Ben Hopkins and Liv Bruce, the gender-nonconforming musicians behind PWR BTTM, were the darlings of indie pop-punk until last week, when allegations of sexual assault emerged against Hopkins, which in turn led to what seems to be the band’s immediate demise.
The release of the group’s sophomore album, Pageant, was pulled from streaming platforms as more people stepped forward with stories of abuse. Seems like where there’s smoke, there’s a garbage fire. Touring musicians and opening acts fled the band’s upcoming tour, and PWR BTTM was declared dead within days. But there is little to lament in the loss of this band. This was a bad band, and with any luck the speed with which it was stamped out of existence will make space for more and better queercore artists.
A “power bottom,” in the adorable gloss of the New York Times, means “a reins-taking, enthusiastic sexual partner on the receiving end of the experience.” The duo began recording together in 2015, after meeting as undergraduates at Bard College. Their performances, two EPs, and a debut album, Ugly Cherries, garnered rave reviews.
This praise was undeserved. The single “I Wanna Boi” is no more sophisticated than, say, the Katy Perry anthem “I Kissed a Girl,” and it’s less singable. Way less singable and shining than, say, The Scissor Sisters’s “She’s My Man,” and less punk than Sleater-Kinney’s “Modern Girl.” PWR BTTM’s songs are short and campy to a degree that suggests not exuberance but an absence of artistry. Nor do they seem to have any meaningful connection to the homocore and queercore bands of the ’80s and ’90s. This is queer music that doesn’t seem to know or care that it’s part of a long lineage of gay pop: if anything, PWR BTTM’s music seems to exist out of time, giddily oblivious to its own history.
That’s not to say that there was nothing to enjoy about the band. Hopkins plays decent guitar; Bruce plays decent drums; from what their fans have to say, they put on a rollicking good show. But there’s something about PWR BTTM’s sound that reminds me of the pop punk I used to listen to when I was a Warped Tour attendee, standing on the edge of a mosh pit filled with crater-faced teen boys. PWR BTTM isn’t any better than Blink-182. And perhaps because I spent my adolescence wearing whatever I could find that didn’t make me look like a girl (huge t-shirts, khaki shorts, Airwalks) I don’t find PWR BTTM’s shtick convincing. The pair perform in vivid drag: Bruce wearing neat, dark lipsticks, Hopkins with a face smeared in glitter. But it’s a mistake, I think, to confuse queerness with glamor and vice versa. Lots of queers are dumpy, ordinary, shy, poor, or tacky: We look to artists to sublimate our awkwardnesses into art.
And these artists are not themselves always queer. Lots of cis-het musicians—bands like MGMT, or Yeasayer—can write beautifully uneasy songs. These are artists who can bend a melody into eeriness, disembody it—and often, they are divinely glittery. Miley Cyrus drags. You can spend a delightful three minutes filling up your ears with Lady Gaga’s deliciously fag-haggy “Born this Way.” The applause aimed at PWR BTTM makes queer life and queer culture seem clandestine, which it isn’t any longer. The Times was right to call PWR BTTM the “latest flare” of a simmering queer culture in New York City; that PWR BTTM is a necessary or essential flowering therefrom doesn’t follow.
For what it’s worth, Bruce’s lyrics about her transition seem achingly simple and sweet, glimpsed at least through the few reviews of the album that came out before their label, Polyvinyl, dropped the band. Hopkins came up in the New York drag scene, at least sort of, and is a protégé of Justin Vivian Bond. But Hopkins’s considerable physical beauty is cis beauty. Hopkins looks like Johnny Depp, if he had borrowed Steven Tyler’s mouth. A comparison with David Bowie makes one weep for queer youth.
The trauma young fans will suffer—and already have suffered, judging from Twitter—at learning of the assault allegations against Hopkins is real. But that trauma might be mitigated if they figure out that there are just as many artists celebrating their identities as there were before. Nobody needs Hopkins around to be able to to rage and to feel as brightly as ever, not when they have Tegan and Sara, Kimya Dawson, Freddie Mercury, Black Fag, Bikini Kill, Pansy Division, and more.
In the case of PWR BTTM, the entertainment industry rewrote this history, creating a false scarcity of queer art to suit what it wanted to sell. Fame can do this: transform something available or even ordinary into something precious, rarified. Likewise, celebrity is hierarchical and exploitative—not of artists, but of fans. It churns out alibis, both for the persons who chase fame and for the socio-economic system which turns the things we buy into our most meaningful markers of identity. Like a lot of pop punk, PWR BTTM foregoes one critical function of punk: its critique of consumer society. The band’s video for the single “West Texas” could be mistaken for a trailer for Coachella, or one long, sponsored Instagram story—though it, too might soon be removed from its home on Vimeo.
As the scandal surrounding the band picked up, defensive projection bounced all over the internet. These guys have had their careers ruined. What about due process of law? In the aftermath of the allegations, much of the band’s music was removed from the internet, prompting some of their defenders to allege censorship. But such aggressive rejections of alleged abusers are often the only way vulnerable communities have of defending themselves. The first allegations against Hopkins came from the Chicago DIY scene, on a closed Facebook group, as a warning to queer women and girls to steer away from the band for safety reasons. One of the other terrible things about celebrity culture is how it encourages us to offer the famous the forgiveness we perhaps ought to direct elsewhere; to our children, our parents, our friends, and our family.
More generally, the narrative of meteoric rise and then well-deserved fall has seemed to do little to mitigate a deeper problem. The familiarity of the rise-and-fall narrative adds a sort of sickening extra predictability to the PWR BTTM affair. You can set your watch by certain rotten things about people: their violence, their cupidity, the way that manipulative artists know how to pass off cliché as revelation to vulnerable communities—to queer teenagers, for instance.
The band’s response to the allegations was noncommittal and confused. Then, in a Facebook post made on Friday, Hopkins related a successful attempt to suss out the identity of a woman who gave her account of being assaulted to Jezebel. Both of these responses centered on the murkiness of consent: the claim was that the encounters were consensual, or at least that Hopkins understood them to be. Certainly, it is possible not to know that someone doesn’t want to have sex with you, or to be touched by you. But that’s why you have to ask, and why you stop if any circumstance might mitigate the reliability of that consent. You do not try to find out the identity and particulars of the allegations being brought against you in order to argue against them. These are not the actions of someone trying to make amends or learn; they are they actions of someone trying to squirm out of responsibility.
You can always tell where people stand, whether they can take a long enough view. No person is guilty until they are proven guilty, but no person has to listen to tepid pop punk if they don’t want to, either. It’s usually better to side with justice, with the kind of effortful humanity that refuses to risk any harm to those whose unchosen life entails a history of harm, precarity, and fear. It gives a certain peace to the soul not to traffic in ugliness, which is—wonderfully enough—almost always moral and aesthetic at once. If the soul of an artist isn’t strong and capacious and sweet, often their work won’t be, either. There’s one particularly bad PWR BTTM song called “New Hampshire.” It’s almost too easy to read as a blasé valediction to the band itself.
Someday all the birds in the sky
Will just die
Oh, well. Turn up the Sleater-Kinney.