Punk Is Alive

With songs of terror and longing, Against Me returns punk to its origins as a refuge for sexual outsiders.

Musician Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! in July 2012.
Laura Jane Grace of Against Me in July 2012.

Photo courtesy Eddy Berthier/Flickr

People who experience gender dysphoria, the feeling of being the wrong sex, of having the wrong body, are vulnerable to many dangers from a young age—ostracization, bullying, and assault, but also depression, self-harm, substance abuse, and suicide. The statistics are stark. While the risks to gay and lesbian kids have become widely recognized (if far from fixed), trans issues lag behind.

Laura Jane Grace, 33, has endured many of those trials, but she had one thing most trans people don’t—a punk-rock band, which she founded in Gainesville, Fla., in 1997, called Against Me (the band stylizes its name as Against Me!). Grace came out to the public via a Rolling Stone profile in 2012, and soon began living as a woman. And now she’s made an album no one else could make, released last week with the agenda-setting title Transgender Dysphoria Blues.

No one else could make it because there has never been such a mainstream musical figure to come out as trans. Neither the composer Wendy Carlos (who changed her name from Walter in the late 1960s and later had gender-reassignment surgery) nor the singer Antony (who retains his masculine name and pronoun so far, but identifies as trans) have played to mass teenage audiences nor topped slick magazines’ best-of lists, as Against Me did with its major-label debut New Wave. Carlos helped pioneer electronic music and Antony performs postmodern torch songs; Against Me is part of the sticky, beer-stinking, slam-dancing boy-world of new-millennium punk.

That Vans Warped Tour realm is not where I would have thought to look for this, nor any other kind of vital cultural intervention. I figured most of those neo-punk bands were fairly safe to overlook, the business of those too young to have ridden the hard-fast-loud rollercoaster on any of its previous go-rounds. Dysphoria proves those assumptions wrong.

Against Me’s previous albums showed Grace (then known as Tom Gabel) to be a reflective and inventive songwriter. But her band’s very name indicated how much she was in conflict, divided against herself. It’s clearly freed her creatively to begin to liberate herself from that. The songs on this album transcend Against Me!’s past self-consciousness to get at deep emotional truths, grounded in the particularity of her situation but by no means confined to it.

Take as an example one of the most striking, the single “Fuckmylife666,” with its teen-screen-name title that seems like a joke at first and then less and less funny. Gliding in on a bright rock riff, it starts out like the love song it is: “The ease of your pose, the grace of your silhouette. …” (It could be “the way you wear your hat, the way you sip your tea.”) But soon comes a hairpin turn: “I don’t have a heart to match the one pricked into your finger/ All things made to be destroyed/ All moments meant to pass.” Something’s eluding the listener here, and in both that elision and the shift to elevated scriptural language, the writing reminds me of one of the finest current lyricists, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, on records such as The Sunset Tree and We Shall All Be Healed.

Those are autobiographical records as well, about childhood abuse and drug addiction respectively, and like Grace on “Fuckmylife666,” Darnielle withholds selected details (both to broaden the scope and to preserve some mystery and privacy) while also borrowing from grander cultural sources to suggest that the emotional weight is more than personal, but existential, epistemological, mythic. I’m thinking for instance of the point in “This Year” when Darnielle, in the midst of a story about a teenager on a date at the arcade who faces a beating when he gets home, suddenly proclaims, “There will be feasting and dancing in Jerusalem next year.”

“Fuckmylife666” comes unlocked in a later verse when Grace sings, “Never want to say that we grew apart … that the feelings changed,” and then later again, “Silicone chest and collagen lips/ How would you even recognize me?” Grace is married to a cis woman and has a young daughter. The song enunciates all the fears she had that transitioning might destroy her relationship and her family. The heart “pricked into your finger,” she’s explained, is a heart tattoo that her wife has under her wedding ring.

Thankfully, in real life all things were not destroyed: Grace’s wife Heather Hannoura has been wonderfully steadfast and supportive, by all reports. But the song comes from a time when Grace couldn’t be sure of that. And for all its originality— “will you still love me if I’m really a woman?” is a dilemma that likely no previous love song has posed—it resonates with a more universal insecurity: You wouldn’t love me if you could see what I really am.

Such double-hinged significance happens over and over on Dysphoria, in songs of terror and longing, about wanting and not wanting to fit in (“Drinking with the Jocks” and the title track), about losing a friend and also wishing to join them in death (“Dead Friend” and “Two Coffins”), about raging at those who reject or betray you (“Black Me Out”), and much more, in only 10 songs and in under 30 minutes.

Grace’s vocal timbre here is little changed from what it was in the past, while the music returns partway to the raw two-and-three-chord sound of early Against Me records compared to the bigger production and more classic-rock style of more recent ones. This is of necessity, since the band was dropped from its Sire Records contract after 2010’s White Crosses (Dysphoria is released on their own label), but it provides an appropriate intimacy and immediacy.

During the recording, Grace also had to deal with losing all her band mates except lead guitarist Thomas Bowman (including drummer Jay Weinberg, son of the E Street Band’s Max—Bruce Springsteen has endorsed Against Me several times). She’s said that she’s not sure whether her transition had anything to do with that. Before she came out to the band, Grace had told them that her new songs were part of a “concept album” about a transsexual prostitute—and some of that material, a few degrees darker and more violent than the rest, remains on the finished album. It’s another way of sketching a self-portrait at a distance, from more sliding points of view.

