The World Needs PWR BTTM
I found the best fucking band in the world playing the back room of a London pub, in all their queer and sparkling splendour.
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.
Let me tell you a secret: I have got a special scrunchie. It is pink and velvety, and it makes me feel like an extra in Clueless whenever I wear it. I only put on my pink velvet scrunchie when I want to feel like my cutest or most flamboyant self, and I certainly do not rock it for any old function. So the fact that I got it out before leaving the house to go to PWR BTTM's first ever London show last night, and used it to tie up a section of my hair in a ponytail, like one of the glamorous children from Toddlers and Tiaras taking a personal day, says a lot about my feelings on what I was about to see.
PWR BTTM are a rock band from New York, and there are two things you need to know about them: firstly, they are unapologetically queer, and secondly, they unapologetically rule. From the moment they stepped onstage at the Shacklewell Arms in Dalston on Monday night, these facts were both abundantly clear and welcome. On this occasion, Ben Hopkins was dressed in an inside-out Primark dress with the tag still on, under a sequinned jacket that would bring a blush even to Prince's cheek, while Liv Bruce was clad in a gown fit for a slutty Disney princess, gifted "by a drag queen in Atlanta". They felt, finally, like the authentic, outrageous breath of punk fucking rock that their audience – made up largely of LGBTQ people, women, and people outside the gender binary – needed. The front row is a mass of dyed hair and glitter-streaked faces. Even if you don't usually there is rule of thumb that, when PWR BTTM come to town, you dress the fuck up. It's like prom for queer people.
Joined on their first ever UK tour by Edinburgh's The Spook School, whose discography is full of their own expressions of love and identity politics, PWR BTTM are clear from the offset that their shows should be spaces for everyone to feel free and safe to be themselves. Ben refers lovingly to Liv as "my gender non-conforming co-worker", and before playing any music, requests that everyone in the room "be cool to each other". They avoid using he/she pronouns when talking to their fans both in real life and online and ask for the bathrooms in any venue they play in to be easily accessible and gender-neutral for the evening. If that's not possible they let fans know ahead of time through social media so they don't get caught off guard. If you've never had to navigate this before, these considerations may not sound like a massive deal, but it makes all the difference to their fans. In a world which is so quick to disrespect anyone who doesn't fit into the one of the few small boxes society offers, it's invaluable to hear that the person behind the microphone – the person with the loudest voice in the room – is, for once, actually on your side.
Naturally, PWR BTTM's refusal to bend to patriarchy's frequent and often insurmountable bullshit makes them a source of great ire for certain hate groups. Their shows have been picketed by religious homophobic protestors as recently as last month but, in response, Ben took a selfie with them expressing his sadness for them as human beings and then tweeted: "These protestors at our show said my asshole was going to fall out, and I was like 'I think I'm a better bottom than that'." Their ability to remain unafraid when attacked, despite the obvious threat intended, is a crucial beacon of hope to their audience, many of whom are young and scared about what their future might hold.
Unavoidably, the climate of fear which feels as though it currently has the Western world in a chokehold was a big topic of onstage conversation last night, but the band's "fuck you" attitude meant that it was a source of laughs rather than lamentation or self-pity. Between Ben's repeated allusions to Donald Trump as a "Cheeto monster" and Liv's description of the Gay Hell that religious critics have often told them they're going to, their ability to rise above instead of getting bogged down in the sludgy wasteland that is current politics might just be the most inspiring thing about their live show.
Though PWR BTTM may seem geared towards a 'specific audience', what's special about them is their musical accessibility. Armed with a drum kit and a single guitar, they make catchy, original rock that any fan of objectively great guitar music can enjoy. Lyrically, yeah, it's frankly gay as all hell (I can confirm that it feels super radical to be part of a sold out room singing the lyrics "My girl gets scared, can't take him anywhere"), but you don't need to be able to relate to that to appreciate the melodic beauty and technical prowess they play with. Their sound is equally as indebted to metal and noodly sad boy emo bands like American Football and Algernon Cadwallader as it is to their queercore forebears in Black Fag and Pansy Division.
It's an interesting musical nexus to occupy – and one that lends infinite potential for crossover, and for pro-queer sentiments to reach listeners that might not otherwise have been exposed to them. Their signing to Big Scary Monsters in the UK, a label whose roster leans towards straight male dominated indie and math rock, earlier this year is testament to that. And though PWR BTTM might not be the most traditional rock band, their strong and clear influences from throughout the genre – whether it's Limp Wrist or Bloc Party – empower them to occupy space in an historically masculine musical world. Speaking to Fusion last year, Liv recognised this as important and subversive: "A lot of us queers are conditioned to think that we can only be someone's hairstylist or somebody's best friend. It's not often that you're encouraged to be a rock musician that takes up space."
And take up space they do. Whether that was in the form of Liv regaling the room with their thoughts on a collaboration between two personal Irish fave's – Enya and Niall Horan of One Direction (who may come together to create "Irish pastoral twink-core") – or Ben's guitar licks that could get even the staunchest of dad rockers to bob his head, last night PWR BTTM had us all in the palms of their manicured hands. As I took the vision of them in, in all their queer, sparkling splendour, with my pink scrunchie fastened firmly on top of my head, there was really no place where I've felt more like myself in a long time.
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(Lead image via Instagram)