When PWR BTTM look out into the crowd at one of their live shows, they see “the coolest kids you’ll ever meet.” The queer kids. The weirdos. The craft store connoisseurs covered in glitter. From Brooklyn to Boise, these fans come together, ready to scream and cry and laugh and sing along with the tender garage punk found on the group’s 2015 debut album, Ugly Cherries (Father/Daughter, Miscreant). “That’s what really matters,” says Ben Hopkins, who splits guitar, drums, and vocals with fellow band member Liv Bruce. “The people who come to our shows. They really give us life.”
But with that life, comes pressure and expectation. When PWR BTTM recorded Ugly Cherries, Bruce hadn’t even graduated from college. The band didn’t have a fan base. They didn’t have folks tweeting “MOM” @ them on social media. They had no idea how deeply their songs about boys and gender and feeling cute in the face of rejection would resonate beyond the small-scale DIY spaces they’d come up in. Two years later, the deeply personal narratives found on Ugly Cherries have become contemporary queer anthems-sources of power and self-affirmation as the political climate shifts further against them.
The personal is political, as feminists have been saying for decades. So when Ben and Liv geared up to make sophomore album Pageant—out May 12, 2017 on Polyvinyl—they took a page out of Lindsay Lohan’s 2005 playbook and got a little more personal (raw). “I want to challenge people to conceive of a record that is personal and political,” Bruce says. “The two don’t need to be in conflict.”
Pageant—so named for the duo’s shared interest in high-femme glamor, systems of gender, identity performance, and all things drag—switches from clarion call to cathartic meditation from song to song, sometimes even verse to verse. Take “Big Beautiful Day.” Over soaring chords and percussion, Hopkins rips into the “men who live to bring you down” and the culture of toxic masculinity that enables them. He later shifts the narrative, wondering if we still have a chance at saving the little boys locked within those men “who never had a choice but to grow up and be scared to be your friend.”
On “Answer My Text,” Bruce tackles the gendered power dynamics of dating and how they, more often than not, tip the scales against women and femmes. The song is bratty and immature—way more concerned with the dumbass who hasn’t texted the narrator back than with the system of gender that taught him it’s OK for him to be so callous. But it speaks truth to power with every shouted refrain of “ANSWER MY TEXT, YOU DICK!!” and invites the listener to claim that power for themselves if they’d like to shout along.
Reclamation is a recurring theme throughout Pageant. There’s “New Trick,” in which Bruce flips the cis gaze on its head, along with sister tracks “Sissy” and “Silly.” The former has Bruce finding power through being “a big, bad sissy,” who, perhaps channeling late visual artist Mark Aguhar, is “determined to be anything but a man.” Album opener “Silly” features Hopkins growing comfortable with a word that has been used against him his whole life. “‘Silly’ is my least favorite word. When I was a kid, people would use it to belittle me when I was feeling sensitive or anxious or worried—feelings that could be described as ‘feminine’ or ‘girly,’” he says. “My parents would say, ‘Stop being silly.’ or ‘Take it on the chin.’ You know, ‘Be a man.’”
The arrangements and new musical elements reflect a newfound maturity and artistic growth for the band: trumpet, flute, the New Paltz BTTMs Choir composed of a bunch of friends, back up vocalists…even the operatic stylings of Chris Hopkins—a.k.a., Ben’s mom. Hopkins says that he had always wanted to craft a “huge, epic rock record,” and with Pageant he has succeeded. “Ben had wanted to incorporate a keyboard and other instruments for years, but I didn’t want us to miss out on the cool shit we could do with just drums and guitar by adding too many things too early,” Bruce says. “Now? It’s time.”
It’s specific and intimate in a way that lets the listener in, regardless of how specifically or intimately they might identify with the content itself. It’s easy to imagine one of those “coolest kids you’ll ever meet” humming the lyrics to “Kids’ Table” or “Big Beautiful Day” or “Pageant” under their breath as they ready themselves for the day that lies ahead. Perhaps they’ll find themselves at a PWR BTTM show later that night, screaming “ANSWER MY TEXT, YOU DICK!!” or “CURSE THAT MOTHERFUCKER!!” Maybe they’ll bring that same intensity to a round of “NOT MY PRESIDENT” at an anti-Trump protest the following weekend. The personal is political, after all, and with Pageant, PWR BTTM have successfully tapped into both.
Ben Hopkins identifies as queer and uses he/him/his and they/them/their pronouns. Liv Bruce identifies as queer, non-binary, and transfeminine and uses they/them/their pronouns.