At SXSW, PWR BTTM attempts Trump exorcism through rock

In Donald Trump’s America, there was no way that queer-punk band PWR BTTM was not going to get political at South by Southwest. On Wednesday, they tried to “sing a poem so loud that a certain man in a certain house just goes away.”

Yes, the thrillingly glam queer-punk band currently on their way to glittery world domination attempted to exorcize Trumpism through the power of rock at NPR’s SXSW showcase at Stubb’s. They also looked fabulous while doing so. But first, a little scene-setter.

Ben Hopkins of PWR BTTM performs on stage at the NPR Music Showcase at South by Southwest on Wednesday March 15, 2017. Daulton Venglar/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

From where I stood near the front of the stage, a clutch of young folks hugged the barrier to the photo pit like they were Kate Winslet and it was a floating wooden door. (I’m 28, so gauge what “young” means here.) If you’ve been to a PWR BTTM show, you know their fanbase has a strong Tumblr teen contingent. In front of me, a young lady who brought her own glitter to the show but had not yet applied it. To my right, a tall young man in the most immaculate winged eyeliner and dark lipstick — Kylie Jenner could never.

The young lady needed help applying her makeup, and she had no idea where to start. The young man sprang into action: “Rub it in, your highlight. Bring it all the way up to your lash line. That’s gonna brighten you up a little bit. Now for your glitter.” The pair did not appear to know each other well, if at all.

Ben Hopkins of PWR BTTM performs on stage at the NPR Music Showcase at South by Southwest on Wednesday March 15, 2017. Daulton Venglar/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

 

With that scene in your mind like well-blended contour, consider the wild PWR BTTM in their natural habitat: Shredding the stage to filth.

Without music in the current political climate, Ben Hopkins (the more cosmetically explosive half of the band) said he would turn into a “shiny pile of despair.” Shimmer certainly reigned, but any despair that made it past Stubb’s overzealous security checks soon melted under the light of affirmation and good vibes. Hopkins — bedazzled guitar, “jazzy cup”-inspired mug, Texas socks, black-and-gold column dress with faint Art Deco vibes, lime green nails — was a whirling dervish of tasty licks, fierce flamingo poses and howling confessions of still being in love. He implored the audience to find allies and friends in spaces where like-minded people gather.

“Here’s another about what all our other music is about,” Hopkins said to introduce “Ugly Cherries.” “Just … gay.”

Liv Bruce — PWR BTTM’s other half, resplendent in a choker, military jacket crop top and baby pink parachute pants with cargo pockets — swapped places with Hopkins from behind the drums for “Answer My Text,” about cute boys without any SMS honor (“It’s what ‘The Odyssey’ is about,” the pair agreed). I think most people can relate to sweating out “seven pounds in water weight” just asking for someone’s number. That is PWR BTTM’s ultimate strength: showing that we’re all just people underneath it all. They executed it flawlessly, without a hint of “straight” assimilation. As RuPaul might say, “We’re all born naked and the rest it drag.”

Liv Bruce of PWR BTTM performs on stage at the NPR Music Showcase at South by Southwest on Wednesday March 15, 2017. Daulton Venglar/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Bruce, who uses they/them pronouns, also took lead on “New Trick,” about teaching people to use those gender-neutral pronouns. The performance came on a big anniversary for Bruce:

Back on the drum kit, Hopkins gestured to his mouth as he lipsynced the words, a drag queen staple.

 

Speaking of things coming out of queens’ mouths, PWR BTTM would not be PWR BTTM without Hopkins’ and Bruce’s bon mots. A sample:

  • On wanting to be sponsored by La Croix: “I will make a new life in your DMs.”
  • On Bouldin Creek Cafe’s vegan hollandaise sauce, Hopkins would like a Super Soaker filled with it and squirted in his eye non-stop.
  • On the outfit of Alynda Lee Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff, whom the band brought to join them on vocals: “You look like Patti Smith if she had an Etsy store.”

Back to the queer and the political, though. Hopkins, early in the set, dedicated the song “Big Beautiful Day” to the president of the United States. That song’s second verse, for the record, goes “There are men everywhere who cannot help but stare/When they see you ’cause they cannot understand/Within those men there are boys who have never had the choice/But to grow up and be scared to be your friend/Jesus Christ, let’s help them.”

The band also made nodded in their performance of new song “LOL” to the idea that queer people do not have the luxury of separating culturally ingrained prejudices from its effect on their personal lives. The line “when you’re queer you are always 19” rang out loud and clear.

PWR BTTM’s anti-“fascist” ritual closed their night out. If you’ve seen an exorcism, you know it can get messy. Hopkins rent his garment in twain with his teeth, spitting sequins out on the stage. He stood on the speaker and thumped his chest. He said good night, and he said “resist.”

You could see glitter flying off his face and into the spotlight. You could see it even clearer if you were a kid in makeup at the front of the stage, I’d wager.

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