They say that if something scares you, one of the best ways to deal with it is to face it head-on. So, Mia Berrin, leader of Brooklyn grunge-pop four-piece Pom Pom Squad, fully embraced the concept of the archetypal all-American cheerleader.
"One of my biggest inspirations is Courtney Love, and one of the things I love about her artistry is that she dresses up as this fucked up version of the prom queen or the ballerina, these pretty girl figures," explains Mia. "What's interesting about the way she portrays these characters is that she's criticising them but also wants to be them, so it's both a criticism and an aspiration. Starting Pom Pom Squad, I was coming from the same place: cheerleaders were this terrifying figure for me because I admired them and wanted to be like them, but I knew that I couldn't - being a mixed-race queer person didn't seem to fit that ideal, but I wanted to subvert those expectations."
One of the overarching themes of Pom Pom Squad's debut album 'Death of a Cheerleader' is self-acceptance and learning to trust your own instincts, something Mia struggled with while growing up, exacerbated by the "complicated journey" she found herself on. Born in New York state before moving to Detroit and then Florida, Mia was bullied out of high school. "After being home-schooled for a while, I ended up going to a private school, which was a big shock after being at a gnarly Florida public school! But then, in this very elite college, I felt equally as foreign, so I'd gone from one place of isolation to another. Being creative and writing, specifically journaling, became an important outlet for me."
Describing herself as a "late bloomer" when it came to being a musician, Mia cut her teeth learning Weezer covers on an acoustic guitar, though it wasn't until she discovered Riot Grrrl and feminism that she started to think about forming a band. Finding herself in New York once again, after a brief foray into acting school became a transfer into learning music production, Mia eventually hooked up with her bandmates Shelby Keller (drums), Mari Alé Figeman (bass) and Alex Mercuri (guitar), who were more than happy to help bring her subversive vision to life.
"I suppose the cheerleader thing started out as ironic, seeing what would happen if I put on a cheerleading uniform and played in a punk band, but it was super interesting in that it changed the way people saw me pretty much immediately. People started treating me like I was this scary bitch, which was kind of awesome," laughs Mia. "In my personal life, I tend to be a little bit more introverted and reserved; I grew up extremely self-conscious about the way I looked and how many differences I could see in myself from the other girls around me. Playing shows in a cheerleader outfit, one of the most common things people would say to me at the merch table was, 'I really expected to hate you', which is such a strange thing to say, but they see the outfit and have pre-conceived notions. Playing that sort of heightened character is empowering in a way."
The concept of costuming and creating a slightly surreal character version of yourself is something that very much fits into the multi-faceted Pom Pom Squad package: a heady multimedia experience where visuals are equally as important as sound. Instead of trying to find a place to fit in, Mia has carved her own world, which we're allowed to journey into on 'Death of a Cheerleader'. Musically it's an unapologetic, intoxicating collage of killer pop hooks, anthemic grunge rock and 60s girl group sonics, and it was Sarah Tudzin of Illuminati Hotties who helped Mia harness the very specific sound she had in mind.
"In the process of describing what I wanted out of the record, a lot of people really thought I was losing my mind! Saying I wanted to make a Motown-grunge-punk record was a hard sell. I don't think I'd know what to expect if someone told me that's what they wanted to make, but Sarah was into it."
Listening to the whole record conjures images of iconic coming-of-age teen movies, but ones with more bite: think Heathers rather than Pretty in Pink. In fact, in the video for album track 'Lux', Pom Pom Squad recreate their own version of The Virgin Suicides.
"I wanted it to feel very cinematic, and a big visual inspiration for the album was watching a lot of RuPaul's Drag Race. Drag speaks to me in terms of persona building and self-aggrandisement in the best way. I love the idea of making yourself a larger-than-life image for the entertainment and empowerment of yourself. I had a very vast cultural education growing up as my parents are big pop-culture heads. A while back, my mom showed me the movie Paris is Burning, which is a documentary about the black, queer underground ballroom scene in New York. It really spoke to me in that I'd never really seen a representation of black queer culture before, and this idea of realness and opulence and the aspirational nature of ballroom inspired me as these were survival techniques for these people - I've also relied on aesthetics as a way to blend in."
There's also a creepy, campy side to Pom Pom Squad, which Mia explores in the video for the ultimate earworm of a single, 'Head Cheerleader,' where sparkly American ideals take on a sinister, dreamlike quality à la John Waters or David Lynch. "I wanted to explore the idea of suburbia in a more plastic, saccharine way, so actualising these bizarre things I saw in my head like the grave in 'Head Cheerleader' was so surreal."
Undoubtably, and obviously, Pom Pom Squad play heavily into the cheerleader trope on 'Death of a Cheerleader', but don't fall into the trap of thinking this is just a gimmick. The record deftly explores complex emotions in a way that is both poignant and empowering, delivered with buckets of attitude and glitter. Mia Berrin is very much a queer icon in waiting, and hearing her state, "I'm learning how to be someone I could put my faith in, if it really came down to me" on 'Head Cheerleader' is all the more powerful knowing her story.
"Around the time I wrote the album, I was coming to terms with my queer identity, and making that discovery and embracing myself during that time, it was like my life started over in a way. Prior to this record, a lot of my music was about outside forces and how they affected me, and now this record is about exploring my own choices and gaining autonomy through that. I think I was making decisions at the time that a lot of people around me thought were stupid and wrong, but I knew intuitively that I needed to keep going, and that trust in myself also plays into the album a lot.
"Sure, being known as the girl in New York who played shows in a cheerleading uniform got me a lot of attention, but the ideal of the cheerleader and what the archetype stands for is also very meaningful to me. It's helped me come into myself, allowing me to shed that expectation of femininity, so to have that metaphorical death with the title of the record feels like the next step. I think that character will play into my art in a more symbolic way moving forward, rather than in a literal way."
Taken from the July issue of Upset. Pom Pom Squad's debut album 'Death of a Cheerleader' is out 25th June.
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