POP Montreal Diary: Feeling the Transgender Dysphoria Blues with Against Me!

The first time I saw Floridian punk rockers Against Me! live was at Warped Tour 2008, drenched in a writhing sea of sweaty teenagers, screaming along the lyrics to their folk anthem “Sink, Florida, Sink.” I initially became interested in the band from their appearance on the Rock Against Bush punk rock compilation album along with bands like NOFX and Anti-Flag, and their radical anti-establishment messages like “Baby, I’m an Anarchist” were fun jams for a shaggy-haired 16-year-old like me.

Fast-forward six years and Against Me! is fighting an entirely different establishment: heteronormativity. The founding member formerly known as Tom Gabel came out as a trans-woman in 2012, with an in-depth Rolling Stone piece chronicling her story. It was then that the punk rocker began the transition into becoming Laura Jane Grace, who I was lucky enough to see last night at Metropolis as part of POP Montreal.

Following Grace’s coming out as trans, Against Me! released their sixth studio album titled Transgender Dysphoria Blues. The main theme of the album is, obviously, Laura’s struggles with coming out, and the “gender dysphoria” she used to feel—the intense dissatisfaction and disassociation from one’s assumed gender identity. Lyrically and thematically, the album is a powerhouse, laying dark, private feelings bare but ultimately giving a resounding positive message about being true to oneself. Standout single “True Trans Soul Rebel” sports some intensely personal lyrics, but the melody is so catchy and upbeat that it’ll leave you with good vibes when you inevitably find yourself humming the chorus later.

Against Me! began their set 10 minutes before their slotted time, which I had never witnessed before in the history of attending rock shows. Their eagerness to get started shone through their onstage energy; and they launched into song after song without missing a beat, barely slowing down to address the crowd. They ended up playing nearly half of the entire Dysphoria tracklist, including “True Trans Soul Rebel,” “Unconditional Love,” “Fuckmylife666,” “Paralytic States” and “Black Me Out.” Oldie highlights included “Thrash Unreal,” one of their popular mainstream hits, and “I Was a Teenage Anarchist,” a reminiscent ballad of lost, angry youth.

Having now seen Against Me! both before and after Grace’s transition, I can say that it has not affected the band’s ability to rock—I think this second show was actually better due to Grace’s infectious confidence and charisma, likely due to finally being confident in her own skin and belting out lyrics straight from the soul. Former Angels & Airwaves drummer Atom Willard was just a vortex of gyrating hair in the background, perpetually headbanging to his beats, and newcomer bassist Inge Johansson and veteran guitarist/backup vocalist James Bowman kept up with Grace’s energy flanking the sides of the stage.

In all, it was a pretty killer POP show in the packed Metropolis, and Transgender Dysphoria Blues is a groundbreaking album for the band that definitely deserves a listen. For those less inclined towards hard and fast bouncy tracks, there’s “Two Coffins,” a mournful acoustic melody about laying down for a final rest.

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