It’s Hard Not to Feel Cynical About PWR BTTM
Just weeks after being hailed as, to quote one headline, “America’s Next Great Rock Band,” the music of queer rock duo PWR BTTM is close to being erased from history. Their new album Pageant, which was supposed to be one of indie rock’s breakthrough records of the year, has been removed from iTunes and Apple Music. The page dedicated to the album on the website of the band’s ex-label Polyvinyl is now dead, with the label pledging to cease selling the record entirely. The band’s official YouTube page has been wiped clean save for one video—if you go to their website, you will encounter a cascading waterfall of broken embeds. Pageant, at the moment, remains up on Spotify, but there are plans to remove it from that platform as well. The only thing left is to pile up every physical remaining copy in a big heap and theatrically light it on fire, like when police haul reporters out to a field to watch them burn a ton of confiscated drugs.
What led the band here are allegations against Ben Hopkins, PWR BTTM’s guitarist and lead vocalist, which surfaced last Thursday, a day before the release of Pageant. Those allegations—which stated that Hopkins is a “known sexual predator” and “perpetrator of multiple assaults”—first appeared in a private Facebook group before being passed around on Reddit and Twitter. A day later, Jezebel published an account from one alleged victim, who said that Hopkins sexually assaulted her on three occasions. Hopkins and Liv Bruce, the other half of the band, released a statement after the first wave of allegations stating that it was the first time they had been made aware of any of this, a claim that was rebutted by multiple people, including the woman who spoke to Jezebel. Neither Hopkins or Bruce have been heard from since. (Neither responded to SPIN’s requests for comment.)
Instead, DIY and queer communities around the country and online, plus the press, have been tasked with making sense of a flameout that is glaring in its swiftness. Hopkins is the latest in a long line of musicians to be accused of violence—sexual or otherwise—against women, but perhaps the first to be punished so severely and totally. The band Surfer Blood, as one example, suffered to some extent after guitarist John Paul Pitts was arrested for domestic violence five years ago, but they were not expelled from the indie rock community or immediately abandoned by the industry. Indeed, they released an album just this past February on the indie label Joyful Noise. Up until last week, and dating back decades, fans have been willing to “separate the art from the artist,” but that privilege was not afforded to PWR BTTM.
So why the double-standard of sorts? As many people have observed, the queer community that incubated Hopkins has, in the wake of the allegations, proven to self-police about as stringently as possible, a necessity given that those within the community have sought it out as that proverbial “safe space,” a place where queer youth can actualize their identities and be themselves with some modicum of peace. Allowing an alleged abuser like Hopkins to operate within that space would render the entire concept meaningless, and make the community as unsafe, or more, than the outside world.
The more fundamental issue is that it wasn’t only PWR BTTM’s activism that argued for the necessity for these safe spaces–the band, for instance, insisted on only playing venues with gender neutral bathrooms–but it was inherent to their music as well, which rose to prominence at a time when politically outspoken musicians were once again being hailed as important cultural voices, with trans rights especially becoming the tip of the activist spear. PWR BTTM were quite plainly the opposite of the people they explicitly presented themselves to be.
It’s now impossible to listen to the Pageant single “Big Beautiful Day” and hear Hopkins sing the opening lyrics— “There are men in every town who live to bring you down / Make themselves feel bigger making you feel small”—without immediately feeling, now, like you were being sold a lie. Hopkins, of course, is speaking about everyday bigots, but the power dynamic described therein also applies to victims and their abusers. It would be even sillier to attend a future PWR BTTM concert and hear the band’s spiel about the importance of safe spaces, given the allegations against Hopkins, which allegedly went unchecked by Bruce, in the process prioritizing their careers over the people they were speaking to and for. Hopkins (who uses they/them pronouns) specifically fixated on the concept of power, and the way in which presenting as a woman allowed them to access the power of self that cisgendered people take for granted. Said Hopkins to the New York Times:
“What is empowering for me in PWR BTTM is, I am going to take up this space — very effeminate and very insecure, ridiculous in a $2 thrift store dress on with stars glued to my face — and go do that thing I wanted to do. For me, it always makes sense that there’s power in the name — I feel powerful.”
But whatever power Hopkins amassed by asserting their own identity onstage and off was allegedly used as a tool of abuse. The thesis of Hopkins’ very existence, and by extension the band’s, casts a pall of darkness that can’t be escaped. In the case of PWR BTTM, there was no separation between the art and the artist, making the band, as it stands now, completely untenable.
There were signals of this, ones that people were, in retrospect, probably too willing to ignore. You can read the umpteen profiles of the band published in the run-up to Pageant and not encounter a mention of the first scandal that threatened to engulf the band, when, last December, a photo emerged of Hopkins kneeling next to a swastika drawn in the sand of a beach. In a tweeted apology at the time, Hopkins said that they posed for the photo when they were 19 because “it was from a time in my life where I thought being ‘politically incorrect’ was really funny.”
Everyone does stupid shit when they were young, of course, but Hopkins’ justification also basically doubles as the operating motive of the alt-right. Though people change and mature—Hopkins included, one can assume—the gulf between laughing while next to a swastika and openly positioning yourself as the face of the queer youth movement is one that not even Evel Knievel would attempt to traverse. How else to think about PWR BTTM, now, but cynically? How much of the band’s politics were sincere, and how much of it was the reading of a moment, the formulation of a marketing pitch that very nearly worked?