"Black Me Out" review — a powerful journey through punk rock and gender dysphoria

Black Me Out is a new Audible original from the company's "Words + Music" series, written and narrated by Laura Jane Grace, the singer of Against Me! and the author of the provocative music memoir Tranny. And it's fantastic. It's the musical memoir I've been waiting for for years — even though I kind-of already heard it.

Back in 2016, I had the privilege of seeing Against Me! frontwoman Laura Jane Grace on a solo tour in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This was, if I recall correctly, about 9 months before she published her memoir, Tranny. I'd seen Against Me! before, of course, and I'd also seen Grace playing solo. But this was something different — an intimate storytelling night, with stripped versions of songs from throughout Grace's career, with interludes of her reading from the diary she's kept throughout her time with the band.

Against Me! had started as a folk-punk project, with Grace on guitar and a friend on a bucket, and quickly blew up, thanks to her caustic and poetic lyricism. The band was heralded as some great torchbearer for anarchy and DIY — which was a lot of pressure, and set them up for even more criticism. They were accused of selling out as soon as they expanded to a full band lineup; then again when they signed with an independent record; and when they signed with another independent record label; which of course got worse when they actually signed to a major label, charting on the Billboard Top 100.

That story alone is enough to make for an interesting memoir. But it was much more interesting — and much more humanizing — by the fact that Grace had publicly come out as trans in the pages of Rolling Stone in 2012. While maybe not a household name, she was one of the first already-established public figures to do so. And that context was a central part of the story she told on stage that night. Grace candidly revealed the depths of her struggle with gender dysphoria in those historic diary entries, shedding new light on songs that fans had thought they were familiar with. The stresses of rock stardom — and of those "sell out" accusations — only compounded her struggles with mental health over the years. In some ways, she acknowledged, she was over-compensating, hoping that she could eradicate her thoughts of womanhood by becoming a fabulous male rockstar — which of course, only made things worse.

That 2016 performance was one of the best theatrical pieces I've ever seen in my life, even if that's not how it was intended or designed. I even brought a friend along, who was not at all familiar with Grace's music or story, and only knew her vaguely as a trans icon; he, too, was moved to tears by the sadness and euphoria of her performance that night. There's plenty of darkness, but there's also an incredible amount of hope by the end.

Black Me Out is essentially an audiobook version of that show I saw 5 years ago. Grace tells her life story from army brat, to high school dropout in Naples, Florida, to getting arrested on tour, and finally exploring her gender identity. The "chapters," as it were, are each interspersed by a new acoustic-ish rendition of songs from throughout her career. Even if you don't particularly care for Against Me!, it makes for a compelling storytelling device, as she reveals the ways that she hinted at her trans-ness throughout her career, and the ways she tried to hide it. She talks about songwriting as an art, and a craft — and the act of creation helped her learn how to finally be true to herself. (My wife, as a theatre artist, was gripped by it all, even though she only knows of Laura Jane because I talk about her; my wife also admittedly did not understand the depths of "sell out!" accusations from the punk community.)

Black Me Out is only about 2 hours long, and you can listen to it for free if you're an Audible Plus member. I highly recommend it. Also there's a delightful story about Springsteen coming to a show to congratulate Grace on coming out, and her absolutely panicking about it. That alone is worth the price of admission.

Image: Alex Guibord / Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0)