In times of heartbreak, we often turn to music as a source of needle and thread to patch the wound. Music can mend us, if only in fleeting doses, but sometimes that relief can be the onus we need to move forward.
One day after the United States election that left more than half the country in profound despair, I went to the Richshaw Stop to see PWR BTTM, a queer punk duo that has perfected the art of smeared makeup and garage rock. As if guitarist Ben Hopkins and drummer Liv Bruce weren’t already dealing with enough in the wake of a professed xenophobe and hate monger being elected to our country’s highest office, some piece of shit also stole their van – containing all their gear and merch – hours before their show (it’s a blue Ford E150 with a red stripe and license plate HHD 9153. Call (978) 767-1906 if you see it).
PWR BTTM would’ve been well within their rights to wilt in the face of a truly catastrophic 24 hours and call off their show on Thursday. Instead, Hopkins donned a red thrift store dress, the band borrowed gear from the kind folks of SF indie-pop act Jay Som, and they gave a sold-out crowd the most precious resource left in this trying, ominous time: hope.
Addressing the crowd prior to their first song, Hopkins acknowledged the election and the theft of their van.
“Don’t feel bad for us because we lost our stuff,” he said as fans reacted to the news. “We’re the most fortunate people on earth.”
“The most radical thing about our lives is getting to be in a visibly filled-out queer crowd every night,” Hopkins continued. “I’m afraid of many things, but looking out at these people, there’s no room for fear.”
One of PWR BTTM’s mantras in the year since the release of their acclaimed full-length debut, Ugly Cherries, is “queer is invincible.” At a time when one might rightfully feel that the genderqueer – along with Muslims, Latinos, women, and many others – are at their most vulnerable, PWR BTTM channels their own invincibility to empower crowds and remind them that no one speaks for them but themselves.
Musically, the performance was immensely impressive, especially given the reality that Hopkins, Bruce, and touring bassist Nicholas Cummins were forced to make due with borrowed instruments. Hopkins is a guitarist of the highest order, his nimble, manicured fingers running rampant on punk-pop stompers like “Projection” and “Silly.” Bruce also shared their guitar chops when they switched places with Hopkins for the middle third of the set, although it may be Bruce’s voice that is most alluring.
Singing the lyrics to “I Wanna Boi” — “I want a boy who thinks it’s sexy when my lipstick bleeds” — Bruce’s tambour felt genuine and immediate, if still a little playful and coy. Bruce and Hopkins both have an intoxicating stage presence, one made all the more endearing by their ceaseless and delightful banter back and forth on stage.
Bruce talked about going on Grindr after Trump was declared the winner — “As most of you probably know, Grindr was a mess last night” — and how they took aRazor scooter to meet a guy who just needed to be held. When someone in the crowd shouted out about marijuana now being legal, Hopkins pretended to be exuberant, before confessing: “When I smoke weed, I turn into Teresa Giudice from Real Housewives. I feel like my hair is always moving.” There was also talk of Bravo TV’s Below Deck — “Come through yacht drama,” Bruce said — and an ongoing reference to breastmilk that is best left unexplained.
The moments of levity were welcomed, but the moments of sincerity were even more potent.
“This is a song about explaining gender neutral pronouns to my friend’s dad at a garden party,” Bruce explained at one point.
It’s a funny scenario, but also, it’s not.
Just like any artist, PWR BTTM has the choice to be advocates, to fight, to care, and to turn up for a gig the night after their country elected someone who is most definitely not their ally, and hours after another person stole some of their most valued possessions. They have at every available turn made that choice: to include, to inspire, to listen, to fight, and above all, to fucking rock.
There is so much work to be done. It won’t be easy. However, if it feels oppressive and overwhelming, just remember what PWR BTTM did in the wake of sorrow. They carried on. They tried harder. For 90 minutes last night, PWR BTTM gave us back the world we love. Let’s do the same for them.
I Wanna Boi
C U Around
House in Virginia