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Born in the USA

Updated: Feb 11



'Born in the USA’ first appeared in MQR: Mixtape.

***

I’m ten years old, in the back of the car. Dad is driving, my sister is next to me. The radio is on, and a song starts. A quick pattering of electric notes, raining down like static, echoing synths and rhythms. Next, banging chords on a piano, then the wailing of an electric guitar, then the pulsing heartbeat of the drums. Finally, a howling, tearing voice. Who’s playing! Dad shouts, gleefully. Who?? We ask, eager, ignorant. Yes, Who! He beams, triumphant in his successful execution of this Dad Joke, the first iteration of many. The song was “Baba O’Riley”, recorded by Pete Townsend and his band The Who in 1971 on their fifth album, Who’s Next. It’s a rock ballad, an anthem of youth, love, and hard labor. Name That Artist is my dad’s favorite game, and The Who is one of his favorite bands. He loves all the old rock legends - Meatloaf, The Who, Santana, and The Rolling Stones. While our mom had us studying classical piano from the time we could walk, he rounded out our music education with the local classic rock station, and our first concert tickets. When I turned fourteen, he got us tickets to see The Stones in Abu Dhabi, a few hours from my grandparents’ house. It was my first concert. He stood in the back with his hands in his jean jacket pockets, smiling, humming along, knowing all the words.

When my dad was thirteen, he immigrated to the United States from India. An uncle had gotten a green card, so the rest of the family was slowly starting to join him, putting down roots in Colorado Springs, getting jobs and going to universities. It was the time to believe in the American Dream. In 1984, Bruce Springsteen would release Born in the U.S.A., and other anthems celebrating the hardworking blue-collar man, his faded jeans, his girl by his side and an engine that just won’t quit, the wide tongue of the American highway stretching out ahead of him. Of course, the American Dream was never that simple. My dad lived alone in a white town in a red state for years, a cassette player in the pocket of his denim jacket, drowning out jeers he would tell us about decades later. He went to college and fell in love, but ultimately ended up going back to India. After getting married, he and my mom tried to raise us overseas for a while, before deciding to bring their kids up in the same state he originally landed in so many years before. They wanted us to feel like we were “from somewhere.”

So, I was born in the U.S.A. But I had to learn how to be American. I learned to love blue jeans and lying to my parents. I learned quickly that music was the language of coolness, so I memorized it. I studied the Eagles and Bruce Springsteen, learned the lineup of everyone who played at Woodstock, and who missed out, sat alone in her hotel room, and wrote the famous song about it1. I learned which Fleetwood Mac songs were about who, and I knew the entire Dark Side of the Moon album by heart, weird empty noises and all. I learned how to be so American no one could question me about it, even if they couldn’t pronounce my name, even if they didn’t believe I belonged.

When a classmate in the sixth grade asks, “how do you even know the Ramones?” about my new graphic t-shirt, I don’t say, “I stayed up last night on their Wikipedia page while I listened to their first two albums because I didn’t want to wear the shirt without knowing something about them.” I say, “Oh, come on. Everyone knows the Ramones.” I never saw any of the white boys get quizzed on their music t-shirts.

I transformed into a teenager, and learned to pray at the altar of punk. I scribbled sharpie over my converse and crayoned myself with black eyeliner, pirated .mp3 files of The Killers, All Time Low, Blink-182, Third Eye Blind, and even Bowing for Soup, music my parents didn’t get, that felt like it sounded bad on purpose, blaring catatonically through my wire earbuds. It was a constant stream of sound that saw me through puberty, bullies, crushes, coming out, and heartbreak. The men’s voices (they were almost always men) cracked open as they let their screams turn into white noise, as their scorched chords rattled my back teeth. It was almost loud enough drown out everything I was feeling.


***

In the 2016 film 20th Century Women, there’s a scene where these two young women are dancing in their bedroom to the Raincoats, a legendary female-fronted British punk band from the 70s. Dorothea, a generation older, walks in and complains about the music. Dorothea : Can't things just be pretty? Jamie : Pretty music is used to hide how unfair and corrupt society is. Dorothea : Ah, okay so... they're not very good, and they know that, right?

Abbie : Yeah, it's like they've got this feeling, and they don't have any skill, and they don't want skill, because it's really interesting what happens when your passion is bigger than the tools you have to deal with it. It creates this energy that's raw. Isn't it great?

