Pom Pom Squad's Death of a Cheerleader and the Endless Summer

Now that the calendar reads "August" we've officially entered the dog days of summer which begs the questions of why summer is always so fleeting and what does it all reeeeally mean maaan so to help in considering the larger significance of summer in our daily lives it would probably help to name an Official Musical Statement of the Summerfor the year 2021 and herein we officially bestow this honour upon Pom Pom Squad’s inaugural full-length release Death of a Cheerleader (City Slang Records) which is not only a great record that happened to be released the first week of summer but it's also a record that powerfully evokes summer itself.

On Death of a Cheerleader Pom Pom Squad take elements of classic girl group R&B and balladry and combine them with power pop and post-punk and hints of psychedelia and emo (imagine a mashup of the Shirelles and the Pleasure Seekers and the Savage Rose and Cheap Trick and Joan Jett and Elastica and the Muffs and Rainer Maria and and Hot Sundae and Sleater-Kinney but that’s a vast oversimplification) which are well-chosen ingredients for a summer album that’s equally sweet as candy and gritty as sand. Against this musical backdrop squad leader Mia Berrin (alongside bassist Mari Alé Figeman, drummer Shelby Keller, and co-guitarist Alex Mercuri) paints a vivid picture of endorphin-rushing desire and brash F.U. bravado beset by waves of self-doubt and lovelorn ache. If this record were a book instead of a record it’d make a great beach something like the musical equivalent of a pulpy novel about forbidden love and crushing heartbreak and a voyage of self-discovery that hits harder than you'd expected cuz yeah we see those little puddles of mud next to your beach towel.

Plus there's something about summer's odd mashup of physical immediacy, romantic longing, and built-in nostalgia that this album taps into in a major way making it a worthy entry into the summer song canon, a musical repertoir notable for oscillating wildly between extremes of heedless abandon and pleasure seeking versus heedful self-reflection and lamentations hoping for something better—especially when it comes to the subject of summer flings, breif encounters that paradoxically linger in the memory forever—the escapism of having “Fun, Fun, Fun” (“Fun”) forever haunted by mournful Pet Sounds and that’s how this album hits imho. 

Death of A Cheerleader opens with “Soundcheck” which is something like the music you’d hear in a movie when the picture goes all wobbly and the protagonist get sucked into a daydream or fantasy or past recollection—here represented by a vortex of swirling vibraphone tones and a static-y radio signals beaming a spectral distorted voice from a distant star—thus setting the reflective and hyperreal tone for the rest of the album. After passing through this sonic portal we’re thrust straight into the sugary headrush of “Head Cheerleader” with its interrelated admissions that “I’m going to marry the scariest girl on the cheerleading team” and that “my worst decisions are the ones I like best” coyly delivered with a hint of Valley Girl uptalk—the exhilaration and vulnerability of the lyrics mirrored in a musical arrangement that audibly squirms with anticipation (“I’m squirming out of my skin”) and buzzes with nervous butterflies (“stay away from girls like me”).

The specters of Roy Orbison and Phil Spector haunt the next number, “Crying”, which shares a title and a theme with Orbison’s “Crying” but whose opening line (“it hits me and it feels like a kiss”) paraphrases Phil's most notorious song (“He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)” was written by Gerry Goffen and Carole King and recorded by the Crystals with Spector producing and arranging) but with Mia belting the song out Ronnie Spector style which complicates an already complicated dynamic despite the relative straight-forward simplicity of the lyrics—a pleasure/pain dialectic further amplified by Sarah Tudzin’s crucial role in co-producing/co-arranging/mastering/mixing the album which on this song results in a Spector-worthy Wall of Sound with glissing violins and angelically strummed harps creating an otherworldly tableau of tears streaking down the singer's cheeks as Berrin soars and sobs over the chorus and really this song is not fooling around (Tudzin is the lead hottie in Illuminati Hotties in addition to being a prolific and distinctive producer-engineer). 

Continuing down this intertextually referential path “Second That” reworks the titular phrase of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ soul music staple “I Second That Emotion” but re-imagined as internal dialogue more than romantic entreaty (“I saw someone you were with in the summer / and now I wanna be just like them”) with a fittingly minimalistic arrangement matched to the song's sense of isolation. Next up is “Cake” which is more punk rock confrontational and chaotic with the half-sung, half-spoken vocals eventually splitting into two parts Sybil-style between an upper register and a menacing low growl reflecting the multi-layer cake mix of assuredness and insecurity in the lyrics.

 

The identity play continues on the Joan Jett-inflected cover of “Crimson and Clover” and then on “Lux” where Mia provides an inner voice (“How do you expect me to figure myself out / when I cannot tell the difference between good and bad attention”) for Lux Lisbon, the mysterious lead protagonist of The Virgin Suicides, that's absent from both the book and the movie and in the song Lux redirecting her fury from inward to outward in a galvanizing ninety-nine second rave-up (just a few songs on Cheerleader crack the three-minute mark and just barely at that) followed by another crimson-themed song “Red With Love” that's flush with unflinching desire and defiance (“I need you closer and you’re not even an inch away”) and then next comes a soul-baring/spine-chilling ballad called “Forever” that marries a mournful string choir to an octave-jumping vocal and a “Be My Babybeat.

