Kurt Cobain once said “teenage angst has paid off well, but now I’m bored and old.” Years later, James Murphy similarly remarked that he was “losing his edge.” Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace, however, is a different kind of musical idol, an eternal teenage anarchist.
The transgender frontwoman attracted so many teenagers to the Neptune Theatre last night, in fact—guys and gals with pink hair and eyeliner, tattered denim jackets, and innocent youthful faces—that for the first two thirds of the show, it seemed as though they might be the only ones showing up. That’s a baffling idea considering most of these sweaty strangers were in diapers when Against Me! started in Gainesville, Florida, in 1997. It’d be easy to feel old standing in the crowd; I did, even at 24-years-old. But the music of Against Me! is for the kids, tailor-made for lost teenage souls.
Observing the crowd, I saw so much of myself at that age, grappling with identity and the awkwardness of being in a teenage body. Variations of that theme run through the band’s new album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, Grace’s first, bold statement to the world since coming out as transgender in 2012.
Right before the music starts a stranger in a blue hoodie put his hand on my shoulder. I looked behind me and the man gave me a nod, already bouncing in place, anticipating the frenzy to come. The band strut onto the stage, Grace’s hair looking something like Chris Cornell meets Janis Joplin, like a Nordic punk goddess, her shirt emblazoned with a photo of exposed breasts. Grinning, she played the opening notes to “Fuckmylife666” before chugging into the rapid punk riff. Suddenly, the baby-faced punks were inundated with an influx of bodies, all flailing and contorting in the mayhem. These weren’t teenagers; they were guys donning Scott Ian beards, jocks wearing jerseys, and preppy blond girls with perfectly applied makeup. Before Grace could even get to the second chorus, everyone was drenched in sweat.
Mosh-pits aren’t just people shoving one another, they are stages of conductive energy. One person pushes another, who then falls into someone else, who then stumbles into the body closest to them. Watching grizzled, middle-age men and petite emo girls coexisting and thrashing while Grace screams “there’s a brave new world raging inside of me” is rare and last night it was oddly beautiful.
This isn’t just punk ritualism, it’s cross-cultural catharsis, and old-school personality stereotypes are rendered meaningless with each song. I looked around during “True Trans Soul Rebel” to see a high school boy with a backwards baseball cap closing his eyes and singing along to the lyrics, “God bless your transsexual heart.” As Grace opened up about her experiences with gender dysphoria, her core issues of feeling alone, dejected, and deserving of love seemed resonate, to some degree, with every soul in the house.
Between songs, the crowd catches its breath. People I don’t know are putting their arms around me and smiling. The transition from Tom Gabel, as the singer was once known, to Laura Grace, hasn’t deterred her fans; the change actually seems to have rallied them even more. Grace beamed when the music stopped, radiating teenage rebellion and enthusiasm, and bolstering the feeling with a quote from the “Pope of Mope” himself: “A great poet once said, ‘I am human and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does,’” she said before launching into “Unconditional Love.” The crowd continued its relentless moshing.
If the set list came with a thesis, it was delivered during the band’s biggest radio hit, “I Was a Teenager Anarchist.” Bouncing across the floor, I saw old guys and young kids chanting along to the instantly nostalgic chorus: “Do you remember when you were young and you wanted to set the world on fire?” For those teens pressed up against the railing the answer was, “feeling it right now.” For the older fans, the answer was, “I remember.” Last night it was apparent that the teenage spirit, though it may dissipate with age, never dies completely. Covered in other people’s sweat, with a punk siren at the helm, it felt like anyone—old, young, straight, trans—could start the revolution.