Mia Berrin of Brooklyn alt-rockers the Pom Pom Squad is not going to take any of your shit. None of it! The emotive vocalist and songwriter has a voice that can cut through diamond while simultaneously soothing the savage beast. Take recent single “Lux” – a slab of punk therapy written when she was 17 about unwelcome male attention. That was the Pom Pom Squad’s first single for City Slang Records, a long-awaited release for a song that everybody should hear.
The band formed in the summer after Berrin’s senior year of high school, completed by Shelby Keller (drums), Mari Alé Figeman (bass), and Alex Mercuri (guitar). She had long been an obsessive music fan (her words). But it wasn’t until she was 18 that she realized she could actually release her own stuff.
“I loved bands,” she says. “I was following the New York and L.A. DIY scene throughout high school so became very accustomed with all of the DIY venues on the east and west coasts and the major cities. It was like, DIY artists were real rock stars to me. It became more accessible, seeing something like that. I think I started the band initially as a form of self-expression, and then also I am very visually influenced so it became this multimedia outlet and a way for me to connect all of my artistic interests.”
She quickly found a sound through her adoration of punk, grunge, and riot grrrl, but also ’50s and ’60s pop and Motown.
“I really love how cinematic the music of that era was,” she says. “There’s this classic rockist versus popist argument of, ‘pop is artificial and rock is organic and analog.’ Something that was so interesting is that pop music of that era has that creepy saccharine feel to it. But it also has the mystique of an analog recording process. As a person of color, I was always treated like I was weird for liking rock music. So carving out that space and then also being able to tie it into the roots of rock music as I know and understand it. Playing on the history of music through my own lens.”
Berrin and the band remain based in Brooklyn, and she describes the scene there and in NYC as “resilient.” It sure has had to be of late, though Berrin admits that she has enjoyed the alone time in lockdown.
“Pom Pom Squad has been my band since high school, and then for the last five years I was in college and doing day jobs,” she says. “Playing my own way and playing six or seven times a month until you could afford to do a show every couple of months. I needed some time for my brain to readjust and tap back into a creative space.”
City Slang Records came calling during lockdown; they were the one label that remained interested when the rest of the world was falling apart. “Lux” was the first single, a song that she says is the “first good song I wrote.”
“When you’re that young I don’t think you understand everything you need to know about yourself,” she says. “But I think for me, in retrospect, I was grappling with early experiences of male attention and sexualization. The discomfort of feeling like there’s nothing you can really do or say. When I thought that I was a person who was romantically interested in men, there is this culture that you just don’t say anything.”
“The me now might be quicker to say, ‘Hey, I’m not into you like that, fuck off,’” she continues. “Me as a younger person was like, ‘You don’t ever want to upset anyone and put yourself in a situation where someone could potentially be violent. You don’t ever want to hurt a man’s feelings or speak up for yourself at all.’ When I found punk music, particularly grunge and riot grrrl, putting it in my own context and approaching it from my own emotional perspective, I think it just unlocked something for me and I think I wrote it because I needed to learn something.”
The video is equally effective and compelling. Taking themes from Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides movie, based on Jeffrey Eugenides’ book of the same name — Berrin’s favorite movie at the time of writing the song.
“It represented this isolation that I felt as a young woman,” she says. “It hits on a universal, collective teenage girl experience in a way. A specific kind of loneliness and frustration.”
The single was followed by the debut Death of a Cheerleader album in June of this year. Like the name of the band, the title of the album is based on her own acrimonious relationship with the American cheerleader stereotype.
“I had a formative experience a couple of years ago, where I really came to terms with my sexuality because I fell in love with somebody,” she says. “I realized that I had been living in somebody else’s skin. So I have always played with this cheerleader archetype since I started the project. I was growing up in these predominantly white neighborhoods. The young women with the most value were beautiful athletic popular cheerleaders. I was aspiring to, 1) an impossible standard, 2) a white standard, and 3) something that I didn’t even want, which was the validation and attention of the dudes around me. When I fell in love and realized that I didn’t want that at all, it just changed everything about me.”
“Death of a Cheerleader,” then, is about killing off that character. Allowing herself to be herself — something that we can all applaud. The most important thing, of course, is that she’s happier now. But the musical results have also been staggering. And with the album out, the Pom Pom Squad will be touring from mid-August through November.
“We have two tours — a tour coming up in August with a band called Bully,” she says. “Then we’re going on tour with Nada Surf later in the year as well. Super-excited — we’ve never been on tour before so it’s going to be a new experience.” ❖
The Death of a Cheerleader album is out now.