One of the best records of 2014 was completely absent from many “Top Albums of the Year” lists. From gatekeepers-of-cool Pitchfork to the young passionate writers here at The Michigan Daily, this stunning, singular, fantastic release got way less acknowledgment than it deserved.
That may seem like a relatively minor slight to write a whole column about — obviously, music is a very subjective experience, and arguments rooted in personal taste rarely go anywhere productive. But this album, while certainly incredible from a purely technical point of view, needs and deserves as much exposure as it can possibly get — not just because of its musicianship, but because it truly has something to say. This record carries a message that we all need to keep in our heads as we enter this year, and it sets the bar for what music should be in 2015.
It’s inexcusable to me how many publications omitted Against Me!’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues from their year-end lists. True, the album (released almost exactly one year ago now) earned solid rankings from Spin, Time and Rolling Stone (not to mention serious praise from Vice), but I think it’s a real shame that Transgender Dysphoria Blues couldn’t make it onto The Daily’s best-of list, and only squeaked into Pitchfork’s “Honorable Mentions” category. This is an album that you cannot praise enough, and it’s an extraordinarily relevant example of courage and individuality that should set the template for 2015’s crop of new music.
I first came across Against Me! when I was in early high school, when the band’s primary songwriter/lead guitarist/singer was known publicly as Tom Gabel. Against Me! had a few catchy songs that got occasional airplay on alternative radio (“Thrash Unreal” and ” “I Was a Teenage Anarchist”), but they were little more than a blip on my music radar. When Against Me!’s leader took the name Laura Jane Grace and came out as a trangender woman to Rolling Stone, I thought it was cool that alt-rock, a genre sometimes lacking in diversity, suddenly had much a much more visible LGBTQ presence.
It wasn’t until a year and a half later, when Transgender Dysphoria Blues was getting buzz in more mainstream spaces, that Against Me! became prominent in my musical consciousness. I listened to the record and immediately knew that Laura Jane Grace was on a higher artistic plane than she had ever been before. Track one, the title track, starts off like pretty much any other pop-punk Against Me! track — a prominent, marching drumbeat, some guitar riffs and a “Hey!” — but as soon as Grace’s vocals enter the mix, I knew this album was a game-changer. The singer, presumably singing to her younger self, berates herself, screaming, “Your tells are so obvious / Shoulders too broad for a girl” and, with shocking force, “You’ve got no cunt in your strut!” “You want them to notice / The ragged ends of your summer dress,” she tells herself. “They just see a faggot,” she angrily admits.
Ironically, it’s difficult to be different in a genre that prides itself on non-conformity, but Grace’s lyrics don’t just tear apart punk rock norms: they are radically different from anything I’ve heard in music. Transgender Dysphoria Blues is the most passionate burst of catharsis I’ve ever experienced. Like so much great writing, it’s heartbreakingly specific but universally relatable for anyone who’s ever been a teenaged outcast of any gender or sexuality. There’s pain, rage, depression and alienation in Grace’s vocals, but there’s also triumph. While the timespan of the record isn’t wide enough in scope to explicitly include this, implicit in all of her songs is the idea the Grace has fucking made it past the seemingly infinite darkness that so many young transgender people have to experience. She’s done it. She makes awesome punk rock and gets interviewed by hugely influential journalists and makes a living doing what she loves despite living in a society that’s still extremely prejudiced against who she is.
I’ve been thinking even more about Transgender Dysphoria Blues since I heard about the suicide of Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year old transgender girl from Ohio whose parents oppressed her identity, her alienation eventually leading her to end her life.
Rock stars aren’t role models. They’re human, they’re fallible and they’re bound to do some things that fans don’t want to hear about. That said (and I’m absolutely speaking from personal experience here), teenagers will always idolize musicians. Whether it’s tragic figures like Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix, abrasive geniuses like Bob Dylan and Kanye West or punk-rock mold-breakers like Kathleen Hanna and Laura Jane Grace, kids who fall in love with these artists’ works will inevitably comb through the lyrics and watch plenty of interviews so they can imitate their heroes’ styles and life philosophies.
Because of this undeniable fact of growing up, I’ve been wishing that every single outcast teenager could listen to Transgender Dysphoria Blues. It’s unlikely, because of societal oppression and the band’s relative obscurity, that even a majority of kids will ever get to experience this record, but that’s exactly why we need more of this kind of music. By no means do I want to say Against Me! is the cure-all for every form of teenaged alienation, and I definitely have no idea if Leelah Alcorn would’ve even liked the album, but I couldn’t help remembering when I was in my early teens (circa 2010) and struggling with identity issues and how happy I felt whenever I found a musician who seemed to understand me (even though I never found anyone more significant than straight play actors like David Bowie, indie artists with small followings like Rostam Batmanglij or Lady Gaga, whatever genre she is). Anytime I could find an artist even slightly willing to acknowledge that there are non-straight sexualities, or a song that channeled those other identities (say, Franz Ferdinand’s “Michael” or Bloc Party’s “I Still Remember”), it was an oasis of validation in what felt like the straightest suburb in Michigan. If I was a couple of years younger, Laura Jane Grace would’ve easily been the dominant LGBTQ role model of my iPod.
I realize not everyone experiences life through the lens of music like I do, but I know how much of a difference art can make in anyone’s life. Movies and TV shows that represent more than just the straight white male experience, music created by artists like Laura Jane Grace or Frank Ocean who don’t fit “traditional” notions about gender or sexuality, writing by people with diverse points of view, these are all immeasurably important to inspiring young kids who perhaps don’t fit the standard representations they see in the media.
While 2014 was somewhat lacking from a music standpoint (Igloo Australia and some Canadian-Reggae group dominated the charts), Sleater-Kinney has already released an album in 2015 and D’Angelo caught us all at the tail end of last year with the mind-blowing complexity and power of Black Messiah. Here’s hoping that even more mold-breakers (Kanye? Kendrick?) will give us something truly special this year. I remember being 14 and kind of different and searching so hard for other artists who were truly different in ways I could relate to and that could make me more comfortable. For 2015, let’s pledge to elevate those artists who dare to be unique, and let’s see them at the top of our year-end lists come December.