What PWR BTTM’s crash-and-burn story can tell us three years later

PWR BTTM still
Still from PWR BTTM’s music video “West Texas.” (Via YouTube)

Following allegations of sexual harassment and coercion, non-binary DIY punk band PWR BTTM was completely erased from existence. Three years later, I still wonder how to explain the discrepancy between their case and most other sexual violence and misconduct cases. 

By Michael Elias

April 11th, 2017. Though I have a shitty memory, I remember that day with unprecedented clarity. I just turned 23, was on a trip to London (as I often am), had come out as non-binary not too long before that and was still searching for the right words to describe my gender experience. It’s not that surprising, then, that upon discovering a few months ahead of my trip that now nonexistent band PWR BTTM were playing in Manchester on April 11th, 2017, I decided I would take a train up to northern England, spend a night at a hostel, and get to see the band that, at the time, was one of my biggest comforts in being queer.

With their brutally messy femininity plastered right atop a visibly male body, PWR BTTM’s whole attitude to the institute of gender appealed to me. Liv Bruce and Ben Hopkins, the composing elements of the band who identify as genderqueer and—back at the time that the band still operated—took it upon themselves to smash gender norms at any opportunity they got, wrote sugary tunes with a pop-punk kick and light, honest, catchy lyrics. Their music was fun, but it was also relatable on a level I have scarcely known before; it made being queer fun, it made being me fun. Their first album had that DIY quality to it that only added to the feeling of freedom and opportunity I got while listening to the band, and their relentless energy at live shows made my heart race, made me smile—I, too, could be as proud. Even before seeing them live I knew it would be a unique experience, one I would never forget.

And so I did, indeed, take a train up to northern England, spent the night at a hostel, and got to see PWR BTTM. And, indeed, I have yet to forget that night. My excitement was such that I could barely sleep for 24 hours; by the time I stood in line for the show, it was pure adrenaline that kept me going, combined with the light feeling in my chest that accompanied looking around the venue and seeing all the outcasts, all the non-conforming bodies and outfits, all those people who were, on one level or another, just like me. I got to stand front-line, plastered to the stage. People around me did not push. You could leave your place to have a smoke while waiting for the show to start or use the toilets, and no one would argue with you about coming back there. I got to talk with the nice people around me, and we all knew we have more in common than we could possibly communicate in words. I was euphoric.

After Ben and Liv finished playing, I got to thank them, talking while shaking from excitement and lack of sleep. They were kind, understanding, approachable—everything I needed them to be. For about a month, the pictures and videos from that night provided tangible proof that it really did happen. That I really can find a place that is as safe as a PWR BTTM live concert. I don’t remember their exact words, but on stage, Liv and Ben urged us to create and maintain that safe space where no one is disrespected, and no one needs to worry about their physical and emotional well-being. The crowd couldn’t agree any louder. I held that sentiment close to my heart when I looked at those videos and photos. Growing up, I played the drums in bands, and in short, experienced a world where making music meant you had to suffer certain kinds of people and certain kinds of acts in silence. That PWR BTTM concert made me believe things can be different.

Those pictures and videos don’t exist anymore. Those memories are not so sweet anymore. On May 10th, 2017, two days before the second PWR BTTM album was about to drop and a month after I had seen them live, sexual harassment and coercion accusations against band member Ben Hopkins have surfaced. Liv Bruce was accused of being aware of the situation and silencing it. Within two days, no one had doubted the truth of these accusations. The band’s reaction in a Facebook post was weak, the people around the band started to drop them one by one—record company, management, touring mates, fans, streaming services. The fall of the band was so quick that I barely remember it unfolding—it was an avalanche of disownment, a clear statement from industry people and music lovers alike: we will not stand behind such behavior, we will not let people who perpetuate this behavior to go on doing it. Almost three years later, I have yet to see such lucid demand of accountability over sexual violence and such a coming together of a community that enabled serious consequences for those who were at fault for it. PWR BTTM is gone from the public eye completely nowadays. It isn’t wrong that they are—it proves to me that we can work to maintain that same space I believed in while watching the band live. But there is a question I keep circling back to over and over again for almost three years now: why is PWR BTTM’s story so different from other stories of the same nature? Why, even after #MeToo exploded in Hollywood, accountability is scarce, and consequences rarely seem serious?

