Pom Pom Squad bandleader Mia Berrin hadn’t thought of it before, but when it’s mentioned to her, she realizes her debut studio album is the ultimate embodiment of the Cancer zodiac sign. Not only is Berrin a Cancer herself, so is Death Of A Cheerleader—released on June 25 via City Slang, it explores a range of intense emotions that evoke Cancers’ reputation of being the most over-sentimental zodiac sign. Pom Pom Squad’s album takes as much influence from Hole as it does from doo-wop, with the musicality of each track matched perfectly with its subject matter, seamlessly switching from dreamy love songs like “Red With Love” to angsty, guitar-heavy tracks such as “Shame Reactions.”
Berrin has been making music as Pom Pom Squad since 2017, but it wasn’t until 2019 that the Brooklyn-based act gained recognition for its critically acclaimed EP, Ow. She even gained fans in indie legends Tegan and Sara, who contribute vocals to “Head Cheerleader” on the new record. The A.V. Club talked to Berrin over Zoom about writing Death Of A Cheerleader, the impactful advice Sara Quin gave her, and more. The transcript of the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
The A.V. Club: This album feels like it captures teenage emotions, and you’ve spoken previously about “Lux” being written while you were still a teenager. What was the timeline for writing Death Of A Cheerleader?
Mia Berrin: “Lux” is definitely the one that has been hanging on for the longest. I think it’s been through, maybe, four or five iterations just from the time that it was written until now. And then “Drunk Voicemail,” I wrote it shortly after I wrote my first EP, so pre-Ow. But the other songs are a lot more recent. It’s so funny, because in every interview, the obvious thing that people bring up is how my high school time played into the band, and why [we chose] the name. I think maybe I’m just always gonna have teenage emotions, because so much of it was written when I was an adult, and I think part of it is having a mood disorder and the other part of it is just being a really emotional person. But I think big feelings have always felt intrinsic to what I do in my music; I don’t really have an off switch when I feel things really strongly, as much as I wish I did.
AVC: How much did your mental health play into the themes you explore in Death Of A Cheerleader? Many of the lyrics delve into the complex emotions that come with combatting mental health issues, particularly in songs like “Crying,” where you sing, “Oh God, what is wrong with me? / Thinking everyone who loves me fucking hates me.”
MB: I think mental health plays into everything I do, just because it kind of colors my perspective on the world. I’m always going to be a mentally ill person. It’s weird to think about it like that, in a way. In this record specifically, when I think about talking about mental health, I think specifically about “Crying,” because that song feels almost like the dramatic opposite of [Ow’s] “Heavy Heavy,” I wrote [”Heavy Heavy”] when I was really in the throes of the depressed headspace and didn’t really have the words or the tools to describe what I was feeling, and I felt like nobody understood what I was feeling, which is naive—but that’s how it feels. So, “Heavy Heavy” was really honest to how I was feeling at the time, unmedicated and just super depressed and angry. I think “Crying” is similar in the thought process, but it was almost like it’s a self-read. It’s as if I was looking at the person who wrote “Heavy Heavy” and being like, “You are a whiny bitch.”
AVC: Your attachment to the persona of a cheerleader is interesting. You’ve talked in interviews about the lasting impression of cheerleaders in high school when you were growing up in Florida, but why does that persona resonate so much as an adult?
MB: For most people, being an adolescent is traumatic in a way. For me, something that I was really grappling with was my worth—specifically colored by being a young woman—and being told and treated like attractiveness was the way that you could be worth the most. I grew up for most of my life feeling like I was not attractive or desirable or popular or interesting. The cheerleaders, to me, felt like this symbol of everything I should have been or should have aspired to as a teenager. [Part of staying under the radar and self-preservation as a queer person] is clocking people, like looking for community. I think a lot about how people say “the male gaze” or “the female gaze”—who you watch, what you analyze.
Watching other women and other girls as a way to learn how to be was hugely informative. It was interesting for me, in the early stages of the band, when I was dressing up as a cheerleader and playing shows, the way that people treated me or started to respond to me that they hadn’t before. I was just talking about this recently, but a lot of people used to tell me “Oh, I saw you on stage and I expected to hate you.”
MB: It was a surprising comment, but it happened more than once, and I think part of that is this reputation of cheerleaders being either these terrifying bitches or bimbos that don’t deserve respect. It’s all of these ridiculous, gendered stigmas that come with this trope in American culture. It’s so interesting to me, and was almost a way of putting myself in American culture because I didn’t understand or see an archetype of myself in this Americana world that I was in in Orlando, Florida.
