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Life In Plastic: The Sweet And Sinister World Of Pom Pom Squad

Mia Berrin of Pom Pom Squad. The band's full-length debut, <em>Death of a Cheerleader</em>, is out now.
Courtesy of the artist
Mia Berrin of Pom Pom Squad. The band's full-length debut, Death of a Cheerleader, is out now.

In the world of Pom Pom Squad, "the scariest girl on the cheerleading team" is also the most desirable: "You should ask your mother what she means / She says stay away from girls like me," Mia Berrin sings. The 23-year-old Pom Pom Squad songwriter, vocalist and auteur lets her voice drawl on "Head Cheerleader," fusing with the instrumentation momentarily before bursting into the lovesick chorus. Conjuring images of neck-biting and heart-shaped lockets, Pom Pom Squad queers the ideal of an American adolescent experience through love songs that scratch an itch for autonomy and self-sufficiency more than they express romance, or keep true love at a distance with the help of chilly orchestral arrangements. On its full-length debut, Death of a Cheerleader, the band doubles down on its biting, razor-sharp punk while exploring the appeal of old pop novelties, enmeshing the two sounds in the process.

Across the album, Berrin's voice squeezes, stretches and soars, embodying fictional characters and dark, divine versions of her own identity. On her ode to The Virgin Suicides' homecoming queen character, "Lux," she rages, yelling. On a cover of Tommy James and the Shondells' "Crimson and Clover" — originally released as demo to mark her first Pride Month after coming out as queer — she croons, swaying with the chorus. Berrin co-produced the album alongside Sarah Tudzin, the Los Angeles-based producer, engineer and leader of Illuminati Hotties, whose understanding of the assignment shines through its sonic textures. From the boundlessness of the vocals on "Red With Love" to the crushing strings that drop like bombs on "Crying," Tudzin completes the record's cinematic universe, balancing clarity with chaos.

However, there's no better sampling of Pom Pom Squad's fluidity and attuned aestheticism than the inspired three-track run of "Drunk Voicemail," "This Couldn't Happen" and "Be Good." Slithering through the ache of love and loathing, and into the reprise of a lover's distant plea, Berrin does all of the heavy lifting with her pen. "And I'll treat every day the same / But every night I'll scream your name / Till then be good and wait for me," she sings, constructing such a perfect mirage of her own heartache that, as a listener, there's no need to trudge through the actual pain of it yourself — you can simply embed yourself into the fantasy.

A vibrancy resonates throughout Death of a Cheerleader, the sounds of which are painted in the same hues as the album cover: a technicolor stage build of fake grass and flowers, with Berrin buried underground, adorned in white. She stares into the camera lens with eyes painted blue, straight-faced, as if waiting for the red velvet curtains to close. In many ways, the record itself is just that — a work of drama, produced by the interplay of musical and visual motifs. But rarely does an artist land in a creative sweet spot like Berrin has, deftly matching sight and sound to illustrate the record's two sides — the saturated landscape where punk, glam and camp coexist, and the uncanny underbelly of Americana.

Over Zoom, Berrin and I spoke about the creative challenge of combining jagged rock with jangly retro pop, earning her position as co-producer alongside one of her recording heroes and how film, fashion and plastic furniture all informed the sounds of Death of a Cheerleader.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Alex Ramos: I'm sensing two sides to this album: There's the grungier, darker side, and there's the 1950s and '60s, Phil Spector, traditional pop side. What appealed to you about that pop aesthetic, when listeners were already so familiar with your punchy rock sound?

Mia Berrin: During quarantine, right before everything started to shut down, I had moved into an apartment with my partner. For some reason, the only music that I could listen to for a while was '50s and '60s novelty songs and Motown — you know, these very cinematic pieces of music. I think, in a way, it was an escape from reality. That music feels so ungrounded in any physical space — it just feels like it's floating in the air. It was really nice to listen to music that I'd heard as a kid and never really came back to, or discover new songs from that time that, you know, really took me somewhere. And I think I realized my heart was just chasing that sound. I'd always loved violins and had tried to incorporate some orchestral instruments into what we did before. But yeah, it just felt like an escape. In a really powerful way.

Was it hard to mix those two sounds together?

Yeah. I had never really heard a version of that. And when I was trying to describe to my bandmates what I wanted, they really had no idea what I was talking about, and I had no idea what I was talking about either. I think "Crying" was sort of the catalyst: I had this idea for a song that started as this orchestral, very Phil Spector string section and then fell into this heavy grunge song, and it felt like I'd kind of unlocked how those two worlds could mesh.

I really like both versions of the song "Red With Love," but I know that between the single and the version that appears on the album, you switched up the production and instrumentation a lot. The album version has a really different impact. How did you decide to include the song, and to make that change?

