Amy Ray (Indigo Girls) Talks Against Me!’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues

I’m not a music writer. I don’t really know how to distill songs and sounds into descriptive language. A great music critic can make you really...

I’m not a music writer. I don’t really know how to distill songs and sounds into descriptive language. A great music critic can make you really feel a record and look deeper into it, and it’s not as much about criticism as about dimension and context. I can only approach writing about Against Me! ’s new record Transgender Dysphoria Blues as a fan and a musician that has been inspired by their musical trajectory and brave exploration of life, revolution, anarchy and now gender dysphoria. I’ve liked them since I picked up Against Me! Is Reinventing Axl Rose at a Florida record store in 2002. They are a classic punk rock, populist band, and in that spirit of being simple and real, Against Me!’s creator and lead man, Tom Gabel made the matter-of-fact pronouncement in 2012, it’s time for me to stop hurting, I need to be who I am, and he became Laura Jane Grace.

There are so many layers to the ground that Laura Jane Grace is breaking, so many barriers and misconceptions that she is challenging with her transition from a physical existence as a man to that of a woman, that it’s daunting. It is obvious that Laura Jane Grace’s survival was dependent on this gender transition. Being a transgender woman in the world can be challenging at best and deadly at its worst, so you know it’s not a life change that you go into for any other reason but absolute necessity. Also, the world of punk and rock is still very much a man’s world, and my own internalized sexism tells me that to want to be a woman in this arena, well, that really means something. Will LJG still have the clout of Tom Gabel in the eyes of the sexist world of rock? How long will her old male mystique carry her? She not only runs the risk of bringing the sexism of the rock music industry into her life, but transphobia as well. After one listen to the new album from Against Me!, you understand that these are temporal and petty issues that pale in comparison to the need for survival and the ache of the spirit to be free.

With Transgender Dysphoria Blues, Tom Gabel has unveiled Laura Jane Grace for all to see. She has stepped into the role of record producer and created an album that shudders with bravery and confidence. With this new set of songs one can see that setting your true self free creates a strength and passion that is disarming and undeniable. The revelation of LJG is full of the grace that marks her new name. Even the rock jocks Kevin and Bean on LA’s infamous bastion of maleness KROQ radio couldn’t rattle Laura. You can watch a video of the interview and feel them squirming. Laura Jane could have had a real go at them, but she just answers their questions with honesty and clarity — the same way she sings. It’s a teachable moment at every turn. When they suggest that a lot of folks expected her voice to change after her transition so that she would sound like a woman, she does a favor for all of us women in rock and says, “Well, what does a woman sound like? That’s all interpretative or opinion. I mean, my voice is my voice.”

And her voice on this new record is as solid, melodic and tough as I’ve ever heard it. The album is full of anthemic guitar riffs and musical phrases that have a sense of triumph even in the midst of sadness and an oft-fatalistic perspective. There is strength in recognizing and facing reality, and this is the true core of Against Me’s lyrical and musical approach. The songs are arranged, recorded and mixed (mixer: Billy Bush, who’s also mixed Garbage, Muse, and Beck) with respect for sonic space, so that the sounds have breadth and texture that make them arrestingly visceral. And even though the music is raging around the vocals, nothing gets in the way of what LJG has to tell us: her voice is the centerpiece of this record. I feel like she has ventured into this direction on other, more recent releases, especially on 2010’s White Crosses/Black Crosses. Her scream is still there, but you can hear more melody coming through and a sense of confidence about what she’s saying. And I’ve always loved what Against Me! has to say. They’ve never toed the party line, but have always asked important questions and not been afraid to challenge the punk tradition that they embody for so many fans. Their dissent is important and has ushered many a punker into awareness of, and engagement with, the world they live in.

The partnership of guitarist James Bowman and Laura Jane Grace is as strong as ever in these 10 songs. Bowman’s playing infuses the record with infectious melodies and rhythm that help drive the songs and create an environment for LJG’s vocals to thrive in. And I love Atom Willard’s drumming on this record too; it provides a strong and interesting backbone for the pulse of the guitar and bass. They all work together in that trademark Against Me! style that creates an onslaught that can’t be dismissed. The opening tracks, “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” and “True Trans Soul Rebel” don’t mince words or notes. LJG jumps right in and challenges our sexism and transphobia:

You want them to notice the ragged ends of your summer dress
You want them to see you like they see any other girl
They just see a faggot
They hold their breath not to catch the sick

And also makes it clear that she is rooting for the otherness in all of us.

Who’s going to take you home tonight?
Who’s going to take you home?
Does God bless your transsexual heart?

The song “Unconditional Love” has the Against Me! swagger and swing between the drums, bass and guitar that make the resignation in the lyrics sound like a proud and defiant rugby chant:

Even if your love was unconditional, it still wouldn’t be enough to save me.

“Drinking with the Jocks” harks back to Against Me!’s early records with an unbridled anger that feels like an attempt to exorcise the demons that drag down masculinity.

Look at all of them bitches, yeah.
I’m going to fuck them all.
Look at all of them bitches, yeah.
Fill them up with cum.

All of my life, all of my life.
Wishing I was one of them.
There will always be a difference between me and you.

Both those songs are the opposite of the sweetly macabre lullaby, “Two Coffins,” which fits into that garage folk/Replacements style that Against Me! has always done so well on songs like “Ache with Me” (White Crosses/Black Crosses) or “Sink, Florida, Sink” (2003’s As the Eternal Cowboy). These are the moments that really distinguish LJG’s writing and singing. In this same way, you can look online and find acoustic live performances of most of the songs from Transgender Dysphoria Blues, and they are strikingly revealing of the basic heart, melody and rhythm of the new songs. The acoustic performances give the band versions more of a context and just enhance them.

The first song I heard from this record was “FuckMyLife666,” and it’s a powerful, raw musical homage to a deceased friend. But in true Against Me! form, it’s also somewhat of a declaratory mission statement that we’d all do well to live by:

Don’t want to live without teeth.
Don’t want to die without bite

The death and life dealt with on this record seem to speak about loss and gain of identity as much as anything else. In the span of LJG and Against Me!’s musical career there has been an unsettling amount of twists and turns, but rather than slow her down or paralyze her, these transformations have enlivened her. Laura Jane Grace remains a stalwart punk rocker, singing and playing with fierceness, alive with a brand-new skin to match her joyfully raging, keening spirit.

No more troubled sleep
There’s a brave new world that’s raging inside of me.

The Sylvia Rivera Law Project works to guarantee that all people are free to self-determine gender identity and expression, regardless of income or race, and without facing harassment, discrimination or violence.

For more than twenty-five years, Amy Ray has been renowned as one half of the Grammy-award winning folk duo Indigo Girls. She is also a community activist, and has had an indie label, Daemon Records, since 1989. With her debut solo album, Stag (2001), Ray turned in her acoustic for an electric and delivered a critically acclaimed album that showed her love of punk and rock. Since then, she has released two live records and four more solo studio albums: her rock/punk records, Prom, Didn’t It Feel Kinder, Lung of Love, and her country record, Goodnight Tender, her first foray into traditional country music. Her newest live recording is called The Tender Hour and was recorded at Seattle’s Triple Door. The record features her top-notch country band playing all the tunes from Goodnight Tender as well as a few songs from her earlier releases.

(photo credit: Paul Dunlap and Denise Plumb)