Standing room only at Ridgewood, Queens, music venue Trans-Pecos back in 2018, Mia Berrin of Brooklyn indie band Pom Pom Squad introduced her next track, “Heavy Heavy,” by joking that she writes like she’s the “sole arbiter of all heartbreak,” a perfectly self-effacing comment for a rock star that made the room collectively swoon. If Ow, the band’s 2019 EP, is a heaving sob, their debut Death of a Cheerleader, out now, exhales with a scream. Whether it’s of pain or joy or relief varies from song to song, ear to ear. If not the arbiter of heartbreak, the 23-year-old is certainly heartbreak’s muse. Pom Pom Squad’s aesthetic destruction of feminine ideals — smashed cakes, latex gloves with a cheer uniform, to name a few — has already been replicated by the Disney-backed Olivia Rodrigo for her debut album Sour. But you can’t just pick up the pom-poms and call yourself a cheerleader. “The title Death of a Cheerleader comes from this idea of realizing when I kind of accepted my queerness I had been living this life that was designed around male attention and male validation around an idea of femininity that did not exist for me,” Berrin told Vulture over the phone.
Caked with references, the album explores layers of experience as a queer, Black, and Puerto Rican woman by calling back to different eras and experiences with a Melanie lyric here, a David Lynch Easter egg there, a song title inspired by The Virgin Suicides. Berrin evades the
white, straight, male expectations of an indie-rock album by earnestly giving way to what she loves. On “Be Good,” she incorporates “orchestral, bigger instrumental arrangements into punk-slash-grunge,” with a Sun Ra-inspired drum loop and the lilt of “Mr. Sandman” giving way to a spellbinding bridge perfect for the prom scene in any coming-of-age film in any decade. “I see the album as a collage of drag and sadness, horror movies, and indie-rock and Motown and orchestral pop music,” she lays out a mood board. “Sort of feels like a bunch of stuff that maybe wouldn’t normally go together, but if there’s a through-line, it can work.” As the gravity holding it all together, the Pom Pom Squad front woman describes all the influences on Death of a Cheerleader below.
RuPaul’s Drag Race
I was very late to Drag Race, actually, and went through a big phase in quarantine, watching every episode and all the Untuckeds, and all the spinoffs. My mom had [previously] shown me the movie Paris Is Burning and it was kind of my first introduction to Black queer culture and [learning] that there was Black queer culture, as silly as it sounds. Seeing that in ballroom and then, later on, seeing how that contributed to drag culture — that it can be joyful and opulent and exuberant, and it doesn’t have to be about hiding, it can be about creating and building a personal — I get very emotional about drag. You see the change in these people’s body language and the confidence that they exude, the playfulness and a joy and for so many people who have dark experiences coming to terms with their queerness. In my prior music, I tend to lean toward darker themes, harder emotions to tackle. It’s fun to kind of reframe that through the lens of like, What if this was all more fun? What if I can enjoy this more?
Blue Velvet (1986)
The first time I saw Blue Velvet, I was taking a class [at NYU] about love, which is a ridiculous sentence. I remember my jaw being on the floor; it was one of the most visceral movie experiences I’ve ever had. It’s like a feast for the eyes. It’s also just so dark and twisty and confusing and upsetting. I think a lot about the first sequence, where it’s this really beautiful neighborhood and “Blue Velvet” by Bobby Vinton is playing and it just gets progressively darker and more insidious in a way that no one notices until it’s too late. Then, the camera pans into the earth and you see all these ants and worms. I think the world that David Lynch was able to create, a movie that’s right next door to reality, is so evocative and fascinating. So I love the idea of playing with that, especially in the aesthetic of the record — having all of these things that are pretty on paper, like lots of flowers and a sky and things that feel just a little off. Maybe part of it is accepting your own darkness, in a way. Like, for me, what I was dealing with, is essentially making a lot of choices around the time that I wrote [the record] that, on paper, are the wrong things to do, but knowing that they were the right choices for me and what I needed to do for myself at the time. I held on to my last shred of social acceptability for as long as I could. Because it’s like, you know, what, being interested in men was sort of the last chance I had to live a normal quote, unquote, life. It’s safer to play into a cultural ideal that’s already accepted than to try to forge your own ideal.
