Ebru Yildiz

One Night In PWR BTTM’s America

Carving out a space for queerness, joy, and resistance in the worst of times

In election-countdown America last weekend, many of us were desperate for new reimaginings beyond what was available to us in the political moment. While our binary democratic system tried to shepherd the most malleable of us into thinking we only had one choice (bad) over another (better), in reality, there were to be a network of forks in the road, most still leading to hell, that we were going to face no matter the outcome of the presidential election.

One of the blessings that queerness offers is a specific hard-won agency that most factions of mainstream society lack — one that summons alternate realities in spaces where they are most desperately needed, most homogeneously codified. This is a technique of survival and justice, employed when there is no option available in life for you to live in truth and safety. So there are new visions and liberations that allow you that freedom, within the safe confines of a dream. For those of us who do benefit from normativity and its privileges, to observe queer art as resistance to society’s withholdings is to be fortunate enough to broaden our assumptions of what that life can be like. It can be more colorful than you ever thought to the advantage of everyone here, and you get to take a chance on it now: That is what a safer space is.

A PWR BTTM show in Seattle this past Saturday night was affirmation of all of this. Dedicated to a practice of facilitating this space of freedom and play, PWR BTTM only perform at all-ages venues, where they specifically request respect from their audience for the bodies around them. If anything happens to disturb the peace, they won’t put up with any shit that threatens to deflate their proverbial bouncy house of glee. PWR BTTM are vigilant advocates for that joy, for shouting your desires. Their songs showcase swift and sweet gestures toward the emotions of daily life; they are songs of adventure. They’re about life that’s more than survival. They’re about thriving.

When the band took the stage, singer/guitarist Ben Hopkins asked for their mic to be turned up: “I love the sound of my own voice … and I’m a total narcissist.” Clad in a yellow Belle dress and navy blue glitter face paint, Ben wore a “Make America Queer Again” hat in lieu of a crown. In the final days before the election, it seemed urgent to reclaim narcissism from spray-tanned bigots and pundits with thin souls and flatironed hair — to instead give all our anxious attention to a band who glue patches of glitter to their cheeks. This was a matter of bearing witness to gleeful humanity, of organizing in the name of joy. There was no concession to those who seek to legislate that all away.

I was new at this awe, but PWR BTTM’s fans were clearly regulars. This was their third Seattle show of 2016, and the conscious community-building of their audience gave the impression that the band had a power in securing the safer space they sought. The fans were clued in to its boundaries and trusted them. In turn, the audience was extremely present, activated, generous, and fearless with feedback. Sing-alongs revealed heart; “I Wanna Boi” and “New Hampshire” gave fans a moment of communal sweetness as they testified to tenderness with a sincerity that might have bordered on corny if it weren't so charming. Hopkins and singer/drummer Liv Bruce switched instruments halfway through the set because traditional roles have pointless standing in this band’s world. Ben’s riffs were the kind I crave, fingers like bird claws perching on wires, making confident, elegant contact. PWR BTTM are a band we needed in that moment like oxygen — queer, colorful, resistant, cognizant.

Ben and Liv also told stories between songs, their onstage banter a delight instead of filler. Using pedals for sound effects and ridiculous faux-English accents, they created that feeling of satisfaction that a little drama gives, the warmness of a funny story and laughing together. There was a point where Ben broke the fourth wall by engaging with a chicken hat that suddenly appeared on an audience member’s head. While Ben cackled and flung their hands in disbelief, unable to make it through the next several verses without losing the melody to reckless giggles, the audience enjoyed that specific, weird joy one gets while watching a comedian break character in a sketch.

Some banter later in the show included Ben handing Liv compliments on being such a good sport during long night drives. There was an anecdote that had them crossing states in record time: “Liv drove us so far that night, I woke up in a different time zone and gender!” Ben quipped in admiration.

Anywhere PWR BTTM gather, they deliberately, joyfully, unapologetically turn physical space into an occupation of odds-defying exuberance and queer possibility. That kind of ride is what we needed to get out of the toxic election-week binary, even if for an hour. PWR BTTM shows are a way to fight off fear, to embrace boundless potential for all ways of being. They endanger nobody; they are only joy.