PWR BTTM: From the 'next big thing' to music pariahs in one week

The queer indie band was poised for greatness, but sexual assault allegations saw almost everyone abandon them

PWR BTTM: From the 'next big thing' to music pariahs in one week

Liv Bruce and Ben Hopkins of music duo PWR BTTM [Facebook]

Last week, New York punk band PWR BTTM was gearing up to release their second album, with Pageant feted as “fabulously defiant” and “bombastic and sincere.” It looked like the group, made up of two gender-nonconforming musicians, was set to breakthrough.

But on May 10th, accusations of a string of sexual assaults and inappropriate behaviour were levelled against band member Ben Hopkins on Facebook, shared all over the Internet within hours, with major consequences for PWR BTTM.

Within days, the band’s label had dropped them, Pageant’s release was cancelled, and – with the exception of Spotify – almost every online streaming website had removed their music from their platforms.

For observers of the music scene, it was a remarkably quick reaction from the music industry, with the critically-acclaimed band seemingly wiped out overnight.

PWR BTTM’s individualistic performance style struck an immediate chord with fans upon the release of the 2015 album Ugly Cherries. On stage, stomping around with careless abandon and glittery make-up, the duo’s songs appealed to a generation of LGBTQ youth and their allies, with a solid message of social justice and inclusivity dominating their shows.

Accusations spread quickly

But the gleaming reputation of the band was undone in a handful of paragraphs on Facebook, when Kitty Cordero-Kolin alleged that Hopkins had, on multiple occasions, acted in a predatory manner and sexually assaulted younger men. The post also included a picture of Hopkins posing beside a swastika drawn on the sand of a beach.

The post was shared by Cordero-Kolin, a prolific member of Chicago's queer punk scene and who uses the pronoun ‘they’, in a private Facebook group, but screenshots of their accusations appeared online shortly after. Prolifically shared on Twitter and Reddit, PWR BTTM took to Twitter the following day to respond.

In a statement, the band said that “the alleged behaviour in not representative of who Ben is,” adding that Hopkins had not received any messages from anyone alleging abuse. The tweet gave out an email address for anyone to email with questions relating to the developing scandal, claiming that a sexual assault survivor would be on hand to respond.

“These allegations are shocking to us and we take them very seriously,” the statement said.

But this attempt at damage limitation was undercut the following day when Jezebel ran an interview with a woman, pseudonymously identified as ‘Jen’, who said Hopkins assaulted her at a PWR BTTM concert. Jen accused him of forcing himself on her while she was drunk, refusing to practice safe sex against her wishes, and for sending her unsolicited naked images to her phone.

Jen also claimed that she had spoken at length to Liv Bruce, the other half of the band, about what had happened at the concert, and called out the band’s statement and supposed shock at the allegations as dishonest.

Reputation in tatters

With their glittery image immediately tarnished, the fallout of the scandal was immediate; members of their touring band left and a number of opening acts on their tour pulled out of appearances. Their management company disowned them, and their record label released a statement saying PWR BTTM’s music would no longer receive distribution.

“There is absolutely no place in the world for hate, violence, abuse, discrimination or predatory behaviour of any kind,” Polyvinyl’s statement read. The record company pledged refunds to anyone who had pre-ordered the record and made donations to sexual assault charities.

This was compounded by the news that the label behind PWR BTTM’s debut album has also disavowed the band, asking online streaming services to remove their music from their platforms. Apple Music, iTunes, Amazon and Tidal followed through, though Pageant is still available to stream on Spotify at the time of publishing.

Throughout the days of fallout, PWR BTTM hunkered down and made no more statements. All while more and more venues across the United States cancelled their shows.

Swift justice?

The PWR BTTM upheaval has proven to be an interesting case study in how music labels react to abuse allegations, with many of the band’s fans left confused and betrayed. The seriousness of the allegations notwithstanding, there has been a split in reactions; some have praised the queer punk scene for immediately holding some of its brightest stars to account, despite the allegations being unproven and criminal charges yet to materialise.

Others have suggested that the immediate cutting of ties by the various industry companies that had previously supported them comes after decades of other – cis-gendered and straight – artists enjoying commercial support in the face of similar allegations.

Take Lostprophets, for instance: the Welsh band’s lead singer Ian Watkins is currently serving a 29-year jail sentence for child sex offences, but their five albums are still for sale on iTunes and streaming on Spotify. Other artists have weathered sexual allegations and convictions, but have not been axed by the labels still reaping financial reward from their creative output.

As such, the otherness of PWR BTTM as a self-identifying queer band has ruffled some feathers in the narrative of their fallout.

Ben Hopkins’ rapid fall from grace comes despite his accuser not coming forward publicly nor filing an official complaint. But the decision of indie labels and venues cherished as safe spaces for queer audiences to act so quickly highlights the community’s awareness that sexual abuse exists within the subculture; the Human Rights Campaign says that half of transgender people will experience sexual violence at some point, while facing higher rates of poverty, stigma, and marginalisation.

All this means that the LGBTQ face more risk and more hurdles when it comes to reporting their assaults to the authorities.

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