When Pom Pom Squad’s Mia Berrin was 21 years old, she fell in love. Sure, she’d been in love before, but this time, something was different: “It just felt like a switch had flipped inside my head,” she says. “I realized I had been living a life that was not my own, watching myself from the outside.” As a kid who bounced from town to town growing up, and as a person of color in predominantly white spaces, Berrin had become accustomed to maintaining a constant awareness of how others perceived her—a “split-brain mentality” that she adopted as a necessary means of survival. But now, tumbling through her first queer romance—and her first queer heartbreak—some of that self-separateness began to mend: “Suddenly,” she says, “I was in a body that was mine.”
Enter Pom Pom Squad. Berrin first played under the moniker in 2015 after moving to New York to study acting at NYU—though she soon transferred to the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music—and it was at those early gigs that she linked up with Shelby Keller (drums), Mari Alé Figeman (bass), and Alex Mercuri (guitar). The group cut their teeth playing packed Brooklyn apartments, but they quickly graduated to packed Brooklyn venues alongside artists like Soccer Mommy, Adult Mom, and Pronoun. Following the release of their sophomore EP Ow, Pom Pom Squad was looking at a packed 2020, with shows at SXSW and opening for The Front Bottoms—but of course, plans changed.
The result of this stymying, galvanizing period—of escaping to come back—is Death of a Cheerleader. Produced Sarah Tudzin of Illuminati Hotties and co-produced by Berrin, the album moves through moods like a camera panning across an expertly collaged bedroom wall: a Ronettes drum beat here (“Head Cheerleader”), a Doris Day nod there (“This Couldn’t Happen”), the impossible romance of swelling strings (“Crying”) collapsing into guitar thrash (“Drunk Voicemail”). Here, too, are all the overlapping, contradictory tenets of 21st-century young womanhood—the carnality and the vulnerability, the sugar and the defiance. On “Head Cheerleader,” antsy and anthemic, Berrin promises us that “my worst decisions are the ones I like the best” before she heads under the bleachers, even as she acknowledges moments later that “my feelings always make a fucking fool of me”; on the breathless, punky “Lux” (named for the Virgin Suicides heroine, of course), she boasts feeling “naked without taking off any of my clothes,” and it’s as much a come-on as it is an admission of terrifying exposure, couched in Berrin’s dare-laden drawl.
This tension—between baring oneself and crafting delicious, tongue-in-cheek art—is what drives so much of the foundational queer media to which Death of a Cheerleader pays homage (not in the least its film namesake, But I’m a Cheerleader). On “Second That,” a tumbling acoustic waltz built around a Smokey Robinson quote, Berrin steps out for a moment from behind the elaborate curtain of references she’s constructed with an admission—“I’m sad, I’m just fucking sad,” her voice on the edge of breaking—but then, moments later, she’s back in the anti-bourgeoisie upswing of “Cake,” playfully demanding her fair share. It’s a reminder of the self-affirming power of artifice, of glam, lipstick drawn on in blood. With Death of a Cheerleader, Pom Pom Squad offer a fresh and decidedly queer take on picking up the pieces—from heartbreak, from injustice—and creating yourself anew.