All of us occasionally grow obsessed with songs, playing them on repeat, singing them at the top of our lungs in the car — and for me, for the past few weeks, that song has been “Black Me Out” by the band Against Me!, from Florida.
If, like me, you fall for vicious kiss-off songs, then “Black Me Out” has it all: bold declarations, gratuitous swearing, allegorical promises of dismemberment, soaring harmonies, joyful anger, angry joy, a blazing guitar riff and a general feeling that the only way to make things better is to destroy relationships, expectations, equilibriums and bones, and to walk away laughing while the whole thing burns.
This is no great revelation: I have been a little agitated of late. Haven't we all? Haven't we all wanted, in one way or another, to scream that we refuse to be tormented anymore?
The funny thing is that “Black Me Out,” released three and a half years ago, didn't enter my life until this month. And I've been listening to and going to see Against Me! on and off for 15 years, since 2002. So what stopped me from hearing it? Why didn't I bother to even listen to the album which “Black Me Out” so perfectly punctuated, and which has worked as such a salve during this year from hell?
The first time I saw Against Me!, in 2004, the set ended in spectacular fashion. Mid-song, the bassist climbed atop the bass drum and then straddled his legs to sit on the shoulders of the singer. While both of them pounded on their guitars, the crowd stormed the stage, and the bassist clung for dear life to the rafters of 924 Gilman in Berkeley, defensively maneuvering against a frenzy of teenagers dancing and screaming along below to the song's final chorus around the singer's rigid, strong frame.
Eight years later, I read in Rolling Stone that the singer, known up to then as Tom Gabel, had come out as Laura Jane Grace. For as long as memory served, it had felt like a woman was inside, the singer explained: there was simply no other way to live honestly than to live as female. It was a courageous act, and I felt overwhelmingly proud for this musician I'd followed long enough to feel connected to.
Against Me!'s new album arrived soon after, bearing the somewhat cumbersome title Transgender Dysphoria Blues. The song titles — “True Trans Soul Rebel,” “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” — indicated that the songs reflected Grace's new life, and probably weren't written for someone like me. The album cover showed a fleshy naked human breast quartered and chopped, like supermarket meat. I was alienated by the in-your-faceness of it all. I passed.
Then, just last month, I read Tranny — Grace's personal memoir of growing up; secretly trying on clothes from mom's closet to feel complete; staying in a metaphorical closet throughout founding a band, touring constantly, and getting famous enough to play Wembley Stadium before imploding; and finally, telling her truth to Rolling Stone and recording a new album.
And I finally listened to Transgender Dysphoria Blues, surprised to find that its themes were in fact universal, its music was urgent and uplifting, and it was better than any album Against Me! had made in a decade.
But I had to ask myself: Why the hell did I presume it wouldn't be? Why did I tell myself it'd be self-centered and navel-gazing? This album from a band I'd loved, and met, and regularly driven two hours to see — why did I not even bother to buy, or even click “play” on YouTube, to hear the songs from a kindred soul who I'd told myself I was proud of?
We talk a lot about bubbles these days. How it's wrong to stay in them, how we need to reach out and understand those different from us. It can feel like a big, never-ending homework assignment, a weighty obligation. But how about thinking about it in a new way: There's some truly awesome shit outside your bubble.
Were it not for people very different from me conveying their experience through art of some form, I'd have gone through life without the complete and total joy of knowing Roxane Gay, or Los Tigres del Norte, or Wesley Willis, or Like Water for Chocolate, or Brontez Purnell, or Amália Rodrigues, or Jonesy, or Spitboy, or OMB Peezy, or Children Who Chase Lost Voices, or DJ Qbert, or Margaret Kilgallen, or Merzbow, or Erika Lyle, or hundreds of others. These are people whose work elevates me, inspires me, gives me a rush of excitement and happiness.
Art can be a hard sell right now. American culture is contracting. We're in defense mode, crawling back into our safety zones, embracing “self-care.” Being among like-minded souls. Empathy for differences is low. Why bother?
But as Laura Jane Grace reminded me this month, looking through someone else's eyes means we'll find more beauty and hope in the world. That’s self-care, which art in all its forms makes accessible. When you're prejudiced against someone or something, even as innocuous as an album, or exhibit, or film, you're only playing yourself.
Naturally, I was compelled to go see Against Me! last week when they played in San Francisco. “Does everyone feel good about themselves?” Grace asked the crowd at the Regency Ballroom, partway through the set. “This song is about self-acceptance. Something I know very well.”
Grace's face lit up, a huge smile on her face, as she sang “Transgender Dysphoria Blues”: “You've got no cunt in your strut / You've got no hips to shake,” as if finally shouting all her insecurities was the greatest release she'd ever known. “And you know it's obvious / But we can't choose how we're made.”
Out in the crowd — black-clad punks, trans couples, straight coworkers, queer colleagues, broke college kids, undocumented friends, single moms, the whole cross-section of us — sang along like it was the last song on Earth.
Gabe Meline is KQED Arts’ Online Editor.
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