In a Miraculous New Album, Against Me Returns Punk to Its Origins as a Refuge for Sexual Outsiders

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Feb. 3 2014 4:34 PM

Punk Is Alive

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

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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.

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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.

Carl Wilson is Slate's music critic.