What We Can (and Can’t) Learn from PWR BTTM’s Downfall

Music Features PWR BTTM
What We Can (and Can’t) Learn from PWR BTTM’s Downfall

This is the spot where our PWR BTTM feature was supposed to go.

It almost made it, too, just like PWR BTTM almost made it: News of band member Ben Hopkins’s alleged sexual abuse broke just a day before we were set to unveil a lengthy, glowing profile on the band, and a day before the release of Pageant, which was set to be a career-making album for the duo.

It’s a record that likely would have found its way onto our year-end list this December, from a band that we declared to be The Best of What’s Next in 2015. PWR BTTM, with its rambunctious guitar rock and gleeful affirming message of inclusion, empowerment and respect for the LGBTQ community, was a band we—and pretty much everyone in the music industry—enjoyed rooting for. But as the details of an alleged appalling pattern of sexual misconduct began to snowball on May 10—including a terrifying account, via an interview with Jezebel, of an alleged rape committed by Hopkins—it became painfully obvious that we had no choice but to pull the story and try to make sense of what we knew and what we didn’t.

One thing was abundantly clear: The swiftness of the fallout was breathtaking. In less than 72 hours, PWR BTTM was dropped by its management company and its label, Polyvinyl Records, which announced it would no longer be selling Pageant and even offered refunds. PWR BTTM’s former label, Father/Daughter Records, which released the band’s 2015 debut, Ugly Cherries, followed suit, declaring its intention to yank that album from streaming services. The band’s touring members abruptly quit, as did the tour’s opening acts, transforming Hopkins and bandmate Liv Bruce from heroes of the marginalized and victimized into the very villains that make those kinds of heroes so important.

The aftermath of the allegations—which also included a claim of anti-Semitism stemming from an old photo of Hopkins posing next to a swastika scrawled in the sand—might have taken a different course had the band outright denied the claims of sexual misconduct, or actively tried to take responsibility. They did neither, choosing instead to release a cryptic statement saying that the “alleged behavior is not representative of who Ben is,” and to set up an email address where “a survivor or someone working directly with a survivor can discuss the allegations being expressed.”

It was a strange, wholly inadequate response, and it was encouraging to see how quickly fans and those affiliated with the band distanced themselves from a potential abuser. It was also a sad reminder of how rarely that happens. History is studded with grotesque examples of our willingness—our eagerness, even—to separate the art we love from the artists who make it. Michael Jackson’s estate raked in $825 million in 2016, thanks in part to our willingness to ignore the allegations of pedophilia that dogged him. The peace-and-love Beatles managed to do alright for themselves despite John Lennon’s admissions of domestic abuse. In 1976, Eric Clapton publicly endorsed white nationalist Enoch Powell during a concert, declaring his intent to “Keep Britain white!”; his album No Reason to Cry, released the same year, was certified platinum in the UK. Jimmy Page and David Bowie are deified despite their statutory rapes of the same teenager.

Why was PWR BTTM seemingly treated differently than these rock stars, all of whom were permitted to go on making music and money? Is there a different standard for a man who admitted that he beat women and famously sang “Give Peace a Chance” than there is for a queer artist who preaches about the importance of inclusivity and safe spaces and turns out to be an alleged sexual abuser?

The answer, apparently, is yes. Generally speaking, PWR BTTM fans are not the type of people to turn a blind eye to allegations like these. (As one tweeted recently, “The Venn diagram of people who liked PWR BTTM and people who would (correctly) drop them in a sec for sexual abuse allegations is a circle.”) Their reaction was the right one—zero tolerance. But sadly, within society as a whole, we still need to do a far better job at holding alleged abusers accountable. Hell, you can be caught on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women and still get 53 percent of all the white women in America to vote for you.

If PWR BTTM’s downfall appears fairly simple on the surface, the issues swarming beneath are difficult to untangle. We are better equipped to recognize and condemn the bad behavior that would have been overlooked or even romanticized decades ago as “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.” But we also seem to apply our evolving standards in a breakneck frenzy. Has social media helped to vaporize the unhealthy power dynamics that separate artists and fans by demystifying and humanizing the artists, or has it amplified that dynamic by tricking us into believing we know these people? Is this an illustration of our modern quest for social justice taking shape, or just a classic example of hypocrisy exposed?

Whatever the answers, we need to do better. We should redouble our efforts to educate young people about consent. We should hold ourselves to the same standards to which we hold others. And we should remember that the heroic traits we project onto our beloved artists and celebrities are almost always divorced from much thornier realities.

Our PWR BTTM feature will never see the light of day; rereading it today makes us queasy. There’s one particular quote from Hopkins we keep going back to, one that seemed noble at the time but now, in the context of these allegations, shakes us to our core. We won’t include it word for word here, but it offers “We tried” as a theme for the record and implies it’s far more human to chronicle an attempt at something rather than a success, that there’s always failure along the road to self-improvement.

We have to try harder.

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