Electronic protest music? In this three-part feature from the Spring 2013 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine, we speak to three contemporary electronic music acts challenging traditional power structures through this most unlikely of musical forms. Here Louise Brailey talks to Janine Rostron aka Planningtorock. You can also read interviews with Terre Thaemlitz and The Knife as part of the series.
In western pop, it’s been a minute since the classic protest song has worn anything but the musty perfume of canonization, wafting a relevance more historical than contemporary. But don’t blame it on apathetic youth or lack of international example. While music became one of the most important platforms of protest during the Arab Spring of 2010 and Occupy movements went global in 2011, 2013 has seen a revival of music with a message in the unlikeliest of forms and in conceptually less charted waters. The predominantly instrumental domain of electronic music has become a medium for topical songs on queer culture and the destruction of patriarchal norms in the context of broader social change. Recent releases by The Knife (Shaking the Habitual), Planningtorock (“Misogyny Drop Dead”), and Terre Thaemlitz (Soulnessless) connect the morphability of sound synthesis with thoughts on the fluidity of gender identity, albeit in very different ways and to varying degrees of reflection. Here, in three parallel interviews, a conversation emerges on the virtues of inauthenticity, gender equality, and finding the political in the personal.
How do you define misogyny?
It’s the act of hatred of women and girls, that’s basically what it is. But of course it has all these layers and all its manifestations.
Why is it on your mind now?
It’s more that it’s something in my life. I brought out a track last summer which was the beginning of my being more direct in how I feel, and also experimenting with being more political, or bringing my politics into my music… which I’d never really done so literally before. But this time I just thought “Fuck it, I want it because it’s in my life so much, and I can’t keep those things separate anymore. Why should I?” I brought out a track last summer called “Patriarchy Over and Out” and that experience, as well as getting into dance music and discovering the beauty of dance music, was really a great vehicle for me to communicate really intense messages—although I don’t think these messages are actually that intense at all. Actually, they make absolute sense. But for a lot of people they’re just like “Wow, that’s really direct”. It was the beginning of an experiment where I was really thinking a lot about how to deal with these topics without people feeling under attack. So I just started to think about really just dealing with the subject itself; that patriarchy and misogyny are just these inventions that the world should try and get rid of. We could do without them, to say the least.
Not all the recordings that I’m doing are the same nature and set-up because I still want to have fun with music and be flexible with it. But so far I’m really enjoying it, it’s kind of a liberating experience to bring these topics into your work and also educate yourself and instigate discussions with my friends and my community here in Berlin, which I really depend on, to be honest. Yes, it is very topical but I think that’s also because it’s something that’s really affecting our lives, it’s always affected everybody’s lives. Also I think the birth of a new generation of young journalists, female journalists, people finding their voices within journalism, feels like—and I might be wrong—a change in the last few years, which is really exciting. I get a lot of feedback, which is really helpful for me and really rewarding, from a lot of new female journalists. I think it is in the air.
Do you think misogyny exists within queer spaces, too?
I would say misogyny exists everywhere. You’d actually be surprised how many people don’t even know what the word means, and have asked me. That’s the other thing about language: even if they’ve needed to engage with that as a reality, they won’t know the word for it. It exists everywhere in all shapes and forms.
I know you’ve worked together with The Knife in the past, who’ve also taken a similarly political turn in addressing issues of gender prejudice. Have you been mutually influencing one another?
It’s difficult to say because we are old friends, we’ve known each other for eight or nine years now. I must admit we’ve had our conversations… But the thing that’s informed my thinking the most was just making and touring with the last album. I’m very proud of W and I still enjoy performing that album, but I came to a bit of a crisis point where I was like, “What is the purpose of my music?” There is so much music out there… not that it determines what I do, but it does affect me. I was wondering what else I personally can get from this. And also touring with an all female band played a role: even in the coolest places you can have quite horrible experiences being all female, sound technician included. After a while it was like “Gender politics are happening to me twenty-four-seven!” I needed to deal with it in a constructive, creative way. For me to stand on the stage with Hermione Frank and Joy Lee Joseph as women and then me actually sing about issues that are actually happening to us right before we go onstage, really helps me deal with that topic.
