On 16 February, MUNA headlined their first show in Kansas City, Missouri, playing to a group of kids whom they encouraged to treat the event as a mixer of types. Some months later, sitting in a hotel lobby in Shoreditch, the band acknowledge that this occasion might well have been the only chance several members of the audience had ever had to meet other queer kids.
The idea of encouraging young queer people to network, and creating a safe space for sexualites and genders of all types, complete with gender neutral bathrooms at the band’s request, is notable in a state that would debate a “bathroom bill” less than a week later. The Missouri state Senate committee held public hearings on a bill requiring students to use school bathrooms that matched their “biological sex.” Non-binary and transgender teenagers took to the podium to explain the fears they faced of outing and humiliation at school, which in the midwestern and southern United States, are decidedly unsafe spaces.
It seems revelatory, in this context, that a band would sing about queer relationships and sex so openly and defiantly. While MUNA poured out their lyrics about queerness and complicated sex at Record House in Kansas City, they were ironically located just a seven-minute drive away from a Planned Parenthood clinic that has experienced both firebombings and shootings.
The safe-space ethos so championed by bands like MUNA has been tried and tested before. A very pertinent, yet less successful example comes in the form of Brooklyn queer-punk-rock band PWR BTTM. Their insistence on gender-neutral toilets at shows directly inspired MUNA to attempt the same. The duo were champions of safe spaces in music, but were recently revealed to have failed spectacularly in achieving these aims. Several fans made allegations of abuse against band member Ben Hopkins, inciting a hailstorm of criticism which resulted in the band’s effective blacklisting from the music community. The safe space rhetoric so championed by PWR BTTM empowered actively empowered their fans to achieve this.
“I think the personal as political is the central theme of our band.” - Naomi McPherson
In the wake of this sordid turn of events, young fans the world over are grieving the loss of some highly visible queer role models. The intrinsically political nature of PWR BTTM’s radical queerness built them a fan base who simply would not tolerate what is often brushed off in other circumstances as “rock and roll behaviour.” There’s a void left by this loss, making it seem more critical than ever before that queer bands stand up and be counted; taking responsibility for their own behaviour, both publicly and in private.
“I think the personal as political is the central theme of our band,” producer and guitarist Naomi McPherson says. She, lead singer Katie Gavin, and guitarist Josette Maskin are sprawled out over a couch, giving the impression of being more like family members or childhood friends than a trained professional unit. It’s because of their intense friendship that delving into past trauma, moulding it into powerfully anguished lyrics, and belting it out onstage is routine for them. They don’t drink before shows, according to their Twitter, and never seem to dismiss any gig as a work obligation. Instead, it’s a uniquely personal and riling performance art of sorts; one that leaves the audience transfixed and so vulnerable that reaching out for connection to the person next to you seems less daunting than in the rest of life.
Back in London, the political context is less sharp in contrast to their lyrics than in Missouri, but the message is equally potent. Over two sold out nights at Hoxton Square, the band’s UK fanbase showed up in droves. The differences between the Shoreditch café where we sit, and the Kansas City bar they performed in mere months ago, is stark. Here, queerness is viewed differently and, as in larger cities around the world, there’s an element of refuge for gay culture.
The band feel comfortable here, and the album seems to have found a particular niche with European youths, despite MUNA often being referred to as an “LA band.” Los Angeles is fertile ground for albums, with producers, DJs, and label executives often running into one another at the local coffee shop. Still, the city is merely a base camp for MUNA. Roaming the U.S. together during their 14-city headlining tour has solidified both their bond and their attempts to build a temporary home for fans at whichever venue they are booked.
“I don’t feel like LA is home,” McPherson says, when asked if writing and producing in Los Angeles changed the sound of the band. “But then again, I’m from San Diego and that doesn’t feel like home either.”
Gavin jumps in: “When I think of a location attached to the album, I think of bedrooms.”
A bedroom - full of old memories, collectibles from your life, and aspirational posters and albums - sounds like About U feels. The themes of intimacy, privacy, and discomfort found within these private spaces are echoed throughout the trio’s debut album. “I’m never gonna ask for more from a lover,” Gavin sings in “Crying on the Bathroom Floor”. “I wonder if I could ever ask for more.”
“I think being as open and authentic to yourself as you are to other people is an act of bravery and it inspires other people to do the same with people in their own lives.” - Naomi McPherson
The self-doubt that accompanies growth occurs in our most private moments, and the lessons that percolate usually come together while you’re sitting in your bedroom, listening to old albums and trying to sort your life out. Maskin notes that Gavin still writes short essays dissecting their completed songs, showing that MUNA doesn’t regard their songs as end point but rather as constantly evolving dialogues that the audience - the U in the album title could refer to them, after all - is invited to participate in.
MUNA’s narrative power lies mostly in their ability to create an emotional release and refuge without escapism. Trauma, failed relationships, the pulsing bruise that is living under a racist and sexist government - fans recognise all of these themes in the band’s raw, honest lyrics. As a result, the release of About U elicited a wave of emotion and recognition from the band’s ever-growing fanbase. Followers of the band immediately took to social media to thank them for releasing material that quelled the chaos of their lives, without completely disregarding it.
