IDFWS Diversity Committee member Cynthia Zhang grapples with a beloved artist’s reprehensible behavior and the ramifications for a conflicted fan base.
By Cynthia Zhang
(cw: sexual assault and associated topics, Nazism, general racism and unpleasantness)
Early 2016, maybe late 2015. It’s my last year of college, and I’ve finally decided to say fuck it to unhappiness: I’m going to take the classes I want and hang out with people I actually like and fuck it to denying myself happiness for some ideal of maturity or fiscal responsibility. So I move out of my old apartment, the one that’d been quietly making me miserable for a year, and I find myself a newer one, where there’s space and cats and an actual functional A/C system, thank fucking god. There’s the nagging matter of the two theses I’ve signed up to write, sure, but I’m living in a space that makes me happy with people who make me happy and I am, if aware of how fragile this peace is, for the moment, content.
Around this time, the opening weeks of the school year, enjoying the start of fall and being back in a city again, my roommate sends me a link to a Tiny Desk Concert for a band I haven’t heard of, one of those weirdly named indie groups she has a talent for picking up. There’re guitar hooks and banter and makeup slathered on with a paintbrush, one of those heavy-duty things you use to paint fences and houses with. The music is simple but catchy and unapologetically queer and there’s glitter, so much glitter it almost hurts me just to think of having to clean up afterwards.
They’re called PWR BTTM, and I’m in love.
Summer of 2016, maybe early fall. I’m back from China, a brief few months in the States before I head off again for Spain, a prospect that’s simultaneously terrifying and elating—my Spanish is shit and I’ll be leaving the people I love, but I’ve always wanted to do Europe and I’ve always been willing to put in the work. There’s writing, the daily drudgery of an office job, and studying for the literature GRE, but with no plans for school in the foreseeable future, there’s also a shocking amount of spare time. After four years of worrying about theses and GPAs and the viability of my resume, I get, if not quite an end to all that, a reprieve. So when PWR BTTM comes to town, with no essays or tests on the horizon and only a few weeks left in the United States, of course I buy tickets.
It’s a good time. I go with my roommate and another friend, all of us fans and incredibly excited to finally see our favorite queer duo live. l sneak a bottle of hard cider in, sip it while we dance in a corner and crowdwatch. The place is packed, people of all ages and gender identities singing along to the lyrics. On stage, Ben Hopkins is wearing a hat that says “Make America Gay Again” and Liv Bruce is as radiant as she is in photographs. I don’t feel queer enough for this show, I text a friend halfway through, and it’s true, albeit not an unpleasant feeling. There’s something lovely about it, being in a place with so much glitter and so little regard for gender norms, where people can so freely be themselves.
I was lucky in that most of my friends and acquaintances at college were fairly open-minded, pronoun preferences and asexuality familiar concepts, but there was still a sense of wariness, for me at least, of coming forward as different. Not necessarily a fear of violence or disgust—again, I was lucky in that—but of skepticism, the raised eyebrow and “really? But you don’t seem—” Or, if not, then the questions, “so what does that even mean, anyways?” and “but how can you know?”—none of them malicious, of course, but nonetheless still dreaded, tired the way “so why don’t you eat meat?” gets old after the first eighteen times it’s asked. Why do you eat meat, I’d always wanted to ask back in response, but always stopped myself from doing: it was rude and they meant nothing by it, were genuinely curious instead of malicious and should be treated to as such. I knew that. It was still annoying.
There, though in the dusty space of Bottom Lounge, there was no need for any of those questions, no need to wonder if other people would get it, because they were all like you. There, in a few square feet of dimly lit space, for a few hours at least, we spoke the same language.
Fall 2016/winter, 2017. Or sometime around there. Spain is good, cheap wine and good cheese, free museums and beautiful architecture at every corner. It’s not perfect—there’s been a goddamn lunatic elected to the White House, one whom apparently thinks being President is carte blank for misogyny, and the majority of my socializing takes place online because while it is not ideal, it is still easier than going out and actually making friends. Spain is beautiful, churros and marzipan and drinking chocolate as thick as porridge—but it is, for all not, still not home. I miss my dog. I miss my friends. Most of all (and perhaps this is strange, given the amount of complaining about campus that is a part of my campus culture) I miss college, the ability to reference Hamilton and joke about Pokemon Go and Marx in the same sentence. Maybe this sounds pretentious or elitist; maybe I am, but it still cut, that feeling of being unable to communicate. Besides the obvious Spanish/English barrier, there was this other language barrier, that population of shared jokes and cultural touchstones I could mention and expect people to just effortlessly get.
Around this time—or perhaps before, but this is the time I associate with it—PWR BTTM announces the release of their new album. It’s called Pageant and, besides the huge amount of positive press it gets, the songs are absolute bangers—straightforward and unadorned as always, but fun and quotable and unapologetically, gloriously queer.
On my walks to school, I listen to “Big Beautiful Day” and “Answer My Text” and it is, if not quite ideal, then at least better.
