Punk rock is about bottled up emotions erupting violently to the surface. It’s about the cork flying off of the bottle, spewing forth the contents that have been sealed away for decades. In one quick burst of pure release, it all comes tumbling out and just as quickly as it started, it’s over. For many, what attracts them to punk rock is how nihilistic it can be and it certainly is that but it can also be about getting down to the core of who you are and embracing that no matter what the fuck anyone else thinks. It’s about doing things for yourself and being as loud as you can be while doing it. While some might argue that the actual music on Against Me!’s latest album Transgender Dysphoria Blues is not exactly punk music (and throw up your fists because I will fight you about that), I defy anyone to argue that the lyrics and the emotions that spew forth from this concentrated 30 minute album are not punk. This is an album about loudly proclaiming how much you want to piss on someone else’s house. It’s about those anarchic feelings of loneliness and feeling out of touch with you, yourself and those around you. Then, at the end, it’s about overcoming all of that so you can start embracing the real you.
There’s a long story leading up to the making of this album. Laura Jane Grace, formerly known as Tom Gabel, came out as a transgender person back in 2012 finally addressing something within her that’s been there all along. At birth, her sex was defined as male and connecting with this assigned identity is something that Grace has struggled with for as long as she can remember. In an interview in Rolling Stone, she mentions how her earliest memories involve her fantasizing about being Madonna and wanting to play with Barbies despite her dad’s insistence that she play with G.I. Joe action figures. Instead of playing war, Grace made the best of that situation by using the G.I. Joe action figures to tell stories; this ability to turn difficulties into stories is something that defines this album.
For most of her life, Grace has lived something of a double life while trying to understand the feelings within her. In private, she would cross-dress. In public, she attempted to be one of the boys, drinking with them and getting a tattoo that says “RAMBLIN’ BOYS OF PLEASURE” (which is something that she regrets intensely). When puberty kicked in, her feelings of dysphoria got even worse. She began to pray to God and, when that didn’t work, to Satan so that she might wake up with the body of a woman. She’d get picked on at school and all her bullies saw was “a faggot”. During this time, she picked up a nasty drug habit in order to cope but she also got massively into punk, identifying with the nihilistic attitude of the music which would eventually lead to her starting her own band, Against Me!.
Transgender Dysphoria Blues, Against Me!’s sixth album,is a concept album about a woman trapped in the body of a man, written very clearly from the perspective of someone who has had to face this situation in real life. From the opening moments of the title track, you already get a real sense of Laura Jane Grace’s frustration and anger. The very first lines of the album express this dissatisfaction clearly: “Your tells are so obvious; shoulders too broad for a girl!” When the chorus of the song kicks in, she seems to channel her own experiences and sums up this frustration very clearly: “You just want them to see you like they see any other girl; they just see a faggot!” It’s a song where she attacks her own body because it keeps her reminded of where she’s come from. As she says in the song, “we can't choose how we're made”.
At various points in her life, Grace tried to suppress these feelings within her. This was especially true when Against Me! started to go on tour as she decided to stop dressing in women’s clothing and attempted to live as a man. Even during this time, however, she felt like she was putting on an act playing the “angry white man in a punk band”; feelings which are expressed clearly in the song Drinking with the Jocks. It’s written from the perspective of someone attempting to be one of the boys, as Grace screams about “laughing at the faggots” and “swinging my dick in my hand”. To me, it is the song that, musically, sounds most similar to the old Against Me! songs which is appropriate considering it is thematically related to the “angry white man in a punk band” act that she used to put on in the early days of the band.
There’s a lot of anger, confusion, and intense dissatisfaction in this album. Lines such as “Yet to be born, you're already dead” and “a fucked up kind of feminine” give some insight into her experiences dealing with her dysphoria. There’s also a strong sense of longing coming from lines such as “Never quite the woman that she wanted to be” or “You should have been a mother, you should have been a wife”, speaking about the experiences that she so desperately wanted to have but was unable to. In Rolling Stone magazine, she talked about how intense her dysphoria got when her wife became pregnant with their daughter; memories of this intensity break through in this album.
However, despite featuring a lot of building frustration and repressed sensations, the album still feels like a release and something of a euphoric one at that. In Black Me Out, the last track of the album, that old punk feeling of embracing yourself and telling anyone that disagrees with you to fuck off comes forth in spades. Speaking on a personal level, it’s about no longer wanting to “feel weak and insecure” and this is where the aforementioned line about pissing on the walls of someone’s house is barked out in the most euphoric way possible. If there ever was a line that could represent a middle finger, it’s this one. Here is an anthem about erasing yourself from the lives of anyone that won’t let you be yourself and making sure they know you’re getting rid of them.
This album appears to be a deeply personal album for Laura Jane Grace but, at the same time, its message is universal. It’s an album for anyone that has ever felt disillusioned or suppressed by other people. It’s about embracing yourself and being as loud as you can be about it. This is an album that makes me fight my way out of any corner that I’ve ever been pushed into; it practically forces me to do so. It’s about facing difficult situations but coming out as the winner, more true to yourself than you’ve ever been. This, to me, is what the album is about on a universal level. These are the feelings that I get from this album. As for Laura Jane Grace’s personal ambitions, I can’t speak for her but, then again, I don’t have to. She speaks loud enough for herself.
Eells, Josh. "The Secret Life of Transgender Rocker Tom Gabel." Rolling Stone. N.p., 31 May 2012. Web. .
NPR. "Laura Jane Grace, Transgender Punk, On Life In Transition." NPR. NPR, 19 Jan. 2014. Web. .
https://www.glaad.org/reference/transgender http://www.spin.com/articles/laura-jane-grace-interview-against-me-transgender-dysphoria-blues/ http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/laura-jane-graces-fresh-start-inside-against-me-s-new-blues-20140121