Escapism through movies, music and other media is hardly a new concept, but it became all the more important over the past year. No longer was flicking on a film just a way to occupy an evening and take your mind off whatever dullness lay ahead in your week—suddenly, it was also a way to dissociate from the mind-numbing grief of the pandemic.
Mia Berrin of Pom Pom Squad has long been an avid explorer of pop culture, though as a person of color and a queer woman, neither facets of her identity have historically been given much attention in media. She dealt with this lack of representation resourcefully, finding snippets that resonated with her. She explains in a press release, “I absorbed everything I could and tried to make a collage that could incorporate every piece of me.” Now, with bandmates Shelby Keller (drums), Mari Alé Figeman (bass) and Alex Mercuri (guitar), Berrin is ensuring that present and future generations won’t have to live on meager scraps. Death of a Cheerleader synthesizes Berrin’s various influences—aesthetic, musical, cinematic—but ends up as a creature entirely its own, telling Berrin’s story in a way that’s sure to hit home with many who struggle to see themselves in whitewashed Hollywood releases. The album is well-realized conceptually and brilliantly, viscerally executed.
References abound in Death of a Cheerleader, but the record is so original and stirring in its own right that such allusions bolster rather than overshadow the music. “Second That,” which thrums with Puberty 2-era Mitski moodiness, is named for the Smokey Robinson song “I Second That Emotion.” One of the lines in “Crying”—a highlight on an album of memorable tracks—subtly nods to Gilbert O’Sullivan’s contribution to The Virgin Suicides’ soundtrack: “Naturally, I’m alone again.” References to the beloved, ethereal Sofia Coppola film certainly don’t end there. The entirety of “Lux” is devoted to the eponymous character, from her consumption of peach schnapps “in a crowded high school dance” to her tragic end from carbon monoxide poisoning: “Meet me tonight in the garage.” “Head Cheerleader” is just as explicitly queer as the movie it’s tipping its hat to—But I’m A Cheerleader.
Perhaps the best example of Berrin and co. taking something and making it their own is their cover of the Tommy James and The Shondells song “Crimson + Clover.” Like previous versions of the song, the track oscillates between romantic and rollicking, but Berrin brings something extra to the performance with her distinctive voice. There’s a touch of Mazzy Star here and there during the softer parts, tinged with silvery ride, but soon the familiar song careens off the tracks with a distorted demon voice and a wall of disjointed sound. It’s an arresting choice, enabled partly by Berrin’s co-production and the production of Illuminati Hotties’ Sarah Tudzin.
The album is cinematic in its own right, carving out a singular vision with moving musical choices, impactful delivery and evocative lyrics. An outro and intro bookend Death of a Cheerleader, fuzzy, lo-fi moments buzzing with feedback that make the whole LP feel like a transmission you happened across by accident. Strings are incorporated here and there throughout the record, always to great effect, on tracks like “Crying,” “Forever” and “Be Good,” immediately conjuring up images of Old Hollywood and long-dead actors who spoke in a Mid-Atlantic accent.
Berrin’s vocal performance is one of the most compelling parts of Death of a Cheerleader. Even a cheeky “Hi” or the throwaway giggle on the shredded-out “Cake” stays with you. She can be devil-may-care one moment, then overwhelmed with yearning the next. The lyrics themselves are transportive—“Keep a picture of me in a heart around your neck” feels plucked from a movie scene—and benefit from Berrin’s enthusiastic delivery. Some songs feel like entire stories unto themselves: “Drunk Voicemail” follows the narrator from her home, to a party, to a bar where she’s swept up in her love for another. At every turn, Pom Pom Squad sweep you up into another fantasy or heartbreak, and you’re all too happy to be along for the ride.
The four-piece are as punky as ever, with spiky, heavy guitar weaving in and out of tracks, but their songwriting has grown immensely since Ow and Hate It Here (which are still quite excellent in their own rights). There’s a lushness to Death of a Cheerleader reminiscent of Japanese Breakfast, but with a cut lip and scrappy edge connected to the band’s grungy roots. Needless to say, when the credits roll, you’ll be wanting to listen again.
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast, hibernophile and contributing writer for Paste’s music and comedy sections. She also exercises her love for reality TV at HelloGiggles every now and then. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.