With our Track by Track feature, artists guide listeners through each song on their latest full-length. Today, June Artist of the Month Pom Pom Squad dissects their debut album Death of a Cheerleader.
Brooklyn-based quartet Pom Pom Squad (Mia Berrin, Mari Alé Figeman, Shelby Keller and Alex Mercuri) have released their debut album, Death of a Cheerleader, today (June 25th). Arriving via City Slang Records, you can stream the LP below through Apple Music.
Death Of A Cheerleader marks the band’s first full-length release following two well-received EPs, 2017’s Hate it Here and 2019’s Ow. As Berrin explains in our June Artist of the Month interview, “The thing I learned on this album the most is what else I can pull out of my toolbelt. I didn’t think I had the ability to make arrangements like I did on this record, [and] I’m excited to push that even more.”
Death of a Cheerleader was preceded by the singles “Lux,” “Head Cheerleader” and “Crying.” Find about more about those and all the tracks on the LP by reading Berrin’s Track by Track breakdown under the album stream ahead.
When the Vibraphone riff of “Be Good” came together, I felt like I had unlocked the heart of the album — I’m a sucker for themes and bookends, so I knew there needed to be a taste of it earlier in the album. When I write, I think a lot about narrative function and that riff has what I’ve come to describe as “the pull” — it feels like following the rabbit hole down into the very whimsical world of this record.
The sound collage is made up of mostly iPhone recordings of Shelby, Mari Alé, Alex and me. Once we got into the studio, Sarah added some whistling. It’s like the start of a spell; all of us are present. Some of the other sounds are radio static from a Fisher Price Radio, guitar feedback, a storm warning alarm, and a stylophone.
In college, I took a songwriting class, and our first assignment was to write a mission statement for our project. “Head Cheerleader” was an effort to lean into the overarching trope that makes Pom Pom Squad what it is — almost like parodying myself. Heart-shaped lockets and scary cheerleaders and young adult chaos and self discovery and deep ungraceful discomfort.
I was also in a really complicated relationship at the time that really pushed me to come face-to-face with my sexual identity in a way I never had before. I had this realization that the life I was living was designed around receiving attention and validation from men — something I never truly wanted. The result of that realization was like stepping out of an old skin. It changed the way I behaved in every aspect of my life. I was finally making decisions toward my own self actualization instead of for other people’s perception. It was terrifying and exciting and necessary. This song feels like a celebration of the discomfort that comes with stepping into your new skin — your own power.
I met Tegan [Quin, who sings backing vocals] through a semi-viral tweet I had about racial equity, and honestly I’m still amazed that we’re friends. Having her be a part of this song is extremely surreal — I saw Tegan and Sara twice when I was in high school. The first time, I was fifteen. I went with a friend who was always taking me out on secret dates with the dumbest boys. While we were in line, she dared me to hit on a girl…little did she know…thinking back to that time, I never thought I would interact with the people on that stage — let alone that one of them would sing on my song.
This song is honestly sort of a self-drag. During the Ow cycle, I convinced myself that through writing these songs I could completely exorcise the demon that was my depression. As It turns out, no amount of songwriting is a substitute for medication and therapy. This song was almost cut from the album completely — which is hilarious, because it’s one of my favorites now. It was the last to come together and definitely the most frustrating.
In terms of thinking in a narrative arc, I knew I wanted to write a song that felt like a bridge between the guitar-based world of the record and the cinematic ‘50s/’60s-inspired world of this record. Ultimately, it became about a meta-feeling — being angry at yourself for being depressed.
The character of this song is essentially my ego: the part of myself who doesn’t learn, makes the same mistakes constantly, is flaky, can’t admit she’s wrong, is self-pitying and who uses self-deprecating humor to deflect any real responsibility. In short, the song is me calling myself whiny. Very glam!
This song is about a very specific night — there was someone I loved who loved me too, but at the time, for many reasons, we couldn’t be together. We stood in front of my old apartment in a moment of palpable tension. We wanted to run up the stairs to my shoebox-sized room, pull each other close, and kiss until our lips went numb, but instead we both went home alone.
I went up the stairs and listened to a playlist we had made. The song “Second That Emotion” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles came on, and immediately I thought of the poem “Blue Prelude” by Saeed Jones — specifically the lines “In my empty bed I dreamed the record’s needle / pointed into my back, / spinning me into no one’s song.” I shuffled my deck and drew three tarot cards. The first was The Lovers.
Cake is sort of a departure from the love story — a quick commercial break! I had come up with a concept for a song called “Fistfuls of Cake” that I pored over, trying to make it work on the record. All I knew was that it had to be a punk song. In the early part of quarantine, I joined a songwriting circle that a former professor was hosting. Henson Popa entered the zoom meeting and shared a song that at that point was called “Waste of Time.” It was so perfectly raw — I loved it immediately. I asked if they were planning on releasing and if and if we could co-write a new version for my record. I was ecstatic that they said yes. It was a quick and lovely process, and Henson also contributed vocals!
The lyrics are inspired by experiences I’ve had in the music industry. I was also inspired by a Dave Chappelle interview where he talks about the moment that “killed” his show — a white spectator laughing too loud and too long for the wrong reasons. There was a time where I was being paid attention to for the wrong reasons: tokenized instead of uplifted.
Lux is a song that’s very dear to me. I wrote it when I was sixteen or seventeen — my first “good” song! It’s about the fear of intimacy I felt as a teen that stemmed from negative early experiences of male attention. The Virgin Suicides, one of my very favorite movies, captured this fear in a way that deeply resonated — the scene where Trip leaves Lux alone on the football field. He had gone through the effort of making her love him and then, when he got what he wanted, he left.
