Punk band explores transgender realities

The latest album from punk band Against Me! immediately announces itself as something unlike most American popular music with its title: Transgender Dysphoria Blues. It’s a title that grabs your attention when scrolling through new releases on iTunes; those words simply don’t appear in today’s popular culture, which generally prefers to pretend transgender people don’t exist. When the media does make an effort to acknowledge the existence of transgender people, as with the recent appearances by actress Laverne Cox and writer Janet Mock on the talk shows of Katie Couric and Piers Morgan respectively, it seems unable to treat them with the respect they deserve. This album promises something different, especially for anyone familiar with the band’s history. Lead singer Laura Jane Grace came out as transgender in 2012, and this is the band’s first release since then, making it Grace’s first opportunity to discuss her experiences through her art, and to do so publicly.

I recognize that the political context of this album may not be as important to every listener, so let me add this: Transgender Dysphoria Blues is an outstanding album, one which blends all of the band’s previous strengths with a newer, more personal touch to create one of the best pop-punk albums in recent memory, one that is both emotionally affecting and incredibly catchy.

Against Me!’s career prior to this release can be divided into two distinct segments: the early years, from 1997 to 2005, characterized by a sketchy, borderline-DIY aesthetic, and the major label period from 2007 to 2010, which saw them transition to a more polished sound. That old axiom of critics and fans that a band’s early work is always better doesn’t really apply here, though. Both periods produced two genuinely great albums in 2003’s As the Eternal Cowboy and 2007’s New Wave, and even the band’s weaker releases have always contained moments of brilliance. With all that said, Transgender Dysphoria Blues can be seen as a synthesis of those two eras, and as a result is Against Me!’s best album yet.

I suppose now I should get to the music itself. The album kicks off with the title track, which works as a kind of thesis statement for the entire work. It is a driving, powerful song with with a deeply emotional core, as Grace describes how her narrator—who can easily be read as Grace herself, although I’m wary of conflating the two—is constantly aware of the way the people around her perceive and judge her body. That emotional core runs through the entire album, and I want to be perfectly clear about what I mean by “emotional.” While these songs are certainly sad, at times devastatingly so, they are just as frequently angry, even furious. This is music that doesn’t just beg you to sing along, it makes you want to shout its words out loud, to exclaim your righteous anger at the world alongside Grace. In its best moments, this album is profoundly cathartic, not just for those who are going through the same issues Grace sings about, but for anyone who has feels like the world doesn’t accept them.

Most of the album continues in the same vein as the title track, although they spread out some in lyrical scope from that first song. There’s a remarkable consistency here, with no one track standing out as the strongest, but my favorite stretch is the one-two punch of “Dead Friend” and the acoustic “Two Coffins.” I’ve mostly focused on Grace’s contributions here, but I don’t want to undervalue the rest of the band. Atom Willard’s drumming and the solid guitar and bass work of James Bowman and Inge Johansson are also essential. Grace actually released an EP last year titled True Trans, which featured acoustic versions of these songs, and while the songs are still recognizably good, they simply don’t work as well without the full band. Grace has always had a tendency to squeeze a few too many syllables in to certain lines, as in the chorus of “True Trans Soul Rebel,” when she tries to fit the phrase “Does God bless your transexual heart?” in where it doesn’t quite fit. That same idiosyncratic writing style pops up in some of the track titles, such as the bizarrely named “Osama bin Laden as the Crucified Christ,” a title which doesn’t seem to have anything to do with its lyrics.

I’ll close by returning to the political context I mentioned above. You could certainly enjoy Transgender Dysphoria Blues simply as solid punk music, ignorant of Grace’s story or what that title means—although you’d probably have to deliberately avoid listening to the lyrics to avoid picking up on those themes. But doing so would miss out on what makes this not merely a good album, but a great one. A survey of the publicity the band has done to promote the album will reveal, alongside a number of good interviews, multiple journalists asking Grace inappropriate and invasive questions about her transition, all of which she handles with good humor as she points out why those types of questions can be inappropriate. Her music is full of anger at how people treat her, but it is also her opportunity to educate people who are ignorant about the experiences of transgender people. As she sings on the album’s triumphant final track “Black Me Out,” “I don’t want to see the world that way anymore, / I don’t want to feel that weak and insecure.” That is an optimistic end-point for the album, a final point  that emphasizes just how much can be gained if people take Grace’s words to heart.

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