Album Review: Pom Pom Squad - Death of A Cheerleader
For some reason, I don’t have a “hard time” deleting emails—even things that, in the end, are of little to no consequence, like PayPal receipts, of which I have hundreds by now. But deleting them is just something I opt, a lot of the time, not to do and they all just continue to pile on top of one another, unopened, in the “Social” tab of my inbox.
And it’s because that I wind up inadvertently saving emails that I do not really need to, I can tell you it that it was probably a little over a year ago when I was first introduced to Mia Berrin’s project Pom Pom Squad.
And even though I can tell you roughly when, the how, which is probably more important, is more difficult to figure out.
In the early, vastly more unnerving and uncertain days of the pandemic, in the spring and even into the summer months of 2020, the artist platform Bandcamp developed the idea of “Bandcamp Friday,” where, once a month, the service waived the fees it usually subtracts from every transaction, allowing artists to retain 100% of the revenue they earned from digital downloads, LPs or CDs purchased, or merchandise sold. Because this was also a volatile time of racial unrest throughout the country, a number of artists used the revenue from these Fridays and donated it to a charity or aide cause; but many, because their livelihoods had been thrown into tumult, were counting on that additional, however small or large, source of income.
And because of this, through social media, there was enormous swelling of artists promoting other artists, creating somewhat of a frenzy, encouraging people to financially support as many bands or artists as they were able to, once a month.
I, for a number of months, often found myself caught up in this frenzy, spending the weeks or days leading up to a Bandcamp Friday researching what releases, or which artists, I wanted to purchase—and, honestly, there were times when it was a great way to have been introduced to new music you may otherwise have never heard about at all; the other side to that is it was a great way for me to download things I maybe did not need to, and have not revisited since those Friday afternoons and evenings in the summer of 2020.
Long before she was unwittingly introduced to a larger audience via the “who owns the teen girl aesthetic” discourse1, I was more than likely pointed in the direction of Berrin and Pom Pom Squad on Twitter, which is where I hear about a lot of new music—though the who, on Twitter, I am now unable to recall.
Arriving four years following Berrin’s debut EP under the Pom Pom Squad moniker, the confrontationally named Hate it Here, and two years after its follow up, Ow, where she appears on the EP’s cover as a cheerleader, arms crossed, with a black eye, she has recently issued the project’s full-length debut, which, as you can tell by the title and cover art, continues her 100% commitment to the aesthetic she’s cultivated—Death of A Cheerleader, a robust, breakneck collection of songs that find Berrin as a singer, songwriter, and bandleader pushing the project forward creatively and not so much outgrowing the aggressive or punky beginnings of Pom Pom Squad, but growing into additional soundscapes where she can thrive.
It was something that was incredibly apparent when I sat down with Death of A Cheerleader to listen to it with an almost exclusively critical ear—and it was something I had taken notice of slightly, or maybe had a hunch about, when listening somewhat passively prior to that, streaming it or listening from my computer, and after the bright red LP finally2 arrived at my house and I played it for what one could call “leisure.”3
And that is the pacing and sequencing of the album is utterly immaculate—making it among the most thoughtfully organized records of the year for sure.
Berrin’s songs, from beginning to end, don’t stick around any longer than they have to, and rarely is there room to breathe as she jumps from one, headfirst into the next, and at times, departing something slower, or slightly more melodic sounding, and careening something blistering and brash. It isn’t so much that Death of A Cheerleader is an album that is specifically about these contrasts, or that it is an exercise in duality, but it is an album thoughtful enough to allow all of the facets to Berrin’s songwriting and stylistics enough room to flourish.
I hesitate to call Pom Pom Squad’s EPs, Hate it Here and Ow as “unpolished,” but there was a very palpable edge across the board—from the instrumentation and delivery, to the production. And I hesitate to say that Death of A Cheerleader, in turn, is “polished,” but Berrin is much more aware of the project’s dynamics—that it can still be a somewhat confrontational, punk-infused outfit when needed, but that other aesthetics can be included as well—often steering the songs into a dreamy, woozy sound that has just a little bit of sharpness to it, but isn’t nearly as snarling as it could be, or that other songs within the album’s track list are.