AVC: You’ve mentioned looking up to Lux from Sofia Coppola’s adaptation of The Virgin Suicides as a teen, because she represents this juxtaposition between somebody who is mysterious and intimidating but also so vulnerable.
MB: What I liked about her was the humanity that I saw in her character. I understand [the girls’] perspective, I understand that feeling of being trapped, and it just feels like an experience that’s unique to marginalized people, femme people, queer people. I just think there’s a loneliness that’s intrinsic to being young and marginalized in whatever way someone might be.
A lot of people have reached out to me or commented on how my music feels very specifically femme, which was always interesting and I don’t think I really got that and now that I’m talking about it specifically I think I understand it a little bit more. Because, one thing that’s kind of amazing to me is the community that’s come around Pom Pom Squad. I’ve had a lot of women come out to me as trans, or young girls come out to me as gay, and talk about this kind of thing they hear in my music that validated them in their girlhood or womanhood or queerness. And I feel like it’s kind of the same sensation that validated me in my girlhood and queerness, watching The Virgin Suicides. It’s like, this idea of looking on these girls from a romantic perspective but also looking at them from a completely empathetic and understanding perspective at the same time.
AVC: It’s true your music feels very “femme,” but that aspect of femininity also comes from the ’50s and ’60s doo-wop influence that’s prevalent in this record. You’ve spoken about being inspired by Black doo-wop girl groups, and it’s a powerful juxtaposition to have those delicate, romantic moments in the album, contrasting guitar-heavy songs that are more punk-inclined.
MB: I think there’s power in the stories we tell. And if there’s only one perspective we ever hear, or one story that the public feels most comfortable with, about “how Black people are”—with a nice little bow and no effort to see it in a deeper way—there’s gonna be even more people who grow up and think they don’t exist in the world, which is how I felt growing up because I didn’t see anybody who looked like me or felt like me in a literal way, which is why I latched on to characters like Lux, because of whatever piece of myself I could find represented in media like that.
There are a lot of conversations about what representation means, and I think for some people it’s all about advertising and you’re not being represented, you’re being sold to. I do think representation is important in what it does for people emotionally, in terms of normalization. For me, I wasn’t represented as a queer person or a mixed-race person by Lux Lisbon, but I was represented as an emotional being and as a depressed person and as a young woman. And that was important to me.
In writing the record, I was thinking a lot about equity in the music industry, particularly these young girls at the center of these girls groups, who were often kind of treated like they were bought and sold. The example I always think of is The Crystals’ “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)”—an extremely controversial song—and there was one day where I was like, “That song had to have been written by men.” And it was actually written by Carole King. It’s like, “What’s that about?’” And even if she wrote it as a criticism of a culture that glamorized relationship violence, she, a white woman, was still writing it for young Black girls to perform, and putting them in a situation to sing about relationship violence. Which was really interesting to me. Especially when I was thinking about doo-wop and girl groups in the context of this record, interpreting them in the same way that I interpret the cheerleader: giving her—this metaphorical “her”—more autonomy and strength and depth. Filling in this 2D cartoon of who this person can be.
AVC: You initially went to college for acting, but dropped out to focus on music. Not only does Pom Pom Squad feel very cinematic, but you play with different roles in the art direction for your music, whether it’s music videos or photoshoots. How much does your acting background play into how you tackle your music career?
MB: It’s funny, I think I’ve learned more about acting from not being in that program than I have from being there… For example, I was in the studio working on this record, and on the day that we had to track vocals, I had a full imposter syndrome mental breakdown. I couldn’t understand why nothing sounded the way that I wanted it to, and I was super upset and frustrated. And I ended up having this conversation with Sara [Quin, of Tegan And Sara] about how she tracks vocals, and what goes on in her head when she’s working in that space. And a lot of what she was saying really brought up some memories from acting school about what it actually means to perform. I think a good performance is one where you can bring everybody into what you’re feeling or what you want them to feel, whether you’re actually feeling it or not.
When I was younger, if I would have heard that, I would have found that really depressing, and would have been like, “But I wanna believe that they’re feeling all of it.’” But sometimes, performing, you can’t go there every single time. It’s not a mentally healthy place to be, to put yourself in a position to relive your trauma and pain every single time that you do it. I think that’s a really important technical aspect that when I was acting, I couldn’t quite understand. Sometimes performing is about performing. And that’s a really beautiful thing in and of itself.