May 9th, 2012 12:02am

If I Could Have Chosen

Against Me! “The Ocean”

Tom Gabel of Against Me! has come out as transgender in an astonishing feature article by Josh Eells in the new issue of Rolling Stone. I work at Rolling Stone and read the story before this news went public, and I can assure you that this is a fascinating and moving piece of journalism, and very much the kind of article that makes me very proud to work for that publication.

One of the most interesting aspects of the story for me was that Gabel has been addressing her gender dysphoria issues in Against Me!’s music for some time, most explicitly in “The Ocean,” a cut from their most popular album, New Wave. Here’s the first few lines from the second verse:

If I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman

My mother once told me she would have named me Laura

I would grow up to be strong and beautiful like her

One day I’d find an honest man to make my husband

In retrospect, especially given that Gabel will soon take on the name Laura Jane Grace, it’s mind-blowing to think that absolutely no one in Gabel’s circles or fan base ever questioned why she was singing those words. People just assumed it was a story song, maybe because Gabel’s voice, body and music was so extremely masculine. In the article, Gabel says she thought she was outing herself with those lines, but no one really suspected anything. Contrary to that, Butch Vig, who produced New Wave, told Eells that he asked Gabel what the song was about but she dismissed it. “He just kind of laughed it off,” says Vig. “He said, ‘I was stoned and dreaming about what life can be.'”

I’ve been thinking a lot about what listeners interpret as autobiography in pop music, and how musicians respond to this assumption. This came up a lot in the press for Jack White’s new solo album Blunderbuss. Up until now, reviews of White’s music have largely focused on context and gimmicks, but without that, writers have started to pay attention to what he’s actually been singing for all this time. Jessica Misener wrote a great piece for The Atlantic in which she noted that White has spent the vast majority of his career singing about women, and has consistently written songs about either attempting to control women or feeling controlled by them. Nitsuh Abebe noted a particularly interesting lyric in the album highlight “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy” that seems to directly address (and taunt) his former bandmate Meg White.

White, like a lot of musicians, deflected this sort of speculation when asked about it in an email interview with the AV Club. “I think it’s very funny that people nowadays still think if you use the word ‘I’ or ‘she’ you are talking about yourself or your girlfriend at the time! I mean, what year is it?,” White wrote. “Didn’t they get rid of that prison in the Sixties? If I say, ‘I want to kill that man that came to my door’ in a song today, by that logic a detective should be calling my house.”

I’m willing to give White some benefit of the doubt that he’s not always singing about his own life even when circumstantial evidence suggests that he is, but I think it’s pretty typical for artists to back away from some responsibility for what they say in their work when they feel criticized and cornered. And, you know, there is usually truth in this apparent dodge: Few artists are working in a confessional mode, and even when they’re drawing on their own experience, it’s not a work of emotional journalism. People take liberties, they stretch the truth. They make things more interesting to suit the work, or hold back the bits that are too personal.

This thing with Gabel and “The Ocean” is intriguing to me because it’s so much the opposite of this White situation. Gabel was, in the plainest language possible, confiding in the listener, and virtually everyone who heard it assumed it was fiction. When asked about the song at the time it was originally written and recorded, Gabel dodged it because she wasn’t ready to come out as transgender, which is perfectly understandable. But still, this makes me wonder how often we’re listening to singers tell the truth in unexpected songs, and where we assume they’re singing the truth in pure fiction. We think we can tell, that we can suss out the difference between contrived narrative and confessional, but “The Ocean” shows us that sometimes we have no idea what we’re actually hearing.

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