Politically, Against Me! have never pulled any punches. From a guttural (and gutter-esque) first full-length brimming with anarcho-punk anthems, to 2014’s tremendous Transgender Dysphoria Blues, which dealt with and introduced the world to frontwoman Laura Jane Grace’s gender dysphoria and gender transition, the band has crafted a discography that will likely be immortalized as punk rock’s Little Red Songbook. With the United States in an astounding state of turmoil during a contentious election cycle, one might expect Against Me!’s seventh full-length record to come out swinging with another sledgehammer indictment of the system.
“I feel like this is a time that people would really expect a super political Against Me! record,” explains Grace. “I just have to shrug and throw my hands in the air.”
“I just want to write love songs,” she laughs, her smile audible through my cell phone’s receiver. “Songs about living. Maybe it’s a selfish record in that way, but this is a record about what was happening.”
Laura Jane Grace is having one hell of a year. She’s preparing a new record with Against Me! — the excited, fiery Shape Shift With Me — and gearing up for her autobiography, Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Famous Anarchist Sellout, to hit shelves this November. Oh, and she’s also a full-time parent.
These releases come on the heels of a fervent couple of years for Grace and Against Me! both. Transgender Dysphoria Blues sparked international conversations about gender dysphoria and transgender rights, and it’s no exaggeration to suggest that both the album and Grace’s subsequent activism have helped spur social change (or at the very least sparked the crucial momentum precluding that change). It’s also sprung Grace into the spotlight as a transgender advocate, a role she’s still adjusting to.
Writing Shape Shift With Me was an important way for her to explore life out of the spotlight and focus on her own happiness.
“The book was so heavy and so much about reflection and looking back on the past, that the record kind of had to be the exact polar opposite, and the exact polar opposite of whatever weight there was associated with being a trans spokesperson, if you want to put it like that,” Grace muses.
In a time where honest, unhindered joy and pleasure are welcome rarities, it’s more important than ever to celebrate, support, and talk about those minutiae, lest we be crushed by a landslide of clips from Trump rallies and Harambe memes.
“That’s what music has always been for me, it’s been that outlet, that thing I go to to get away from whatever stresses me out, or to deal with whatever I’m trying to deal with,” Grace intimates.
“That’s what music should be, really,” she continues. “For listeners too, it should be an alternative, that thing that brings you up and helps you get through other things.”
The change in tone wasn’t necessarily a conscious choice, though. Just as Transgender Dysphoria Blues was more of an autobiography than a political manifesto, so too is Shape Shift With Me a colourful culmination of two long, tumultuous years, on both professional and personal levels. This was a life that needed to be written about, whether Grace wanted to or not.
“With Transgender Dysphoria Blues, I didn’t necessarily sit down at the start of that and be like, ‘this is what I want to write about,’” explains Grace. “It was more like, ‘oh shit, this is what I’m writing about and I can’t control that, and if I want to keep writing, I kind of have to go with that as opposed to fighting it.’”
While Transgender Dysphoria Blues was Grace’s thesis statement to the world as a trans woman, the focus on Shape Shift finds her speaking on a more intimate level (as if there were a more intimate level). Just don’t confuse it for a happy record. Sure, there are joyous bangers, like the super-charged high-school crush anthem “Rebecca,” and raucous fist-pumper “333,” which finds Grace shouting like fireworks, “I wanna be as close as I can get to you!” But those moments are sobered with the middle-finger-raising “Boyfriend,” and the absolutely gutting “Norse Truth” (“There once was love, there now is nothing,” sneers Grace on one of the track’s comparatively rosier sentiments); these are songs about finding love, losing love, and every stop along the way.
“It was important for me for there to not be redundant emotions, to have one of each song to kind of capture all those stages of a relationship, or of falling in love,” says Grace. “There’s the crush, there’s the lust, there’s the fun, there’s the distance, there’s the longing, and oftentimes there’s the heartbreak and anger.
