Music Nerd: The Political Gets Personal

against me transgender dysphoria bluesTransgender Dysphoria Blues by Against Me!

I was a big fan of Against Me! when I was younger, and they were too. Their first couple albums meant a lot to me, and then I sort of lost touch with them as I grew older (and they grew more “mainstream” but, gosh, that’s a can of worms I am not going to open in this post). Recently, I was reminded of their existence (and a lot of folks found out in the first place) when lead singer Tom Gabel came out publicly as Transgender, took on the name Laura Jane Grace, and began living life as a woman.

And now, we have the record that addresses Grace’s ongoing transformation. This is a raw, powerful collection of songs that deals directly with the issues that face a person undergoing this kind of transition, but to my mind, also speaks to anyone who’s ever felt like a misfit in mainstream society (and who hasn’t, right?). Against Me! sounds re-invigorated on this record, especially on standouts like the nearly-hardcore macho-takedown Drinking With The Jocks, or the yearning melodic power pop of F—mylife666 (an early contender for my favorite song title of the year), and album closing kiss-off Black Me Out.  What I loved the most about their early records was Grace’s lyrical ability to make the political resonate on a personal level. Here, the overtly political is almost completely eschewed, but the personal experience here is a political one. In a country so gripped with debate over the rights of LGBT human beings, this is an important record.  “You want them to notice / the ragged ends of your summer dress,” Grace sings on the title track, “you want them to see you like they see any other girl.”

Footnote: Often while listening to this album, I was reminded of Hedwig and the Angry Inch (long a favorite movie of mine), not just because of the themes of transgender identity, but a lot of the attitude and even some of the melodies reminded me of those songs. If you like this album, I’d definitely recommend that movie as well.

habitualShaking the Habitual by The Knife

 This record came out around this time last year, and being a big fan of the band, I got it right away. It’s taken me a full year to really digest it, and figure out what I wanted to say about it. I could say a lot more (and others have) but I’ll condense it to this:

 First off, I wouldn’t recommend listening to this album until you’ve listened to and internalized The Knife’s 2006 classic, Silent Shout, and maybe also their Darwinian pseudo-opera, Tomorrow, In a Year. Next, read this manifesto the band put out in lieu of a press bio in advance of this album. This isn’t easy listening. But it’s worth it. On this record, the members of The Knife really take the title to heart. They are casting aside things done out of habit, from their own musical processes, to societal norms we take for granted. This is music that rises up out of the desolate ruins of a society, shakes the dust and ashes from its shoulders, and begins to dance (Margaret Atwood’s brilliant end-of-the-world novel Oryx and Crake is appropriately name-checked in a pair of instrumental tracks). When Karin Dreijer Andersson sings, on album opener A Tooth For An Eye, “rewrite history / to suit our needs” it sounds like both an indictment of those who do, and a declaration of intent to do the same. This is an album that has an accompanying comic to explain (some of) its radical politics.  It’s punk rock for art galleries, or dance music for the immediate post-apocalypse. Or maybe it’s just a ponderous work of unwieldy length by a couple of crazy Swedes in masks. Maybe you’ll hate it. But it will make you think.

Timothy Volpert

Tim Volpert is a poet, musician, and sociologist born and raised in Topeka, KS. He works in the Bookmobile department, bringing books, movies, and music out into the community. He maintains a healthy obsession with the minutiae of pop culture, and is happy to share his knowledge with you--you don't even have to ask.

  • Rita Almond

    Thank you very much for your hard work on your music reviews. I will try to spread the word about them because you deserve more readers !!! Oh, do you also have interest in world music ? I am currently especially enthused about a Touareg Saharan desert blues band, TINARIWEN . They are touring the US now, and members of the RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS occasionally jump on stage and play with them, too. Good old youTube has videos.

    • Timothy Volpert

      Glad you’re enjoying the reviews, Rita! I have heard of Tinariwen before, but not really spent much time with their music. I’ll have to check them out!