PWR BTTM: Disappointment, frustration, betrayal

PWR BTTM: Disappointment, frustration, betrayal

Photo by Kiki Vassilakis 

On May 10, the Brooklyn indie rock duo PWR BTTM were poised to become rock music icons. Two days from the immensely-anticipated release of their sophomore record Pageant, the self-proclaimed “queer punks” were basking in universal adoration from the music press—racking up titles like “America’s Next Great Rock Band” and receiving glorious writeups in NPR, Stereogum and Consequence of Sound, the latter dubbing their trajectory “big, beautiful and endless”—and insurmountable love from their burgeoning fan base; one that was fostered through the band’s boldly queer image and lyrics that transcended barriers and resonated with queer folks and allies alike. However, by May 12, PWR BTTM’s career was over, as numerous sexual assault accusations toward member Ben Hopkins (who uses they/them pronouns) began cropping up on Facebook, Twitter and Reddit.

The allegations first emerged on the night of Wednesday May 10 and were relatively vague, but by Friday one of Hopkins’ victims detailed her horrifying account via Jezebel, explaining that while she was intoxicated, Hopkins began having sex with her without her permission, refused to wear protection and that she later awoke to Hopkins attempting to have sex with her again. The day before that article was published, the band posted on their social media that “the allegations come as a surprise” and set up an email address designed for survivors of Hopkins’ alleged abuses to discuss their incidents via a then-yet to be decided mediator. However, the anonymous victim in the Jezebel article said that the band’s claim that the allegations came as a surprise “is 100 percent false.” T-Rextasy, the band set to open for PWR BTTM’s summer tour, also came forward immediately and tweeted that they had heard about these allegations months ago from a private source, but that as a young band with a huge opportunity in front of them, they were regretfully too afraid to come forward and damage their professional relationships.

By May 13, PWR BTTM had been dropped by their label and management company, their massive summer tour had been canceled, and hordes of fans and other bands had begun voicing their shock, frustration and feelings of betrayal. The menacing irony of PWR BTTM’s fate, and the reason Hopkins’ despicable actions are particularly upsetting, is because they made social justice and creating safe, welcoming spaces for concertgoers of all identities such a core component of their band. From their revolutionary tour rider mandate requiring gender neutral bathrooms at all of their shows, to requesting their fans not mosh in order to ensure physical safety for smaller attendees, to the countless onstage speeches Hopkins and their bandmate Liv Bruce made in support of safe spaces where sexual assault was absolutely intolerable, PWR BTTM were spearheading a movement that was truly changing the culture of the indie/punk community they were blossoming out of. Paradoxically, it was the very culture of awareness and accountability they helped cultivate that led to their demise.

As someone who’d been following PWR BTTM since their 2015 debut Ugly Cherries, had seen them perform numerous times, and who had nothing but praise to speak after sitting down with them for an interview last year, this news is nothing short of crushing. Just last month I wrote a glowing review of their show at Skidmore College (which ran as our cover story the following week), as I was once again floored by their passion, charisma and supposed concern for the excited attendees squirming and singing before them. Now, to know how unfathomably hypocritical Hopkins (and Bruce, by association) were being by promoting and capitalizing off a platform that condemns their very actions is disturbing, infuriating and disheartening. However, as upsetting as the situation is, there are a couple important takeaways.

One: PWR BTTM weren’t the only queer band. Nor were they by any means the first queer band. However, coming about in a tumultuous age during which queer and socially conscious people are grasping for effective mouthpieces and figureheads to seek solace in, their infectious brand of indie-punk and outspokenness on queer issues (as well as their white and class privilege) allowed them ample time in the limelight. This resulted in another peculiar paradox in which the music press (myself included) became so infatuated with promoting PWR BTTM—because it was so easy to write about the theatrical, glitter-coated, effervescent twosome—that they essentially ended up superseding, or at the very least overshadowing many other queer artists who’ve been quietly chugging along outside of the spotlight.

Now more than ever, it’s absolutely crucial for us (fans, artists, the music press) to acknowledge as many queer bands and artists as we can. This isn’t to tokenize them for their queerness, or to say that they’re better musicians simply based upon their identity, but because the queer music community just lost an entity that many people heralded as an icon, leaving a void to be filled. Tying in with that, it needs to be made especially clear that queerness isn’t correlated with sexual assault—particularly in a social climate where politicians are framing trans people as sexual predators. Hopkins’ faults should be addressed and condemned, but we have to make sure their actions don’t denigrate queer music, or indie music, or punk music as a whole.

Two: this is a big step toward the intolerance of sexual assault within the indie/punk community, and hopefully toward the larger music community as well. Sexual violence perpetrated by musicians has forever been a taboo, something industry professionals (labels, managers, the ones with money invested in music) and we, as music fans who place enormous value on the musicians we love, have continuously disregarded despite it always being there. Particularly for fans, it can be incredibly difficult to see your favorite artists as flawed humans who are as capable of committing horrible deeds as anyone else. In turn, it’s even more difficult for victims of abuse to come forward due to the power dynamics at play; that is, fear of invalidation or backlash for outing a popular, beloved figure such as Hopkins—or someone as popular as John Lennon or Cee Lo Green for that matter.

However, the swift reaction and condemnation by PWR BTTM’s corner of the music world is an indication that the times are changing. Again, PWR BTTM were extraordinarily well-liked and slated to put out one of the most successful rock albums of 2017—and they were ousted from existence within two days of the news breaking, regardless of all the money invested in them and their loyal fan base. This isn’t to insinuate that sexual assault within the music community has been “solved” by Hopkins’ ejection, nor is it a dismissal of the countless other active musicians with pending allegations that we continue to ignore. It’s just a clear signal that there’s no longer any place for such behavior in the young indie/punk community that birthed PWR BTTM, which is perhaps the only real silver lining to come out of this whole ordeal. That being said, this standard we’ve now set needs to be upheld for everyone, regardless of their status, identity, and power, in order for a real movement toward eliminating sexual violence to occur.

In the wake of the accusations going viral, Steph Knipes, the self-identified queer songwriter behind up-and-coming indie rockers Adult Mom, eloquently tweeted the following on what they reluctantly call “outing culture:”

“outing” abuse/assault, specifically for popular bands, is a cultural grieving process / we really have the potential to heal together if we approach that grief and begin to understand that everyone can harm / if we put our collective energy towards healing and away from dismissing abuse/assault “allegations” things WILL BE BETTER / it’s hard to accept wrongdoing from someone you love. So hard. But you have a responsibility to stand with the harmed, always.

Recovering from the disappointment of PWR BTTM is going to be a long, difficult process for many of us. However, like Knipes and the swarms of others tweeting their thoughts on the issue have said, unity and community-wide support is vital to heal from this, to learn from this and to work toward preventing the toxic culture of sexual violence from existing in our communities.

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