BY: SASHA GEFFEN7 HRS AGO
There’s a scene in the fictionalized David Bowie biopic Velvet Goldmine where Christian Bale’s character, a closeted teen living with homophobic parents, points at a glammed-up Bowie surrogate on TV and screams, “That’s me.” A similar shock of identification, where budding desires and inclinations are suddenly seen blooming in full color, spread across young queer fans of New York punk duo PWR BTTM during their rise to prominence over the past few years. Seeing Ben Hopkins and Liv Bruce—both queer vocalists, guitarists, and drummers—rip up a stage in thrifted dresses and dollar-store makeup offered recognition for those who felt like they might be queer but maybe couldn’t imagine themselves celebrating it just yet.
All this was thrown into crisis when, days before the release of the band’s second album Pageant, allegations that Hopkins had a history of sexual assault and harassment began circulating on Facebook and Twitter. (A 2011 photo of Hopkins smiling by a swastika drawn in the sand was also distributed, which the band had previously addressed.) Fans demanded comment from Hopkins, and the band issued a statement asking anyone who believed their consent had been violated to reach out via an email address they said would be operated by an impartial mediator. “The allegations come as a surprise, but we are trying to address them with openness and accountability,” read the statement.
The band immediately received criticism for putting the onus on survivors to come forward, and for blaming “a culture that trivializes and normalizes violations of consent” instead of taking responsibility. Soon, musicians began publicly contradicting the notion that these allegations were news to the band. Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz and Sad13 tweeted that one of Hopkins’ alleged victims had confronted the band in February and “was met with inaction.” T-Rextasy, an opener on PWR BTTM’s summer tour, stated that “someone came to us privately and warned us that they had these experiences with Ben” months ago; like the tour’s other opening acts, T-Rextasy dropped out. Soon there would be no tour at all.
On Friday, Pageant’s street date, Jezebel ran an interview with an anonymous woman claiming that Hopkins sexually assaulted her multiple times after taking her home from a PWR BTTM show. When asked, the band issued no further comment—but its label Polyvinyl did. “There is absolutely no place in the world for hate, violence, abuse, discrimination, or predatory behavior of any kind,” read the statement, which announced that PWR BTTM had been dropped, offered full refunds for Pageant, and promised donations to RAINN and the Anti-Violence Project. Polyvinyl also pulled Pageant from stores and streaming, as did PWR BTTM’s former label Father/Daughter (on Apple services, at least). Swiftly and decisively, PWR BTTM’s platform was erased.
For those who sought much-needed comfort and community in PWR BTTM, the allegations struck a sickening note. This was a band that asked for gender neutral bathrooms at its shows so trans and gender-nonconforming attendees could feel safe. A few days after last year’s mass shooting at an Orlando gay club, Ben and Liv played a show benefiting the Pulse Tragedy Community Fund at the nearby Backbooth Bar. And when Trump won the election, Ben assured PWR BTTM’s Twitter followers that “queer is invincible”—one of many shows of solidarity played out in song and social media by the band since forming in 2013. The very quality that set PWR BTTM apart—their stated commitment to creating safe queer spaces—gave them the platform to allegedly abuse those they claimed to be protecting. This profound hypocrisy sets PWR BTTM’s situation apart from other sexual assault allegations within the music industry, which tend to surface more slowly and are rarely met with the same degree of shock.
Acts like Swans have been able to embark on more or less unremarkable album cycles following recent allegations of sexual assault, largely due either to a sense among fans that the accused musician is innocent, or that musical consumption should be separate from the behavior of those making it. In general, making respected art tends to insulate people from serious professional repercussions after being accused of sexual abuse—Woody Allen continues working in Hollywood, convicted rapist Roman Polanski receives lifetime achievement awards, and R. Kelly’s career bounced back from troubling sexual-assault allegations involving minors (at least before they resurfaced in 2013). The art, it is said, should speak for itself.
PWR BTTM’s music and behavior have always been inseparable, however. There is no Pageant without the hundreds of shows that preceded it, where young people in dresses and glitter found joy and hope by being told to “be their damn self.” There is no way to hear a song like “Big Beautiful Day” without envisioning Hopkins, in sparkling cobalt eyeliner, flipping off some transphobe. There is no easy line to draw between PWR BTTM and their new album, much of which is written in the second person to address their trans fans directly. On record and in interviews, it was as though Ben and Liv were personally taking up the mantle of queer mentorship for their young listeners. But what was a document of queer exuberance has now become a hollow sequence of songs, from a band whose sentiments were maybe always shallow.
Few, if any, albums have undergone so dramatic a transformation practically overnight. While much queer music, like recent albums by Perfume Genius and Arca, is heavy with the residue of trauma, PWR BTTM took an approach marked by levity and giddy flamboyance. Fun music can be cathartic, but it tends to smooth over the finer points of vulnerability, including life as a visibly queer person. When authenticity can mark you as a target for violence in certain parts of the world, the directive to “be yourself” has little substance on its own. Queer liberation hinges on more than self-acceptance and the expression of that confidence. It depends on the way we treat each other, on the social structures and support systems we’re able to build as alternatives to the heteronormative mainstream.
That PWR BTTM’s public presence masked allegedly toxic behavior doesn’t mean their listeners should give up on learning to love themselves or chasing queer joy. The fans who found freedom and community through PWR BTTM still have that freedom and community. It belongs to them now. Really, it always did.