The house lights go down. The attention of almost 1,800 people is instantly captivated. They know what’s next. Suddenly, they hear electronic drumming, and a blue hue light tints the stage. People are screaming and clapping. Those who were at the bar hastily make their way back into the main room of the venue, Brooklyn Steel. Then they walk out on stage; all dressed in black. It is the moment the crowd has been anxiously waiting for – it is finally time for Against Me!’s headline set. They pick up their instruments, and front-woman Laura Jane Grace smiles as she steps on a guitar pedal. In one motion, all four members lash out upon their instruments playing the opening chords to their song “True Trans Soul Rebel.” Once the main guitar riff hits, a black backdrop for the stage falls revealing a banner of a mouth and teeth in black and white – part of Against Me!’s imagery, (fig. 1) – to even more cheers. People in the crowd are surging forward, hands in the air reaching out toward the stage, eyes are closed tightly, as they scream along to the lyrics of the chorus “does god bless your transsexual heart?”. While rock and roll shows may have started as a boy’s club of toxic masculinity, Against Me! has successfully flipped off the notion of what “rock” or “punk” was, and reinvented it as a welcoming and cathartic place to find and reaffirm one’s identity within the music community.
Forming in the late 90s in Gainesville, Florida, Against Me! has always been a punk band. Their first album, Reinventing Axl Rose, was released in 2002 and instantly captivated fans in the punk scene with its’ rough vocals, intense guitars, and lyrics about friends and politics. This allowed them to tour with bigger acts, release more music, grow their fan base, and eventually move up from an indie label to the major label Sire Records. With Sire, they released their 2007 album New Wave, which saw a tightening of their sound, and catchy, almost pop-punk tunes, that saw some mainstream success with songs like “Thrash Unreal” and “Stop.” It was then, early on in their career, though, that Laura Jane Grace started hinting at her gender dysphoria in the lyrics of Against Me!’s songs. Gender dysphoria is “a feeling of intense dissatisfaction and disconnect from the gender you were assigned at birth,” (Rolling Stone, 2012). The last track on New Wave – “The Ocean” – spelled it out clearly in retrospect, but no one was paying attention: “If I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman. My mother once told me she would have named me Laura. I would grow up to be strong and beautiful like her.”
Against Me! went on to make more music, tour, and gain even more fans, though it became more frequent that the lyrics Grace was screaming focused on gender. In 2012, in an exclusive article with Rolling Stone, Grace came out to the world with the headline “The Secret Life of Transgender Rocker Tom Gabel”. As she transitioned, the band wrote and released what some consider a “masterpiece” (Bowery Presents, 2017), their 2014 album Transgender Dysphoria Blues. The album perfectly paired loud guitars and drums with vocals that shook your core, and the lyrical content was Grace baring her soul to her fans, and the world. One does not get more honest and raw than this, which just made Against Me!’s fans cling tighter to the band. Their shows were joyous, inclusive, and punk as hell. No one cared what the person next to them looked like or how they identified; they were all there to scream, mosh, crowd surf, and find a community they belonged in. By being an Against Me! fan, and attending their shows, fans were able to broaden the scope of what punk rock music was and what it could be.
Rock music, since it’s commercialization, has typically been a place for men. Norma Coates of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater argues in her essay “Teenyboppers, Groupies, and Other Grotesques: Girls and Women and Rock Culture in the 1960s and Early 1970s” that since mass culture was considered feminine, rock music had to be masculine and oppositional to women or anyone who would challenge their masculinity. In this way, rock would be oppositional to the mainstream. Women were still needed in this equation to reinforce the masculinity rock hoped to tout, however, “it was not enough to designate women as low Others and to ignore their contributions to rock culture. They had to be actively disdained and kept in their place,” (Coates, 2003, 67). The media that surrounded rock music, including magazines like Rolling Stone, perpetuated the mythology that “held rock culture together, and… placed women in specific roles on its margins,” (77). Those roles Coates spoke of were mostly adoring subjects and sexual objects. Even though women were making music in their own right, rock did not want to put them at the forefront in the 60s and 70s when it took off.