Even with the band’s more aggressive background, and the gauzy nature some of these songs can take, Berrin has developed a knack for writing songs that are infectious—predominantly based around big hooks, like the opening double shot of “Head Cheerleader,” and the album’s second single, “Crying.”
Death of A Cheerleader, outside of the strong visual commitment Berrin has made, and the record’s first full track (there is an instrumental intro when the album opens), this is not a concept album about the death, or even the life, or a cheerleader, though the caricature is present, as you might anticipate, in “Head Cheerleader.” The album, more or less, is comprised of woeful love songs, spanning myriad aesthetics, and “Head Cheerleader” is probably the most pop-oriented in terms of the song writing—right down to its clipped tempo, the instrumentation, and its memorable, big refrain that, in my notes about the song, has a “fun groove.”
“Rock” music, or guitar leaning (or driven) music, blended with “pop” music, or songs often built around the idea of maximum infectiousness through instrumentation that doesn’t lean so heavily on guitars is not a new idea, but in the wake of the success of Sour, the debut album from Olivia Rodrigo, who throughout, manages to walk the line between pop songs with a snarl—e.g. “Good 4 U,” the website Stereogum published a list of other artists (many of them independent or underground) recommended for listeners who liked the pop/rock aesthetic of Sour. Both surprisingly, and unsurprisingly, Pom Pom Squad was among those listed, and one listen to “Head Cheerleader,” you will hear why.
Powered by crisp percussion and an unrelenting electric guitar rhythm, Berrin and her group, comprised of bassist Mari Alé Fireman, drummer Shelby Keller, and lead guitarist Alex Mercuri lead the song to a big, sing-a-long refrain, where a small, noodled riff from Mercuri punctuates Berrin and she sings, “Squirming out of my skin—is this really happening to me? I’m learning how to be someone I could put my faith in if it really came down to me,” and a lightly strummed acoustic guitar cuts through into the mix, adding a little more depth within the song’s arrangement.
A lot of Berrin’s lyrics, even though there is a thread of longing that runs throughout Death of A Cheerleader, are very self-effacing, and within a song like “Head Cheerleader,” she is surprisingly evocative right out of the gate with the narrative she has constructed. “You said open up your mouth and tell me what you mean,” she sings in the song’s first line, over the distended electric guitar. “I said, ‘I’m going to marry the scariest girl on the cheerleading team,’” before playing with the line when the song slows down for a bridge section—“You should ask your mother what she means—she said stay away from girls like me.”
Shortly after the release of Death of A Cheerleader, Berrin made a post on social media where she discussed her love of film, and shared how specific cinematic elements inspired the album—specifically the album’s strong aesthetic, and the video for the brooding, explosive second single, “Crying.”
“Crying” finds Berrin tapping into a sense of drama, or theatricality that she employs throughout Death of A Cheerleader, with the song chugging along with a fuzzed out guitar rhythm before it becomes a slowed down tumble of emotion during the refrain. Lyrically, it’s written from a deeper place of self-deprecation: “I make a game of breaking promises,” Berrin sneers within the second verse, following that with, “If I’m a bitch, at least someone is,” and opens the song with a surprisingly self-aware wink—“They say, ‘just write a song and get over it’—I learn the same thing over and over again…I can’t feel anything.”
“Crying,” tonally, is among the woozier, swooning songs on the record—the kind of song that you can picture Audrey Horne swaying to at the Double R Diner in “Twin Peaks”; and it’s not the only song included in the set that has that feeling to it—it’s just the most menacing, or despondent in the way its executed.
As a whole, and as it quickly continues to peel away its layers, Death of A Cheerleader works the best, or is most effective when Berrin taps into this emotionally swelling, dream-like feeling, most of which are found on the album’s second side.
