Thinking About Transgender Dysphoria Blues

Transgender Dysphoria Blues is a great album, but it’s hard to write about knowing that I bring an outsider’s perspective. Not just as a cisgendered male, but as someone who has never given Against Me! a full album’s listen. It’s not that I have no affinity for pop punk; I just didn’t have that community around me to educate me on all it had to offer. I picked up bands on the internet in piecemeal: Alkaline Trio, Hot Water Music, Jughead’s Revenge, but never really anything outside of their orbit. Still, I wanted to buy the new Against Me! album because Laura Jane Grace was the center of an interesting news story in 2012. I approached the album, and this post, skeptical of myself and knowing that I was on a bandwagon.

We all have a suspicion of bandwagon fans as being insincere, or fleeting, or fairweather minded. Their influx irks sports fanatics and hipsters alike, and it’s a stigma meant to keep people out of the clubhouse. I get it. I’m protective of the things I care about, too. You can see the influx  in the amount of press Against Me! is suddenly getting — publications from Pitchfork to Cosmopolitan didn’t give them an inch of coverage are, today, big boosters of the band.

The clearest kind of bandwagon in music is when an artist dies and there’s a sudden surge of new fans. Here, the cynicism comes more easily: you wish these people appreciated the artist when they were alive, or you suspect they’re just attracted to the romance of the tragedy. But why should that cynicism transfer over to any surge in new fans? Against Me! hasn’t come to a close and Laura Jane Grace is the opposite of a tragic figure — if anything, this album sounds like the beginning of something new. It sounds like a new life, and that’s worth celebrating and advocating for and learning about. It’s worth bringing people aboard.

In reality, everyone’s an outsider listening to someone else’s music. It’s the outsider experiences that we should be drawn toward, the things that don’t fit in our daily narratives and mainstream existence.

While I’m not capable of coming up with nuances on the how White Crosses compares to New Wave compres to Transgender Dysphoria Blues (one of the reasons this is just an editorial and not a review) I still think it’s too good and too big of an album to not address. Is it largely in part because of its unique place in music history? Yeah. But I think I’m over feeling like that’s flimsy or somehow less sincere. A lot of albums get attention for outside forces and meta-storylines, whether it’s Bob Dylan’s religion or Taylor Swift’s relationships, but their songs can still be judged on its merits.

Laura Jane Grace doesn’t strike me as the type of artist looking to make a big statement record or the definitive sexual identity album. It’s important, but that seems to be a side effect of an artist’s cathartic self-expression. The thing is, it’s an expression that holds so little space in our national spotlight. So maybe Grace’s work isn’t braver than, say, Mykki Blanco’s, but the eyes on her stage make the album de facto important.

The key to the album is the rousing one-two punch opener — the title track and “True Trans Soul Rebel.” The former is a driven love song that shows off Grace’s fantastic rock voice. When she sings “You want them to see you / like they see every other girl / they just see a faggot” — it takes an ugly, derogatory word and couches it in the anger and anguish that it deserves to be associated with. Punk works so well with themes of intangible longing — the noise and relentless rhythm easily wash over those emotions. When applied to transgender identities, it sounds like the punkest thing ever.

“True Trans Soul Rebel” is a masterpiece by itself. While the title track is more about desire, the following “True Trans Soul Rebel” is pure anthem. Just those words — pairing “trans” with these simple, iconic words loaded with power and positivity in a total phrase that rolls of the tongue — is the kind of thing that becomes iconic. I’m a big fan of the way certain phrases or titles become iconic one line poetry and installed into music culture, stuff like “All Tomorrow’s Parties” or “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” The song barrels on to powerful summits, sweeping you along into heights that would make Japandroids dizzy.

My 3rd favorite track is “Paralytic States,” a pounding, melodic story of a trans woman’s suicide in a hotel bathtub. It’s wrapped up in all kinds of internal conflict, illustrated with a mouthful of chorus like “paralytic states of dependency / our waking life’s just a iving dream / agitated states of amazement.” It’s interesting to think of this song next to other self-loathing suicide songs — there’s something extra urgent about this kind of identity depression where the subject actually knows the peace of mind she wants, but despite trying so hard, through the trauma of surgery, it’s still just not enough.

Transgender Dysphoria Blues, even when venturing outside of the titular topic, still seems deeply personal, specific and pointed. The album continues looming large with “Dead Friend,” a reflection on the passing of John Paul Allison, a close friend and lighting designer with the band, and “Two Coffins,” an acoustic deep breath among the frantic chords. “Dead Friend” aims for on-the-nose bluntness (“Needn’t worry about tomorrow anymore, ‘cause you’re dead”) but it works when you think of it less as a mourning song and more of a frustration song. “God damn it, I miss my dead friend” is the simplest, and maybe truest, way of just singing what you feel.

Is it, as Steven Hyden says, one of the best rock records of the decade? It’s certainly going to be a permanent part of how we look back on music in 2014, an album where you can see its persistence into the future. It might not tear down any walls or blow everything up, but it’s going to be remembered by time and never grow old. That alone is a victory that supercedes whatever critical reaction it is or isn’t getting.

Justin Pansacola is a writer living in Los Angeles. At the University of California, Riverside he received his degree in Creative Writing, not English, although he has resigned to the fact that no one cares about the difference. You can follow him on Twitter @wordcore. On some nights he looks up at the moon and wonders if you’re looking at the same moon, too.


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