There’s something wonderful that emerges when we run out of beautiful ways to say what we mean – when all we have left is noise. We reach around in the dark, at the edge, grasping for some collection of words or sounds or colors that get us close, that might remind someone else of something similar to the feeling we’re looking for. It’s an animal cry, when language is no longer enough.

My first punk (or punk-adjacent) show was The Mountain Goats, when I was sixteen. My stoned friends were staring at their hands on the floor in the Gothic Theater in Denver, while I stood, transfixed, as sober as I’d ever be, watching John Darnielle plunge imperfect chords into his piano, anchored by green light on a low stage. The crowded room was damp and dank and warm, and I had waited months for this moment. Then, the stranger behind me began to touch my waist, and the glow came crashing down. As the door closed behind us, I heard Darnielle shout the chorus to my favorite song into the heaving crowd - I am going to make it through this year if it kills me. I wanted to believe him, then. I want to believe him still.

I’m twenty years old, and my first real boyfriend is trying to make me learn how to play a Neutral Milk Hotel song on the guitar. I do not want to learn how to play the Neutral Milk Hotel song, but I don’t know how to say no yet. I’m twenty-one, and a different boy is playing a song he wrote me over zoom, and I’m trying not to laugh, trying to look serious but cute, like a proper muse, in the tiny screen in the bottom corner of the frame. I’m twenty-two and at another Mountain Goats concert, vomiting in the toilet after I took shots with my date because I wanted her to think I was cool, and now she’s holding my hair back while John Darnielle is out there again, taunting, I am going to make it through this year if it kills me. There have been times when music has felt like it would be the death of me. There have been years when I wasn’t sure I was going to make it through.

For decades, rock music - and its further iterations of punk, alternative, grunge, emo, and indie - have marketed themselves as the language of the outsider, the outcast, the anarchist, the rebel. But, in reality, the rock scene has largely replicated the same systems it rebels against. I’m definitely not the only person who’s been groped in a mosh pit. Misogyny, homophobia, and racism have always been a part of the music scene in this country, and at times have even defined it. The emo genre, particularly 2nd wave emo in the early 2000s, is almost entirely unified around a common theme of bitterness – particularly bitterness at an imagined woman who has in some way slighted the singer. One of the first lines you hear on the album Same Old Blood Rush by the band Cute is What We Aim For is “in every circle of friends there’s a whore.”2 In the song “Cute Without the ‘E’ (Cut from the Team),” the lead singer offers a choice to his cheating ex-girlfriend – death or witnessing murder: “Which would you prefer? / My finger on the trigger or me face-down, down across your floor?”

From underaged groupies to swept-under-the-rug sex scandals, backstage has never been the safest place for women. And at home, domestic violence is common in the industry - I remember the soft disappointment I felt when I learned that Matty Crandall, a member of the Shins, had been arrested for domestic assault on his girlfriend. I love the Shins, and, alongside Taking Back Sunday, Blink 182, and Bring Me the Horizon, they set the soundtrack to many of my early experiences of love, lust, and heartbreak. In 2007, the lead singer of Bring Me the Horizon was arrested for allegedly peeing on a woman who turned down his advances after a show3. The taste of their lyrics quickly turned bitter in my mouth, the unnamable feelings on the edge of the shrieking chords finally named.

For those onstage, getting there at all is a challenge. In 2014, less than 20% of the bands that played at punk festival Warped Tour contained even one woman, even though the number of girl bands forming with folks of a variety of gender identities is only increasing.4 Record labels, it seems, have simply been less interested.

Of course, out of tough conditions, even cooler art usually emerges – and the best music has always existed at the fringes. The riot grrrl genre is an underground feminist punk scene that came out of the pacific northwest in the early 90s, and addressed issues like rape and sexual violence, classism, and anarchism. Bands like Bikini Kill and Emily’s Sassy Lime took female rage and put it center stage, let it smash their guitars, let it be loud enough that we could feel it all together. Afropunk is a blending of alternative music with the African diaspora, a response to the overwhelming whiteness, and corresponding racism, within underground music culture. The folk punk scene, a radical queering of midwest emocore, is a joyful hybridization of the anarchic rebellious roots of banjo music from 20th century Appalachia with the angry post-American Dream teens of the early 2000s. Besides, rock music has always been queer, brown, broke, and weird. Elvis’s hip gyrations and heavy rhythms were deeply influenced by (stolen from) African-American Blues and the gospel of the Black church. Lou Reed’s 1972 ballad “Walk on the Wild Side” was a love letter to trans women, as was the Kink’s “Lola” in 1970. The scene was far from perfect, but we’ve always been here.

