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Just An Average (Glitter-Covered, Gender-Neutral, Utopian) Rock Band

By Marissa Lorusso | NPR
Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Having the two members of a guitar-and-drums pop-punk duo switch instruments halfway through a set might qualify as unexpected. But with Liv Bruce and Ben Hopkins — the two members of the Brooklyn-based band PWR BTTM — you come to expect the unexpected; or, if not the unexpected, a kind of charming impropriety when faced with norms. Case in point: In a statement about "Projection," the band's latest single, Hopkins says the song is about "throwing a shiny, glorious middle finger to those who doubt you." The gesture could come across as a crass punk cliche, but it's too glamorous, too fun, to feel boring or insulting. Because that's the level that PWR BTTM operates on: a Trojan horse infiltrating rock stereotypes with inclusive, campy identity politics. No matter who you are, you feel like you're in on the joke.

Live, PWR BTTM tends to give that glorious middle finger to just about every established aspect of a rock show — and not just in the way that Hopkins and Bruce switch instruments mid-set. For starters, the two perform in thrift-store dresses or flamboyant, colorful outfits, with Hopkin's often bearded face covered in layers of scrawled-on, messy makeup and glitter. There's also the banter, a kind of dramatic, witty repartee between Hopkins and Bruce that makes you question if you accidentally stumbled into a drag show. Then there are the fans, who show up covered in glitter and later flood the band's Twitter timeline with appreciative selfies with the duo.

The music itself spends most of its time in the realm of personal-yet-infectious, glamorous pop-punk, lit up by Hopkins's theatrical shredding and carried by both members' impassioned crooning and lyrics that oscillate between sincerity and silliness. So it may seem strange that, around the same time the band released its debut album, Ugly Cherries, last year, Bruce started ruminating on this motto: PWR BTTM is an average band.

"I wrote it on my car window in October or November as a joke," Bruce says. "It seems like kind of a slogan that I want to propagate."

That's an unlikely statement for a band that's on the cusp of breaking out, especially since it's rooted in a particular aspect of the band's identity: queerness. Both Hopkins and Bruce identify as queer and prefer gender-neutral they/them pronouns, and Bruce has a non-binary gender identity. The objects of desire and the breakers of hearts in their lyrics exist across the gender spectrum, and as the glitter and the glam-pop sound and even the band's tongue-in-check name attest, the world of PWR BTTM is one in which — through some combination of humor, honesty, and pop-punk hooks — queerness is mainstreamed without losing what makes it revolutionary.

Awareness-raising around LGBT rights has often relied on a particular narrative of sameness: We're just like you, say the same-sex marriage advocates and the anti-"bathroom bill" protestors. We just want to get married. We just want to use the bathroom. We just want to start a family. We just want to serve in the military. But this homonormative momentum is anathema to the drag queens, gender abolitionists and radical queer people who push back on the narrative that if we just expand our ideas a little bit, LGBT populations can fit into pre-existing notions of what it means to be a man, or a woman, or a family.

We're not like you, this other side says. We don't want what you have. Instead of offering comfort to society at large, it builds community among the marginalized until the margins explode into the mainstream. It's bricks through windows and hot coffee thrown in an officer's face. And somehow, this history and these disparate approaches get baked into lyrics like "My girl gets scared / can't take him anywhere" or "I want to put the whole world in drag / But I'm starting to realize it's already like that," that emerge from a flaming guitar riff straight out of the most flamboyant era of hair metal, played by a band proclaiming itself average.

Is it average for Van Halen-style finger-tapping guitar solos to come from the well-manicured hands of a drag queen? Or to have the kinds of witty lyrics and singalong choruses that would make Rivers Cuomo proud coming from the mouth of someone who doesn't identify with a binary gender?

