PWR BTTM Exit Stage Left
Unraveling the story around PWR BTTM begins, at least for me, with Heathcliff Berru. Maybe Jian Ghomeshi. Or maybe David Bowie. These were the junctures that, in phases, brought me to this moment. Tyler introduced me to PWR BTTM recently, mostly in anticipation of the new album. I found myself sifting through their work and trying to understand what exactly the band had perfected. I couldn’t have told you immediately whether it was Ben or Liv singing on each track, but I could tell instantly that “Answer My Text” was gangly, Ariel Pink-esque chaos and all energy. But just a day before their May 12 release, Tyler and I began the morning with an unexpected conversation that had nothing to do with PWR BTTM’s LP, Pageant.
“I just don’t know how to change.”- Pageant
In their May 11 press statement, PWR BTTM began with a comforting “Hi everyone”, in hindsight a notion as tragic and manipulative as anything in their recording career. The statement went on to address recent allegations of sexual assault against band member Ben Hopkins, offered an email address where a “survivor or someone working directly with a survivor” could “discuss the allegations”, and emphasized that their primary goal was to “ensure a survivor of abuse has a voice”.
Tyler and I agreed that what had taken place was horribly unfortunate, although, like many, were also struck at the comprehensive response from the band, who seemed almost eager to address the situation “head-on” and establish recourse. Wow, I thought, we’re living in the age where these situations, like those of Cosby or The Game, come to light. Wow, I then thought, the machine has learned to talk back. And when it knows it’s cornered, it speaks very politely.
“Take pity upon me, I know honesty is a virtue.” – “Won’t”
On the way to the train, Tyler and I discussed Heathcliff Berru. If you happened to be watching the musical quadrant of the internet in January 2016, you’ll recognize him as the former Chief Publicist for Life or Death PR who was ultimately ousted from his role after several instances of sexual misconduct and assault came to light on Twitter. Largely due to a few tweets from former Dirty Projectors contributor Amber Coffman, it constituted one of the first overt call outs of misconduct in the musical world garnering tangible change through the internet. The PWR BTTM allegations kept ringing in my ears all day at work. It was hard to articulate, but something about that email address seemed off. Now, with distance and a keyboard, I can write – “it seemed wrong to ask their potential victim to come forward”. Now, with hindsight, I can see why.
“There are men in every town who live to bring you down” – “Big Beautiful Day”
The next day, an anonymous interview was published with Jezebel highlighting even more instances of sexual misconduct from Ben Hopkins. Not only did it further detail their inappropriate actions toward fans, it implicated both band members in purposefully misleading their audience regarding the nature of the abuse. While Ben and Liv expressed “surprise” at the allegations, the reality was different: Ben and Liv had known about the allegations far in advance. Liv, the anonymous source claimed, had been in contact with them months earlier in an attempt to explain away Ben’s assaulting actions. My stomach crumpled in on itself. The sad trick of the email account PWR BTTM created for their victim, the way they explained the importance of having a “mediator” present for the situation, the safety of Ben and the abuse survivor, was wrenching. Certainly, the band had attempted to use the tools and language of the Queer community they had fostered since their inception, but used them in support of themselves instead of their victim. The sickening PR machine had used Twitter, reclaimed in recent years as a tool for oppressed voices, to gas-light their victims into exposing themselves. PWR BTTM’s elaborate response reflects the particular traumas of the Queer music scene and the transparency of the digital age. This feels like new territory for the internet landscape, but we have cyclically prognosticated this situation countless times before. Led Zeppelin and the Mud Snapper story, R. Kelly and “Ignition (Remix)”, Michael Gira and Larkin Grimm. The story of popular music, of Ke$ha and Dr. Luke, is one of what is taken, rarely what is consented to.
“And who would I be if they never had taken my body?” – “Sissy”
The original tweet that brought attention to PWR BTTM’s misconduct stated, “friendly reminder to stop letting PWR BTTM use their status as ‘allies’ to do whatever tf they want”. The notion of abusing allyship explains much of how PWR BTTM were able to maintain their image, even as survivors were coming forward to accuse Ben of harassing behaviors as early as high school. It also elucidates another key aspect in how abusers promote themselves: by being nice and likeable.
“Or at least the way I’d look if I were her”- “Styrofoam”
One of my first consistent sources of music journalism was Q, on CBC. From my tiny college radio station in Indiana, I would watch endless interviews with Jian Ghomeshi, drawn to his ease and skill in conversation. He handled a thorny Billy Bob Thornton with tact. He made keeping up with Neko Case and her lively wit look like a cakewalk. Ghomeshi’s passion for interviews and musicians was intoxicating to me. This, of course, all changed in late 2014 when over a half dozen women came forward to accuse Ghomeshi of workplace sexual harassment or sexual assault. I was talking pretty regularly to a Canadian journalist friend around that time. I vividly remember them relating to me the day that the CBC tore down Ghomeshi’s posters in the wake of the allegations. It would take over a year for Ghomeshi to be acquitted. The trial illustrated the substantial barriers to men in power being held accountable, not least because the account from each one of the survivors was heavily scrutinized by Judge William Horkins. Ghomeshi’s verdict highlights who we choose to believe when issues of sexual misconduct are addressed, and reinforced that these situations rarely arrive at a head without a significant amount of hand-wringing by those in the wings. In December 2014, my journalist friend expressed that for the past few years they’d heard plenty of talk about Jian Ghomeshi and even been warned to keep their distance from him. Female journalists would say, supposedly, that you shouldn’t be alone with Jian.
