Day 130: Summer’s For Music – Against Me!’s “True Trans”
by Tom Noonan
Last year, when Against Me! frontman and exclamation point enthusiast Tom Gabel opened up publicly about his transexual dysphoria and became Laura Jane Grace, the transitioning punk was met with wide-reaching support from all ends of the music map, from the crusty basements he used to scream in to the MTV airwaves that used to ignore his screaming. It was a truly powerful moment in music, one that reminded us of the gap between art and artists, lyrics and consciousness. No one who knew Gabel solely through his music saw it coming, so when he told us, it felt like we had spent all that time getting to know a different guy, someone who wasn’t Tom Gabel, someone who wasn’t suffering silently with his identity. We assumed that he presented himself as a lie. It made his art seem like less an interpretation of the world than a distraction from it, some sort of shallow diversion. We never really knew Tom Gabel.
But then we looked back at his songs and saw that his struggle was there the whole time, in his lyrics and the strained way he sang them. He’d never presented us a lie; we’d just missed the point.
Because Laura Jane Grace, when she was Tom Gabel, always wrote about her transsexuality with subtlety, it makes sense, now that she’s come out publicly, that her next record would ditch the subtlety and go into an emotional free fall she could never before. What was always worrisome about this project, the boldly titled Transgender Dysphoria Blues, is that it wouldn’t be able to find the commonality in an uncommon struggle, a point of entry that would allow everyone who isn’t struggling with their identity in this specific way to understand what it means to struggle with their identity in this specific way. The album will no doubt be highly personal and most likely emotionally draining, but with such prescient material, the expectation is that it will be transcendent, that it will talk about transgender dysphoria like Toni Morrison talks about race.
Obviously these expectations are mostly unrealistic, and I’m not trying to say that Laura Jane Grace is the next Toni Morrison or that she even has the talent to make something as profound as anything Morrison has done. What I am trying to point to is that I’m not sure if there’s anyone else who has this big of a stage to try.
This is why her new EP, True Trans, which she’s giving away for free on her band’s site here, is something worth getting excited about. On it, Laura Jane Grace sounds uncharacteristically calm, liberated by her new transparency, but her lyrics are as ambitious as ever and particularly striking in their weighted simplicity. Even with a track named “FuckMyLife666”, this is an EP with very real beauty. Maybe it’s the acoustic guitars keeping her grounded, but I’m convinced True Trans is a sign of coming transcendence. It’s made up of the common themes that plague the uncommon struggle, telling the story so even the most obtuse listener might be able to understand it. With lines as good as, “Don’t want to live without teeth/Don’t want to die without bite/I don’t want to say that I regret it”, she’s doing much more than earning our attention.
Listen to “FuckMyLife666” below: