Meet Pom Pom Squad: „You can’t be what you can’t see“

There is a point during my conversation with Mia Berrin, where for a second I’m afraid I might have offended her. It is when I tell her how well thought out and artistic I find the concept that surrounds her band Pom Pom Squad. Knowing that she is the main force behind the band,  writes all the songs and is responsible for the whole visual concept, which also includes directing or at least co-directing all the videos, it is very obvious to me that she is a person with a very strong vision, who knows what she wants and how she can creatively achieve it. I try to express that, but she pulls a frown, which I find hard to read. Sensing my moment of confusion, she starts explaining straight away. „The reason why I made that face… honestly, so many people question if I’m the one who does everything. I constantly get treated like there is no possible way that I could handle all of these things or be the creative person behind all these things. It’s definitely an insecurity for me, something that I try to fight not to have to prove to everybody. Genuinely I really appreciate you saying that. I think you are actually maybe the first person in an interview who said: I can tell that this is all you.“

In my personal bubble, where I champion the incredible creative power of women in music all the time, of course I am shocked and saddened to hear that. But looking at the overall picture, I should not be surprised. It is a very common phenomenon, that all women bands are easily degraded and viewed as mere performers, that there must be someone in the backgroundcontrolling everything, leading them to success – let’s name it, in general the assumptiion is it’s a man, who takes care of the bigger picture. Or as Mia puts it: „I’m getting all these comments like: ‚Oh, she’s an industry plant‘. Because God forbid I could just be good at this without having some kind of cheat and having somebody doing it all for me.“

Mia Berrin is still quite young, but she has obviously had her fair share of finding out what it means to be a woman, especially a black woman, in the music industry. Having studied music history in college, she has also developed an overview of where these structural problems stem from, and she has a very clear opinion on them. „Essentially all pop music in America was built on the backs of black people, and their rights were taken away,“ she says. „When I think of Rock, I think of Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Sister Rosetta Tharpe being the godmother of Rock guitar – I never heard her name until I was 19 years old! A black, queer woman pioneered Rock guitar. Meanwhile I was told or treated like I was weird for being a person who was at every Indie or Alternative Rock or Punk Show in my hometown. The other side of that coin is that it was interesting to see young black women in pop history being treated almost like dolls. To me, Ronnie Spector was the original bad girl!“ She laughs, despite all the atrocities we are talking about, and fortunately she does that a lot during our conversation via Zoom, which turns out much longer than it was originally planned and leaves us both with the thought that maybe she should go into Stand Up Comedy.

If you haven’t heard of Pom Pom Squad yet, you definitely have to check them out. They are one of the exciting bands, who are currently reviving and remodelling a movement that first got me excited when I was in my early post-teens (yep, that was some time ago). When I first found out about the Riot Grrrl Movement, I felt equally irritated and excited. As long as I can remember, from when I was a little kid, I was really into women in music. I was a shameless Pop girl, worshipping Madonna, Whitney Houston and Cyndi Lauper, but also slightly less iconic acts like Gloria Estefan, Swing Out Sisters, Taylor Dane, Paula Abdul, Debbie Gibson – does anybody remember Tiffany? God, I wanted that hair. But anyway, I grew up, I got more into Indie, Rock and Punk, and then suddenly there was the Riot Grrrl Movement, which felt like the perfect blend of everything I was into. Also, these women were different. They were sexy, but in a bit of an aggressive way, which did not rely on anybody’s approval, least of all men. I could massively relate to that. Seeing the Breeders perform at a festival when I was 18 while screaming out my frustration over a massive heartache, bribing a woman with a kiss to take me as her plus one into a sold out Le Tigre show in Berlin – I can tell you, these all were life altering moments for me. 

So all of this is recalled when  I encounter a band like Pom Pom Squad today. The way Mia and her bandmates celebrate the freedom Riot Grrrl brought for women, expressing themselves through a style of music, which for decades was widely considered as unfeminine, brings back nostalgic feelings but at the same time makes me excited for a future, when maybe one day women won‘t have to explicitly prove that they own the genre. But while I rage on about how important the Riot Grrrl movement once was and still is for me, Mia points out one aspect of it that I have to admit (and I am quite ashamed of it) I’ve overlooked a bit, blinded by all my excitement – its lack of inclusivity. „In terms of Riot Grrrl, that was my introduction into playing music“, Mia says. „I had never seen women in bands before. I had never seen bands that were all women. And the other thing that pushed me was the realization, that there weren’t any black or brown women in Riot Grrrl. Riot Grrrl had failed me in that way. Actually it broke my heart. It all started turning into: I need to start a band, I need to start the band that I wanted to see.“ 

