marchioness > digital > Pom Pom Squad: Rallying Against The ‘Apex’ of Femininity
Interview by Hiba Akmal / Edited by Jessica Fynn
Pom Pom Squad: Rallying Against The ‘Apex’ of Femininity
Marchioness meets Mia Berrin to talk BEING THE HEAD CHEERLEADER, THE GRAND FALLACY OF RIOT GRRRL, AMERICANA, ROOKIE MAGAZINE, THE CARDINAL LESSON and THE TRIALS OF NAVIGATING ONE’S IDENTITY AS A BI-RACIAL QUEER FEMME IN THE MUSIC INDUSTRY.
© Camelea Azar
In a prohibition-style, vintage saloon tucked away in one of the many alleyways of downtown Manhattan, Marchioness meets Mia Berrin. She’s the head cheerleader of Pom Pom Squad, a vision of saccharine sugar and curdled milk - a sickeningly sweet femininity pulled from the screenplay of The Virgin Suicides, the belligerence of Courtney Love and Kathleen Hanna, the spirit of punk. At age sixteen, Mia dreamed up Pom Pom Squad out of rage. “I started a band because Riot grrrl failed me in a way” she explains. Her band’s latest project ‘Death of a Cheerleader’ is a testament to her musical prowess, and as she shares with us, the work she put into acquiring the technical expertise to say precisely why that kick-drum was used, and why it sounds so good post-production. For Mia, making music is a labour of love that not only has allowed her to break and enter into a boy’s only club, but to also retain creative control of the entire creative process. For this, she has been referred to as an auteur of her craft.
Mia arrives at Parker & Quinn dressed in what she affectionately coins as 'Pom Pom chic' – the designated attire for low-key Squad activities: a Marc by Marc Jacobs top from their latest Heaven collection (to die for), plaid flare pants and a pair of chunky, black, will-walk-all-over-you platform boots. “I was supposed to be tall, you know? I was born to be a tall girl!” she drawls. There is a certain power that comes with viewing the world from high up, whether that be physically or spiritually. Mia embodies the lion-hearted spirit of a generation of women sharpening their teeth and drawing lipstick on in blood. She shares her interest in the Tarot and her belief in the cardinal lesson, mulling over the time that she pulled the Magician card from the pack, and what this prophecy meant for her future in music. Has she experienced any recent epiphanies? “Yes. Right now one of my newer fashion realizations is asking: ‘who is Pom Pom Squad and who is Mia? And how do they dress differently?’ That’s something I’m currently still navigating.”
Can you tell us about your first encounter with the Riot grrrl movement?
I was very much raised on pop-culture and music. My family environment was pretty unique: my mother is a Black Puerto Rican New Yorker who’s heavily into punk, and my father was a rapper. Despite all this, I very rarely found someone in pop culture who looked like myself. At school, I didn’t look like the people around me and in the media I escaped to privately, I couldn’t find that person either. When you don’t see a place for yourself in the media you start to think you don’t exist. Growing up as a bi-racial person in predominantly white spaces could be very isolating at times and so I spent a lot of time absorbing music and movies as means of survival, to try to learn how to be.
I first discovered Riot grrrl online through Rookie Magazine. It was one of my earliest memories of feeling represented. I was - you know, as many young women are - angry and sort of told you can’t be angry or express yourself in that way. But then I found Riot grrrl which gave me a radically different image from everything I’d seen up until then. It taught me a lot about what women’s voices could do and was my intro to feminism.
In what respect did these experiences play into the start of Pom Pom Squad?
It’s a 'kill your idols' movement. Riot grrrl is amazing in many ways and broke down a door that needed to be broken down. But then within Riot grrrl, there were its own hidden doors. You know, it was a certain type of feminism for a certain type of woman. And that’s kind of the grand fallacy of Riot grrrl - it’s for all women, but it’s not. When I started the band [Pom Pom Squad] it was to make for myself what I didn’t have access to. I still love Riot grrrl, I still love and value everything that it taught me. It liberated me from one status quo but then I saw it surfaced in front me. You realize you’re just following another status quo. It’s not just Riot grrrl though, I think that happens everywhere you go.
