There’s a fundamental misunderstanding in the concept of “safe spaces” and political correctness, whether it comes in a letter from the dean of students at the University of Chicago, in tweets and interviews from comedians like Larry the Cable Guy to Lisa Lampanelli or from the alt-right en masse.
Given reports in Berkeley and across the United States of harassment and violence enacted towards marginalized communities, the need for safe spaces is especially necessary. The members of PWR BTTM, whose brand of queer-punk is rooted in the Bay Area’s acceptance of punks across gender, ethnic and sexual identities, offered up its own at the Rickshaw Stop on Wednesday.
Less than five minutes into the band’s set, Ben Hopkins (who shares drum, lead vocal and guitar duties with band partner Liv Bruce) set the house rules for the evening ahead. The agreement was simple: Respect the space that you share with the folks in your general vicinity. That’s it. No long-winded op-eds, no Twitter diatribes; just kindness and mindfulness.
PWR BTTM’s unabashedly subversive show was an essential respite — an affirming act of LGBTQ+ rebellion against the larger systemic injustices in place that boiled over less than 24 hours prior.
The concert — as with most PWR BTTM shows — served as double-duty for a grimy punk gig and a glittery drag show. The crowd knew the drill and matched up with the band’s own visual aesthetics. Audience members’ faces were glittered and bejeweled — a DIY craft queen fantasy come to life. Some audience members went full-on drag, dressed up in emoji skirts and fitted lace blouses and billowy makeup.
It’s a space that doesn’t exist elsewhere, one that feels all the more fleeting with the anti-LGBTQ+ policies espoused by the Trump-Pence presidential duo.
PWR BTTM makes loud anthems for quiet revolutions, always speaking to the unfiltered emotion that comes from existing as a queer person in an otherwise straight, heteronormative world.
“West Texas” opened up the room with power-riffs courtesy of Hopkins, who mean mugged and hand-motioned their way through the song dressed up in a gaudy, sparkly flapper dress and a San Francisco Giants cap.
“Ugly Cherries” builds off one hell of a guitar solo before giving way to some vocal acrobatics courtesy of Bruce. “New Hampshire,” a newer track, jettisons some mighty riffs of the band’s debut in favor of the graceful, space-heavy interplay between the guitar, drum and vocal harmonies.
The band’s appeal, to be sure, lies largely in its silly, affecting lyrics. On “I Wanna Boi,” Bruce lists their email in the final moments of the song, its lyrics half-resembling a love letter and advertisement posted up on Craiglist. (The email is [email protected]bard.edu, for any eligible bachelors out there.) “I wanna put the whole world in drag,” Bruce croons on “Serving Goffman,” before coming to the conclusion that “it’s already like that.”
Live, these little, lyrical details are even more resonant. PWR BTTM sells the queer, dragged-out fantasy with a funny-as-hell stage presence and a jokey, rapid-fire banter between Bruce and Hopkins. It calls to mind brunch-time tea spilling rather than the rote banter that spells out so many rock shows.
“I went on Grindr,” said Bruce, an opening line that prefaces all great hook-up stories. “Y’all know that Grindr was a mess last night in the best way,” they continued before recounting a tender, post-election embrace they shared with a city local they met through the app. (“I rode my Razor scooter there, which in San Francisco, is a fucking stunt,” they joked.)
PWR BTTM still hasn’t forgotten the fear that comes with queerness. “Longevity hasn’t always been a given for queer people,” Bruce said early in the show. Towards the end, Hopkins prefaced “House in Virginia” by noting its alliterative roots in the AIDS crisis.
Still, even to the end, they ridiculed the norms of rock shows in the name of eschewing the masculinity that comes with tired bro-rock. Instead of a bawdy encore chant, Hopkins commanded the crowd chant “breastmilk” instead. And rather than shout expletives at the incoming president, Hopkins offered up one simple chant for the crowd to close off the show: “One man won’t ever love me like I need him to.”
It’s in this catharsis where PWR BTTM is most essential. In providing a space for those who are traditionally unspoken, the band has made its own quiet fissure in the post-election turmoil.