The album’s second side kicks off with a surprising contrast in a fast tempo track, “Red With Love,” but it is one of Death of A Cheerleader’s most melancholic, or somber, in sound thanks to the shimmering, but very downcast guitar chords, and the noticeable, palpable desperation and longing in Berrin’s vocal delivery, as well as the pleading within the lyrics as she sings sentiments, albeit slightly dangerous ones, like, “Believe me when I say, tomorrow I will love you more than I did yesterday.”
Death of a Cheerleader doesn’t owe a lot to the idea, or sound, of nostalgia, but there are specific moments that are more influenced directly by things from long ago—the concept of the “girl group” is one of things that kept coming to mind while listening critically; a little with the pacing of “Crying,” on the album’s first side, but within the second half, there are a handful of instances that evoke the feeling of the mid 1950s and into the 1960s.
“Forever” is, without a doubt, the album’s most gorgeous track—simply because of its sweeping, grand string accompaniment, and the gentle, breathy way Berrin sings the lines within the first verse, before the iconic “girl group” rhythm comes in, with the bass and snare drums creating a sense of direction within the song, pulling it from the otherworldliness where it was, and into the refrain, where Berrin drops her voice closer to her usual range, though keeps it in a sweeter sounding place, contrasted against stark lyrics: “I never meant to hurt you baby, I just want to be your girl. It’s not my fault you think bout me every time you’re with her.”
Berrin continues this ode to the past as the album concludes with both the swooning final track, “Be Good,” and the short piece that before it, “This Couldn’t Happen,” a reinterpretation of the Doris Day song “Again,” written by Lionel Newman and Dorcas Cochran.
Built around a jagged but melodic electric guitar, resting against a large bed of warm, lush strings, Berrin opts sings a single lyric from “Again,” serving as a bit of an introduction, or prelude to “Be Good,” a surprisingly beautiful song with the most robust instrumentation out of the whole album, including horn accompaniment as well as the vibraphone. As the final moment from Death of A Cheerleader, it shuffles along romantically, though longingly, and as much as I am remiss to draw musical comparisons between two artists who are fully capable of holding their own, the way “Be Good” does sway with a kind of loving, dreamy abandon, reminded me slightly of the bright, flourishing final track on Lady Dan’s I Am The Prophet, “Left Handed Lover.”
The idea of love, and tumultuous, possibly one-sided love, serves as a recurring theme in Berrin’s lyrics on Death of A Cheerleader, and on an album like this, that is not a concept album or song cycle, but is tightly connected through aesthetics nevertheless, there is a small feeling of resolution found in “Be Good.” “I know you’ll come back to me when you are everything I need,” she sings in the second verse. “But ’til then, be good and wait for me.”
It was, of course, the ferocity, and the seemingly unchecked anger and aggression, that originally drew me to Pom Pom Squad roughly a year ago—specifically the way Berrin snarled, “I wake up feeling empty—empty all the shit that’s in my brain,” at the beginning of “Heavy Heavy” from Ow, and the way the song, when it hits one minute in, detonates in a way that is both terribly dissonant and confrontational but so compelling that you can’t pull yourself away.
And with the amount of Death of A Cheerleader that is dedicated to exponentially less dissonant or explosive songs, focusing more on dreamy, melodic, melancholic nostalgia, you may think the handful of brash, punk leaning songs Berrin works into the album’s running would seem out of place. Through initial listens, as startling as “Lux,” “Cake,” and “Shame Reactions” might appear at first, they are sequenced so meticulously as a means to drastically shift the album’s momentum and energy levels, working to bring the album as a whole out of whatever gentle, beautiful place Berrin has brought it to, and built it up into a chaotic, antagonistic frenzy—especially with the album’s first single, the brash “Lux,” a song heavily inspired by the character of the same name from both the film and novel The Virgin Suicides. Berrin’s lyric, “Meet me tonight in the garage,” is a knowing wink to those aware of what becomes of Lux within the story, but set against the pummeling drums and torrent of electric guitars, the way it’s uttered makes it sound almost like it is a threat to the listener.
