by Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
“Your tells are so obvious, shoulders too big for a girl,” singer Laura Jane Grace screamed to open “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” during Against Me’s March 24th Hawthorne Theater show, making public the private confusions, frustrations and self-loathing that can accompany transitioning in a transphobic world.
The show was Against Me’s first in Portland since Grace’s transition, and its first, also, since the release of their most recent album, on which, in its best moments, she makes transcendent art out of the anguish and oppression she’s experienced.
In interviews Grace has described her unique songwriting process, in which she writes out lyrics in solitude, and then sets them to the major key, anthemic music her band’s recognized for, a method that leads to a riveting complexity.
In Against Me’s earlier, political work, the ambiguity felt subversive, with Grace’s critical, satirical lyrics undercutting her soaring melodies. On the new record, about half of which they performed at the show, the music, and Grace’s ferocious delivery, turn her vulnerability into an act of defiance and catharsis.
Though Grace’s transitioning has increased her public profile, leading to coverage in NPR, Cosmopolitan and Grantland among other places, her audience has not seemed to change. The sold out Hawthorne Theatre was filled with a raucous, enthralled crowd that knew every song, new and old.
It was impressive to see how little Grace’s transition seemed to matter, politically, to her fans. One had the sense that if her audience, which had a male/female ration of about three to one, could be sent to congress, ENDA would pass tomorrow.
Against Me is a propulsive live band, its members seemingly in possession of bottomless reserves of energy. In concert they easily recreate the thick, arena rock sounds of their major label “New Wave” era, as well as the current record’s more stripped down aesthetic.
In Grace’s music, one hears echoes of the Who, The Clash, Bruce Springsteen, Lynard Skynard, and other standard bearers of rock history. It’s thrilling to hear such melodies and sounds, so often associated with rock’s legacies of misogyny and patriarchy, repurposed to serve Against Me’s aims.
A dynamic performer, Grace has a surprisingly shy stage presence, her voice barely audible during her between song stage patter. She evinces a sincerity and an openness, however, and a genuine connection with her fans, several of whom jumped onstage to interact with her briefly, before diving back onto their fellows.
In a year that’s witnessed Jared Leto’s inexorable march to the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for “playing ” a transwoman in a movie, “Dallas Buyer’s Club,” whose director claimed transwoman actresses don’t exist, Grace’s songs detailing her own experience, like “True Trans Soul Rebel,” “Paralytic States,” and “fuckmylife666,” and her success at performing them, feel revolutionary.
Grace began her song “New Wave,” the first track on the band’s major label debut of the same name, with the lyrics, “We can control the medium / We can control the context of presentation.”
The band’s experience on a corporate label turned out to be an unhappy one, as their attempts to reach a larger audience were unrealized, and they and their label Sire parted ways following their next album “White Crosses.”
With the self-released “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” however, her past words have, in many ways, come to fruition. The complaints of transgender critics about Leto’s feting went seemingly unheard and unrepeated, by both the gay press and the entertainment world.
Against Me’s recordings, though, permeate the culture, offering a true representation of a transwoman’s experience to fans like those at Monday night’s show, and to new listeners, looking to discover something authentic and exciting.