Bands like Against Me! flip this original idea about rock music on its head, by not only being a successful and well-loved punk rock band fronted by a woman, but a transwoman at that. Their songs and behaviors are not keeping women on the sideline; they are putting people of varying gender expressions and identities at the front, in the space they were denied years ago. Against Me! challenges this norm and shares their platform when they invite bands with women or those with a queer gender identity to support them on tour as the band Bleached did at Brooklyn Steel. Laura Jane Grace further shares her platform by working with other artists who are women or have a queer gender. Grace did this in 2016 when she produced the album of the queer punk band FEA, (Out, 2016).
The punk iteration of rock music has long been seen as an abrasive nihilist playground, with masculinity as its grounding force. The majority of successful punk bands are made up of all male members. Fans and artists wear black, leather, metal spikes, and look intimidating. Audience members show they’re enjoying the performance of a band by running and crashing into one another, pushing and shoving, fighting, and climbing over one another’s heads.2 This does not seem like a place that would be safe or welcoming for women, or anyone who did not do their part to keep masculinity at the center. Against Me! challenges that. The band members are still all in black, sometimes with leather jackets and spikes. Their music is still loud and sounds typical to the genre. The imagery associated with the band and their albums are abrasive and in your face.3 Their gigs are still dark with bodies swarming, pushing, climbing on one another, and screaming. At a quick glance, their gigs look like any other punk gig – but their audience is different. It’s not just the boys’ club of the 1960s or 1970s anymore. The audience is full of women, transfolk, gender non-conforming fans, and, yes, even men coming together the same way people have always done at punk gigs. Just by being aware that Against Me! shows are inclusive spaces and participating in that parameter, it is a giant middle finger to what was. If rock was meant to be oppositional to the mainstream, and if we could also say it was oppositional to the status quo of the time, then punk music went one step further. Therefore, that Against Me! and their fans exist in this way at this time is the most punk thing they could do. They are now oppositional to the mainstream toxic masculinity that pushed women and queer folks out of punk.
Fans see, and participate in, this behavior from the band they love, they read the lyrics and hear the music, and feel inspired. They finally have a voice they can relate to in the punk or rock scene, and it contributes to how they define themselves. In the 2012 Rolling Stone article where Grace came out, she tells the story of meeting up with a transgender fan, January, who saw herself in Grace’s lyrics from a song that was put out in 2005. The article says the song “resonated” with January because “it was her story, too,” and she felt it “spoke directly to her experience.” She wrote a letter to Grace about how she had changed her life with that song and, six years later, January showed up at a gig and crowd surfed “in her red pencil skirt and shoulder-length blond hair.” Laura Jane Grace remembered her from the letter and was excited to see her at the show. This allowed a symbiotic relationship between fan and artist. January saw herself, and defined herself in part, through the song Against Me! released. She affirmed her identity by showing up at a punk gig, presenting herself how she wanted, and she felt safe to do so. In turn, she inspired Laura Jane Grace, who said “I just found it so awesome and empowering. In a way, it showed me what a coward I was being. Because if she had the courage to come out as trans – then why the fuck didn’t I?” (Rolling Stone, 2012).
Concerts are all about participation, and they are a balanced equation that needs an entertainer on one side and an audience on the other. This equation aids in the symbiotic affective relationship between fans and Grace4, and fans and Against Me! as a whole. Concerts are where fans feel excited to participate, to sing along, and interact with other fans and the band. Of concerts, Daniel Cavicchi writes “…the rituals, the energy, the empowerment, the communal feeling, the evaluation and discussion: together they enact the meaning of fandom. They shape and anchor fans’ sense of who they are and where they belong,” (Cavicchi, 1998, 37). When fans engage with Against Me!’s live performance, they mimic how one could participate in religion. The exchange of energies, the escapism exhibited by both the band and the crowd, and the connection they feel to each other (both fan to band and fan to fan) is reminiscent of totemism, as outlined by Emile Durkheim. The connection is key to how they define themselves, and regarding the totem, its “connection to the whole of the congregation can then be used as means of empowering ordinary individuals,” (Duffett, 2014, 152).
