Subversions of cheerleader iconography have always been prevalent in popular music, from Toni Basil’s “Mickey” video to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and My Chemical Romance’s “Teenagers.” But for 23-year-old Mia Berrin, the queer leader of self-described “quiet grrrl” band Pom Pom Squad, loaded cheerleader symbolism is closely tied to her sexual, political, and artistic awakening.
Berrin tells Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume it was when she was “15 or 16 and started to look around me and say, ‘I don’t really like what I’m seeing’” that a rebel cheerleader made a huge impression on her. “I ended up getting bullied out of public school when I was in middle school, so my parents sent me to a private school from freshman year to senior year because they were worried about my wellbeing and safety. And that school like was a John Hughes movie,” she recalls. “The cheerleaders came to school in their uniforms, and the tradition was on the day of the game the cheerleaders had to bake or bring food for their assigned football player, which is ridiculous And I happened to be friends with one specific cheerleader who was extremely headstrong and was like, ‘I’m not going to bake for this dude.’ I loved that! These cheerleaders were a symbol of everything that I couldn’t be as a Black, Puerto Rican teenager who wasn’t considered attractive by anyone at my school when I was younger. I just was so fascinated by these girls who seemed like the most powerful women that I had met.
“So when I started the band, I loved the idea of how it would feel knowing that I’m not that kind of girl, but just putting on the costume and seeing what happened, what part of me came out of that. Because cheerleaders were scary, like superheroes in a way. It was a morbid fascination — and probably a romantic attraction, because I wasn’t totally aware of the levels of which I was interested in women at the time,” Berrin continues. “So it has a lot of meanings to me. And it’s really informed the way that I’ve approached my music, aesthetically and otherwise.”
Aside from the group’s name and the title of their debut album Death of the Cheerleader, which comes out June 25 during the final release week of Pride Month, there’s the music video for album’s first single, “Head Cheerleader,” which features Berrin’s twisted take on the popular-girl trope, as she lies in an Astroturf grave beneath a plastic-flower-festooned prom photo booth. “That video is kind of the aesthetic heart of the album; I feel the image of being buried under this fake landscape as a cheerleader really spoke to what I experienced when I was coming out and when I was really taking ownership of my own sexuality and choices — this idea of burying a version of myself that I was creating for other people,” Berrin explains. “I was living for the public rather than for myself.”
And then there’s the Virgin Suicides-inspired, Berrin-co-directed video for “Lux” — the “first good song” Berrin ever wrote, in a “lightbulb moment,” at age 16 — which opens with a recreation of that Sofia Coppola film’s famous scene of Lux being abandoned on a football field after losing her virginity and falling asleep on the grass. “Specifically as a person growing up with mental illness, there’s just something about watching the movie that I really saw myself in, and the scene on the football field represented for me the biggest fear that I had [as a teenager], which is being vulnerable with somebody and having them leave you,” says Berrin, who has lived with depression for much of her life. “I just really related to that film’s kind of glass-box voyeurism as a young woman — that you feel people making assumptions about what you are, who you are, and not really making an effort to ask questions to get to know you or see if you’re OK.”
Berrin only officially came out a little over two years ago, after she “really fell for this person and it was a landmark experience. It was like my whole life turned on a dime the day that we met, like one day everything was one way and the next day everything was different. I started to rediscover these experiences that I’d had romantically, sexually, and it was just like, ‘Oh, that’s what that’s supposed to feel like,’” she explains. It was then that she realized that her fear of intimacy while attending high school in Orlando, around the time she wrote “Lux,” had stemmed from her confusion over her budding sexuality.
“Like, you’re a teenager and everyone around you starts out making out with boys. That process started for me… and I just kind of pretended to be into it, because it’s pattern recognition and you just imitate the people around you until you figure out what you actually feel and think. I didn’t really understand or relate to the way that people interacted with each other, especially the girls around me, because everything was about male attention. And I didn’t know at the time, but that was actually something I was not interested in at all. So, I was starting to have my first experiences where boys were interested in me and I wanted more for me than I wanted with them, and I just felt my whole body tightening — that feeling of when somebody tries to touch you and wince, almost,” Berrin recalls. “And I started to experience the wrath of men who heard the word ‘no.’ The problem was that good-girl mentality where you go along with something because you feel you have to, not because you actually want to. The only way that I could express that was with anger, and I think ‘Lux’ was the perfect outlet in a way of having this angry song about this soft character.”
Berrin elaborates: “That’s what drew me to riot grrrl and punk, when I found out that there were women who were openly angry and openly challenging the norms of what women can do or say or be — women like Kathleen Hanna who dressed super-feminine onstage. Or Courtney Love, who became my icon because she subverted a trope of femininity in the same way that I wanted to. She’s kind of the perfect paradox in a way where she was criticizing the pretty girl, but she wanted to be the pretty girl at the same time. I related to that. You know, I wanted to be seen as attractive. I wanted to be seen as desirable. I didn’t know yet to who I wanted to be seen as desirable by. But it’s a human want and it’s a cultural want, for sure, and it really did inform a lot of my upbringing. I was considering myself in the context of these tropes and then finding out that there’s got to be a better way. There’s another way.”
Berrin admits that she had a “self-imposed boundary” on her sexuality at first. “I knew there was nothing wrong with people who were gay, but I was like, ‘It’s OK for everyone to be gay but me. I am not allowed to do that, but everyone else is allowed to do that,’” she says. “I was kind of holding on to my last shred of social [acceptance]. It’s like, I’m already like a mixed-race girl who is Jewish and was raised in a mixed household, and I was just kind of like, ‘Oh my God, I have to have something that keeps me in the mainstream!’ So, I identified as bi or pansexual, but I dated mostly men. But there was just one day where I suddenly looked at all the clothes in my closet and looked at myself in the mirror and I was like, ‘Why do I dress the way that I do? Why am I doing my makeup the way that I am? Why do I walk like this? Why don’t I speak up in class?’ And it all started to change from there. I think the band was a catalyst for that. It was the thing that started my transition into autonomy as a young adult. But setting my identity fully was kind of the final straw, and I think that period of time is what the album is about.”
Berrin’s uniquely cinematic aesthetic, which is “flooded with imagery of high school,” is informed not just by The Virgin Suicides, the John Hughes flicks she used to binge-watch on cable TV as a kid, and Jennifer’s Body, but also by Paris Is Burning. She describes recently watching the 1990 documentary about the New York City ballroom scene with her supportive and accepting mother as “a really transformative experience. Just seeing a depiction of Black culture, this idea of realness and opulence and dressing being almost like a survival mechanism, there was something about it I really related to. And it helped me explore my own relationship with the growth of my identity. And then I started watching RuPaul’s Drag Race over the pandemic, and I had never felt so seen in my life!” Berrin now even jokingly refers to Pom Pom Squad as her “drag persona,” but more seriously realizes with amazement that Pom Pom Squad’s music can serve the same purpose for “a lot of girls who are Black and brown” and members of the LGBTQ+ community in general.
“There’ve been people who’ve come out to me and have told me that my music helped them come to terms with the fact that they were trans or nonbinary. There was one girl that like made me cry; like, I had a full breakdown. It just feels ridiculous that that’s something that I had the power to do, that I didn’t even do intentionally,” Berrin marvels. “It’s like, I didn’t go to this person’s door and say, ‘Hey, do you want to talk about this?’ But they heard something in my music and they heard something through my experiences that changed the course of their life. That’s crazy. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to feel blasé about that.”
This above interview is taken from Mia Berrin’s appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Full audio of that conversation is available via the SiriusXM app.
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