“When you are queer, you are always 19” – “LOL”
In the wake of PWR BTTM’s dissolution, their supporting band T-Rexstasy related a similar story. The band admitted via twitter, on May 11th, that they had been warned by an anonymous individual about Ben’s behavior prior to the explosive headlines. They opted to sit on this information, just as Ben and Liv allegedly did when confronted by their accuser. In his public reaction video to the situation, Needledrop founder Anthony Fantano consistently reiterated the need for more culpability within our music communities large and small. In researching this piece I found a great deal of information about the accusations, or the betrayal felt by members of the Queer community, but very little in the way of practical actions we can take to reinforce the safe spaces PWR BTTM’s actions have punctured. Liz Pelly, in her May 17th article for The Village Voice emphasized the need for continued focus on the meaning and necessity of consent. Likewise, Chicago based activist Jes Skolnick highlighted on her May 11th Medium post “what accountability looks like when a survivor isn’t involved”. PWR BTTM opted to publicly request their victim seek mediation, rather than allow them to initiate the process, and in the process pivoted the conversation solely towards their accountability. The swift dismissal of the band left the survivors little opportunity to articulate their healing process, and does little to ensure the community won’t repeat the same mistakes.
“I pretend to be your friend again.” – “Wash”
As a fan of music and of following its narratives, you’re regrettably bound to encounter these situations. With the tools we have today, like Twitter or Reddit, these conversations are more accessible than ever. One thinks of the pervasive BBC sex scandals of the 1970s, the pedophilia rings that were only brought down decades after the fact due to the insular nature of the bureaucratic structures that aided and abetted the perpetrators. Days later, while contemplating how to write this piece, Tyler and I discussed the way PWR BTTM had been held accountable so immediately. Indeed, I can’t think of any other instance in which a band has been swatted out of relevance so quickly, particularly on the eve of their national launch. PWR BTTM were queer icons, maybe not mine or yours, but certainly to a generation just coming into their own ideals and perspectives regarding sexuality. PWR BTTM were widely praised for the steps they’d taken to create a home for their fans, both in their diaristic lyrics and inclusive live performances. Rating themselves “Q for Queer”, they seemed destined to attain crossover success, all while maintaining their core values. Like Trump’s election, this may have been many fans first encounter with the reality that the world can be a predatory, brutal place. Most sexual assaults, of course, are never reported. The National Crime Victimization Survey conducted in 2015 by the Justice Department found that out of every 1,000 sexual assaults, only 310 are reported to the police. This is a staggering concept, extrapolated far beyond the records we listen to and shows we attend. But it is built on a long infrastructure of head-turning. And as convenient as it becomes to ignore every time a Woody Allen movie plays or Michael Jackson song comes on, it allows this machine, fueled by predatory instinct, to keep turning.
“Don’t you know how much I suffer?” – “Oh, Boy”
As I sat to write this collection of ideas, a thought occurred to me. Two days earlier a friend had visited from London. We were discussing music (of course) and PWR BTTM came up. They told me they’d wasted years on this band who had revealed themselves to be the opposite of everything they claimed to stand for. I knew this place. In his 2012 book, 1982, Ghomeshi waxes poetic about his love for David Bowie, glam star and sexual provocateur. Ghomeshi and I shared the same queer icon, passed down to me in its closeted way, by my own father. My abuser. The story of Bowie, of the “baby groupies” he used to sleep with regularly during the late 1960s and early 1970s, was documented and discarded rapidly in the tidal rush of affection after his death. Lori Mattix, who has since written a memoir about her experiences as a ‘70s groupie, was only 14 when she slept with Bowie, who would have been 25 or 26 at the time. Bowie was my age when he violated a child. My father, himself “nice” and “likeable” under the watchful eye of others, was also a predator. In darker moments, I have wondered if that same gene is also embedded in me. It would only make sense, after all. What other options did my Heroes provide?
“God, I hope that I change.” – “Silly”
In the time of writing, the jury for Bill Cosby’s trial is being selected. As of May 18, PWR BTTM continue to deny any sexual assault claims. The web of these assaults, betrayals of trust or confidence or safety, is an ugly one. I have little reason to believe Cosby will be held accountable and, with PWR BTTM’s career effectively silenced, considerable doubt that substantive change can take place without a wider commitment to accountability for those in positions of power, continued emphasis and education on consent, and an authentic dedication to the physical and emotional safety of abuse survivors. I was tasked with listening to PWR BTTM’s newest album, Pageant, just days before this story came to light. This piece is littered with the words I heard PWR BTTM use to build inclusivity and then to manipulate it, empty promises that now read like fake blue ribbons. You are tasked with deciding when you refuse to keep watching the show. When you turn the music off. And, when you know something is wrong, when you speak out.