Even today, black women are grossly underrepresented in Rock Music, almost to the point of not being visible at all. One of the few current acts I can instantly think of are Nova Twins, who I had a conversation with recently and who also told me that they basically had no role models when growing up and developing an interest in playing Rock. Mia very passionately emphasizes the importance of these kinds of role models. „I needed to see someone like the Nova Twins when I was a teenager! It would have changed my life! It would have changed the trajectory of what I was able to do. I probably would have picked up an instrument earlier. I probably would have started to play on stage sooner. I would have had role models. Period. You can’t be what you can’t see, in a way. “ I realize, still a bit ashamed, how lucky I have always been. I did grow up feeling a lot like a loner and an outsider, I know the feeling of not properly fitting in and failing to live up to the expectations of your surroundings. But still, I have no idea how it must feel to be excluded not only because of  the way you think, the way you dress or the things you are interested in, but by who you are per se, as the person you were accidentally born as.

Mia has obviously had her share of that as well. She appears so confident to me and I hope she forgives me if I say: she’s just stunningly beautiful. But she also talks very openly about the feeling of being an outsider in her youth. „I grew up thinking that I was hideously ugly,“ she confides to me, and it literally breaks my heart to hear her say that. „I think the reason for that is, there wasn’t really a beauty standard when I was in high school that incorporated my features. So I just grew up thinking that I was horrible-looking. Then weirdly the Kardashians came along and suddenly it was having thick eyebrows, having tanned skin, having dark hair, being curvy. And I always thought if I was prettier, maybe people would pay more attention. But it’s actually made people so much harder on me. Because then it’s like: God forbid that I’d be talented and also attractive. You gotta pick one! I can only be valued for one of these things.“ 

The band name already reveals it, but fighting against exclusion, struggling with beauty standards and the inability to fulfill them finally led her to making the cheerleader and the role this figure plays in society one of the key visual points of Pom Pom Squad. „I became really interested in that image, because I wanted to embody that so bad and didn’t feel like I could,“ Mia explains. So she put on the costume, to find out what it would do to her, how it would change the way that people see her. The outcome again has a bitter aftertaste. „When I started playing in New York, wearing a cheerleading costume, so many people would come up to me and tell me: ‚I expected to hate you.‘ Or: ‚I thought that you guys were going to be really soft, but you’re actually really Punk!‘ People just expect to hate women! Sometimes power comes with attractiveness, sometimes power comes with ability. But I was expected to be hated, just for wearing a feminine outfit.“ 

It’s only the aftertaste of a lot of things we talk about that is bitter. Mia herself isn’t at all. She appears extremely positive to me. And she has multiple reasons to be proud of what she has achieved. She hasmanaged to keep her band, which she only formed shortly before the pandemic, not only on track without being able to play a single live show in the past year, but she has also pushed them to record and release their debut album in these wild circumstances. „I definitely was panicking when it all first happened,“ she tells me. „There was definitely a moment of all the momentum being gone. We were about to have all these industry conversations, but every conversation just dropped. Pom Pom Squad really gained reputation as a live band. Suddenly we didn’t have the shows and nobody was interested anymore. It didn’t make sense to me, because if you are interested in the music…“ 

That’s where fortunately the people of City Slang came in, who were so excited about Pom Pom Squad, that they were willing to sign the band without ever having heard them play live. „I was really hard-balling them,“ Mia laughs. „I was very skeptical and I was definitely playing hard to get with them. I’m very protective of the project. I heard so many industry horror stories about knowing my rights and getting to keep my rights. It really matters to me.“ 

The way Mia Berrin protects her baby and takes her craft seriously has really paid off. „Death Of A Cheerleader“, the band’s freshly released debut, is fierce and sweet at the same time, it’s wild and gentle, intelligent and honest. And it will hopefully inspire more women to pick up their instruments and rock the fuck out. No matter where they come from, no matter where they grew up, no matter what the colour of their skin is, whether they are nerds, queers, feminists, prom queens, cheerleaders or all that in one person at the same time. I have a daughter, who is going to be 16 soon, and I want her to grow up in a world where every possible path is open. Thank Godess there are women like Mia Berrin, paving the way for her.