I released the demo for this song on Bandcamp when I was in college and it ended up being played on Brooklyn Vegan’s blog radio on Sirius XMU. It was the first lightbulb that maybe I had a calling in music. The release has been a long time coming, but ultimately, I’m glad I waited so that I could really do right by this thing and simultaneously, by my teenage self.
“Crimson + Clover”:
I covered Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover’ simply because it is just such a freaky little song. When I moved into my first apartment with my partner over a year ago, we only listened to music from the ‘50s and ‘60s. Being in our own place for the first time, we were in our own little world. Soundtracking that with music that was so romantic and cinematic felt like an escape from the constant clutter of our work lives and the city around us.
“Crimson + Clover” became one of my favorite songs. I loved the original, and my partner loved Joan Jett’s version. I wanted to make a version that paid tribute to both in a way — the queerness of the JJ version and the saccharine-to-the-point-of-being-creepy Tommy James & the Shondells version.
For me, it represents the !!gay panic!! segment of the album arc — the part of falling in love and subsequently accepting your identity that is truly terrifying. We recorded the song on the day when Henson and Spencer [Peppet, best friend and the frontperson of The Ophelias] came in to record background vocals, so Sarah, Alex, Shelby, Sarah, Henson, Spencer and I all stood around the microphone screaming the “la la las” under the second verse.
“Red With Love”:
“Red with Love” is my first-ever love song. It’s about all-encompassing love — the kind of early love that makes you fall in love with everything around you. Also, the full flamboyant embrace of your sexuality that comes from pushing through the “Crimson + Clover”-wall-of-fear. I felt like this song fit the story, but selfishly, I also wanted to redo the vocals. I recorded the single version of “Red With Love” and our cover of “Cellophane” on the same day, shortly before I found out that I needed to get a corrective surgery for a deviated septum and enlarged turbinates that prevented me from breathing through my nose. When I try to describe this to people they’re like, “So…a rhinoplasty?”, But that isn’t the case, as I was born with my mother’s perfect nose.
Either way, I can’t listen to the single version (or “Cellophane” for that matter), since all I hear is myself screlting for my life. I worked on this song for weeks with my vocal coach before going into the studio and still felt intense insecurity about recording it when I got behind the mic. I called City Slang that day and begged them to let me cut it from the record. They encouraged me to finish it and I’m glad I did. To me, this version sounds like flying through pillowy clouds on the wings of an angel.
Speaking of angels, this song opens with the voice of Spencer. She added vocals to several songs on the record, including “Crimson + Clover,” “Crying,” and “This Couldn’t Happen.” I also wrote this song for a class — originally it was a tried and true pop song with trap beats and everything. I made it with a classmate, Garrett Chabot, who sat on the floor of my dorm room with me comparing tales of complicated relationships. I liked the song, but didn’t think it had any place in my project. Shelby and Mari Alé loved it and constantly encouraged me to make a Pom Pom Squad version. A fun fact: the ambient noises in the bridge are iPhone recordings, the funniest of which is a heavily edited clip of my cat, Zelda, purring.
This song is our drummer Shelby [Keller’s] Pom Pom Squad writing debut! A while before we met, they had the idea to start a band called Tonsil Hockey and had written the drum, guitar and bass parts with no vocals or lyrics. They had been really upset that the band didn’t pan out, so one day I decided to surprise them by finishing the song. We both loved it. The lyrics are about an extremely chaotic and very drunk karaoke night. In this song, I am at odds with my aforementioned Mr. Hyde, Chaotic Stupid. It’s about the moment in your brain where you decide to make a bad decision because you can.
This song is about wishing you hated the person you love most, because it’s easier than trying to be friends. It’s one of the more blunt, heart-baring songs on the record. It’s also been in my back pocket for a while. Initially, this song was a slower, stripped down, guitar and vocal situation, but it turned into a heavy, full-band piece. I wanted the song to feel like a drunk night when you’re leaving a party, mascara running down your face. You want so desperately to call the person you love, but instead you find a baseball bat and start smashing everything in your wake. There’s a fun Melanie Safka reference in this one that I am particularly proud of.
“This Couldn’t Happen”:
This song is an interpretation of Doris Day’s cover of “Again.” It has a few meanings for me: There’s a song called “Again” on the Ow EP — in the midst of the heartbreak that inspired it, I thought about how breakups can essentially mean, “I’ve seen all of you and I don’t want any of it.” I vowed, in pain, to never have my heart broken again. I had written, “You said / this wouldn’t happen again” in reference to a temporary love.
When I heard Doris Day’s version almost a year later, I was struck by the line “this couldn’t happen again” in reference to a once-in-a-lifetime love. The night I mentioned in the story about “Second That” — on the street in front of my apartment, I knew I had watched my once-in-a-lifetime love walk away. Looking at the card in my hand, The Lovers, I knew I had to fight for us — that if I didn’t, I’d regret it forever.
“Be Good” is my favorite song on the record. When I wrote it, I knew it was the record’s heart. The cinematic finale. The relationship that this album centers around taught me, in many ways, about autonomy most of all. I was committing to a life, whether it was being openly gay, being a musician, or loving this person, that everyone thought was wrong but I knew was right for me. It’s about loving someone enough (and loving yourself enough) to let them go until they’re ready to be what you need.