"We make rock music! You know?" Hopkins says. "I can shred like anyone can, if I want to. And so do a billion of my friends, and they're all queer too." Hopkins can shred. Musically, PWR BTTM straddles these worlds of sameness and otherness, of identity and content, both in terms of inspiration and sound. Though they didn't meet until college, Hopkins and Bruce both grew up fawning over Green Day, My Chemical Romance and The Shins. And once you peel back the pronouns and glitter — if you could, for a second, pretend those things don't matter — it becomes obvious. PWR BTTM's straightforward song structures, playful guitar hooks and bouncing rhythms borrow heavily from those pop-punk influences. "1994," a single from Ugly Cherries, combines grungy guitars with Hopkins's heartfelt vocals, plus sparkling synthesizers, handclaps and just enough of a guitar solo to be surprising without being obnoxious. The title track relies on impressive riffs and explosive energy that are reined in by moments where pronoun-swapping lyrics become the main focus.

Hopkins tends to do to guitar solos what drag queens do to traditional femininity: In performing such a technically-proficient and over-the-top version — usually in nail polish — they expose our assumptions about who gets to do what, and why. And in both situations, the presentation is made to seem fun. There's no covering up of the enormous amount of labor that goes into it, but it still seems open to anyone.

That sense of openness is intentional. "I care more about a 15-year-old queer kid in Iowa who wants to know that there's anything out there that resembles their experience and life," Bruce explains, "than the hip queer person in Brooklyn." And so PWR BTTM is a band for the confused and isolated: Hopkins and Bruce demonstrate the kind of queer representation they needed as young people, because they know what it's like to be young and desperately seeking out examples that their own feelings were valid, acceptable and normal.

Bruce says that when they wrote the song "I Wanna Boi," for example, "it wasn't as much about intentionally adding my queerness to it as it was about refusing to subtract my queerness from it." This comes through in Bruce's lyrics that pine for a boy who "thinks it's sexy when my lipstick bleeds," and concludes by giving Bruce's bard.edu email address just in case "you're the boy for me / and I'm the boy for you." Bruce's voice and guitar start off meek, then assert themselves when the drums crash in. There's no hiding here. But songs like "I Wanna Boi" aren't just pawns in a conscious mission to write outside the realm of heterosexuality; they are honest descriptions of real lives, with no truth too ugly or difficult or queer to be included. They fully inhabit a queer identity while blurring the boundaries between mainstream and marginalized.

Guitar-based rock has, for the most part, earned its reputation for being self-serious and embodying a kind of aggressive masculinity. Where rock has moved away from these classic tropes, the new stereotype is still anti-social, egotistical, technically impressive and heteronormative. But PWR BTTM rejects all these stereotypes, choosing instead the queercore tradition of combining rock tropes with a sense of humor. (PWR BTTM has certainly benefited from the genre's commitment to very queer, slightly silly band names à la Pansy Divison or Limp Wrist.)

In "All The Boys," a choir angelically repeats the phrase "Bitch, I might be." Ugly Cherries's last track calls a sweetheart "gaymazing" with total sincerity. The name of another song, "Serving Goffman," pays tribute both to drag culture and the American sociologist who studied social construction and the self. In the midst of PWR BTTM's comedy, the song exposes the difficulty of living outside normative identities with earnest, tangible moments: "I held my breath in a suit and a tie / Because I didn't know I could fight back / I want to put the whole world in drag / But I'm starting to realize it's already like that." PWR BTTM's live shows can be laugh-out-loud funny, too. Hopkins studied theater, and considered pursuing a career in comedy, which accounts for the speed and deftness of their onstage banter. PWR BTTM's guitar solos are still technical; the boisterous drums are still aggressive; the songs are still obsessively crafted. But the band combines all this with a sense of humor, earnestness and obvious queerness that defies mainstream cliches. And with or without the humor, Hopkins and Bruce stress their appreciation for the legacy of queer artists who came before them; while PWR BTTM is a queer band, Hopkins stresses, it's not the only one now, in the past or in the future.

Growing up, music was something that allowed Bruce to feel connected to a larger queer community. After coming out as "some sort of queer" at 14, Bruce felt isolated, and music became a gateway to participating in queer culture. "My way of connecting to the community that I imagined was out there somewhere for me, but wasn't there right now," Bruce says, "was to download tons and tons of discographies of famed divas. So I had Christina Aguilera's discography, Whitney Houston's discography, Mariah Carey's discography, all of that."

