Against Me!, Transgender Dysphoria Blues

Maura Johnston

By Maura Johnston

on 01.21.14 in Reviews

The new record by the punk band Against Me! has been in the works for two years, but longtime fans are already familiar with its contents. Frontwoman Laura Jane Grace has been playing songs from it at solo shows and on opening jaunts, telling Elle last year “In this day and age, every song is on YouTube in some form or another.”

Splitting open the binary between men and women — not just in musical politicking, but in the day-to-day

The artistic process that has been Grace’s own evolution has also been front and center in the years since White Crosses, her group’s previous studio album (and the last one on the Warner Music Group-distributed Sire Records). In 2012, Rolling Stone published a story called “The Secret Life of Transgender Rocker Tom Gabel” — Gabel being the former male identity of Grace. The piece looked at how Grace was settling into her performative and private lives while also reaching back into the band’s catalog for clues to her eventual transformation. (“The Ocean,” from 2007′s critic-beloved New Wave, is a particular touchstone — its second verse opens “If I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman/ My mother once told me she would have named me Laura.”) Transgender Dysphoria Blues is Against Me!’s sixth studio album; it’s the first to come out on the band’s label Total Treble, and it’s also the first where the lead singer is credited as Laura Jane Grace.

This is notable. Rock has long been a genre defined by men; even its more smash-the-state genres like punk are defined by a masculine aesthetic. The reframing of Against Me! as a band fronted by a woman is at the forefront of Transgender Dysphoria Blues, from its title to the feminine signifiers Grace sees in the mirror on “Paralytic States” (shaved bones, plumped lips). Throughout, the album is as brisk as a kick in the face — its 10 songs clock in at just under half an hour — and provides a similar impact on the first listen as it does on the 15th. The old feminist rallying cry that “the personal is political” has fueled some of the best female-identified punk rock of the last 30 years, from the monster-riff packaging of the riot grrrl movement’s sexism critiques to the defiant “Maybe I don’t wanna fuck you!” that catalyzes rock godmother (and Grace idol) Joan Jett’s 1994 track “Spinster.”

The dominance of the “men in rock” narrative affects the way people describe women in rock as well; in discussions, the focus shifts away from the music and toward topics that get lumped under the “women’s magazine” section at newsstands. (You know the type — “What This Celebrity’s Losing Her Baby Weight Can Say About Your Ability to Land a Man,” and so on.) Transgender Dysphoria Blues, from the title on down, splits open that binary between men and women not just in musical politicking, but in the day-to-day. The title track explodes the intersection of internal and external gender expectations — “You’ve got no cunt in your strut/ You’ve got no hips to shake/ And you know it’s obvious/ But we can’t choose how we’re made,” Grace spits over speeding drums and shards of guitar. What we can choose is the way we perceive and describe others; On my first listen to the taut “Fuckymylife666,” I mentally characterized the crisp counterpoint provided by the bass as “strident” — a word typically used to describe women who are unapologetic about their opinions. I only caught my word choice later, and subsequently wondered if I would have picked it had the same furious playing been propelling a song sung by a man. (The bass line was actually played by Fat Mike, the longtime leader of NOFX — one of two tracks on the record where Grace didn’t handle low end duties.)

Transgender Dysphoria Blues is fueled by the same anger at the status quo that powered earlier records by Grace’s band — when interviewed by Cosmopolitan about her punk-rock past, she plainly stated, “I liked that punk was about fighting back, as opposed to just taking it.” But it never becomes consumed by its rage; even on the snarling “Drinking With The Jocks,” which takes hypermasculine culture’s most noxious manifestations to task, and the album-closing “Black Me Out,” a tart kiss-off to Grace’s past, there’s an urgency that goes beyond mere complaining, one accentuated by the top-heavy way the songs are mixed. (The label isn’t called Total Treble for nothing.) In the Rolling Stone interview, Grace spoke about how certain aspects of being in Against Me! made her feel increasingly pushed toward performing “this role of ‘angry white man in a punk band,’” and this album’s no-nonsense look at who Grace is now is an open rebuke to being shoved in that box.

What’s made Against Me! so vital is Grace’s existence as the type of punk who’s determined to create a better world for herself and kindred souls through music. The flip side of punk’s up-yours stance is the idea of a future where there are fewer misogynist pricks, and where humanity doesn’t view gender as a binary — and Grace’s songwriting chops, which have become knifepoint-refined over the past 15 years, are carving that future out.

The history of Against Me! has protected it from being lumped in with other “women in rock” outfits — for now, anyway. Perhaps one day they’ll be included in a punk-lady laundry list that also counted the likes of Babes in Toyland and Potty Mouth among its members; this would be a sign of progress in one way, even though lists of that ilk continue to signal that women will be an “other” in rock no matter how titanic the statements their art makes might be. Most importantly, though, Transgender Dysphoria Blues is a vital document of an artist at long last being able to freely sing, and snarl, about being true to herself — an album full of rock that’s both bare-bones and spine-tingling.