At Brooklyn Steel a surprise treat came in the middle of the set when Against Me! covered the Tom Petty song “Runnin’ Down A Dream” as a tribute, since he had died twelve days prior to the event. Before doing so, Laura Jane Grace said she grew up listening to Petty and he made her feel better about being from Gainesville, Florida. His music resonated with Grace, similar to how her music resonated with the audience before her. More than that, since it was still so soon after Petty’s death, the cover song performance was even more cathartic and uniting than expected. Performing it meant something personal to Against Me!, and, in the crowd, fans looked like they were losing their mind. They were dancing, singing, crying, holding onto their friends (or strangers), or filming the moment. In the midst of all the thrashing and screaming, this was a collective pause that allowed everyone in the room to reflect on an artist that influenced the band and likely many fans in the audience. The performance of “Runnin’ Down A Dream” was an opportunity to not just find one another, but to mourn someone together that they probably initially mourned alone. This relates to the notion of communitas “which suggestions that individuals at live mass public events can feel blissfully united and are thrilled to realize they are at one with the assembled community,” (Duffett, 2013, 144). It was clear at Brooklyn Steel that fans felt united – it was palpable – as Against Me! performed (fig. 4).
Against Me! ended their whirlwind of a gig with four final songs from their beloved older albums …Reinventing Axl Rose and As the Eternal Cowboy; “Pints of Guinness Make You Strong,” “Baby, I’m an Anarchist!”, “Sink, Florida, Sink,” and “We Laugh at Danger (and Break All the Rules).” As one would expect, this caused the crowd to roar to life once more, ending the evening close to midnight on a high and loud note. The crowd could not sing along loud enough, and from the far back of the venue, it was at times difficult to hear Grace’s voice over the masses. After the band left the stage and the house lights came out, fans stumbled out arm in arm, chattering away about their personal highlights of the set with smiles from ear to ear. As long as Against Me! and Laura Jane Grace remain authentic to who they are and continue to challenge the hegemony from heterosexual white males in punk rock their fans will be right there with them; with fists in the air and their songs in their throat, loyal as ever.
- Tom Gabel was Laura Jane Grace’s birth name or, as the transgender community refers to it, her deadname. When someone transitions it is considered inappropriate to refer to them by their deadname.
- This is what we could call “moshing” and “crowd surfing,” respectively.
- The album cover artwork for Transgender Dysphoria Blues featured a solitary cubed breast, while their follow up live album, 23 Live Sex Acts, featured a severed penis on a platter.
- Further explored in the AOL documentary True Trans with Laura Jane Grace.
Against Me!. As the Eternal Cowboy, Fat Wreck Chords, 2003, Spotify,
Against Me!. New Wave. Sire Records, 2007, Spotify,
Against Me!. Reinventing Axl Rose, No Idea Records, 2003, Spotify,
Against Me!. Transgender Dysphoria Blues. Total Treble, 2014, Spotify,
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——- “Fan Words.” Popular Music Fandom: Identities, Roles, and Practices. New York:
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Garner, Glenn. “Behind The Scenes with Queer Chicana Punk Band FEA.” Out, 08 June 2016.
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Reza, Austin, director. True Trans with Laura Jane Grace. AOL Studios, 2014,
Valerie Gritsch is currently a Masters of Liberal Studies student at The Graduate Center, CUNY, as part of the American Studies program. Being a music enthusiast from a young age, Valerie studies the culture she has immersed herself in to better understand interpersonal relationships, rituals, and intersections in its fandom. Her past work has included research on mourning musicians and fan pilgrimages. She lives in New York City.