The year 2013 was a good one for feminist debate being heard, setting the news agenda. But it also became apparent how far there is still to go – not least in the music industry. While discussion of sexualised pop videos and misogynist lyrics raged, in the industry, little changes. Sex sells; feminist rhetoric doesn’t.
That’s the mainstream line, anyway – but those rules don’t apply in the world of electro-pop artist Planningtorock, aka Jam Rostron. She marries floor-filling dance music with full-throttle feminist rallying cries – imagine how Lady Gaga might sound if she were genuinely as radical as she professes to be. Rostron’s new album, All Love’s Legal, features such song titles as “Patriarchy Over & Out”, “Misogyny Drop Dead” and “Beyond Binary Binds”, and Rostron continues to use vocal effects to de-genderise her voice – it can be hard to tell if you’re listening to a man or a woman. And her videos will never, ever feature her cavorting in a bikini.
Bolton-born, 42-year-old Rostron studied at art school, and 10 years ago moved to Berlin. Inspired by the creative scene there, she began to wed her video art to electronic music: Planningtorock was born, her first album Have It All released in 2006.
She was always interested in gender. But after she had finished touring her follow up, W, in the summer of 2012, Rostron felt “what was happening in my real life wasn’t relating to my music… I had a bit of a meltdown actually. I felt disillusioned.
“I decided to write a song about patriarchy, and it just saved my ass, basically,” states Rostron. “Patriarchy Over & Out” is the final song of her new album, and features the to-the-point lines “Patriarchal life, you’re out of date/Patriarchal life, get out of the way!” Penning such unabashedly political sentiments proved a life-changing personal, and musical, breakthrough for Rostron.
She decided to stop skirting round the issues that really mattered to her – feminism, sexual discrimination, misogyny – and tackle them head-on throughout All Love’s Legal. “I was like: right, this is fucking it! No more going around [such concepts] in a poetic way, lets just go on it directly… After that track, my faith in music got back, I found my purpose, and I cracked on with the rest of the album.”
Good job too: All Love’s Legal is a gem of a record, her best yet, filled with sparkling dance tracks, that offer up accessible grooves, hooks and beats, while also sounding off-kilter in a way your brain can’t quite process. And Rostron’s lyrics blaze with her new found confidence; on “Human Drama” she sings of gender being “just a lie”; on the title track, she tackles homophobia with the line “you can’t illegalise love”. It risks sounding like a Queer Studies module, but then Rostron does actively want her lyrics to provide a way into the debate.
And Rostron thinks dance music is the perfect vehicle. “Historically, it’s been a great medium to carry messages: think of early house music, and definitely in relation to queer politics or sexual politics. It’s not about making it ‘light’; it just somehow gets into you easier.” She always wanted to be inclusive rather than confrontational or preachy; watching a live show in Brighton recently, the atmosphere was one of openness, the crowd – pretty evenly split, if we’re gonna stick to gender binaries – dancing from the off.
Rostron identifies as gender queer – she changed her name from Janine to the ambiguous Jam, and considers her sexuality a fluid thing. Even the very sounds she uses as Planningtorock can “translate a political thought”, she insists – a concept which, in the face of my mild bemusement, she concedes “sounds a bit mental!”
“I’m into this idea of queering sonics, making non-heteronormative music,” she says, and this is the impetus for skewing all her sounds: not only pitching down her vocals, but using wonky timings and production. Live, she adds video art to the mix – the multimedia approach has always been important to her, as has her personal style. She used to wear masks and a Klingon-like fake nose to perform, though these days she’s more low-key: onstage in Brighton and in person she’s dressed in a plain, dark, gender-neutral tracksuit and sunglasses.
Rostron’s look has led to people making all sorts of assumptions, including that’s she’s asexual. ”I had to say ‘look, just because I refuse to be sexualised doesn’t make me asexual.’” More positively, she recounts having young girls coming up to her after shows and saying “‘I never knew you could be a woman and be powerful onstage and not have to show flesh’ – which [was] pretty heart-breaking to hear. I just take it for granted, it’s very queer; it’s about who we are, and not at all about how sexy we are.”
When I ask her what she makes of modern pop music – and its sexualisation – she splutters “I just think it’s fucking loony tunes. I don’t really engage with it that much, to be honest – I’m listening in a different direction.”
Rather, she has stuck to collaborating with those at pop’s cutting edge: playing at Antony Hegarty’s “Future Feminism” Meltdown festival, recording an opera with fellow pitch-shifters The Knife, and touring with LCD Soundsystem. And she’s found her artistic home in Berlin, where she has built a studio with friends: “It’s a really special place – we support each other, and share gear and knowledge. There’s such resistance when it comes to challenging social norms, you need that little community.”
Rostron also set up her own label – Human Level – to release the album, and she’s committed to working with women. Easily done in this day and age? Hardly, she says. “In all my 10 years of doing photoshoots, I’ve never once been offered a female photographer. And I said for this [album], I want to work with women only. Magazines come back saying we don’t know any [female photographers]. I’m like, well, can you go back and think about that for a minute?”
More joyously, Rostron talks of her time spent working with all-female teams for her videos. “We have such a laugh. There’s no hierarchy, everyone is just in there having a good time.” And Rostron actually has a secret dream to spend more time in front of the cameras, with her mates. “I would really love to make a TV series: something with comedy and music and also dealing with issues – but bonkers.” You heard it here first folks: Planningtorock is planning to broadcast.
‘All Love’s Legal’ is released 17 Feb