Content warning: assault
This Friday, rising queer punk duo PWR BTTM released their sophomore album, Pageant. What looked set to be a celebration of non-conformity and self-expression within the music industry was derailed, however, as allegations of assault came to light against band member Ben Hopkins.
The music industry is somewhat notorious for its habit of brushing reports of abuse under the rug. Despite becoming infamous for the allegations made against him by Kesha, Dr Luke remains one of pop’s most in-demand producers. Acoustic rock musician Jake McElfresh, known widely as Front Porch Step, retweets messages about “forgiveness and the power of grace”, seemingly intending to justify his continued efforts in the industry following his sexual harassment of underage fans coming to light in early 2015. A Google search for Chris Brown fails to mention the singer’s violent attack on then-girlfriend Rihanna in the first couple of pages. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that his career in the spotlight has continued – seemingly unscathed – for the eight years since the incident.
pic.twitter.com/9MSzSorJSY— PWR BTTM (@PWRBTTMBAND) May 11, 2017
These are just three examples of a pervasive problem within an industry that protects its own, at the expense of the safety of many. Why, then, was Hopkins not granted this same leniency? Every support act booked for their upcoming tour has dropped out. Their label and their management have let them go. They’ve been dropped from festival lineups, and their release show has been cancelled. Plenty about it feels like a double standard: whilst the careers of cisgender, heterosexual male musicians can be barely dented by irrefutable claims, PWR BTTM were turned on with unprecedented immediacy.
When compared to the experiences of the musicians mentioned above, it seems like queerphobia in action, but I’d like to posit a different theory. The reaction to the news about PWR BTTM was proportional and entirely appropriate.
In an ideal world, there should be no space for abusers in any scene, and musicians of every genre would commit to ensuring the safety of fans. This was the exact attitude that PWR BTTM championed and claimed to stand for, and it was this unique selling point that ultimately became their downfall.
How many queer punk bands break the mainstream, becoming as ubiquitous as PWR BTTM managed to? How many bands are made up entirely of unapologetically genderqueer members? How many bands commit to ensuring gender-neutral facilities at every single one of their shows, in the name of trans inclusion and safety? They’re few and far between, I’ll tell you that for nothing. PWR BTTM plugged a gap in the market, and with that, a gap in the hearts of thousands of queer and trans fans worldwide: fans who had finally found a band that spoke their language, a band that lived their life, a band that understood the harsh realities of being queer and gender non-conforming in the cold light of 2017.
All this considered, the allegations against Hopkins showed them up not just as an abuser, but as a hypocrite. Their actions were revealed to be at complete odds with everything their fans had been led to believe about the band, and about the world they were all working together to create. They were more than willing to publically exploit wokeness to sell tickets and records, but failed to adhere to the same moral code in private. Is it really such a surprise how fast the tables turned? PWR BTTM had done their part in nurturing a fanbase of queer and trans activists mindful of the very dynamics Hopkins exploited. If anyone were determined to hold abusers accountable, PWR BTTM’s fans would be a pretty solid bet. In a sense, the pair dug their own grave.
What was set to be a joyful release of a long-awaited album dissolved before us in real time. Fans ranged from disappointed to downright distraught, with survivors in particular voicing their feelings of betrayal. In a miserable turn of events, we saw one of the world’s most visible queer bands turn in on itself, becoming an object of deserved disgust and disdain, but I promise, there’s something we can learn from this.
In validating the scope of the response to the allegations against Hopkins, we automatically acknowledge that previous reactions have failed to meet appropriate standards. The end of an abuser’s career should not be an anomaly. The end of an abuser’s career should be the norm. This should not happen just to bands whose woke fanbase will hold them to account. It is the neglected responsibility of the music industry to self-regulate, and to weed out the bad apples when accusations come to light. The ostracisation of PWR BTTM have shown us it’s possible, so let’s commit to ensuring it happens.
Finally, I’d like to acknowledge those still mourning the loss of a favourite band. If you found solace in PWR BTTM’s music, or were able to explore your own identity through them, please don’t be disheartened. Everything you learned about yourself and grew to love through listening to a band far transcends that band’s continued existence. Queer DIY culture will not cease to exist following the disgracing of a single band, and a plethora of young queer and trans artists stand poised to fill that glittering void in your record collection.
Queerness is resilient, and queerness is groundbreaking. I have every hope that our community can lead the way in ensuring safer spaces for all in music.