The rock supergroup boygenius first convened in 2018 after founding members Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus all met on tour. They released their first EP that year, and recently released their debut full-length album, the record. After only a week, the record is currently the number one album in the UK and topping the charts worldwide. Each a prominent musician in their own right, Bridgers, Dacus, and Baker’s creative collaboration is a sort of musical soulmateship, and the album is largely a serenade to their friendship. You could absolutely break my heart, and that’s how I know that we’re in love, Dacus sings. It’s the type of sapphic best-friendship so many of us know, but whose story is seldom told. In the 14-minute-long music video accompanying the record’s release (directed by Kristen Stewart), the bandmates share a dreamlike sequence helping Baker fix her childhood car, lighting the match for Bridgers to burn her last relationship, and joining in as Dacus paints her entire room blue. Then they all make out. It’s gay and punk as hell.

The record was released on March 31st, trans day of visibility. As a band of queer women whose group chat is named “The Boys”, who genderbended Nirvana’s original genderbending on the cover of Rolling Stone,5 (and recorded their first record in the same studio as Nirvana), who sing “I’m not strong enough to be your man, I lie, I am, I’m just lowering your expectations”- the context can’t be lost. Boygenius is the superstar rock band queer folks never got to have.

When Julien Baker, a lesbian from Tennessee, a state where it is currently really fucking hard to be trans,6 wails on her electric guitar with a rainbow strap, and her bandmates are on their backs, kicking and screaming Wayne’s World- style, and Baker beaming, and all the lights are on,7 it feels like we finally get to be as loud as we want. When Lucy Dacus says, “I want every gay and trans person to have the opportunity to be inarticulate, stupid, and unexceptional”8, I want to get down on my knees and say thank you because no one’s ever given me permission like that before. Lucy Dacus once covered Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark”. It’s the kind of wry, raw, tongue-in-cheek trickster-ness that the Boys are so good at – taking the language of the classic rock cannon and singing it with a wink and an eye roll. I wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face, she shouts, and I think I might know what she means, in a different way than Bruce did.

***

There’s a moment I’m nostalgic for that hasn’t happened yet. It’s next summer, my sister and I are in the crowd at the boygenius concert in Bonner, Montana, and they’re playing “Revolution 0”. There’s a looping melody being sung a capella. First by Phoebe Bridgers, raw and clear, into the echoing mic. Then, picked up by Dacus, exactly where Bridgers left off. Finally, Baker takes it, voice cracking ever so slightly in that just-so way. All three together now, perfectly fitting together, voices that feel like they were made to find each other. Then they fade away, as the song does. I used to think if I'd just close my eyes, I’d disappear, Bridgers sings into the silence. Then, the same melody is back, except we’re all singing it now, because we didn’t disappear, and there’s violins, and Phoebe and Julien and Lucy and my sister and me and every queer person in the state, because tickets sold out the instant they went online, and we got lucky, we got so damn lucky, because we’re all together, and everything is beautiful and harmonious and loud, and it’s filling up the whole sky, and no one is afraid. Of course, this moment may not happen. There could be a giant snowstorm that cancels the concert. The volcano at Yellowstone may erupt before then, killing us all instantly. I’m in a state where it is increasingly more dangerous to be queer,9 in a country where unthinkable gun violence occurs regularly. The worst could happen.

And yet.

In an interview with them magazine, the Boys discussed what it means to be a queer band in a queer-killing country.

“The government being actually actively trying to kill the coolest people is something I think about every day,” Bridgers says. “It's so overwhelming how different the world would be if the AIDS epidemic had never happened. It's so overwhelming to me, to my exact world, everything that I value. And –”

“All the lost potential,” Dacus says.

“All the lost potential,” Bridgers repeats.

“If all of the David Wojnarowiczes and Leslie Feinbergs of the world did all of that suffering for me not to live in a world where I can be so fucking gay on a big stage and have a whole bunch of other gay people here for me and it'd be joy, then it was in vain,” Baker agrees. “The joy is the living amends that you do for your community as a performer.”

It’s never going to be perfect, or fair. The words will never be enough. Even the baddest, saddest chords won’t sound as bad as it hurts sometimes. But they can get us close – and better yet, they can get us closer together. And when it’s good, and they blow the roof off the house and the wind through your lungs, and you can feel it in your bones, like everyone in the room has the same heartbeat as you, the same old heart with the same raging tune, or at least something like it, and it’s fucking loud ---- it’s just about enough.

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