Los Angeles Times

Y2K QUEER POP TRIAGE

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L.A. band Muna reemerges after being dropped by its label and overcoming an intra-band breakup

Ask any music or fashion aficionado: Between low-rise jeans, thundering nümetal bass lines and the renaissanc­e of Britney Spears, Y2K nostalgia is taking off.

Yet not all Y2K throwbacks need reviving, say the members of Los Angeles indie-pop trio Muna. Between the ubiquity of rape jokes in popular movies and TV, not to mention the unceremoni­ous outings of then-closeted celebritie­s like Lindsay Lohan and Lance Bass of ’N Sync, “we were being sold back this [harmful] idea of ourselves,” says Katie Gavin, 29, lead vocalist of Muna.

Released on June 24 on indierock star Phoebe Bridgers’ record label, Saddest Factory, the band’s self-titled third album is an exquisite act of musical justice for those who suffered the indignitie­s of growing up queer in the Y2K era.

Comprising Gavin, lead guitarist Josette Maskin, 28, and multi-instrument­alist Naomi McPherson, 29, the group mines the cultural touchstone­s that inspired its members’ own queer awakenings — from the bombastic romanticis­m of teen idols like the Backstreet Boys to the country-pop sparkle of Shania Twain — and cultivates an inclusive pop future.

The trio, who first became acquainted at USC, didn’t intend for the band to be a vehicle for queer liberation. Yet they seemed to coalesce around one thing that wasn’t music: “It was definitely the gay [factor],” says Maskin. “It’s the one thing we all have in common.”

BY SUZY EXPOSITO

“There was a deeper journey we were meant to go on,” says Gavin.

Gavin, who grew up singing along to country songs in the suburbs of Chicago, and Maskin, a native Angeleno who came up in the punk rock scene, studied at the USC Thornton School of Music. McPherson arrived at USC from San Diego to major in American and ethnicity studies.

A classicall­y trained pianist and guitarist, McPherson, whose pronouns are they and them, initially resisted music as a career path. Now, they lead the production of every Muna release. “I grew up thinking I had to do classical or traditiona­l music,” says McPherson. “I didn’t know what Ableton was until Katie showed me how to make beats. I started making chopped-andscrewed remixes of songs, like Slim K and DJ Screw. I fell in love with producing.”

By 2016, Muna — a play on “luna,” the Spanish word for moon — landed a major-label record deal with RCA, going on to release two albums for the label: 2017’s “About U” and 2019’s “Saves the World.” The band would soon embark on tours with Harry Styles and Kacey Musgraves. Yet communicat­ion began to break down between Gavin and McPherson, who had been dating for two years before the band was signed. Maskin urged them to try therapy, even joining in at times, in service of the band’s survival — not to mention their friendship.

“We broke up shortly after we signed,” says McPherson of their relationsh­ip with Gavin. “Me and Katie, we’re both Capricorns. We’re headstrong, we have this intense work ethic. But whatever we didn’t see eye to eye on was just not as important as the music or our friendship.”

Intra-band romantic turmoil wasn’t the only obstacle Muna had to overcome: In spring of 2020, amid the pandemic, RCA released Muna from their contract.

The silver lining, says Gavin, is that “it helped [us] figure out our own path and forge a way for ourselves.”

In true Muna fashion, friendship would eventually save the day. The band had been in contact with Bridgers, who saw them perform an acoustic set in L.A.’s Bootleg Theater. In 2021, she signed them to Saddest Factory.

“Their songwritin­g [and] lyrics are bulletproo­f,” Bridgers told The Times in March.

Muna playfully refers to Bridgers as “Big Papa” — “Big Papa in essence, little papa in actuality,” says Maskin, referring to both Bridgers’ charisma and stature. Together with Bridgers, they recorded what would become their standout hit, a sanguine guitar-pop single titled “Silk Chiffon.” The lyrics were the brainchild of Gavin, who workshoppe­d the song with Musgraves collaborat­ors Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian in Nashville.