 

In its final act Death of a Cheerleader moves from the frenetic “Shame Reactions” wherein Ms. Berrin alludes for the first time to the album’s title and and its implication of murderous desire (“Is there a way for me to kill the girl I wish I were?”) followed by the sodden rebuke/pledge of devotion of “Drunk Voicemail” and the sign of resignation “This Couldn’t Happen” and the spent emotional afterglow of “Be Good” reprising the flashback vibraphone theme of the opening “Soundcheck” as if we’ve woking up from the album-long dream/flashback/fantasy before concluding with the short backmasked coda of “Thank You and Goodnight.”

In (almost) closing it’s worth noting that the title of Death of a Cheerleader is taken from a 1994 NBC-TV movie (originally titled “A Friend To Die For” but wisely renamed upon its many reairings on Lifetime and in that same network’s 2019 remake) which follows the trials and travails of a geeky-cute but deeply insecure girl-next-door type (portrayed by Kellie Martin who was known at the time for playing the similarly characterized albeit less murderous “Becca” on ABC’s Life Goes On) entering her sophomore year in high school who totally loses her marbles when she gets rejected by the yearbook committee and fails her cheerleading tryout on the same damn day. 

And so naturally she uses the rather large and sharp knife her older vegetarian sister keeps in the car for cutting up cucumbers as a makeshift murder weapon to dispose of the Heather Chandler-esque mean girl cheerleader who gives her shit (played by Tori Spelling aka “Donna” from Beverly Hills 90210) a crime of passion provoked in part by the high school’s principle who insists at a pep rally that secon best equals total failure and also most likely more than a touch of dissociative identity disorder which further manifests itself when the Homicidal Girl Next Door briefy takes over Mean Girl’s social standing after the murder while still remaining a Nice Girl and it’s like she’s a hybrid of Heather Duke and Heather McNamara but then finally the gnawing sense of guilt and a local priest’s sermon gets the better of her and she confesses and goes to trail with many upper-middle-class Santa Mira townies in attendance (the setting being a clever touch given that Santa Mira itself is an illusory town—the fictional setting for films ranging from the first Invasion of the Body Snatchers to the Sharknado franchise g*d help us) who come to the difficult realization that they themselves helped create this situation through their materialism and aspirationalism resulting in a mere second degree murder conviction and really I gotta say it’s the happiest ending that a cheerleader slayer could hope for especially one in a Lifetime movie.



Anyway, the movie is really more of a trenchant examination of late capitalism and social class in America and their mental health impacts than it needed to be for a pulpy TV movie, but maybe this unexpected resonance had something to do with making Death of a Cheerleader the most watched TV movie of 1994 because surely it wasn't that viewers wanting to see Donna from 90210 stabbed to death by a goody-goody character from another show because you just know Americans aren't sick that way as a nation. And perhaps it’s maybe no wonder either that Mia Berrin and her Pom Pom Squaders would also identify with the TV movie because in certain respects it's deeply queer and plus it addresses double consciousness which is an ontological state familiar to individuals and social formations where the individual or social formation in question is effectively denied membership in the ruling class's hegemonic social world, a world they must nonetheless interact with on a daily basis—thus necessitating the development of a kind of adaptive split personality in order to cope with the unreal reality of being forced to live between two worlds, between two distinct and segregated realities.

Along these lines, Mia Berrin has explained elsewhere how her choice to take on the persona of the badass rule-breaking cheerleader was based in part on the overwhelming whiteness of indie rock subculture and how it can make a Queer Jewish-Puerto Rican Woman of Color feel more than a little out of place—a state of affairs that is (arguably) slowly improving thanks to bands like Pom Pom Squad—not to mention the Mean Girls and Mean Boys Ms. Berrin was forced to deal with in high school especially before she transferred to a private school (New York City’s public school system is one of the most segregated in the nation) and here it’s worth pointing out that Mia’s father happens to be MC Serch (Michael Berrin) who himself happens to be one of the most respected “white” (Jewish more specifically) emcees in hip hip history lauded for his work with 3rd Bass but who also helped bring the talents of major figures like Nas and Zev Love X (better known later as MF Doom (RIP)) to a bigger audience at a crucial point in both their careers and then standing back afterwards. 

And what does all this have to do with summer songs? Hmm. Well maybe this is reach but I’ll take a stab at it anyway (heh heh) because from the discussion above summer is basically the most “Other” of all the seasons—with summer viewed as a temporary reprieve from the more mundane day-to-day existence of fall, winter, and spring with summer desired and fantasised about but also straight-up exoticized. And then after it's over, summer is largely cast aside as irrelevant to “normal existence” (and maybe even disavowed, depending on one's extent of mischief) which probably goes some way to explaining the odd duality (double consciousness) of summer’s mix of carefree fun and complicated longing. So that's a working theory, but for now the more immediate takeaway is that all you weirdos who've read this far had better enjoy the rest of this summer to the fullest (because who knows if we'll have one next year, hello 2020) and either way try not to fogget about it once it's over. (Jason Lee)