Transgender Dysphoria Blues
A “superior” golf club and Against Me! – common ground?
By Abby Johnston,
4:30PM, Thu. Jan. 23, 2014
Last week, I had a prolonged text exchange with a fellow Chronicle writer about Grantland’s “Dr. V’s Magical Putter.” As a journalism grad student, I pontificated long and hard on the sports site outing the inventor of the “scientifically superior” golf club – Essay Anne Vanderbilt – who committed suicide before the story came out Jan. 15.
A week after the piece ran, a weak apology followed, but by then Grantland has gone back to NCAA power rankings. Nevertheless, the timing of the whole sad affair gave me pause. Tuesday, one of the most high-profile transitioned females released the next chapter in her story.
Florida post-punk outfit Against Me! dropped its first LP since singer Laura Jane Grace (née Tom Gabel) revealed via a well-publicized Rolling Stone profile that she identified as a woman. Now Grace and Vanderbilt are two very different transgender tales. The former, as a mid-level rock star, was ready to go public with her transition. The latter, a previously unknown and obviously tepid inventor, wasn’t.
Regardless, I was nervous about how the music community would respond in the wake of “Dr. V” as reviews of the group’s sixth album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, came rolling in. Would they continue the trend of clueless profiles of transgender people? Would they pull a Katie Couric and fixate on the plumbing rather than the artistry? Would they be too gun-shy to take critical shots at the album?
Ultimately, it was all of the above. I was pleasantly surprised, however, that there was no pronoun hopping or general bewilderment that a man could want to transition into womanhood. Still, some were handled better than others. Here’s a ranking of some high-profile reviews:
Rolling Stone: The magazine was there at the beginning of the Tom-to-Laura shift. Josh Eells wrote a beautiful profile of Grace, serving as an open letter to the music community about her identity struggles. Unfortunately, it was Will Hermes who scribed the review of Transgender Dysphoria Blues. Hermes employed a cheap har-har quip, writing “it takes balls to come out this way” and ending with a dismissive “godspeed, sister.”
Stereogum: Just after the Grace/Gabel news broke in May 2012, Tom Breihan managed to be immeasurably offensive in under 200 words. While he’s now seen the light in the computer-screen glow of 197 reeling comments, he spent a large chunk of his take on the album acknowledging what a dick he was. The apology seems more like self-service than atonement, particularly as a prelude to a very shiny critical response in which he assures readers that after months with the album it could still elicit finger jabbing and howled choruses. Maybe Stereogum should’ve let someone else take a finger jab at it rather than accommodating Breihan’s guilty conscience.
Time/Consequence of Sound: Sasha Geffen nails a key point right in the first paragraph: “There’s something incredibly cathartic about getting to hear Laura Jane Grace sing about what she’s been singing around for years.” Geffen recognizes that Against Me!’s lyrics have indicated Grace’s sense of misidentification for years, then gracefully moves between gender politics and, you know, the actual music. It’s also worth noting that Geffen is one of the only women that has publicly contributed to the conversation.
AV Club: I don’t appreciate Jason Heller’s assertion in the first graph that Grace emotes a “newfound epiphany,” but after that slip-up his candor and ability to ever-so briefly set aside the overarching theme of the album makes for a refreshing read. AV Club always tells it like it is, and Heller calls out the album’s weaknesses without becoming overly abrasive.