In some ways, it feels presumptuous to pass any judgment on Against Me!’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues, for the simple reason that it catalogs an experience to which, as a cisgender person, I am inherently unable to fully comprehend. It’s an album that, as its title suggests, is deeply informed by singer Laura Jane Grace’s transition from living as a man to living as a woman. Clearly, it’s not for me to say how reflective Grace’s songs are of any wider transgender experience. But the album is also deeply relatable in a more generally human sense — it’s the story of a person coming to terms with who she is, something that’s not easy for anyone, let alone someone who finds she doesn’t identify with the gender she’s been assigned.
And, just as importantly, it’s a first-person testimony on the experience of a gender transition in a medium where such things have been almost entirely non-existent. There have been songs about trans people, of course — Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” is probably the most famous, although there are certainly others. Reed’s “Lady Godiva’s Operation” seems to concern reassignment surgery, while Antony also alludes to transition in several songs (especially “For Today I Am a Boy”). So do Boy George (“The Crying Game,” “He Was Never She”), Garbage (“Cherry Lips”), and various others. And then, of course, there’s The Kinks’ “Lola.”
First-person perspectives from people who’ve actually undergone a transition, however, are much harder to find, let alone those that span entire albums. It should be noted at the outset that the album isn’t a direct narration of Grace’s experiences of her transition, or ostensibly not, anyway; she’s spoken of the songs as being about a fictional transgender prostitute, although it’s hard not to relate them directly to their author.
The lyrics are drafted broadly enough that either interpretation works. My immediate impression was that it catalogs all the frustrations and pain of the last few years of her life, so while the gender dysphoria of the album title is obviously a dominant theme, it’s not the only subject matter present. Final track “Black Me Out,” for instance, could as easily be read as a spectacularly angry diatribe against Grace’s record company as it could a narration of a prostitute’s rage against her pimp. (The fact that either interpretation works doesn’t exactly speak volumes for Against Me!’s relationship with their former label Sire.) There are also laments for dead friends (um, “Dead Friend”), intimations of the narrator’s impending death (“Two Coffins”), and a song with the, let’s say, adventurous title “Osama Bin Laden As the Crucified Christ.”
But still, attention will inevitably be drawn to the songs that seem to be explicitly about gender dysphoria, and about transgender “issues” in general. Happily, Grace writes about both topics with eloquence and compassion. The title track is a snarl of frustration and anguish at the way society treats the trans community. “You want them to notice the ragged ends of your summer dress/ You want them to see you like they see every other girl,” Grace sings, before delivering the kicker: “They just see a faggot/ They hold their breath not to catch the sick.” The disgust with which she spits “faggot” hits like a hammer blow.
And yet, it’s as much a love song as anything: “Rough surf on the coast,” goes the chorus, “I wish I could’ve spent the whole day alone with you.” The gap between what Grace longs for and what the world gives her is all too poignant. “True Trans Soul Rebel” explores similar themes, the distance between desire and reality: “All dressed up and nowhere to go/ Walking the streets all alone/ Another night you wish you could forget/ Making yourself up as you go along.”
The double entendre of “making yourself up” is both deft and powerful, especially because the song’s denouement discusses unmaking yourself: “Once you were born, you were already dead/ You sleep with a gun beside you in bed/ You follow through to the obvious end/ See your veins wide open/ You bleed it out.” It’s an all-too-relevant concern, given the tragically high suicide rate among America’s trans population.
“Drinking With the Jocks” is a broadly resonant song about trying to fit in, wishing you were like everyone else, yet all the while knowing deep down that you’re not. It’s a deeply sarcastic lyric — “Just one of the boys/ My dick in my hand” — but again, there’s an undercurrent of genuine anguish, too. “All of my life wishing I was one of them,” Grace laments, before coming to the conclusion that, “There will always be a difference between me and you, for all my life.”
For all that its subject matter is at times harrowing, though, this is ultimately an upbeat record — or, at least, one whose defiance ultimately outweighs its melancholy. Clearly, none of the experiences Grace relates have been easy. But in the end, the record seems to tell us, neither the album’s fictional narrator nor its author give a fuck, because they are who they are. Perhaps the album’s key line comes during the blistering “FuckMyLife666,” wherein Grace declares, “No more troubled sleep/ There’s a brave new world that’s raging inside of me.”
Bravo. And hopefully this album is another step into that brave new world, not just for Grace, but for the society in which she lives. An album like this would have been inconceivable even a generation ago; today, it’s still a remarkably courageous piece of work, an album that genuinely deserves the oft-abused sobriquet “important.”
But it feels like faint praise to label this as just a “courageous” or “important” record — because it is, of course it is, but it’s also a hell of a good rock record. It’s not perfect; the production is kinda rough and ready, and at 28 minutes, it’s all too brief. Maybe that’s not such bad thing, though. Against Me! have taken their share of shit in the recent past for inclining more toward FM-radio rock than punk, but this is a pedal-to-the-metal belter of a record from start to finish, a listen that’s as bracing and viscerally compelling as it is deeply moving.