Pom Pom Squad is built around what you’ve referred to as the saccharine, plastic, Americana world. Did you always have such a deliberate relationship with your wardrobe?
I guess in a way. My mom is just a fashion icon! Always incredibly dressed. She has an amazing sense of style and a classic taste. We’re opposites in some ways: she loves staple pieces with a neutral colour palette. Any time I discover a new designer or a new place I’ll tell her she’ll be like, 'oh yeah I know about that.' So I think I was always very aware of clothes. Growing up my favorite show was Project Runway and I would sew dresses for my dolls.
Do you still sew?
Yes. Whenever I go to a store I can’t help but think about how I would like x or y better If I just nipped this or added that, or changed something..
You’ll go do that?
Haha yes, I do - sometimes to better effect than others. My partner makes fun of me cause we’ll be about to leave for a party, dressed and ready and I’ll be like 'wait, just let me make a few stitches!'and she’ll have to drag me out, like 'now is not that time to operate on the outfit.'I knew from the day that I had the idea for Pom Pom Squad that I wanted it to be visual as well as musical. Actually one of the first things I thought of was that I want this style of Riot grrrl band where we dress in this 60’s girl band style, with me wearing one color and the rest of the band in a different color. The first cover I ever put out, I remember I went out to the high school football field and styled my friends at the time. They were in these matching outfits and I took pictures of them as Pom Pom Squad. I just loved the idea of making it an aesthetic experience.
There’s an image of you that I’m really drawn to. You’re wearing this white chiffon dress paired with these elbow-length, black leather gloves. It’s a fascinating mix of soft-femme and dangerous femme-fatale. Is there a story behind the black gloves?
Yes, actually. The story goes back to the music video we did for a song called ‘Crying’. My co-director and I kept trying to figure out what we wanted the twist to be. We knew we wanted it to be eerie and old-Hollywood-esque. I wanted there to be some kind of body-horror movie element, and for some reason, I was like: what if all these black gloves come out of nowhere and start disrupting the scene - touching me in uncomfortable ways. There’s a choreographer named Pina Bausch who did a dance piece with her as a young woman being touched by an overwhelming crowd of men - not in a sexual or predatory way, but in a claustrophobic way - it becomes a very uncomfortable, anxiety-inducing sensation. I was really inspired and wanted to do something inspired by the texture of those gloves. Now I just love the duality they give me when paired with something more dainty and feminine.
Let’s go back a bit. You left theater school to study music and I’ve seen you in places being described as an “Auteur” of your music, as opposed to a singer. Can you tell us a bit about that and your decision to go to music school?
It was a very deliberate decision to do that, to become that way. I didn’t know anything about music production, even though my parents raised me around the industry, I didn’t know anything about the technical side of music production. All I knew was there were people and songs and then there was the production side. But it really became apparent to me that operating on that side of things was something I needed to do early on. There was this summer early on where I met some guys who liked my music and worked with me to produce it. I knew very precisely what I wanted the music to sound like, I was drawing on this vast musical library in mind, imprinted through my childhood. I’d say for example: “I want this to sound like the kick drum in X song” but I couldn’t tell you why that kick drum was needed, and why it sounded good the way it did. I still find it frustrating. When I have such a precise idea, trying to describe that to someone else is immensely frustrating.
Why do you think that dynamic frustrated you in the way that it did?
It was also layered by that whole dynamic of them being men and older than me, and already technically versed in the production side of things, and me not having the language to participate with them on that level. I always felt the pressure to be infallible, to never make a mistake. Otherwise, people are gonna talk down to me and find the first opportunity to write me off and say I don’t know anything. Actually, people in the industry, not just men, have insinuated - or explicitly expressed that. rather than acknowledge that I went to school and studied this. That’s why I went to music school: so I could sit in a room with somebody and say ‘hey - I want it to sound like this, and here’s how I’m going to get it to do that.
