PWR BTTM give real hugs — like, I-haven’t-seen-you-in-years-but-I-still-think-about-you-every-day hugs. It doesn’t matter who you are: When Ben Hopkins and Liv Bruce curve their lanky arms around you and squeeze, it's something special. A hug from PWR BTTM makes you feel understood. It makes you feel loved.
As the duo made their glittery way through the crowd before a set at Orlando’s Backbooth nightclub this past Friday, they stopped every couple of feet to embrace fans, leaving each one sparkling in their wake. It was less than a week since the nightmare of the mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in downtown Orlando, and coming together at a PWR BTTM show felt important. “When fringe groups gather, there is power in that,” Hopkins tells me, sitting adjacent to Bruce in the corner of an old-style confessional booth before the show. "There is power in organization. There is power in a community. People have always wanted to destroy communities.”
The band donated all proceeds from Friday night’s show directly to the Pulse Tragedy Community Fund. “It feels like if our project is worth anything, then this is the most important thing that we’re going to do on this tour,” Hopkins says.
A while later, after a stirring opening set from Pennsylvania band Petal, PWR BTTM took the stage. They didn't have much setting up to do — between them, Hopkins and Bruce have only a pair of guitars, one drum kit, an amp, and some pedals. Mic check, makeup check, ready. “Thank you for taking up the space you are taking up right now," Hopkins told the crowd, his voice cutting through the ambient chatter in the room. "Thank you for respecting our use of gender-neutral bathrooms." He made one other request before they started playing: "Moshing is something we don’t really know how to control well yet in terms of having consensual boundaries for it, so if you want to dance and sing all the words and do whatever you do at a PWR BTTM show, do it, bitch. Just please don’t mosh, OK? Because it hurts people who don’t want to be hurt. Is that chill?”
At 6-foot-4, Hopkins could be the most fabulous person to ever dunk. With the added height of the stage, he towered over the audience in Tevas and a tiny light blue dress secured around his right shoulder. Bruce started behind the drum kit, wearing jean shorts and a floral print t-shirt, their dark hair pulled back by a phalanx of tiny clips.
In between tracks from their 2015 debut LP, Ugly Cherries, Bruce and Hopkins bantered about drag queens, drugs, and the inherently radical nature of queer spaces. Both band members are proficient on drums and guitar, and they switched instruments multiple times throughout the set. For the last song, Bruce stood center stage with an acoustic guitar.
Until that point, the show had been more or less like any other night at Backbooth, albeit slightly sparklier. A small paper sign on the door reading “NO BAGS OR WEAPONS OF ANY KIND AND NO REENTRY” was the only apparent indication that a mass murder had taken place just a few days ago, only a couple blocks from where we stand.
Then Bruce started talking.
“Ever since Sunday of last week, we’ve been adding this cover to our set, and every night at our shows we dedicate it to people affected by what happened at Pulse," Bruce said. "We usually go on some sort of speech about that, but I feel like there’s nothing I can say to you that you haven’t heard already. So I’m just going to play it. All I want to say is that, to me, this song has always been about queer space and being surrounded by people who understand you. And that’s what I feel tonight.”
“Somewhere Over the Rainbow” never felt so powerful.
We know that everyone shows their grief differently. Some wear black. Some wear rainbow angel wings and smear their faces with so much red glitter that their heads shimmer like disco balls under even the gentlest of lights. Wherever they go, PWR BTTM make it abundantly clear (and queer) which camp they strut in.
“Queer is invincible because people have tried everything — haven’t they?" Hopkins asks me. "What haven’t they tried to do to queer people? And horrible things happened. But you never stop, because it's the truth of who you are.”