Music is rarely just about making music. It can often be poked and prodded, dissected to reveal a deeper meaning laying within. Most often this can be done through the examination of a song’s lyrics. When a person writes a song it is impossible for them to do so without revealing a bit of their own life, in intentionally or not. The way people then interpret lyrics and incorporate them into their own understanding of the world can send critique of the society we live in and also serve as a form of cultural capital. An overt example of both of these can be found in the words and context behind a new song by the punk band Against Me! called “True Trans Soul Rebel”.
Last year Frank Ocean gained incredible renown for his declaration as being bisexual. This was a huge progressive leap for the hip-hop industry, where the majority of men are expected to conform to typical heterosexual stereotypes. Similarly, on May 31 Rolling Stone magazine published an interview with the singer of Against Me! who was then known as Thomas Gabel. In it, Tom made the revelation that he had long struggled with gender dysphoria and was officially going to start living as a woman. Before analyzing the song and it’s implications it is important to understand exactly how gender, sex,sexuality work in the mind. Sex is whether you are biologically male or female. Sexuality describes your feelings of sexual and romantic attraction. Finally, gender describes the sex you really feel like you identify with and should belong to. As Tom, or as she likes to be called today Laura Jane Grace described in the interview:
“The cliché is that you’re a woman trapped in a man’s body, but it’s not that simple. It’s a feeling of detachment from your body and from yourself. And it’s shitty, man. It’s really fucking shitty.”
While Laura isn’t the first individual to come out as transgender in the history of music, she is certainly the most famous. After the interview Laura began undergoing hormonal treatment and dressing as the woman she felt she was. At the next show of Against Me! they played for the first time the title song of their upcoming album, due next month, called “Transgender Dysphoria Blues”. Soon after the band digitally released single for the song “True Trans Soul Rebel”, featuring Buffalo Bill the crossdressing serial killer from the film “Silence of the Lambs” as it’s artwork. This is the first example of the song as a social commentary. Buffalo Bill, while stated to not be transgender in the book, is still characterized as wanting parts of a woman and villainized for it. This is similar to how in our society raising the issue of transgenderism is met with either discomfort or crude, dehumanizing jokes. The lyrics of the song, in a characteristically blunt fashion, go on to describe Lauren’s struggles. For example, the first verse:
All dressed up and nowhere to go,
Walking the streets all alone.
Another night you wish you could forget,
Making yourself up as you go along
This describes the total alienation Laura felt from society. Despite efforts dress and act in ways expected of her, she still find themselves overwhelmed by loneliness. Other lines insinuate self-harm as a coping mechanism and a feeling of abandonment by God. This music imbues the listener with an understanding of the pains held by transgender individuals they may not have otherwise had.
Finally, Laura has become an inspirational figure to other transgender folks. As she says herself in the above episode of “House of Style”, a show on MTV, if she had had a strong transgender role model she “would’ve felt saved”. Her very presence on this show is a sign of society’s growing acceptance of the transgender culture. This is the above-mentioned cultural capital. Laura’s story is one of overcoming both her own personal demons and the cultural norms of both American and punk culture. Her story of success is one that can spread through both the punk and transgender community. This is what music is really capable of. As a final note, below is a documentary found on the BBC website featuring Laura and a number of other trans activists discussing issues they face and their own stories. If you want to learn more about what it is to be transgender, it’s a great place to go.