reacting to Against Me!’s new album

First off, let me just stop the presses and give mad props to the volume and diversity of translady and transmen punkrockers and trans riotgrrrls and all volumes of genderfucking musicians and frontpeople.  Just pulling from amongst my friends right now, hands up in the air for Peepl Watchin and anarchist momma Evan Greer.  Love and rage, rage and love.

[Second off, this is an unfinished thought, I think, and an all-too-serious one about music, but I want to try to get it out there anyway, since I'll have other stuff to write about soon.  I guess this is directed towards an internal audience: US-based punks & feminists.  I'm choosing not to rehash a lot of my own bio that feeds this analysis, but I did link to the zine I wrote many moons ago about punkrock patriarchal bullshit or you can click around this blog for some insight.]

I have been listening to the new Against Me! album for the past week or so and I am feeling compelled to write about it.  Full disclosure, I have been reacting in writing with more emotion and analysis than is appropriate to every Against Me! release since the acoustic self-titled was IM’d to me by a long-distance friend I’d met at World/Inferno shows.  He had something new and maybe even better to introduce me to, he said.  We heard none of the latent cynicism in those hahahas at the end of Those Anarcho Punx Are Mysterious. At the time, those anarcho punx were mysterious; they were all I wanted to be.  We went on to belt that song together at full volume while we marched around New York City to stop the Iraq War before it started.  Hahaha indeed.  Whatever. I met the boy that day who I’d later skip out on high school graduation to go see, declaring the shitty sex I’d had before him invalid and choosing to lose my virginity again in the best way possible.

Against Me! gave me the second best punkrock show scene in the world, with bucket drums on the floor and the crowd forming a circle around them holding each other back half the time and falling into the instruments the rest, every vocal sung by 50 spiky punk kids with earnest, earnest eyes.  Hanging onto each others’ shoulders.  The first best punkrock scene for me was that World/Inferno one my friend thought Against Me! might replace, but World/Inferno got me to New York City and got my hands into those of boys and got me snuck into more shows and past more curfews and got me more broken bones from moshing in just a bra and spiky hair, so they’ll always be first in my heart.

I was still in high school when “Reinventing Axel Rose” came out.  Everyone I knew got pissed off because of the electric guitars.   We got over it quick because that album is incredible and electricity just made everything louder and harder just as life was getting the same.  Against Me! gave me a political purpose, an updated version of Op Ivy and Crass made for the anti-globalization era of free trade summits and black bloc, trainhopping, eco warrior kids whose analysis and tactics were remarkably spot on, and I say this with full hindsight, multiple degrees and years of world travel experience in hands.  I spent my gym classes in high school holding the lyric sheet to “Crime, as Forgiven By” open over the discman held steady in my hands as I walked laps around the track for 45 minutes every day, studying the words.  I would practice singing Impact and Y’All Don’t Wanna Step to This in the shower until I could get every line as fast as Laura Jane Grace could spit out the words.  My high school friends, as opposed to the New York punks, didn’t like political music, so I got all my NAFTA facts and War on Terror analysis from these lyrics I studied, then ran to the city for music, love, and protests.

The Eternal Cowboy came out my senior year of high school.  That was the sell-out album, right, the big label, over-produced move that everyone feared would come as soon as they picked up a real drum set.  The album is full of reactionary lyrics mocking the haters in Against Me!’s fanbase who went so far as slashing the band’s tires for their use of electric guitars (you can read about that in this article in The Nation because Why Not).  I had a Chelsea haircut with apple green bangs down to my chin and the rest shaved all off, lots of eyeliner, punk as fuck and, as anyone who’s read my zines knows, was depressed and miserable as all shit.  There is a song at the end of Eternal Cowboy which drones on and on, “Everything is gonna be alright, alright, alright.”  My best friend and I went to a show in PA and they sung that and she told me later it was the most clarifying, hopeful thing, to have a whole crowd of falling over people singing that it’d be alright.  I cried that entire show, right in the middle of the pit or singing in the front row, all sobs and pit punches, because everything on earth was wrong.