Your latest record ‘Death of a Cheerleader’ pokes at a trope of femininity that taunted you (and many of us) during our teen years. Was it cathartic to sift through those feelings and put them to “death” in some respect?
It was an extremely tough decision. You’re on one track your entire life and think that’s it. Then suddenly you totally pivot. But I’m really glad that it happened the way that it did. 'm very spiritual in certain ways and I love Tarot. I find it comforting. I’ve done readings at certain points in my life that I will never forget, because the specific thing I drew defined that moment in time for me in a very special way. The first reading I did on the band actually, I drew a card called the Magician which basically told me everything I need is within me. It’s the lesson I learn everytime I come to a breaking point in my career. It all comes back to this magician card - that it’s all inside of you.
I feel like everyone has a cardinal lesson. I don’t know if it's’ even so much as going in circles as it is ‘carving a statue’. You know - you make the first strike. Then you make the second, on the same piece of art - you’re still working on it - and you just chip away at it until the nuance and the meaning and the full structure is realized. That’s how I've been thinking of it. It feels like that’s my cardinal life lesson - every time I make another strike - it’s in that statue.
In retrospect, was there a positive to making your first full-length album in the solitude of quarantine?
Yes, I feel I was extremely blessed during that time. It was obviously extremely dark in many ways, both personally and with what was happening in the world. But I think as a musician going through that process, there was a hidden blessing. In the New York City music scene, there’s a lot going on all the time. You’re constantly aware of who’s playing what venue, getting what press, playing with who. But in quarantine none of that was happening so I was free from that unavoidable comparison. It was honestly a special time musically. I felt I could dig into what made me, me and what made Pom Pom Squad my project versus how to get more exposure. Right before the Pandemic, I felt myself going to this place of wanting to rush more music out for the purpose of building momentum. But that’s not why you should be doing that. That’s not why I do music. So for that reason, I’m thankful that the pandemic kind of intervened in that whole trajectory.
Your music navigates a lot of personal identity questions such as your sexuality and your femininity. You’re also a woman of colour, and I wonder if this heritage is something you’ll incorporate into the visage and explore in the future?
What’s so interesting about being a multi-racial person is that it’s really hard to feel in alignment with any particular heritage. Growing up, any kind of attempt I made to connect with myself as a Black person or a Puerto Rican person, I was constantly reminded that I’m not allowed to belong to either. It always felt like I was volley-balling in between what I’m allowed to identify with. Honestly, I wish I’d had a role model to show me that there’s no one way any human being should be engaged with their culture, and it’s something I resent in a way because it feels like there’s a lot of strict rules and sensitivities about how people want to consider you. When an article runs they’ll highlight selectively: 'Puerto Rican artist Pom Pom Squad or Black artist Pom Pom Squad.'But to ignore any side of the coin is to ignore the whole picture. It’s not fair to address me as an essentialized version of my identity because they all feed off of each other.
More so than anything, I want somebody to be that person I wish I’d had. Somebody who was multi-racial and could say: 'This is what it’s gonna be like.' It’s gonna be hard to work it out, to fit in, to find a way to feel secure in yourself. Perhaps that’s why I’m so critical of American culture. That’s the one prevailing culture that seemed to oppress me and divide people so much – the idea that the only people that get to live a normal life are cis-hetero blonde and blue-eyed 'nice folk'.
What would you say to people who buy into this way of thinking?
I want to bring up that there’s a different way to be a person of colour, that you don’t have to fit into one box. I think what I want to bring to the table is – my hope is that – if anyone learns anything, it is just to have more compassion for the people around them. To widen perspectives about what kinds of people exist. When you only hear a certain story growing up, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for necessary nuance, depth, and critical thought.