Album Review: Pom Pom Squad – Death of a Cheerleader

[City Slang; 2021]

Brooklynites Pom Pom Squad are finally dropping their debut album. What started out as a solo project of frontwoman Mia Berrin in 2015 has over time become a four-piece that served up piping-hot grunge anthems throughout 2020 and garnered a name for themselves. Barrin’s small project is now arriving fully realized on their debut album, and Death of a Cheerleader is one of those that possesses something special.

Tearing through cut after cut on Death of a Cheerleader comes natural to the collective – at no point do they stop to gasp for air. Berrin combines the likenesses of Stephen Malkmus and Sadie Dupuis into one united vocal style – she’s quirky and offbeat like the Pavement man, but all of her words drop with weight like Sad13’s. “Keep a picture of me in a heart around your neck / My worst decisions are the ones I like best,” she croons on opening banger “Head Cheerleader”, and goes on delivering the wit necessary to expel the rawness of the lines “Took me under the bleachers like we were 17 / My feelings always make a fucking fool of me.”

Death of a Cheerleader unravels the ‘cheerleader’ stereotype, which is why so many of the tracks here bite. This isn’t the first time someone’s tried to subvert this idea, but decades removed from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” Pom Pom Squad are leading the charge for different reasons. As a queer Hispanic woman, Berrin’s view of the elitist cheerleader concept wasn’t a degrading one necessarily, but one full of attraction. There’s a certain amount of power that comes from that position in high school, and while Berrin might not be in her teens anymore, but for her, like many of us, that period has left a huge impact that she’s still managing.

As a result, Pom Pom Squad’s first LP is wrought with confusion, revelation, and risk. Berrin takes our ears to the courts on “Cake” where Shelby Keller’s constant repeated drum beat drops like a basketball, before some frenetic guitar work takes the song up another level. This band fires on all cylinders throughout, with hardly any room for missteps. There’s lots of filthy riffage and unrestrained aggression, as on “Lux” where Berrin struggles with her sexuality, “You can take my peace / Leave me rotting like the leaves / But I won’t ever let you say / You cared about me.”

Barely crossing the 30-minute mark, Death of a Cheerleader checks all the boxes for a profound debut. It’s not all breakneck speed rockers either – Berrin particularly shines on centerpieces “Crimson & Clover” (a crackling cover of Tommy James’ classic) and “Red With Love”, with the band slowing it down slightly and supporting her perfectly thanks to a strong rhythm section in Maria Ale Figeman and Alex Mercuri. “Drunk Voicemail” leans into some sentimental territory, but it’s never sappy – it ends up in a similar vain as Mannequin Pussy’s remorseful rocker “Drunk II”.

Death of a Cheerleader benefits from fully blasting on speakers – like the ones that jerkoff from high school used to jam Coldplay through. This is rager music, the fun and frantic rock anthems that the weirdos and the geeks who have grown into successful entrepreneurs and innovators can dance to while the quarterback from their high school bags their groceries. There’s been plenty of records about high school made over the last century, but now Pom Pom Squad make their own mark by throwing the perfect amount of shade on that phony John Hughes-fabricated utopia.