I always felt like “Searching for a Former Clarity” was off-topic from the anger and earnest betrayal that ripped through the DIY anarchopunx East Coast USA scene when it came out.  The demo that got stolen and pre-released from this album was so, so good, close to the acoustic soul of early albums.  So I don’t know if anyone was ready for the complex, lonely pain in Pretty Girls: “You wouldn’t think something like irresponsibility would complicate something like asking for some company.”  Is Laura Jane Grace singing about HIV?  Did someone she knows die of AIDS? Is this album about Freddie Mercury? The album barely even bothered to engage the punks who angsted over it.  Against Me! just turned away. I went to a bunch of shows when this album came out and saw I was older than the black-eye-makeup girls standing in front of boyfriends in the front of giant crowds below big stages all singing these rock and roll songs that were meaningless to me, songs that didn’t have choruses and to which I didn’t even know the words.  I cried a lot at these shows too, feeling lonelier then ever looking for the band that used to create a home wherever they went.

New Wave and White Crosses are equally rock and roll and far removed from their anarchopunx DIY roots.  But I got kind of obsessed with Thrash Unreal.  Like, this is not an expressly feminist song, right?  It’s just sad and strong in equal nonjudgmental measure, and I really like that; bleak but not hopeless.  I like these albums because I like pop music and I get it.  I’m supposed to be mad about Teenage Anarchist, but honestly the realization that musicians are not activists or heroes came long before this song, came when I learned how in practice solidarity shows do not a protest make.  Music’s for emotional support, rarely solidarity.  The thing about musicians is that the music always comes first and there it is.

I do not think the depth of betrayal still resonating with early Against Me! fans is about the band’s politics per se.  It’s about the way the music and lyrics created a sense of belonging and importance and safety in community.  Those first three albums created worlds; the band created a unique sound that reinforced an entire identity that acted on and shaped the larger world.  We Did It All For Don is not about politics: it is about a way of being in the world.

I’m gonna speculate here for a minute, I hope you will allow.  That world burned me.  That special world of DIY anarcho punk burned me hard, as a girl.  It was anarcho punk boy friends who assaulted & abused me when I was a littler me.  All the PTSD and anxiety and depression come from some mix of the larger white supremacist heterosexist capitalist patriarchy and the way all that shit shows up in the DIY anarcho punk scenes I ran to as escape and freedom.  Patriarchy got enacted hard on my body, and no amount of pogo dancing harder than the boys in a circle pit would knock it off.

I never really thought of Against Me! as a particularly feminist band.  Songs like You Look Like I Need a Drink were creepy, and everything else was always hard and angry and claiming space in an over the top, punkrock masculinity sort of way.  I listened to Against Me! to throw off my girl-ness and be angry back and get hit in the pit and let everything physically hurt enough to tap into some deeper emotions I could not access without the music and the crowd.  Somatics.

When Laura Jane Grace came out as trans, I wondered if maybe it wasn’t Against Me! that turned away from the anarchopunk DIY scene.

What if she was pushed?

Those anarchopunx definitely saved my life.  But it was not easy surviving.

Against Me!’s new song Drinking with the Jocks comes out like Propaghandi’s Less Talk, More Rock.  It’s an enormous fuck you to the patriarchal domination of alternative space, a giant middle finger proclaiming that any punk scene that reinforces power dynamics instead of dismantling them is just using atypical means to prop up the system it claims to be taking down.  If only I had these indictments of masculinity at hand when I was 16 and I needed lyrical weaponsOne reviewer put it well: “Blues bears the teeth that grow out of decades of internalized misogyny and the stress of playing male.” I would add that context matters; Blues bears the teeth grown from the stress of playing male in the larger world and also for her particular audience.

All of this is just to say, we, collectively, in the world and especially in the anarchopunk new worlds we build within this old one, we need albums like this album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues.  We need more transgender anthems.  We need more space to reject and to redefine masculinity through punk music and in punk music. I listen to this album and I am so, so grateful. I am so thankful to Laura Jane Grace for giving this gift of punk anthems that hit at a dysfunction of punkrock and the greater culture in just how fucking hard it is to be a girl.

It is also to suggest that the folks throwing proverbial “sell out” stones take two long deep breaths and perhaps three great listens. Who abandoned whom? And, I think, why matters.

Of course Against Me! is not the only band doing this.  I’d like to hear more.

peeplewatchin

 

 

Comments

  1. First, what underlies your post is the fact that enjoying music is a completely subjective experience and no one can take that way from you. So this post is by no means a critism of the majority of what you say here. Criticism should not be about separating good and unacceptable bands. Instead, it brings broader context to the music than just that immediate subjective experience.

