My Queer Iconoclasm: The Fall of PWR BTTM

PWR BTTM
PWR BTTM performing in 2016.

It was short and sweet, heard above the bright red and black cars, that tiny evening at the end of a warm September, ephemeral both in its brevity and in the thoughtless care with which it was tossed to me. I wore a tight nylon top pulled around my bottom few ribs, a ripped black furry jacket floating past my knees. I was walking to the filming of a movie, of all things, a glossy short production by friends. For the few moments between my room and our first film site I had the feeling of complete potentiality, wholesome communion of presentation with self by way of gaudy sunglasses and smearing foundation. So when a group of tourists walked by and one said, “That’s what you get with wacky Cambridge,” the pronouncement initially went down like refreshing chilled milk. And then, analogous to my developing lactose intolerance, upon even a few moments of digestion in my soft, exposed belly, I began to hurt. A lot. I was a joke now, a human degraded to “wacky,” a stranger, a thing—and all I wanted to do was allow the tears, hidden behind my cat-eye glasses, to streak down my blushing cheeks, and I couldn’t, for fear and embarrassment.

Over the past weeks, this sensation has worsened with the rapid fall of PWR BTTM. Formed at Bard College in 2013, PWR BTTM asserted itself as a rock duo wholly concerned with the representation of the queer community. Soaked in glitter, neon lipsticks, and crying recollections of the unique queer experience, PWR BTTM made me feel safer in my skin. Not only from external threats or jeers, but from my own internalized vestiges of the “masculine and heterosexual” paradigm socialized into me since birth. It is only recently even that I began to peruse the “women’s” sections at little shops on Massachusetts Avenue. (I highly recommend Boomerangs, all of whose proceeds go to fighting HIV/AIDS). And how could made-for-cheers mantras such as “I’m a big, bad sissy and I’m going to make you listen” or “I want a boy who thinks it’s sexy when my lipstick bleeds” not send my inner soul into a bloom of identity? Long nights working at the Carpenter Center became births of my new self with bandmates Liv Bruce and Ben Hopkins, sweet sirens tempting me ever closer to their Brooklynite crystal-vendor shorelines.

Little did I know at the time, that much like a siren, Ben Hopkins was a beguiling horror. Only a few weeks ago, Ben was accused on a closed Facebook group from the Chicago DIY sphere and later on Jezebel of engaging in unwanted sex and sexual advances with one particular individual. Soon after, deluges of reports came forward from those who knew or had worked with Ben (who identifies as gender neutral and uses the pronouns they, them, and their) that Ben had often made unwanted physical contact during post-show meet-ups or aggressive sexual advances on numerous admirers. Such conduct can only be regarded as highly predatory toward their young, predominantly queer audience. This repugnant behavior has led to a swift record-label drop, tour cancellation, and litany of consternated damage-control Facebook posts by the band. This group, purporting to “represent” queer youth has, rightly, been stripped of its right to “represent” anyone. Yet, here I am left betrayed by those saccharine voices, left cast out to sea with my lifejacket slightly more deflated. I cry more often. I shove my left hand, the one adorned with metallic nail polish, in my pocket when out in the Square. Sunglasses are increasingly essential for the occasional teary expulsion. It seems only the miniscule closet of my Snapchat audience sees any of the me I thought I had been forging so confidently, with such security, with cherubic rock stars trumpeting my entrance never far behind. Of course, there are still the colossal brand-names of cis-female pop stars plastered everywhere, supposed queer “representatives” lazily thrusted upon society as figures whom the LGBTQIA+ should adore unquestioningly (though these pop stars often have good intentions or accomplish good). There are, indeed, other artists, such as Anohni or Mykki Blanco, who embody, in many ways, aspects of the queer experience. But just as the loss of a relative or friend, the demise of PWR BTTM has left me with a shiver through my spine each time I step outside the door. Though I usually would fall asleep to a lullaby of theirs, I now find myself alone gripping bed sheets. My boots click to a beat other than PWR BTTM’s “West Texas.” I can no longer find myself in them. Is there a place I turn to with all I had labeled “queer” in myself? When I toss them to the wind, can my tears salve the stigmata they leave behind? Is my icon’s defenestration a salvation?

Yes.

To assert that there will ever be an ideal representative of a minority group is to perpetuate an inherently reductive view. Minority groups are not homogeneous substances that can be boiled down into a distillation of their entire membership. When one continually attempts to search for the ideal “representative” of the queer community, for example, it immediately discounts any and all diversity that can be found within that “group.” PWR BTTM typifies this, as a white band putatively standing for the entire community. Yet, we see this exact activity both within and outside these minority groups, even in times when people attempt to support and console these groups. In the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting, much of the coverage of the event seemed to depict white, gay, cis men in grieving or as the stock photo image of “the gay.” Regardless of the painfully apparent fact that the shooting occurred during “Latin Night,” regardless of the variety of individual both slaughtered and those they left behind, the world, whether implicitly or explicitly, simply could not acknowledge one minority identity shared with another. Yes, there are gay men. But how could we reckon that there are gay and Latino men? Though particularly gruesome in the aforementioned instance, quotidian varieties of this bias exist as well within the queer community.

On Harvard’s campus, I have regularly seen conservative individuals who are also gay completely ostracized by the gay community here. This mention is not to produce some exceptional pity for people who are queer conservatives, as the struggles of various individuals within the queer community cannot be compared, but simply to say that when one tarnishes others, otherizes them to the point at which they can no longer find refuge in the camaraderie of their own minority group, you not only commit an act without empathy but also petrify what “queer identity” must be. In this rejection, you not only state that a queer individual cannot possess conservative views, but also contribute to the standardization of queer characteristics. You begin to legitimize the defining of what can and cannot be queer inherently, what the archetypal queer individual is and is not. You constrict diversity through categorizing labels which by necessity ignore diversity. You foster the ultimately fascist notion that humans should be grouped, labelled.

The only way to escape this is to fashion queerness as impossible to reduce to anything beyond the individuals who comprise the group. Thus, I here assert that the queer identity must not be anything. The queer identity must be indefinable, nondescript, impossible to anchor to one image, one glam-rock group or pop goddess. The single common denominator of “queerness” is and only can be a shared antithetical rejection of any norms (via images, labels, etc.) pounded upon individual identity. The male isn’t necessarily brash and unemotional. Big pumps and tight chinos aren’t only for “women.” Cock rings can be worn as glamorous wedding bands. Queerness is the breaking of any notion that a label given to us (by others or ourselves) demands of us beyond how we choose to inhabit that label. Queerness stands in antithesis to normative politics. Queerness asserts complete liberation from grouping, from stringent self-definition or definition by others. PWR BTTM is—was—one example of a group of individuals who sang of common experience, but they do not rigidify this common experience beyond those who choose to relate to it. I do not need sing alongs. I do not need icons. I am my icon. I am queer. I am me.

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