I can chalk the answer down to PWR BTTM’s unique crowd: the band spoke exactly to the most vulnerable, and the most vulnerable felt betrayed; they didn’t have a large following outside of the LGBTQ community and they functioned as sort of cult band for non-binary and trans folk. Following that logic, it was also easier for the industry people around them to take extreme measures to ensure they respect the survivors and not the perpetrators; not only were PWR BTTM’s collaborators more likely to be of the same nature as their crowd, they were also answering their own crowd’s needs. But this answer is lacking; in a world where most perpetrators get out scotch free, the few notable examples that pay for their deeds in some way or another are worth a careful examination, and it cannot come down simply to luck, to the right people and the right time. No, some people are dispensable, and some are not. It is reflected in the way we treat perpetrators of sexual violence just as much as it is reflected in the way we treat survivors of it.

So, why was it is easy to make PWR BTTM disappear from public view while other musicians, such as Ryan Adams and Jesse Lacey are not held to the same standards? The same reason Harvey Weinstein, with the bombshell of allegations against him and big-name accusers and opposers, was not only tried and sentenced with 23 years but completely disgraced in Hollywood, while Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, and Bryan Singer continue doing work; the same reason Louis C.K. can come back to comedy with an anti-feminist twist. We pay lip service to survivors, give them the pretense of accountability, while not actually maintaining a safe world for them.

In the case of PWR BTTM, their identity was not only the reason for their rise but the reason for their extreme fall—not only was their crowd willing to sacrifice their idols for the cause, such a sacrifice many crowds are unwilling to do, but their non-conforming femininity fit perfectly into a long history of TERF ideology that is constantly concerned with the presence of trans women in woman spaces because of a transphobic belief that those trans women are there to rape them and are men in dresses. This double-edged sword turned them into the perfect lip service. Now, less dispensable people can continue creating and working. The industry remains not truly safe for women, trans folk, and the underprivileged.

When I first talked about writing this piece to Colleen, she linked me to the controversial Pinegrove profile on Pitchfork following the band’s return after sexual coercion accusations against frontman Even Stephans Hall. I know Pinegrove is a household name in indie music, but I’ve never been invested in the band, and Colleen’s email was the first time I delved into the story. Jenn Pelly penned a nuanced, complicated piece that makes it hard for me to make my mind up about its heart. It was strange, how unclear the answer to the problem posed by the return of the band following a mess of accusations that didn’t come from the victim’s mouth and came out to the public against the victim’s will was to me. It was strange, how similar yet completely different the story of Pinegrove and PWR BTTM are—both were destroyed by accusations that came about in two completely different ways, but Pinegrove is making a comeback quite successfully. I thought I have one point to make with this piece: that if we want to make a safe industry for the vulnerable, we must make it unsafe for any and all perpetrators. But reading Jenn Pelly’s Pinegrove profile made me realize another thing.

Paying lip service to survivors of sexual harassment and violence and dispending only of those who are dispensable is not only maintaining an unsafe industry and communicating to survivors that they are dispensable, it is also centering the conversation around the perpetrators when what we need is to center the conversation around survivors, their wants, and their needs. To make a safe industry for the vulnerable, we must, first and foremost, let the vulnerable speak. That was the point of #MeToo, in the beginning, though I feel it didn’t come much further than that.

What I also realized, is that while I do want a world of transformative justice and not punishment, it still stings to see a white cis man welcomed back with open arms under circumstances that non-binary folk have not had a chance to survive. I think the conversation around “cancel culture” (a term I hate but am reluctantly using here because it seems to fit) needs to make room for nuance, not only in ways that reshape our reactions to different kinds of situations, but in ways that help us consider who exactly is held accountable, who exactly pays up their debt to us as survivors, and who exactly does not. The recent fake Mitski accusations come to mind, where many were quick to believe completely ungrounded claims that eventually crumbled and did not hold enough water to hurt Mitski’s career eventually. But for a brief moment, Mitski was almost “canceled”. On the other hand, “canceled” is something Pete Wentz never was.

Michael Elias is a writer of prose, poetry, plays, and anything in between. They are currently studying comparative literature, arts, and history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Their writing has so far appeared or is upcoming in Gold Flake Paint, Homologylit, and Jewish News Detroit. They’d love to talk about queer readings and marxism with you. Find them on Twitter @itwastrash

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