There has been a lot of experimentation with gender in pop. Glam rock gave men the excuse to put on make-up and stomp around in platform heels. Freddie Mercury chose to tease out the meaning of “I Want to Break Free” by dragging up in the video as a moustachioed housewife. Madonna dressed Wall Street-style in power suit and slicked-back hair for the “Express Yourself” video. Patti Smith copied Mick Jagger’s androgyny for her own look, and so on. To paraphrase Blur’s “Girls & Boys”, it’s a merry-go-round of girls who are boys who like boys to be girls who do boys like they’re girls.
Janine Rostron is the latest member of this merry-go-round. Going under the name Planningtorock, she makes gothic, theatrical electropop in which she sings weirdly mannish vocals over gloomy beats and teasing pizzicato strings. She comes from Bolton in north-west England but lives in Berlin, and somewhere in her music you can glimpse traces of the shadowy demi-monde of Weimar cabaret. Bolton’s influence is harder to spot.
Her live show opened with an empty stage, arty back projections and a slowed-down German recording of the “Queen of the Night” aria from The Magic Flute. Then Rostron swept on stage, lank brown hair curtaining her face, a large prosthetic nose giving her an ugly, unworldly look. It was a risky gambit for this intimate venue and there were moments when the stage lights shone too brightly and the singer looked more like Worf the Klingon from Star Trek than an uncanny apparition interrogating notions of gender identity. But then they dimmed, and you back in her dark, vaudevillian world.
Mainly playing songs from her second album W, she was backed by an all-woman troupe consisting of a synth player and three saxophonists: an eccentric ensemble, but one that worked superbly. The foreboding beats of “Doorway” and (computer-generated) pizzicato strings were urged onwards by stabbing blasts from the sax players. “Manifesto” had a bustling oompah band rhythm. Meanwhile Rostron’s voice was treated with reverb and artificially deepened, giving lyrics such as “I am just the right man for you” an eerie ambisexual quality. When the set threatened to get too murky, she raised the tempo by breaking into the emphatic electro-goth of “The Breaks”. Pop’s tradition of gender-bending is in good hands.