JOPLIN, Mo. —
I didn't catch Bruno Mars' Super Bowl halftime show last Sunday. I meant to, but I'd forgotten that I don't get Fox. (No cable, and our reception doesn't pick up the channel.)
Was it great? Feedback I've seen seems to be in line with what I had anticipated -- good performance; fell short of Beyonce status.
In the past, whenever I'd catch Mars performing on various awards shows, I always found him entertaining. I appreciated his callbacks to James Brown and old-fashioned soul star moves, but I always felt he lacked whatever ineffable quality elevates a performer from showman to star.
In other words, I like him; I don't love him.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers, however, aren't really my thing at all, and I consider "Give It Away" one of the most irritating songs of the '90s. I would've been much more bummed to find out Flea and the boys (who didn't even plug in their instruments?) had performed the incredibly accurate and hilarious RHCP parody "Abracadabralifornia" that comedian Jon Daly released online last week at rhcp2014.com.
Still, having your expectations upended can be a pleasure. I recently listened to two albums I didn't think I would like all that much, only to find myself playing them again and again. Both of them, oddly enough, are also tangentially connected to Bruce Springsteen.
Against Me: "Transgender Dysphoria Blues"
I'd never actively sought out an Against Me album, having been only dimly aware of the band and mentally categorizing them, perhaps unfairly, as a generic Warped tour mall-punk band. The band came into focus for me more after its lead singer Laura Jane Grace, formerly Tom Gabel, revealed in 2012 in a widely publicized Rolling Stone interview that she suffered from gender dysphoria and would begin living as a woman.
At least half of Against Me's new album is explicitly about Grace's struggle, and those songs are generally the best part of the album. After all, if punk is partially fueled by the anxiety of feeling as if you don't belong, living as a transgender woman is ideal subject matter. If kids are going to pump their fists to something, it's nice to think it's in service of searing empathy.
Still, I doubt I would've given the album a spin (or stream, rather) had I not listened to a recent NPR interview with Springsteen where he mentioned the album's final track "Black Me Out" as a good song he'd recently listened to. (Springsteen's long-time drummer Max Weinberg's son used to drum for Against Me.)
And yes, "Black Me Out" is indeed a really great song, a tirade aimed at anyone trying to exert control over your life or seduce you with fatuous promises. It's a powerful reminder of how effective an angry, uncomplicated punk song that escalates to a big emotional chorus can still be 40 years after the form's invention.
While there are lyrics such as "does God bless your transsexual heart?" that explicitly address Grace's struggles, you don't get a particularly nuanced view of what it's like to live as the opposite sex or feel at odds with your body -- but that doesn't mean the material doesn't pack a wallop. Anger and confusion are the prevailing emotions, conveyed most intensely through Grace's singing, making an incredibly specific condition universal and palatable to alienated teens everywhere.
If "Transgender Dysphoria Blues" reminds me of any album, it's Green Day's "American Idiot." Against Me! doesn't indulge the song suites Green Day used in their encapsulation of Bush-era America, but their seasoned pop-punk chops distill similarly "big" themes into bluntly catchy songs.
There are dull stretches and overreaches, but at only 10 songs, its relative brevity makes them more forgivable.