“There are all those things that go along with it that are part of the spectrum of love. It was a fun record to make. There are a lot of very positive memories attached to this record.”
This beautiful new record should be viewed neither as unrelated to her previous work, nor tied intrinsically to it; it does not have to be a ‘sequel’ or an ‘expansion.’ It just is. And what it is, is a powerhouse punk record created by someone who is finally allowing herself to feel something other than rage and frustration and responsibility; who is finally giving herself a night off, with an extra day or two for the hangover. All this to say: well, fuck, a transgender person can make a record without it being explicitly about transgenderism.
The writing process of Grace’s new book was a trying look back on Grace’s life, both before transitioning and after. It found her going through diaries that had previously been for her eyes only, mining daily records to capture and relate her experience with gender dysphoria. It’d be foolish to assume Grace chose to employ a trans slur as her book title merely as a practice in semantic reclamation. “Tranny is not a word that I identify with,” she asserts. “I hate that word. I abhor that word.” It is not an invitation.
It is, however, a very specific, and particularly unpleasant, thematic device. The emotions that characterize that word, and the emotions that fill her book, bear a stabbing similarity; they’re both steeped in brutal, debilitating self-hatred. Not insecurity, not a lack of confidence, not sadness (although those are certainly all present), but self-hatred.
“That’s what a lot of my book is about. It’s about dealing with self-hatred, and that word [tranny] has a lot of that tied to it.”
Grace sighs, “Sometimes you’ve got to name a thing something ugly because that’s what it is.”
“Tranny is not a word that I identify with. I hate that word. I abhor that word.”
Transgender Dysphoria Blues was a square win in the first round for Grace and Against Me!; trans rights are more discussed and fought for now than ever. On his latest tour, Bruce Springsteen decided to boycott the state of North Carolina, cancelling his scheduled date in Greensboro, over their horrific ‘bathroom bill,’ officially termed HB2, which seeks to restrict which bathrooms trans people can (and, more disturbingly, cannot) use. Scottish indie-rockers Frightened Rabbit decided to auction off autographed gear at their Saxapahaw, NC gig, raising $6,000 for Equality NC. And when Against Me! played the state, Grace famously shouted “goodbye gender” as she burned her birth certificate on stage. But the conversation has to evolve from here, to a better-rounded and deeper understanding of gender not as a static, dichotomous phenomenon, but a fluid spectrum, with neither one classification nor the other as a true indicator of identity, nor humanity.
“Now as it becomes more prevalent in the media and more people are talking about it, on the one hand you have to go into that with set answers to give to people, and a specific way to talk about this,” reasons Grace. “But at the same time, you almost need to say that first, and then once everyone understands the set answers, then you’re like, ‘there’s also a lot of grey area, there’s a spectrum of gender, and everyone’s experience is different.’ You can’t expect everyone to identify the same way, or to have the same relationship with the subject.”
A not-so-loosely-adapted sentiment goes, “behind every woke cis person is an exhausted trans person you need to thank.” Laura Jane Grace has made herself one of the most welcoming, patient and available resources on gender dysphoria and all manner of trans issues; she has done revealing major media interviews on her transition at home, and stayed up all night talking to strangers on Twitter about gender issues. It’s safe to say we owe her a lot of thank yous.
Two years ago, we had Grace and Against Me! reminding us to think about gender, to think about trans people, and to welcome and support them as we would any other fucking human being, because evidently, we needed that reminder (and still do)(…and still do). Now, they’re back to remind us that in the face of all this seemingly endless bullshit and strife, sometimes all we can do is focus on the good stuff, the simple stuff, and celebrate and sing about the things we do have going for us. Sometimes, the best response to tremendous existential crises is to slap on KISS makeup, strap on a guitar and play space for a little bit. Sometimes, all we can do is love it out.
Shape Shift With Me is being released on 16 September on Grace’s own Total Treble Music. Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout will hit shelves on 16 November via Hachette Books.
Against Me! is on tour and you should go see them.
Shape Shift With Me is streaming now!