May 2017, sometime in Spain. Most likely sometime absurdly early in the morning, considering the way time zones and news cycles tend to synch up. I wake up and, as I always do in the mornings, pick up my phone to check Facebook and email. On Facebook Messenger, there’s a notification from my friend, the same one who’d introduced me to PWR BTTM initially; and, as one does when there are unread messages, I click on it.
It’s a screenshot of a post made in a Chicago DIY Facebook group, and it’s accusing Ben Hopkins of Nazism and sexual abuse.
This is jarring. I’d heard PWR BTTM talk about safe spaces and gender neutral bathrooms, gotten offended on their behalf when their tour van was stolen. When Trump was elected, they had changed their Facebook cover in response, a pastel purple image with the words QUEER IS INVINCIBLE.
I text receipts???, and a few minutes later, I get them: an image of Ben Hopkins shirtless and smiling at the beach, a swastika drawn in the sand.
The next couple of days, I continue to get them:
Nnamdi Ogbonnaya and T-Rextasy, who were set to tour with PWR BTTM, drop out. Supporting/touring members Cameron West and Nicholas Cummins leave the band. An unnamed victim speaks with Jezebel, telling them that Liv Bruce had been perfectly aware of the assault allegations against her bandmate. Pageant, which had been set to release and which had already been hailed by multiple news sources as the new It album of 2017, is cancelled, with Polyvinyl Records promising to refund anyone who’d already bought copies. Hopscotch Music Festival removes PWR BTTM from their lineup; not long after, it becomes clear that the planned North America tour has been canceled. Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play Music, and Tidal all remove PWR BTTM from their services.
This happens in a week.
Is this all a bit melodramatic? Absolutely. And if I’d been an outside observer, someone approaching this with no knowledge of or emotional investment in the people who were involved, I would have found it hilarious, no doubt; petty fandom drama is the shit I live for, and this is exactly up that alley. This time, though, I couldn’t sit on the sidelines, shaking my head at the ridiculousness of everything that’s gone down. This time, I was involved. And, after the shock had worn off, reality sunk in and the emotions settled, one fact remained: I was pissed.
And then, #MeToo took off. Over fifty women speak up to accuse Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault. Anthony Rapp attests that Kevin Spacey tried to force himself on him when he was fourteen. Roy Moore is accused of sexual assault. Louis C.K. is accused of sexual harassment. John Lasseter is accused of sexual harassment. And at the forefront of it all, leading this strange experiment we call the United States of America is Donald Trump, a man who openly brags about grabbing women “by the pussy.”
This is, in some ways, not at all a new problem. Sexual violence in a society of toxic masculinity, the fact that good art will turn out to be made by bad people will sometimes make good art—we’ve known this for a fucking long time, okay? You can’t be into horror without confronting the fact that H.P. Lovecraft was an egregious racist, can’t like sci-fi without confronting Orson Scott Card’s loud homophobia, and how long has it been, really, since we’ve known about Roman Polanski and Bill Cosby? Sexual assault is morally unjustifiable, of course; that’s a non-starter. But what to make of the effects of this art then, the emotional resonances these people nonetheless produced, the fact that, when examined in isolation and with death of the author, some of their work is still relatable? Is it a con? Or is true? Can someone, in good conscience, force themselves on someone else and still stand and talk about queer rights and safe spaces?
I think so. Hypocrisy is a harder concept to wrap your mind around than playing the long con, but it’s truer to what I’ve seen: just because Ben Hopkins behaved in skeevy sexual ways does not nullify their experience of prejudice and depression, does not nullify their right to they pronouns the way certain initial responses on Reddit wanted to believe. Moreover—and perhaps more to the point—it does not nullify the experiences of PWR BTTM’s fans, the teenagers and lost queer kids who found, if only temporarily, comfort in their music. Radical feminists can do valuable work on violence against women while being shockingly transphobic; religious leaders can preach charity and tolerance and religious bans all in the same breath. People are complicated; people are contradictory. We know this, right? We must.
And yet. How to deal with it in the end, the fact that the people you trust may (will) betray you? Not trust at all? Cut the offenders out of your life completely? Yes, if that is what you must, if that is what it takes for you to survive; but most cases aren’t like that, clear-cut good and bad guys on either side. It isn’t for me, at least. Having living in some deeply fundamental Christian environments, I can see how easy it would be to get locked up in intolerance and deep-set prejudices, to buy into a cruel system and cruel patterns of thought because they are the only ones you know. How invisible these things can be, moral infractions so normalized they become invisible, unnoticed because they are so common. But these examples are on a personal level, my decision to forgive an insensitive classmate or uncle. What, then, to do when we move from individuals to public figures, from personal absolution to a cultural reckoning?
I don’t know. I want to come a pithy answer about this, something about the danger of grand narratives, but that sounds too glib, too easy an answer for so complicated a problem. All I can say in the end, I suppose, is that we live in a flawed, harmful culture. We can do our best, but the tide is always rushing against us and progress is no excuse for complacency, for us to imagine that we should stop swimming. We should remember that.