    Laura Jane Grace has made a career out of taking the subjectivity of her music and making it total—at first writing anarchist songs that grew increasingly atomized until the music was almost entirely about herself. Fortunately, she ends up in at a really incredible place with Transgender Dysphoria Blues. I’ve only listened to a couple tracks (a better critique would come after I listen to the entire thing) but it seems easily like her best work to date. Not only that, but I’m unaware of any record that has tackled the issues around gender dysphoria and transition with the magnitude here.

    It seems tasteless to criticize a person at this point, and really, it is. I regret including her in the Tweet to you, but since I’ve done it, I might as well follow through by expanding my argument.

    In your post, you frame the backlash against Against Me! as relating to playing with electric guitars instead of acoustic. That would be as moronic as Pete Seeger’s axing of Dylan’s soundboard. Radical punks should know to respond to a song’s content, and not form, and the Nation article you posted demonstrates many criticisms to that nature. Including this: “when you say the same things over and over again, as loudly as [Gabel] did, into a microphone no less, to countless impressionable teenagers, you’ve effectively lost your right to just decide one day that you didn’t mean any of it.” This refers mainly to their (no longer internal) attacks on anarchism.

    So Against Me!’s post-major label career has been marked with a critique of the self-righteous certainty and hypocrisy of anarchopunks, which is a completely valid criticism—as are your recollections of its machismo and reproduction of patriarchal social relations. Anarchopunk isn’t really the issue here, it’s anarchism itself. Or in a broader sense, ethics. A major mistake of Laura Jane Grace, as demonstrated in my Twitter argument with her, is that she’s never done anything wrong. In reality, she took the ethics of Against Me!, its anarchist aesthetics and fan-base, and exchanged it for money. They don’t need to see this as wrong, but it is a betrayal to all those who booked them shows, helped them put out albums, and the decades of anarchist influences they built their career upon until they were marketable. How they don’t recognize that is confusing.

    This played out in a very real way when they decided they’d make more money with a record on Sabot as opposed to Plan-it-X. Laura Jane Grace sees this as an issue of Jordan making good on an investment. But at the time, it was a major financial hit to the label.

    Around this time I saw Against Me! in Poughkeepsie. No matter what Crass had to say about the Clash being on CBS, fans always said the Clash gave it 100% at every performance. I could forgive the major label signing, the shilling for Jon Kerry, even moving away from PIX, but that night, they cut their set short, possibly in half, so they could get drunk and see Social Distortion next door.

    A couple years later, I see a video of Against Me! equating anarchism with an infantile “mob mentality.” Instead of using their platform to inform their fans about what anarchism is, the way Crass and Chumbawumba did, they used that platform to attack it and discourage people from getting involved—and all because they felt anarchopunks had treated them unfairly. It’s likely they had at times, but from my perspective I watched Against Me! change from a DIY band with anarchist politics to self-obsessed rock stars writing songs mainly about themselves.

    Moving back to the issue of effectively fighting patriarchy—the quote about the internalized misogyny hammers it squarely. As a social relation, just having alternative culture doesn’t defeat patriarchy. There will, and always have been assholes in anarchist scenes, punk or otherwise. And even if there weren’t, we’d style have patriarchy. “On Fighting Patriarchy: Why Bros Falling Back isn’t Enough” by Philadelphia’s Facing Reality Collective goes into this far better than I’m able.

    http://facingrealitycollective.wordpress.com/2013/12/09/on-fighting-patriarchy-why-bros-falling-back-isnt-enough/

    Anarchism is (too often) an ideal to which we aspire—but we ought not to idealize ourselves when we identify as anarchists. Making this confusion, Against Me! attacked anarchism along with anarchists, and has reacted only with defensiveness whenever they’re called out on it—Laura Jane Grace even called me a fascist for bringing up these points.

    How can someone be so convoluted as to think a critic is a fascist for disagreeing with their career choices? The same way a self-righteous anarchopunk would call them a fascist for signing to a major label, or call you a fascist for listening to them. I don’t think it matters what someone enjoys or listens to—I wouldn’t have a problem with you even if you did listen to fascist music! I challenge myself to resist these sorts of ad hominem attacks, and instead self-criticize along with developing totalizing critiques of social relations such as capitalism and patriarchy. This is where Against Me!, along with anarchopunk, usually fail.

    • This is a perfect counter-argument to what I wrote, or perhaps “co-argument,” because I think as you say in the beginning the issue isn’t either/or, pro/con, apropriate/inapropriate music. There’s room for holding a lot of critical analysis at the same time. I really appreciate you taking the time to write it out and share here.

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