Album Review: Against Me!’s “Transgender Dysphoria Blues”

Punk rock is dead.

I have written that multiple times, for English papers no less, and it has become a music journalism cliché. For some people, punk rock was born in 1977 and died in 1978, and in a stylistic sense, that’s not too far from the truth. With regards to substance though, it’s pretty hard to agree. If Punk Rock is just musical minimalism paired with some kind of anti-establishment sentiments, then we can trace it from Richard Hell and Iggy Pop to The Ramones and Sex Pistols, to Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, even to more polished, modern bands like Green Day and Against Me!

Punk rock is stale.

That’s probably more accurate. I’m no purist. Slick production in the Butch Vig mold doesn’t bother me, and I think American Idiot, for all its naysayers, is still one of the most important punk albums of the last decade, both for its popularity/visibility and its attempt to take both the standard punk stylings and overwrought “stadium rock” tropes and blend them into something relevant. Recently though, they’ve lost the plot. The Uno! Dos! Tre! Trio of albums aren’t bad, but they’re misguided, and mostly scatter messages everywhere, hoping to find something that sticks.

I’m sure if you scour the awesome, seedy punk rock scenes of the world, you can find something real, but whatever “mainstream punk” (ew gross) is out there is either clinging to Green Day’s blueprint a decade after the zeitgeist, or has become Warped Tour-ized, catering to “edgy” junior high students who ride around on skateboards and doodle little Anarchy A’s in the margins of their math homework. Punk is losing relevance. Everyone wants to be “authentic” and the movement is turning on itself, even as most people don’t even know it still exists. Such is the subject of Against Me!’s 2010 single “I Was A Teenage Anarchist”. It’s a great track, if not particularly innovative. It speaks to that “authenticity crisis”. Against Me! Aren’t very “authentic”. They started as acoustic anarchopunks, and have become increasingly electric and apolitical as they move to bigger and bigger labels.

But now, with Transgender Dysphoria Blues, they’ve given up the ghost and blown all notions of “authenticity” out of the water. A pseudo-concept album that’s sort of about lead singer Laura Jane Grace, who came out as transgender in 2012, Transgender Dysphoria Blues makes one realize how silly it is to hold onto 1970’s standards of false “authenticity” or “cred”, instead of trying to make something real. This album is real. It’s released on Against Me!’s own label, Total Treble Records, and it comes it at under a half hour, but it cuts deeper than any contemporary “punk rock opera” twice its length.

Grace’s lyrics bite, and she doesn’t pull any emotional punches. She plays with language, vulgar and sultry all in the same breath, and when she snarls “You want them to see you like they see every other girl, but they just see a faggot”, you instantly realize that this is not some ivory tower punk philosophy, but real, ugly experience. It’s her lyrics that give the album a sense of gravity. It’s never pretentious (an occasional failing with some of my favorite punk records, unfortunately) and Grace doesn’t see herself as some kind of idealized punk rock savior, but rather an angry, vulnerable, fully realized human.

Lead Single “True Trans Soul Rebel” sticks to the “I Was A Teenage Anarchist” musical mold, but rather than aim her gun at a dangerously (at times) out-of-touch subculture, Grace turns it on herself, expressing every vulnerability (mental, physical, social, sexual) as an almost anthemic rally cry for the sexual outcasts, the weird kids that helped make punk a real genre, only to be cast off in favor of screamo brats with bad haircuts and worse attitudes (how’s that for a run-on sentence?).

Still, Grace’s greatest lyrical strength is making the album, part auto-biographical, part fictional, resonate. You don’t need to be trans, or queer, to empathize. It takes the visceral, painfully specific reality of her life and this story, and gives it the voice of ten thousand different outcasts. At its core, it is an album with a message, a powerful, beautiful message, but it’s a message that can echo throughout the entire genre. It’s a shock to the heart. Maybe if Punk can get away from phony posturing about authenticity and cred, and get back to making damn good records that mean something REAL, we’ll see more albums like this in the future, but for now, this is the best we’ve got, and it’s pretty damn spectacular.

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