The Albums That Defined 2014 explores how this year's most influential records have shaped and reflected the wider music landscape. Today, how Against Me!'s incredible Transgender Dysphoria Blues made music writers stare their biases in the mirror.
Less than a year after Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! came out as transgender, I arranged an interview with her in advance of the band's January 2013 appearance at Australia’s gigantic travelling festival Big Day Out. When we finally connected after a few delayed calls, there was noticeable hesitation and wariness in Grace’s voice. Given that the band’s now career-defining record Transgender Dysphoria Blues had yet to be released, I asked Grace about what I believed to be clues on her gender dysphoria in past releases, most notably their 2010 release White Crosses. My theories about the band and their future with a transgender singer at the helm were repeatedly shot down by Grace.
When Transgender Dysphoria Blues was released in January of this year, it began a tidal wave of art and conversation rooted in transgender identity and issues that finally started to infiltrate the "mainstream" conversation. For many Against Me! fans and straight male rock writers like myself, it was a chance to stare ignorance in the mirror, at a time when such intervention is sorely necessary (and, truthfully, always has been).
Being told to “write what you know” can be both a blessing and a curse. For Grace and other such as Rae Spoon and Ivan E. Coyote this can lead to empowering and truly mind-expanding works of art that bring shade and perspective to a usually one-dimensional conversation. But when the mainstream music conversation is largely controlled by a homogeneous group of gatekeepers who are ignorant of their own privilege and don't make much effort to check it, that conversation can easily become aggressive or oppressive without them realizing it.
Transgender Dysphoria Blues is not an attempt to "educate" anyone. Laura Jane Grace is just writing from her own experiences. And it just so happens to be some of the most propulsive punk the band has ever released. Grace has never shied away from aspirations to have the band’s music reach a larger audience. That may have pissed off more than a few protective fans when they first started to speak beyond their often insular punk scene, but it's becoming clear they may have misinterpreted that desire. Against Me! have always had populist ambitions, and now those ambitions are just reaching in new, and in some ways, wider places. After all, who can't identify with the feeling of being uncomfortable in roles defined by others?
There was likely no agenda for Grace beyond writing what was important to her. Inevitably though, Transgender Dysphoria Blues has found powerful resonance. And for some listeners and journalists, it's given them a point of reference for conversations they should already be having.
Transgender Dysphoria Blues brims with unfiltered possibly: the voice of Laura Jane Grace singing louder than ever before.