In case anyone had managed to bypass their band’s political outspokenness (one would have to ignore all of their social media accounts in order to do this), Gavin spelled it out clearly in their Jimmy Kimmel performance. “I throw my arms open wide in resistance,” Gavin enunciated on national, primetime TV, following the election of Donald Trump as president. Her arms formed the “don’t shoot” gesture that Black Lives Matter advocates frequently use in protests. “He’s not my leader even if he’s my president,” she added, before launching into “I Know A Place”’s joyful chorus.
Fans hailed the performance, and in particular Gavin’s additional lyrics, as a rare attempt to make a political statement out of pop music on a mainstream late night show. Adding a sentiment of resistance to a song already centred on the joy and refuge provided by queer spaces showed a commitment to doing right by their newfound platform. MUNA are misfits with a cause, making music for much the same, and they represent this equally well in front of millions of viewers or an intimate audience bouncing around a sticky East London bar room floor.
MUNA make a home out of feeling displaced and perhaps like there is no true home for the unfiltered, authentic self. With “Crying on Bathroom Floor” in particular, Gavin hesitated to recount a darker period of her life on an album she would rather have been a defiant call to action.
“There was a time I came to them and said, ‘I don’t think we can put this on the album,’” Gavin remembers. “It’s from a battered perspective. It was a really personal song, and I felt like I let myself get to such a weak point. I don’t want to be that for other people; I’d rather be a depiction of something strong.” It took her bandmates reminding her that vulnerability is a key element of their project, and a testament to someone’s courage in their life’s story, to get the track back onto the album. As McPherson describes it, “It’s like radical vulnerability. I think being as open and authentic to yourself as you are to other people is an act of bravery and it inspires other people to do the same with people in their own lives.”
“We want to interact with people as much as possible because we wouldn’t be here without them. They are who we want to represent and be a voice for.” - Josette Maskin
MUNA finished writing About U in August 2016, three months before the U.S. election that placed Trump in power. It was an eerie foreshadowing that their album spoke exactly to this feeling - finding strength in brokenness and defiance alike - when shortly after it would become a lifeblood for their audience. The personal themes behind the lyrics have been backlit by constant political turmoil. Social media allows millennials unprecedented access to national conversations from which they had previously been excluded, and their contributions take a decidedly different tone. The political is infiltrated with personal anecdotes, adding detail and anguish to stories about Medicaid, food stamps, police brutality, and more, that are dryly and often unfairly covered in national media. In this context, MUNA’s own relationship with their audience is composed of both mutual admiration and occasional discomfort.
The barrier between musicians and their audiences began eroding even before MUNA released their first EP, and they are in the middle of this transition in that historically fraught relationship. Fans flock to their shows from states or, in the case of the London shows, countries away. MUNA took time to casually greet fans after the gig, demurring from hugs because they were collectively coming down with a cold.
“I’m still unsure about the whole thing because we’re such a baby band,” Maskin says when asked about navigating fan relationships. “I have had moments where I’m uncomfortable and by boundaries being crossed. But we want to interact with people as much as possible because we wouldn’t be here without them. They are who we want to represent and be a voice for.”
“Bands are nothing without the people who are ride or die for them,” McPherson chimes in.
MUNA voice their appreciation and care for their fan base genuinely and consistently. Designating gender neutral bathrooms, asking for fans to respect one another’s personal space, and engaging in a dialectical relationship with gig audiences all reflect this. Those safe space tactics are a way of building the communities they didn’t have as younger kids but desperately wanted. Still, the ins and outs of fandom culture sometimes transgress these gestures in tricky ways.
“There’s not necessarily such a thing as a safe space, because a safe space is a different thing for everyone.” - Naomi McPherson
“I’m really interested in the idea of being a fan - I’ve never really been a fan. I wasn’t a part of that, so it really fascinates me,” Gavin says. “I don't ever want to be in a relationship where one personal relies on the other to validate them. Another person shouldn’t be needed to make me feel like a real person, and that’s the main indication of whether or not I feel comfortable. That’s part of the reason we are so focused on empowering people to tell their own stories. It’s a falsity and it puts both people in a bad situation.”
How to be a repository and safe airing ground for other people’s trauma without constantly bearing its weight is a central conflict for any artist whose work resonates deeply with their audience. Gavin and McPherson are most encouraged by the networking between fans, who view the gigs as “a vessel for connection to other people.” Instead of trying to validate their fans’ individual reactions and longing for relationships with the people that make up MUNA, MUNA has decided instead to facilitate their fans’ self-empowerment. They construct environments that are free from the deluge of identity harassment that LGBTQ people and people of color face everyday.
“There’s not necessarily such a thing as a safe space, because a safe space is a different thing for everyone,” McPherson explains. They can only do so much, she reasons, but is perhaps not giving herself enough credit when you take into account that most artists don’t bother to do much at all. The physical efforts to respect everyone at a MUNA gig are the most tangible representation of this idea, but the songs themselves are at the core of this idea - that you can lay down your metaphorical weapons and bare your wounds for a night. Again, “Crying On the Bathroom Floor” is arguably the best example.
“The point is, you’re keeping all the rough edges on it,” Gavin says, going back to their decision to keep the song on the record. “Letting yourself be exactly as you are.”
“We’ve laid all our feelings on you, so this is your chance to give it back to us, and let us carry the heavy stuff for you this evening,” Gavin said towards the end of the second night at Hoxton. The crowd was tittering and boozy, but in that moment it quieted to an appreciative hum. It might not have been a safe space, but it was more than enough - mostly thanks to the rough edges the band almost omitted from their narrative.