Just on an aesthetic to music level? Perfect. The image of all these girls in matching outfits, doing their fucking thing. But I also think what’s so interesting about girl groups is the way that they’re discredited. I think a lot about the Ronettes and Ronnie Spector, in particular, who is just such a powerhouse. She is such a force and such a rock vocalist, and I don’t think she’s viewed that way, necessarily. I think about the Crystals’ very controversial song “He Hit Me (and It Felt Like a Kiss)” because it’s manipulative in that it was written by Carole King and some man that she was romantically involved with [Gerry Goffin]. It was written by two white people, and given to Black girls, young girls, to sing. It’s mind-blowing to me, this way that people of color are forced into a box, into being a mouthpiece for all of Black culture for every Black person. The thing about girls to me that’s so interesting is they themselves, as artists, are so vibrant and beautiful and strong. And they’re used like a tool. Again, [it’s] about duality: the beauty that’s on the surface and the insidious kind of process going on underneath the surface.
A Las Vegas underground bunker
There is this house that is in Las Vegas, and it was built in, like, the ’70s. Essentially, it was like a really rich person, and they built a bomb shelter underneath the house. You go through the bunker and it’s all these little houses and there’s a pool and there’s big trees and there’s the sky and you can change the color of the light so that it’s a different time of day, you know? And it’s just so fucking weird-looking. One, the concept itself is buck-wild, but also the aesthetic of it, like a little town, is so weird. The actual décor is so kitschy and tacky. It’s bright-pink and shag rugs and barbecues, tree stump. It’s just so bizarre. I try to imagine the feeling of being inside it. I am very interested in artifice. There’s a war probably going on outside, but everything in here is “beautiful” and “fine.”
What I love about sampling is how it immediately connects you to an era or software or a particular moment. I grew up on a lot of hip-hop. There are songs that maybe I heard when I was a kid that have a loop from something or a reference to something and then, years later, I’ll hear the original and it’s like, Oh my God. It immediately brings you back to this moment in time. One of my mom’s favorite songs from when she was a kid was “Brand New Key” by Melanie and I ended up loving that song, and so there’s a reference to that song in one of the songs on this album [“Drunk Voicemail”]. On “Crying,” I was referencing Gilbert O’Sullivan “Alone Again, Naturally.” [I like] taking these moments from history, or from my personal collage of songs, and using them as a language to communicate something maybe more complicated or nuanced. Or as little Easter eggs and gifts for myself.
Meadham Kirchhoff S/S 2012
First of all, it opens with like 30 dancing Courtney Loves. They made a million of this one dress that Courtney Love wore; I think it was her first performance back [at Reading Festival in 1994] after Kurt Cobain took his life. And everyone kind of expected her to come out in something messy or crazy or whatever. And she came out in this little gold satin dress. So they remade the dress in a bunch of different colors and had these powdered Courtney Loves come out and do the can-can. It’s very anti-fashion, in a way. The set is all cheesy-looking, essentially in a warehouse with balloons and tinsel. All the models walk in all the pieces; they all have blonde wigs with pastel parts and some of them are burned off. It’s hyperfeminine so much that it becomes something else. So saccharine that it becomes really edgy. At the end of the show, this gold curtain behind them drops and a bunch of little tiny baby ballerinas come out and dance. It’s all of these things that are so relevant to a white female beauty standard, and by proxy, a beauty standard that I think everyone that age internalized, in a way. I definitely did. It represents this ideal, but in a way that doesn’t feel oppressive. In a way, that reminds me of a secret longing that I always had to just be pretty and be wanted and be soft.
When I came out as queer, then there was the other part of me that’s like, Well, is it shameful if I like wearing dresses and skirts, or, If I have long hair, am I not queer enough? There’s always the weight and responsibility of who am I hurting by being honest about what I want or how I feel. Part of the way that I’m trying to subvert that, on the record, is just being honest with myself. I felt like I always had to be the best representation of being queer, or being a person of color, where I feel like I had to be the model minority in order to not be harmed or be mistreated or be talked down to. I want to fucking live my life and I want to show young me that it’s possible to just enjoy yourself. I’m relatively new to feeling enjoyment.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.