An appreciati­on of love between women, the song is a work of Americana-pop reverie, anchored firmly by a drum machine and verses so supple they catch the breeze. “Watch her silk dress dancing in the wind / Watch it brush against her skin,” sings Gavin, “Makes me wanna try her on.”

In making the video, “Silk Chiffon” director Ally Pankiw took inspiratio­n from the campy 1999 romcom “…But I’m a Cheerleade­r,” which takes place in a Christian conversion center for gay teens. In the music video, Gavin plays the titular cheerleade­r who is smitten with a girl in the program; meanwhile, Bridgers plays the pink-haired schoolmarm in charge, while popular gay comedian Caleb Hearon plays a conflicted gay coach.

“The movie was released the same year as ‘American Pie,’ ” says Pankiw, citing the raunchy teen sex romp starring Jason Biggs. “‘American Pie,’ which was [steeped] in rape culture, got an R rating. ‘Cheerleade­r’ was rated NC-17 because it included a queer love story. Whose lives might have been drasticall­y changed had they seen [‘Cheerleade­r’] before ‘American Pie’?”

“It was a conservati­ve time,” says McPherson of the 2000s. “The media was so much more homophobic and misogynist­ic. Someone like Lindsay Lohan being in an openly queer relationsh­ip [with Samantha Ronson] back then meant the world to me. The purpose of being this band lies in [trying to be] for other people what we did not have. How amazing would it have been to not feel like [being nonbinary] had to be a secret?”

The group has played a role in integratin­g queer pop culture into American pop culture at large, alongside the advent of TV juggernaut “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and a growing number of out LGBTQ musicians, actors and lawmakers no longer compelled to hide who they love. After appearing on soundtrack­s for queer films like “The Carmilla Movie” and Netflix’s 2018 offering “Alex Strangelov­e,” Muna was tapped to contribute to the soundtrack for Hulu’s buzzy gay rom-com, “Fire Island,” for which they recorded a clubby spin on Spears’ 1999 ballad “Sometimes.”

“I think it is a therapeuti­c exercise, like healing your inner child,” continues McPherson. “We’re not romanticiz­ing that time, we’re rewriting it for a new generation.”

And yet, as the demand for LGBTQ media grows, so do its adversarie­s: According to the ACLU, state legislator­s across the U.S. have introduced a record 162 bills seeking to limit or eliminate LGBTQ rights.

In the tradition of the many queer artists who came before, Muna looks to pop and dance music as its locus for resistance. “We owe that tradition to trans [people] of color,” says Gavin, in reference to disco legend Sylvester and the New York ballroom community that famously captivated Madonna.

“Our album was literally released on the day that Roe v. Wade was overturned,” says Gavin. “We live in a major city [where] we’re very lucky to feel safe and affirmed. But in touring this country and other countries, we interface with people for whom that is not their lived experience. In some spaces, being out and being ourselves is contentiou­s. We have an obligation to put that in our music.”

 ?? Emily Monforte For The Times ?? KATIE GAVIN, from left, Naomi McPherson and Josette Maskin are college-friends-turned-queer idols with their band Muna, back as strong as ever after turmoil.
Emily Monforte For The Times KATIE GAVIN, from left, Naomi McPherson and Josette Maskin are college-friends-turned-queer idols with their band Muna, back as strong as ever after turmoil.
 ?? Emily Monforte For The Times ?? “IN SOME spaces, being out and being ourselves is contentiou­s. We have an obligation to put that in our music,” says Katie Gavin, center.
Emily Monforte For The Times “IN SOME spaces, being out and being ourselves is contentiou­s. We have an obligation to put that in our music,” says Katie Gavin, center.
 ?? Chris Saucedo Getty Images for SXSW ?? MUNA performs at the Saddest Factory SXSW Music Showcase in Austin, Texas, on March 16.
Chris Saucedo Getty Images for SXSW MUNA performs at the Saddest Factory SXSW Music Showcase in Austin, Texas, on March 16.

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