a form of love, but that doesn’t mean their desires are ethically permissible or should be legal.)
And while there is a rich tradition of queer theory interrogating the right of the state to make legal determinations about certain sexual practices—Gayle Rubin’s 1984 paper ‘Thinking Sex’ could stand as its locus classicus—that argument doesn’t boil down to Rostron’s “fall in love with whoever you want to”, let alone the hopelessly sappy (and inaccurate) assertion that “love is the one gift / that gives life its purpose”. Similarly, Rostron’s assertion that “gender’s just a lie” in ‘Human Drama’ isn’t far off the kind of utopian “all gender is drag!” reading of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble made by excitable undergraduates—and one that has been roundly rebutted by Butler herself. By contrast, Rostron’s at her best when she’s not trying to theorise or preach at her audience; for example, the engaging fury of both ‘Misogyny Drop Dead’ and ‘Patriarchy Over and Out’.
Of course, musicians are not, and should not be held up as, paragons of nuanced or enlightened thought—you need only look at Ted Nugent to dispel that idea. And similarly, the case could be made that in a world where women’s and GLBTIQ rights are being eroded rapidly after decades of slow, incremental progress (think Russia’s current anti-gay pogrom, or Uganda’s terrifying anti-homosexuality bill), blunt messages such as Rostron’s are a necessity. But even if All Love’s Legal offers a direct and simplistic message, its form undercuts Rostron’s ability to push that message. Its cheap, DIY sonics and jittery, off-kilter melodies—not to mention the fact that it has been released by her own label—will restrict its audience mainly to developed-world music nerds who have already encountered her previous work. Rostron explicitly positions All Love’s Legal in a lineage of political music, and tackles feminism and queer theory head on, which means that the album’s theoretical lacunae are more than merely mildly disappointing oversights from someone who doesn’t know better. All Love’s Legal therefore runs the risk of being the Phil Ochs to Shaking the Habitual’s Dylan—in putting her message forward so directly and artlessly, Rostron has robbed herself of the chance to perform and embody a form of queer club music, opting instead to merely state it.