[22 January 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Chances are if you know Against Me!, you know the story of lead singer Laura Jane Grace. The title of the band’s new album Transgender Dysphoria Blues is quick to remind you of what Grace has been through. But let’s set that aside for just a minute. First we should remember that Against Me! is a band that has spent two major-label albums (and even before that) grappling with the confusions and contradictions of music culture, from corporate rock to the punk ethos they rose out of. They told personal stories, but it was hard not to see the politics behind them, the attempts to crack any and all veneers that shone false. There’s an admirable conviction behind that drive, but it’s also a fight against constructions.
And so Transgender Dysphoria Blues contrasts with those records not in being more “punk”, whatever that means, or in being a return to being independent (again, whatever that means). Instead, it’s a contrast because the tensions here feel deeper, more personal, more organic. This is Against Me! working out their place in the world, not just the world of musical politics. Yes, that starts with the gender identity and expression of Laura Jane Grace, but what is remarkable, even excellent, about this record is that this is not merely a record about or for the transgender community, nor is it solely a chance for Grace to work out her own story. Instead, it’s a record about larger more universal kinds of isolation and self-searching. Grace’s story may have caught on big in 2012, but she is not content to put herself on display, instead using her experience as a jumping-off point, making herself a relatable example rather than an oversimplified exception.
But there is still confrontation here, an honest account of how Grace feels, in the first two songs, “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” and “True Trans Soul Rebel”. The songs deal with the struggle with gender identity, but they look at it from different angles. “True Trans Soul Rebel” is about the next step, about what you do when the body you’ve been given doesn’t match the way you feel. It’s a dark song—“Yet to be born you’re already dead,” Grace sings, “sleep with a gun beside you in bed”—but it also hints that there is light at the end of all that. “God bless your transsexual heart,” the pre-chorus goes, howling triumphantly all the way. Here, we’re deep inside the character. The title track, though, is about outside perception, about the moment where you want to be seen by others the way you see yourself. “You want them to notice the ragged ends of your summer dress,” Grace sings, tense and hopeful. But instead of “any other girl”, the people in public “just see a faggot”. It’s hard to tell if this is actual rejection or the anxiety of early gender expression, but either way the moment is affecting.
This is just one of a few moments where the record seems in search of community, of acceptance. “Drinking With the Jocks” manages to once again call punk on its shit, as the band has done well plenty of times before, while also digging into the isolation of being left out. The hard-charging song is about wanting to be one of the jocks, wanting—if just for a moment—to be a part of a group that faces no scrutiny, that doesn’t have the social stigmas and pressure that anyone who feels like an outsider might have. But rather than paint the jocks as date-rape morons, as many punk songs do, Grace and company do something different. When Grace screams “look at all that pussy”, it’s not so much mocking jock culture as it sheds light on ways in which it too has its masks, its false macho bullshit that people subscribe to to fit in. In the end, Grace knows she doesn’t fit with this group, but it’s not anyone’s fault, just a difference, and so fitting in must come from somewhere else. In “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” it comes in one person, the acceptance in spending “the whole day along with you”. The record shows personal relationships, our closest ones, as their own kind of community, or at least the sturdiest foundation for it.
But what makes isolation so hard to deal with, Grace suggests, is that sometimes it is from ourselves, our own bodies, and not just those of us how we self-identify along gender lines. Transgender Dysphoria Blues is an album fascinated by and often distanced from the body. It’s hard at first to realize where a song like “Osama Bin Ladin as the Crucified Christ” fits into this personal record. But the song, though not apolitical, is more concerned with kinds of punishment we inflict on the body and the ways in which those punishments become symbols. “Dead Friend” has a chorus where someone kisses the body in the casket at the funeral and feels love. Grace is self-conscious of “shoulders too broad for a girl” on “Transgender Dysphoria Blues”, while on “FUCKMYLIFE666” she admires the curve of another’s shoulders and neck. It’s a song about how a relationship changed along with a new open gender identity, perhaps shaped by Grace’s own marriage and that tension is also conveyed through body parts. There’s the heart and a tattoo of a heart, the body and the symbols we connect to it, and Grace feels a distance between them in this song, isolation not just from herself but from her companion, that all-important start of community, of family, is worried over here as well as on “Two Coffins”, a song perhaps meant for Grace’s daughter, which still focuses on the corporeal but only to drive home deeper connections, between not bodies but people, souls.
But sometimes the body is not a stand in for larger tensions, or the start of them, sometimes the body itself is the tension. The excellent “Paralytic States” finds a character looking in a hotel mirror, examining her body in that anonymous, temporary space only to still see “her mother’s son”. It’s important to note that so many mentions of people struggling with the body they’re in are conveyed in the second or third person. Grace herself creates a distance, and yet feelings and emotion are close. It’s a “she” who kisses the body in “Dead Friend”, but the chorus is more personal, when Grace clearly states “Goddamn, I miss my best friend.” This is both set up and larger theme for the album. It renders these close emotional moments more effective, but it also emphasizes that distance between body and identity. It may focus on gender here, but it’s larger than that, about any sort of difference between who one might feel they are and what they see. The isolation, in the end, is not just from community or from family, but also from ourselves.
So it might be easy to find brash, formless anger in closer “Black Me Out”, or read it as a kiss-off to the record industry they toiled in for their last underrated two records, New Wave and White Crosses. But both readings are too simple. There’s something free in Grace’s voice as she demands to be blacked out, as she desires to “piss on the walls of your house” or cut rings off “your fat fucking fingers.” It’s aggressive to be sure, but this is less about music industry or punk ethos of any of the fleeting constructions the band has raged against in the past. It’s more about denying a much larger set of false controls, about the parts of life, up until now, lived under a series of thumbs.
It’s not a fresh start, nothing is solved yet, but finally, in this last song, Grace gets a “full body high”, a positive connection with the physical, the flesh, and a possible start towards larger acceptances. This is what makes this record so important, its inherent paradox. It discusses in deep emotion and detail separation and isolation, but it does so by combining closely a personal narrative with more universal anxieties. We may want to make Grace a symbol of something, take her struggle with identity and expression and render it a simplified abstraction, but this rollicking, excellent rock record wants none of that. It’s a physical sound, a visceral set of emotions, a complicated set of fears and hopes to grapple with. Ones we can recognize and empathize with, because that’s what the record, and Grace herself, does so well.