May 17, 2017

PWR BTTM’s Disgrace Reminds Us That Separating Artists From Their Art Is Difficult

Art can be transcendent — but enjoying it in spite of the artist’s flaws and transgressions can be difficult.

PWR BTTM
PWR BTTM’s Liv Bruce and Ben Hopkins

Last week, the New York-based queer punk band PWR BTTM were set to release their anticipated sophomore album, Pageant. NPR’s Marissa Lorusso raved about the album, calling it “a soundtrack for outsiders on the way to loving themselves” while Pitchfork praised the album’s first singles. Vice even went so far as to call PWR BTTMAmerica’s next great rock band.”

The band — which is comprised of Ben Hopkins and Liv Bruce, who are both queer and identify as gender non-binary — had gained acclaim by singing loudly and proudly about their queer-ness. The Washington Post’s Caitlin Gibson described the duo’s music this way: “[Their] exuberant, rebellious songs resonated deeply with many in the LGBTQ community; onstage, Hopkins and Bruce strutted in shimmery garb and glittery makeup, blasting messages of empowerment and acceptance to throngs of ecstatic fans who scream-sang along.”

But all of that acclaim, excitement, and good will vanished when Hopkins was accused of sexual assault. Since the allegations have surfaced, PWR BTTM has been effectively dropped by their labels; their music has been removed from numerous services including iTunes, Apple Music, and Tidal; their touring members, opening bands, and management company have left them; and their upcoming tour has been cancelled.

But most of all, PWR BTTM has been inundated with criticism from their fans, many of whom have expressed anger and feelings of betrayal. Shortly after the allegations surfaced, the duo released a statement on Facebook in which they claimed surprise at the allegations, stated that Hopkins hadn’t been contacted by “any survivor(s) of abuse,” and announced they were creating an email address “through which a survivor or someone working directly with a survivor can discuss the allegations being expressed on social media.”

That statement received hundreds of comments, most of them critical of the band, expressing shock and disbelief, and even accusing PWR BTTM of knowing about (and ignoring) Hopkins’ behavior for months. Their creation of the email address was also criticized as a way to cover themselves legally, and for putting any survivors in an awkward and threatening position.


I’ll be honest: I hadn’t paid much attention to PWR BTTM until I saw this news blow up on social media. But I’ve found the situation increasingly fascinating, for several reasons.

First, the speed at which folks have both responded to these allegations (to be clear, Hopkins has yet to be charged with any crime) and turned PWR BTTM into pariahs is pretty amazing. After the allegations surfaced, it only took a couple of days for the band’s entire world to collapse. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it.

What’s particularly shocking, and even troubling, about PWR BTTM’s downfall is that there are numerous artists who have been accused of violence and sexual assault but whose music is still available — Chris Brown, R. Kelly, Jimmy Page, David Bowie, Michael Jackson, and Tupac Shakur immediately come to mind — and some of them are considered legends despite their behavior being common knowledge. (Some have chalked this discrepancy up to transphobia, that the reason you can still buy Bill Cosby’s records on iTunes but not PWR BTTM’s is because the latter are queer.)

Second, PWR BTTM’s fall from grace offers an incredibly vivid example of the challenging task of separating an artist from their art, and trying to enjoy that art on its own terms.

This should come as no surprise, but many artists throughout history have been been guilty of horrendous acts. Is it still possible, though, to find value in a song, book, or movie created by someone who’s done monstrous things? Most of us would probably say “Yes” to that, but things do get complicated. (Spend five minutes looking into the events surrounding David Bowie’s sexual encounters with a “child groupie” named Lori Maddox, and see if you still think about his music the same way as before.)

Interestingly enough, many PWR BTTM fans have had little to no problem with throwing the baby out with the bathwater; for them, PWR BTTM and PWR BTTM’s music are, for all intents and purposes, inseparable. And hence, the sense of betrayal. SPIN’s Jordan Sargent writes:

The more fundamental issue is that it wasn’t only PWR BTTM’s activism that argued for the necessity for these safe spaces — the band, for instance, insisted on only playing venues with gender neutral bathrooms — but it was inherent to their music as well, which rose to prominence at a time when politically outspoken musicians were once again being hailed as important cultural voices, with trans rights especially becoming the tip of the activist spear. PWR BTTM were quite plainly the opposite of the people they explicitly presented themselves to be.

[…]

But whatever power Hopkins amassed by asserting their own identity onstage and off was allegedly used as a tool of abuse. The thesis of Hopkins’ very existence, and by extension the band’s, casts a pall of darkness that can’t be escaped. In the case of PWR BTTM, there was no separation between the art and the artist, making the band, as it stands now, completely untenable.

As Gibson points out in her Washington Post article, “The speed and severity of the response may have surprised some — particularly in the absence of an identified accuser or an official complaint — but the queer punk community has learned, over the years, practices of acceptance and support for its most vulnerable and marginalized members, who often don’t feel safe reporting an assault or violation to authorities.”


This should go without saying, but sexual assault must never be tolerated, not even from important or beloved artists. At the same time, it’s easy to see how that “intolerance” might translate over to art created by an individual, even one who has only been accused of such assault. If you’re in a community that already feels vulnerable and marginalized, and one of “your” artists transgresses said community, it’s not much of a stretch to see how their art then becomes a source of hurt and frustration.

Still, I want to be very careful here because I happen to believe that art, by it’s very nature, can become greater than its creator. One of art’s most sublime aspects is that it can be transcendent. That includes its ability to transcend external pressures imposed on it (say, by the prevailing society and culture in which it’s been created) as well as internal pressures (such as the artist’s own flaws and brokenness), and still communicate truth and beauty.

But unfortunately, we don’t live in a world that is some sort of Platonic ideal. We live in a broken, sin-filled world where people do terrible things all the time. And in this broken world, art — transcendent though it can certainly be — doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

If the allegations against Hopkins turn out to be true, to what extent were PWR BTTM’s songs less “a soundtrack for outsiders on the way to loving themselves” and more an expression of Hopkins’ own terrible flaws? That’s a question PWR BTTM’s fans will likely continue to ask themselves as this situation develops and the truth comes to light — and it’s one Sasha Geffen explored in a 2016 article about the rape accusations directed towards Swans’ Michael Gira.

In Geffen’s article, Swans fans struggle to reconcile Gira’s behavior with his music’s “visceral and hypermasculine qualities.” This proves impossible for some of them. As one fan puts it, “There’s a lot of power and aggression present in many of Swans’ recordings, and to listen to that music with associations of rape in my head is far too off-putting.” Many PWR BTTM fans are no doubt experiencing that same difficulty when it comes to Hopkins and Bruce’s songs.


I really like this quote from Paste’s Bonnie Stiernberg concerning this dichotomy: “[W]e should remember that the heroic traits we project onto our beloved artists and celebrities are almost always divorced from much thornier realities.” Dealing with those thornier realities ultimately comes down to a matter of grace and conscience, a matter of where you’re willing to draw the line for yourself, if not your community.

Some will forever skip PWR BTTM’s music because it’s now tainted by allegations of sexual assault. Others will hold on to the songs because they can still find value in them in spite of Hopkins’ (alleged) failings. Both approaches are equally valid as matters of individual conscience go. But any approach taken concerning PWR BTTM — or any other artist who is revealed to be a flawed human (i.e., which is all of them) — will ultimately be a balancing act between your belief in art’s intrinsic sublimity and power to transcend; the sad fact that all of us, even our most beloved artists, are flawed and capable of terrible things; and the reality that none of our actions and creations exist in a simple vacuum.

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