Music was also helped Hopkins embrace queer identity, and PWR BTTM itself played a big role; the band was actually a means of coming out. "I had never publicly identified as a queer person before I was in this band," Hopkins says. "So it was like, 'Not only am I queer, but I'm a drag queen, watch me play guitar and sing about it.'" This was during college — Hopkins' senior year and Bruce's junior year. Hopkins says they used humor to try to defuse their nervousness about playing guitar and coming out; snarky one-liners and goofy anecdotes have been part of PWR BTTM's ethos ever since.

The video for PWR BTTM's "West Texas," for example, basks in campy swagger and silliness. It opens with nearly a full minute of appreciation for Hopkins and Bruce's stage looks: Hopkins smears a fistful of glitter over their mouth; Bruce carefully applies eyeshadow and mascara. Then there's strutting and posing and lounging and a confetti gun, all at an abandoned waterpark. The band's Twitter is an Internet translation of that aesthetic, a mashup of earnest declarations of queer invincibility, updates about the band's upcoming tour and inside jokes with fans who respect Hopkins's commitment to glitter. (One recent @PWRBTTMBAND tweet reads: "People are always like 'GIRL U MUST POOP GLITTERRRR' and the thing is I....actually do".)

In the world of PWR BTTM, people don't have to ask for inclusive space: They arrive at the show expecting it. The band recently added a clause to its tour rider asking for gender-neutral restrooms at the venues where they play. If venues can't accommodate their request, the band reserves the right to inform fans. The band takes seriously the idea that PWR BTTM shows can and should be places of inclusion and safety for people with LGBT identities. At a recent show in Washington, D.C., in between the soundcheck and the set, Hopkins reminded the crowd that PWR BTTM shows are safe spaces and asked the crowd to show respect for each other. The show came just a few days after the shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and Hopkins also spoke about the role that nightlife venues have historically played in creating spaces of "intentional queer community." Hopkins — with a face full of glitter and lavender-tipped fingers wrapped around the microphone — thanked the crowd for coming out to create that space of community. The soundcheck had been goofy; Hopkins warmed up with ostentatious riffs and Bruce made jokes about taking too many selfies. But this brief moment before the set showed the band's commitment to fostering community, not just entertaining. After the show, Hopkins posted a series of tweets about the experience of touring in the aftermath of the shooting. One tweet said, "The sadness in the crowds of our shows this week is obvious. As is the bravery. Thank you for sharing your pain, we are lucky to play 4 u." Later, they added: "We are lucky enough to create a show space where queers have felt comfortable to gather and feel as a community: tn that feeling is pain."

Hopkins and Bruce don't necessarily see themselves as a band with a mission, but they acknowledge that their music has political potential. "For queer people, the personal is very political, just to talk about it in a public space," Hopkins explains. "It's very political just to come out and take up that space and be like, 'This is my narrative. It's not an outsider narrative, and it's not a fetish narrative; it's just my story, and it's worth being told and listened to.'" Bruce agrees. "I do think that for a queer person to speak truthfully without shame about their own experiences is political," they say. It's a kind of normalizing politics that PWR BTTM exhibits: The idea that songs about gay romance, or nonbinary heartbreak, should not have to be sanitized to be consumed alongside heterosexual narratives; that these stories deserve to be taken seriously, on their own terms.

Bruce said they were recently asked what they want straight cisgender men to take away from their music. "And I hadn't really realized, up until that point," they say, "that populace is kind of last thing on my mind when I'm writing songs." But the band does realize that it has the potential to speak to straight fans about queer experience. "I would just say our contribution to that conversation is just: 'We exist,'" Hopkins says. "We are people who make songs that are funny, and songs that are sad, and songs that have jokes in them, and songs that are serious and are about HIV. And we have really complicated, real lives."

This is why Bruce's statement about averageness is, ultimately, unsurprising: PWR BTTM is an idyllic vision made real, where queerness is both everything and nothing about the band. Bruce and Hopkins blur the boundaries of the mainstream, combining familiar aesthetics with the rallying cries of the marginalized. Their music creates a world for queer and straight listeners alike where non-heterosexual love songs, glitter-heavy stage presence, queer intentional community and gender-neutral bathrooms aren't extraordinary. They're to be expected. They're average.

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