My fun story about "Red With Love" is that when we recorded it, it was right before I had to get surgery. I was having a lot of breathing problems, and was really scared that I had some kind of vocal node — you know, because I scream in my set and do a lot of harder punk vocals. I went to a doctor who specifically works with singers and he's like, "Yeah, you can't breathe through your nose." I guess I have a really deviated septum and something about my nose is like, too big for air? It was bizarre. So, when we were trying to do it in the studio, I just panicked. Sarah Tudzin, who we worked with, actually gave me this really amazing pep talk that was basically like, "If you're miserable doing the vocals, you're never gonna get through it, and it's never gonna sound good." It's kind of a 'fake it till you make it' moment. And I think reaching that vocal openness helped the song speak in a different way than it had before.

What was it like working with Sarah?

Sarah's amazing. Just really skilled on a technical level and on a performance level. So self-assured. And it was a huge honor to co-produce with somebody who has that kind of resume and caliber and talent.

I have major impostor syndrome — being a person of color, being a queer woman, in this music scene which, you know, doesn't really know how to deal with someone like me and is just starting to learn. I went to school for music production, studied it for two and a half years. And I spent a lot of time really trying to be self-sufficient, taking a million notes and getting proficient in Logic. Somebody with that skill set, [you'd] think, would feel confident in calling themselves a producer or calling themselves an engineer. There's something in me that still feels like I'm not allowed to be in that space. At the end of the process, we all went back to my apartment and got drunk and had a nice time — and it ended up being just Sarah and me talking, in the middle of the night. She was like, "A lot of people want to call themselves 'co-producers' on the album, but you really earn that. You really earn that title." That was such a turning point for me, of being able to call myself that with confidence.

That's another thing I hear on the album: There are a lot of what you might call love songs, but there's also a lot of thinking — about how to be more self-assured, how to be more confident in yourself. Do you think songwriting is something that helps you be more confident, or helps you process those thoughts?

I think so. I spent so much of my life journaling and just writing everyday, and it has allowed me to be really in touch with myself and describe my feelings succinctly. But honestly, one of the things that's helping me grow in confidence is the visual side of it, and the production side of it — being in creative control of that and turning it into a whole world around the songs, giving them more power and more weight through what I can build around them. It's what I've always loved about the artists that influenced me. Music is about the songs, obviously — but I think world-building and aesthetics, that's what's always kept me interested in an artist and really brought me into their heart, you know? That kind of vulnerability is so meaningful.

Having studied animation, part of me thinks in pictures: I can pull from my own visual library of references. I was also really obsessed with The Virgin Suicides; I was a Rookie Mag kid.

Me too!

And I get that sensation a lot from you — in your music, but also because of your art direction. What were you looking at? What were you watching while you were writing the songs and directing the videos?

I was thinking a lot about texture: I was like, "I want it to sound like red vinyl and red velvet. "I was thinking about Blue Velvet, ironically — I was pulling from a lot of David Lynch. I was thinking about Twin Peaks. I was thinking about John Waters movies, you know, Hairspray, Pink Flamingos. I think also, as a Rookie Mag kid, it was a big game changer for me. It's kind of where the Pom Pom Squad aesthetic came from, in a way. I think that's kind of the perpetual reference for me, that Americana, sort of saccharine, plastic world.

And the album cover — you know, me being buried under this fake, twisted, creepy landscape — felt like a really apt metaphor for what I was feeling at the time. Coming out as queer, it was like my whole life turned on a dime in one day. I woke up one morning and I was like, "I'm not dressing for myself. Nothing in my closet is for me." Everything that I do was influenced by wanting to kind of pass, for a lack of a better term, and be the ideal young woman. I remember an ex said I dressed like I had a job.

That's rude!

None of my exes like the way I dress, which is offensive, because I dress extremely well [laughs]. But what it means to me now is, I felt like I had this responsibility to be less myself and more palatable to other people. I've always known I was queer, but having that moment of being public about it, really letting myself accept the extent to which it influences what I care about and what I do ... I just thought of myself as being buried under this fake life, you know, this plastic world. I started becoming obsessed with plastic things: fake cakes and fake grass, a fake sky. I made this whole picnic set in the second bedroom of my apartment where I would do livestreams and take photos.

I don't know, there was just something about surrounding myself with all of this like, weird, twisted, uncanny valley-type s*** that was really aesthetically exciting to me, and felt meaningful in ways that I don't even think I understood fully at the time. But I think that's where the album came out of. It's an exploration of that time in my life.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alex Ramos is an artist, writer and editor who specializes in media journalism and music criticism. They're a recent graduate of California College of the Arts, where they were trained in filmmaking and animation. Outside of their work at NPR, Ramos is editor-in-chief at Sunstroke Magazine, an independent publication that centers Generation Z, culture and activism.