What sort of things were you encountering?
You can occasionally come across male technicians who just sabotage you. They don’t want you there, and they have big problems with the fact that you’re a professional. Or you play at festivals and then another band will come onstage and completely erode your soundcheck. I still find it shocking that even now it still actually happens. There are so many amazing female producers and DJs, but it is rampant. And also a lot of the times I’ll play at festivals and be the only female act, which I find unacceptable. It feels quite rad to be able to say, “Patriarchy, fuck off!” Having played for so many years, I’ve been full circle in the sense that I totally understand now that in order to create or achieve equality there has to be separatist movements where we as female producers and performers and creative people have to cut out an alternative because it won’t automatically be given to you. That’s also the reason why I started [record label] Human Level: to support female producers. There’s so many amazing female producers doing great dance music who need to get their music out. It’s also important to do events that are predominantly female rather than trying to convert festivals that are so male dominated and also run by men.
One thing that’s always annoyed me about how people have approached and written about your music is how often it gets called “gender bending”.
I know. It’s such a limited language that people use about it, that I’m trying to sound like a man. For me my voice is an instrument. I just like to be playful with it. It’s more of a musical decision. Of course, I’m playing with gender, yes, these old fashioned terms…
How does the music relate to your lyrics? You mentioned the pitched down vocals. There’s a deliberate evasiveness in terms of identity within the music itself.
I use how one deals with transgender issues but in vocals. Now that feels massively cheesy, but it’s kind of how I am when I’m making music and recording, because of how I identify myself as a queer person. That comes through my vocals and my music production. I have to say I feel so fortunate to make music because it’s such a great language to explore and to express yourself and also communicate. You can communicate so much with it. My recent tracks are quite direct, but there are other tracks that I’m working on that are a bit different to that. Certainly, being playful with vocals is something that feels like it’s really happened in the last two or three years, like the famous remix of Destiny’s Child “Say My Name” where the vocals have been completely pitched down. People have really caught onto it. It’s exciting, I think, that people have stopped being precious about vocals and seeing them only as a direct, truthful representation of whatever. It is a form of musical expression and it can be pulled around in many ways.
I always feel your music seeks to go beyond male and female. There’s a manifesto that comes with The Dirty Diaries, the film Marit Östberg [director of The Knife’s “Full of Fire” video] was involved with: “We don’t believe in a fight between sexes, we believe in the fight against sexes.” I find that very pertinent to your music.
I’m really glad about that. Doing this track about misogyny, I mean, I don’t believe in men and women, but when you’re dealing with a topic like misogyny you have to deal with it within your own world, within your own community, dealing with this topic, living this topic. When it’s about your life you can be very articulate, you are very aware of it. But the bigger picture, totally not. It depends on who you’re talking to and what particular elements of gender topics you’re dealing with. I would say I don’t believe there is a male or female, but in a sense, when I deal with this topic I’m going to have to talk in these terms.
Are you afraid the conceptual and discursive nature of your music might make people think the message doesn’t apply to them and ignore your music?
To be honest, when I’m making music, I can’t think of what people will think of it. If I’m excited about it and I’m feeling good about it, then I’m doing it. As a listener I completely understand that sometimes artists go through periods of making a kind of music that’s not your cup of tea and that’s totally fine. But luckily there are people really into it and I can share that with them. I played at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London for the Meltdown Festival that was organized by Antony Hegarty where I performed “Patriarchy Over and Out” for the first time there and that was just incredible: people standing on their seats, dancing in the aisles, sharing that moment and that message. It was just like, fuck, yeah, we’re all on the same page. We’re dancing and enjoying this and the message is pretty clear. Again, that’s the nice thing about music, there might be a bunch of tracks that are extremely direct and not beating around the bush, and then there are other tracks like, “What the hell is she talking about?” and I’m happy to have both. Right now I’m really enjoying communicating how I’m feeling quite clearly on a political level. It does feel a bit risky; it’s either take it or leave it. But on the other hand I thought, who would disagree that misogyny shouldn’t fucking drop dead? Who would disagree with that? ~