Ironically enough, given the prominence of pronouns in trans life, a lot of the record is in the second person, with Grace sometimes addressing herself as “you,” sometimes someone else. When she sings, “I wish I could have spent the whole day alone with you” on the opening title track, for instance, is she speaking to her wife or to her previously secret feminine self, which implies a different kind of companionship and another sense of “alone”?

That play of personae also complicates the record’s oddest track, “Osama Bin Laden as the Crucified Christ,” which sounds sort of like a prog-rock band in a faux-Middle-Eastern-music mode, and reiterates images of Mussolini and his mistress being strung up in the Esso station. Some reviewers have mistaken it for uncharacteristically jingoistic gloating over the al-Qaida leader’s death, but in context it seems like another self-directed death fantasy, asking whether Grace’s own death would make her a villain or a martyr.

That kind of unorthodox political thought is part of what Grace inherits from the lexicon of hardcore punk, and it’s part of the thematic subtext that Dysphoria is a loud and proud punk-rock record as much as it is anything. Punk often has been a refuge for sexual outsiders—in fact, in many ways that’s where punk came from, dating back at least to Lou Reed’s Transformer in 1972. (Around that time, Reed was in a relationship with a trans woman named Rachel.) Sexual ambiguity persisted as a motif through the New York Dolls, David Bowie, and Patti Smith, as well as Wayne/Jayne County of the Electric Chairs; the diced gender aesthetics of Siouxsie Sioux, the Slits and Grace Jones; the eye-linered goths, new romantics, and new wavers alongside Soft Cell, the Cure, Boy George, and Prince (whose early hits were nearly as post-punk as post-funk); and the rebellions of Riot Grrrl, grunge (Kurt Cobain in a dress on MTV’s Headbangers Ball), and queercore. The term punk itself was appropriated from a midcentury street and prison slur for the feminized “bottom” in a same-sex pair, and converted to a sign of strength.

Yet it’s always difficult to gauge the depth of such games. You spot frilly garments, drag-like strutting, and dangly accessories on plenty of retrograde rock macho men, from Mick Jagger to Guns’n’Roses (the first Against Me album, incidentally, is called Reinventing Axl Rose). It may be daring, but it’s often in the service of theatricality, tourism, freak-showing, and naughty rule-breaking at little cost. As Simon Reynolds and Joy Press wrote in their 1994 book The Sex Revolts, “Rock’s great paradox is that it has successively revolted against established notions of manliness while remaining misogynistic.”

Punk and glam androgyny often were less about embracing sexual difference than about anti-sex, anti-body revulsion—not a binary that pans out well for women, as anyone in a state with a Republican-dominated legislature is likely to have noticed of late.

While emo and pop-punk fashions since the ’90s might still get your mother in a whirl ’cuz she’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl, overall the genres have reverted to boys’ clubs, with sour grapes about feminine caprice (getting “friendzoned,” dude) fueling much of the music’s anger. (See Jessica Hopper’s influential 2003 essay “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t,” and this update from the scene.)

On Dysphoria, then, Grace hasn’t merely brought back gender transgression to a form that had forgotten it, but reset the stakes to a harder reality. Every stuttered, spiked, and stilettoed syllable here declares there’s more to it than nonconformity and critiquing society—roles she knows well as a songwriter whose work began from the standpoint of a teenage anarchist inspired by the likes of Billy Bragg and Crass and went on to wrestle with the value of the contemporary protest song.

Here it’s no longer about stances but about survival. Dysphoria’s songs have the sting of Bikini Kill in 1993 singing about rape and incest, but without even the solace of group solidarity, since they come mainly from a time when Grace was not yet ready to reach out to other trans people and communities.

It matters that Grace does not hail from a sexually cosmopolitan city such as New York, London, or Los Angeles, but from small-town Florida. That kind of place, all over the world, became the true home of punk after its years as a vanguard musical trend faded and it became a permanent suburban subculture, one of the tribes any teen might join and cling to. Just as the accepted norms in smaller places tend to be less fluid and forgiving, so do punk codes. It’s one thing to be the New York Dolls at Max’s Kansas City and another to be a “True Trans Soul Rebel,” as Grace puts it, in Gainesville (or St. Augustine, where her family lives now) or on the Vans tour.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised this record emerged from those trenches. It’s where it needed to happen, and signs are that Against Me fans are embracing it. To say something new in so hackneyed a language is an achievement; to say it so well is nearly a miracle.

Maybe some of the dazzle of Dysphoria will dim as its subject matter becomes more common in pop music. (I should refer you, e.g., to the documentary about trans Canadian songwriter Rae Spoon that recently premiered at Sundance.) But I think it’s more likely time will confirm the specialness of hearing Grace in the very act of finding the courage to convey feelings to the mosh pit that seconds earlier she could barely admit to herself. This record is history in real time, howling to be heard in the pains of one person’s rebirth. It’s a thrill to wonder what Grace will do next, but meanwhile she deserves very noisy congratulations.