Cool Resistance: PWR BTTM and the Politics of Glitter
"I found it causes this reaction in people—it's an instant thing."
Photos by the author
I first heard of upstate New York queer-punk duo PWR BTTM when their NPR session was making the rounds on Twitter. Someone had grabbed a screencap of a band member's face mid-session, covered in messy melting glitter, with the caption "dress for the job you want." I immediately connected and needed to know more about this dope band. The session featured their catchy, raw and vulnerable, yet funny music that is progressive, political, fun and punk as fuck all at once. PWR BTTM is made up of Liv Bruce and Ben Hopkins and they released their debut album Ugly Cherries on Father/Daughter Records about a year ago. The record is full of songs you can't get out of your head: "Dairy Queen" will have you singing in the shower about all the shit you can do, while "C U Around" is about having to see a past lover around and how confusing those feelings can be. During their headlining tour of North America, they stopped by Toronto's Silver Dollar Room, treating the crowd to a new song—which is about pronouns—off their upcoming Polyvinyl Records sophomore album that is due to be released in 2017.
That glittery screencap from Twitter deeply resonated with me in particular because for as long as I can remember, I have been obsessed with glitter. My friends and I cover ourselves in glitter when we go out to shows, bringing glitter with us to share. When I put it on, glitter gives me confidence and creates a safe space. During PWR BTTM's show, that same sense of community could be found amongst the glitter-adorned crowd. "If I were an alien from another planet and I just came here trying to fit in, I would dress like this, and that includes glitter," a show-goer named Sylvie told me. Another fan named Katie said, "They're all about identity, self-love, and being unapologetic for who you are."
I sat down with PWR BTTM before their set and talked all about glitter and where it intersects with their music.
Noisey: What does glitter mean to you?
Ben Hopkins: It's this thing that I never had a premeditated relationship with until I just started wearing it. I found it causes this reaction in people—it's an instant thing. There's this weird community about it: if you're weird enough to wear glitter on your face and someone else is too, then you can relate to them in this unspoken way that makes a lot of sense. It's also a very intense signifier with queerness, especially and femininity in general, not to conflate the two. It feels like when you're wearing glitter and you see somebody else doing it too you're almost part of the same weird experience. It's a very visual sense of difference.
Liv Bruce: I don't really wear glitter anymore. But it's significant to me and one reason why I think it's so significant to the band is that it troubles the dichotomy between real and fake in a really interesting way. I feel like that speaks to something that shows up in our lyrics and our discourse, too, a lot. Knowing that everything is fake and that makes everything real too.
It's interesting: what we now know as glitter was originally invented in the 1930s as a way to repurpose scrap metal. There's this tradition of trash to treasure even in glitter's conception.
Hopkins: There's a class question there too, I never really thought about it but I realize glitter is very glamorous but it's also very cheap. You can get so much of it for a dollar.
Now it's much more accepted in fashion but within the past 50 years, it has this cheap association.
Hopkins: What I've loved about it and why I wear it every day of my life is that it has an element of cool resistance, particularly in music. The truth of it is, I'm not in a band of straight boys wearing leather jackets, acting effortless, Yves Saint Laurent. It's the opposite. Glitter is like, "I tried. I'm choosing to look this way!" This is me saying, "I am this!" as opposed to this rock and roll aesthetic of saying you just rolling out of bed, I wanna say "fuck that!" I threw whatever I wanted on my face. This is me being prepared to have the experience I am choosing to. It's transparent.
There's also this idea of warpaint and preparing yourself for battle. Fun fact! In World War two, the US Army considered dropping glitter bombs from planes to mess up the enemy's radar. There's a dichotomy as well of it being seen as silly or extreme when it's actually just the natural reflection of light.
Hopkins: Glitter has always been this thing that somehow has found its way into the work of those who transgress gender. I think that's because it's so intense, in the sense that there's no subtlety. I think subtly is for libraries. I have never been interested in being subtle. Understated is one thing, but subtle is another. When it comes to to political stakes of wearing glitter there's no chance of blending in, so especially with gender and sexuality, obviously they're two different things, at stake in a political climate glitter is a really good signifier of "this is extreme and watch the fuck out for it, cus I'm not changing."
Liv, seeing as you don't wear glitter as much anymore, I'm curious as to what your stage makeup versus your everyday makeup routine is like. What does the process mean to you?
Bruce: I wear makeup in my daily life and then I have a slightly more exaggerated style that I do onstage. I don't have a particular regiment when it comes to makeup in my daily life. For stage I have a very specific thing I do with my face but it's just like most musicians I know. One thing that's been really cool about this year, has been touring with a bunch of other band that have cis-woman in them and seeing their routines before they go onstage. Usually that's pretty similar to what I'm doing to my face. A slightly more beautiful version of the face people see every day. That's why I look for in my stage makeup look. It really depends on my mood, sometimes I really give naturalism on stage or sometimes I'll give a funky eye or a wild lip. It can be anywhere on the spectrum. One common misconception is that my makeup takes way less time than Ben's to do.
Hopkins: Mine takes five minutes.
Bruce: I think that it points to a really interesting statement on identity, authenticity, all that stuff. Doing something that looks "normal" or "day to day" is actually a lot more time consuming and requires a lot more effort than something that looks other worldly or fake. My relationship to makeup is old at this point. My friend first gave me makeup when I was fifteen or sixteen and that was when I would start experimenting with it at home. I started learning how to use makeup from drag queen makeup tutorials but the products they were using were completely different from what my friend stole me from CVS. I remember noticing as a teenager that we had different products we were using and being like "okay what can I do with this stuff?" Every night when my parents went to sleep I'd paint my face and then wash it off, building something even remotely resembling a skill set.
There's also a meditative part to this as a creative practice as well.
Bruce: Absolutely. I think that for me my daily and stage makeup practice are both practices of self-care and self-celebration. There are sometimes when I'll do my makeup in the car when we're on the road and I'm just in a bad mood. It really is a pick-me-up.
The recognition of makeup and glitter as being a part of the same family is so interesting.
Hopkins: It's important to have that. A lot of our culture is being mainstreamed. What's interesting about PWR BTTM is it's this thing that people have decided independently of us that they identify with. They dress us like me, it's incredible. There are four kids over there who have makeup exactly like I did and that's something that very hard for me to process and then I realized something about the political stakes that I happened on by accident. Glitter and something that over the top with makeup has always been a signifier.
And it's very political when you think about the history of glitter bombing as an act of protest, throwing glitter on politicians who are opposed to same-sex marriage or LGBTQ rights. There's also a movement about mailing glitter to those who are against pro-choice.
Hopkins: I never thought about it on a macrocosmic level, I always thought about it on a microcosmic level in our DIY scene upstate New York. I felt like in that immediate context, I wanted to do something to be obvious, especially when the project is called PWR BTTM. We didn't want it to be mistaken as anything but what we were, which is two queer people making music together. So with the makeup I just decided to go apeshit and glitter was this next level. When I play there's glitter all over the stage and all over the microphone. You're only allowed to interpret me on my terms.
Kate Killet is a photographer and writer living in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter.