opinion by SAMUEL TOLZMANN
Critic David Halperin has argued that Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” will not attain anthemic immortality within gay culture because it’s actually too gay; the most enduring pieces of gay culture, Halperin says, are the ones that require the audience to read in between the lines for the queer subtext, and therein lies much of the pleasure and power of appropriation. “Born This Way” might have a positive queer-friendly message (debatable), but it’s as shallow, boring, and un-queer as pop gets. There is no subtext, only surface. In this respect, All Love’s Legal – the third full-length from Berlin's Jam Rostron, bka Planningtorock – is like 45 minutes of “Born This Way,” only it’s also not very catchy. When enumerating the problems with this record, I’d say the laughably blunt title is only the tip of the iceberg, except that my point is there’s nothing here but tip of the iceberg. Is there an audience for a chorus like, “All love’s legal, you can’t legalize love, love is the one gift that gives life its purpose”? I can’t think of what it is. A listener to whom these concepts are not self-evident is hardly going to warm to them now, since Rostron fires off plenty of bullet points without even one demonstrative bit of supporting evidence. From “Human Drama”: “Give me a human drama, understand that gender’s just a game…all sexuality is not the same.” Again, anyone who doesn’t understand those ideas is not going to understand them after “Human Drama,” and anyone who already does will wonder, “Yes, and so what?” One refrain on this record actually goes, “Misogyny, drop dead!” without supplying a reason. Rostron is very clear about who is excluded from All Love’s Legal – the patriarchy – but she's not clear on why, and more problematically still, she fails to make inclusion seem appealing or powerful.
The reductive presentation doesn’t make Planningtorock’s politics more accessible so much as dull whatever progressive edge they had to begin with. Planningtorock’s argument is slightly more nuanced than Gaga’s on “Born This Way,” but it’s no more convincing or compelling. The press release is full of lofty ideals, asserting the record’s “useful” qualities and claiming, “All Love’s Legal is a refreshingly direct statement of political intent.” Direct, sure. However, there’s nothing “refreshing” about hackneyed lyrics, cartoonishly broad renderings of concepts from intro-level cultural theory, and the beating of dead horses. “Political intent” is well and good, but its mere presence doesn’t automatically make an artwork intelligent, or subversive, or meaningful, or effective. In fact, it makes All Love’s Legal a real chore to listen to.
But, hey, there’s more to art than the artist’s intentions, and there’s more to a song than its lyrics, so let’s talk about something else. I made it through two whole paragraphs of this review without mentioning the Knife, for which I think I maybe deserve some kind of medal. Planningtorock has regularly opened for the masked Swedish siblings and collaborated on their avant-garde operaTomorrow, In A Year, facts which you’d be able to guess after two minutes of her music if you didn’t know them already. At their bygone best, as on 2011’s W, Planningtorock songs have taken certain trademark elements of the Knife’s aesthetic – gender-bending vocals, sinister lyrical narratives offering political critique, Fever Ray’s dessicated slither, Silent Shout’s propulsive “haunted house” rhythms – and given them a unique twist via rich, weirdly beautiful arrangements for strings and horns. W’s chilling highlights “I Am Your Man” and “The Breaks” owed their whole existence to the Dreijers, but added something fresh to the echo. All Love’s Legal ditches much of the orchestration and goes full-on dancefloor. It’s a misguided maneuver because now, instead of sounding indebted to her collaborators, Rostron sounds like a plagiarist. In the most egregious instance, on one song here, she stretches the Salt-N-Pepa-quoting outro to the Knife’s “Full Of Fire” – “Let’s talk about gender baby, let’s talk about you and me” – out into a full track, but that joke worked in its original context mostly because it was so brief. It’s not clever, shocking, or interesting for four minutes. Rostron doesn’t follow it up by, you know, actually talking about gender or what it means for you and me, and there’s no indication that she’s thought about the role Salt-N-Pepa’s original version plays in this new context. Once again, she seems to have been in such a hurry to implement a critical idea in her work that she forgot to develop it or figure out what makes it special.
Sonically, All Love’s Legal is a significant step backward from W, sticking to a retro dance vibe that pays superficial homage to the queer origins of disco and house. It’s slack and uninspired across the board, and the beats have no creativity or spark to them. The whole affair’s in sore need of the off-kilter arrangements that Rostron used to do so well; too often, the acoustic instruments on All Love’s Legal are submerged in the mix or else forced to do things usually assigned to synthesizers. The ominous, AutoTuned slow-burner “Steps” is the one track that harks back to W, and even though it's watered down compared to the music on that album, it's still the best thing here by a long shot. The rest of the time, when Rostron breaks from the dance-pop mold, it’s to do things that fellow feminist artists like tUnE-yArDs (the wonky reggae influence of “Misogyny Drop Dead”) or the Knife (the jittery, militaristic “Public Love”; a set of not-really-that-creepy instrumentals) have already done much better. And last year’s monumental Shaking The Habitual looms over the whole thing, its aesthetic and political successes too fresh in the memory for All Love’s Legal to get away with its faults. Almost nothing about it works.
In a review of Planningtorock’s 2013 EP Misogyny Drop Dead, Pitchfork’s Katherine St. Asaph wrote that “It can be liberating to be this unsubtle.” To which I ask: liberating for whom? Planningtorock, maybe, but not her audience, and that’s not a good look for an album that’s so blatantly trying to be “useful.” The closing call to arms on All Love’s Legal is an older single called “Patriarchy Over And Out,” but listening to it, I’m not inspired to challenge the dominant order. I’m inspired to listen to something else. D+