When Pom Pom Squad’s Mia Berrin was 21 years old, she fell in love. Sure, she’d been in love before, but this time, something was different: “It just felt like a switch had flipped inside my head,” she says. “I realized I had been living a life that was not my own, watching myself from the outside.” As a kid who bounced from town to town growing up, and as a person of color in predominantly white spaces, Berrin had become accustomed to maintaining a constant awareness of how others perceived her—a “split-brain mentality” that she adopted as a necessary means of survival. But now, tumbling through her first queer romance—and her first queer heartbreak—some of that self-separateness began to mend: “Suddenly,” she says, “I was in a body that was mine.”
Of course, displacement can start to feel like a life sentence when even the pop culture you’re trying to escape into doesn’t feel like home. “As a teenager, I was always looking to see myself represented,” Berrin says, “but I never really saw a path drawn out for someone who looked like me.” So she held tight to the glimpses of herself she could catch—from Death Cab For Cutie to Sade; from the camp and synth-pop of Heathers to the pastels and gloomy mellotron of The Virgin Suicides; from John Waters’s take on suburbia to David Lynch’s. “I absorbed everything I could and tried to make a collage that could incorporate every piece of me,” she says—and in the process, she gained a particular appreciation for the heady mix of music and visuals, how a great song could become even greater when woven into an artist’s overall aesthetic. But it wasn’t until Berrin got into punk and grunge—artists like Courtney Love and Kathleen Hanna, who were both unapologetically outspoken and unapologetically femme—that she knew she had to start a band.
Enter Pom Pom Squad. Berrin first played under the moniker in 2015 after moving to New York to study acting at NYU—though she soon transferred to the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music—and it was at those early gigs that she linked up with Shelby Keller (drums), Mari Alé Figeman (bass), and Alex Mercuri (guitar). The group cut their teeth playing packed Brooklyn apartments, but they quickly graduated to packed Brooklyn venues alongside artists like Soccer Mommy, Adult Mom, and Pronoun. Following the release of their sophomore EP Ow, Pom Pom Squad was looking at a packed 2020, with shows at SXSW and opening for The Front Bottoms—but of course, plans changed.
Lost in the free-fall of isolation, Berrin found herself returning to classic, familiar sounds: jazz vocalists like Billie Holiday, the warm tones of MoTown. “It was comforting, listening to music that’s so evocative and cinematic,” she says. “It takes you out of the world for a minute.” At the same time, though, she was confronted daily with the world’s stark reality as protests erupted against police brutality and anti-black racism following the murder of George Floyd. “[The protests] brought to the surface these feelings I’d been stewing on for a long time,” she says, “thinking about the history of American popular music, the way that black artists are constantly erased from the music they pioneered. How rock was invented by a black queer woman—Sister Rosetta Tharpe—but I grew up feeling like I was odd for loving guitar-based music.”
The result of this stymying, galvanizing period—of escaping to come back—is Death of a Cheerleader. Produced Sarah Tudzin of Illuminati Hotties and co-produced by Berrin, the album moves through moods like a camera panning across an expertly collaged bedroom wall: a Ronettes drum beat here (“Head Cheerleader”), a Doris Day nod there (“This Couldn’t Happen”), the impossible romance of swelling strings (“Crying”) collapsing into guitar thrash (“Drunk Voicemail”). Here, too, are all the overlapping, contradictory tenets of 21st-century young womanhood—the carnality and the vulnerability, the sugar and the defiance. On “Head Cheerleader,” antsy and anthemic, Berrin promises us that “my worst decisions are the ones I like the best” before she heads under the bleachers, even as she acknowledges moments later that “my feelings always make a fucking fool of me”; on the breathless, punky “Lux” (named for the Virgin Suicides heroine, of course), she boasts feeling “naked without taking off any of my clothes,” and it’s as much a come-on as it is an admission of terrifying exposure, couched in Berrin’s dare-laden drawl.
This tension—between baring oneself and crafting delicious, tongue-in-cheek art—is what drives so much of the foundational queer media to which Death of a Cheerleader pays homage (not in the least its film namesake, But I’m a Cheerleader). On “Second That,” a tumbling acoustic waltz built around a Smokey Robinson quote, Berrin steps out for a moment from behind the elaborate curtain of references she’s constructed with an admission—“I’m sad, I’m just fucking sad,” her voice on the edge of breaking—but then, moments later, she’s back in the anti-bourgeoisie upswing of “Cake,” playfully demanding her fair share. It’s a reminder of the self-affirming power of artifice, of glam, lipstick drawn on in blood. With Death of a Cheerleader, Pom Pom Squad offer a fresh and decidedly queer take on picking up the pieces—from heartbreak, from injustice—and creating yourself anew.