As much of as a surprise as it is to hear moments of sheer, voluminous beauty and grace mixed in alongside specific places where a simmering pot begins to boil over and, perhaps, set part of the kitchen on fire, there are other surprises tucked into Death of A Cheerleader as well—both of which draw on Berrin’s fondness for nostalgia, including the appearance of cover of the classic “Crimson and Clover,” which, arriving at the tail end of the first side, serves as a bit of a respite from the angst and noise of “Lux”; the other is in the form of the percussion-less, acoustic “Second That.”
Driving the rhythm along with the strums of her guitar, and only a very minor, somewhat eerie drone accompanying her, Berrin, it’s one of the album’s starkest, and plainly honest songs, with lyrics that tap into both her longing, as well as her penchant for self-deprecation: “We laughed all the way home and I knew that would couldn’t be just friends—I take a good hard look before I go and fuck it up again.”
Whether an intentional point of reference, or perhaps subconscious, the refrain of the song calls to mind the Motown classic from Smokey Robinson.
The final note that I wrote down about Death of A Cheerleader upon the conclusion of my official analytical listen was “big definitive statement.” And, right out of the gate with the band’s first full-length, this is Mia Berrin’s big, definitive statement for Pom Pom Squad, expertly honing the aesthetic and sound she began working with since the group’s inception, the record takes those early ideas, runs with them, and never looks back.
Co-produced by Berrin along with Illuminati Hotties frontwoman Sarah Tudzin, the two are able to find a very impressive balance in dynamics, sonically, to create an expansive environment where there is a place for snarling, distorted guitars and pounding drums, as well as the lush string arrangements. It’s within that balanced dynamic where the album’s other dynamics are all thrive—the contrasts created tonally from song to song, and the compelling choices in instrumentation and arranging.
I want to stop short of calling Death of A Cheerleader a “fun” record because I don’t want that to discredit the moments that are objectively less fun thematically—e.g. the depictions of desperate longing and heartbreak, and I, at first assessment, I don’t think I am a person who listens to all that much “fun” music to begin with, though my hard pivot into girl pop would tell you otherwise. Within the emotional rollercoaster Berrin has created, Death of a Cheerleader is a fun record—it’s enormous at times, brash and punky, dreamy and woozy, and has a staggering amount of pop smarts and sensibilities. It’s a record that opens up its arms to you as wide as they can stretch, allowing us as listeners and perhaps hopeless romantics, to cry, or scream, or terrible, beautiful cathartic blend of both at the exact same time.
1- So I had every intention of trying to write about this discourse in this piece, but I kind of ran out of energy/enthusiasm at the very idea of taking it on (mostly because of my severe depression) and I wasn’t sure exactly where to shoehorn it in. There’s a piece that Pitchfork ran recently that explains it to the best that it can be explained if you are interested, but it also really never answers its own question, mostly because Mia Berrin, Olivia Rodrigo, and Courtney Love (of all people) did not respond to requests for comment or to be interviewed for the piece.
2- More than anything else, this is an aside for my first world problems. I become irrationally irritated when record labels, or whomever is handling the sale of an artist’s album, opts not to ship those albums out in time so the arrive prior to, or on the day of release. The nearest record store is an hour away from me, and so I often order from the band (if I am able) or from the band’s label, and lately, a lot of my experiences have involved the record arriving well after the date of release, which seems like a huge disservice to fans/listeners that tried to support the artist directly well in advance. Death of A Cheerleader sat in North Carolina for like a week somewhere before it eventually made its way to me.
3- As someone who has spent the last eight years writing about music critically, I find I am having a difficult time sitting with an album—a new album, or something recently released—and just being able to listen and enjoy it for what it is, and not listen with analytical intent. For every review that makes it onto this website, there are a handful of albums I would love to write about and never do, for myriad reasons. I’m working on “listening for enjoyment”; it’s just taking time.
Death of A Cheerleader is available now via City Slang.