Sometimes it’s easy to do. When Kanye West bum-rushed the stage at the 2009 MTV VMAs to lament Taylor Swift’s win over Beyoncé, as jarring as that moment was, it didn’t erase the great moments that populated his records to that point. As long as he delivered with his music, he was unimpeachable. In a more extreme case, Chris Brown still carries legions of fans despite brutally assaulting Rihanna on the way to the Grammys in 2008. In essence, the art trumps the artist. People do fucked up things, but music transcends that, or so it seems.
That isn’t always the case. This past week, less than 24 hours from the release of their purported breakthrough album Pageant, PWR BTTM found themselves deep in controversy, as one member of the band was accused in a Facebook group of assault, bullying and intimidation. Those accusations were damning on their own, but coupled with the band’s supposed ethics up to that point, it made them toxic. PWR BTTM started gaining traction on a major level in 2015, but it wasn’t until they released the lead single from Pageant, “Big Beautiful Day,” that the band truly felt like they were about to break big. “There are men in every town, who live to bring you down,” they sing at the onset of “Day.” It’s painfully ironic at this point, as the crux of the song boils down to them arguing that “Ain’t no fucking way you’ll fuck up my big beautiful day,” only for their album release day to be derailed by accusations of sexual assault. The band did themselves no favors with a halfhearted statement in light of the accusations. Not only did they lie about not knowing about the accusations before the Facebook post, they callously set up an email account where the accusers could directly contact the band, somehow lacking the basic human dignity that a survivor of sexual assault shouldn’t have to attempt to make peace with their attacker.
The reaction to the accusations, as well as the band’s misguided efforts to quell the outrage, resulted in one of the swiftest falls from grace the music industry’s seen in quite some time. The opening acts for the band’s upcoming tour jumped ship, as did their management group, as well as record labels, who are working to wipe the band’s albums from the digital sphere as I type. Again, this all happened within the span of 72 hours. The band went from having a potential (in some cases, actual) album of the week to not having an album at all, and they only have themselves to blame. This was a band that prided themselves on their outsider identities, their refusal to submit to societal norms, that preached the importance of safe spaces for marginalized groups. In some ways, it mirrors the falls of family values Republicans caught in extramarital affairs. The affair itself isn’t the issue; the issue arises from someone telling a group what to do, how to act, only to act in the reverse. And that’s where PWR BTTM ultimately screwed up. An assault in and of itself is awful enough, but when it comes from an act purportedly fighting for equal rights and protections, there’s no wiggle room. It becomes damn near impossible to listen to an album celebrating acceptance and tolerance when the act in front of the music has used their star power to do the complete opposite.
The original Facebook post is chilling enough even without the context of the band’s M.O. up to this point. But the two together, along with the band’s reaction to the accusations, makes the whole thing nauseating. It’s one thing to be taken advantage of, but it’s another thing entirely to be taken advantage of by someone believed to be on your side. PWR BTTM let down a lot of people who needed a band like them around, people who were relieved that a punk rock band could be unapologetically queer without being marginalized as such. In fact, their queerness made them so vital to our musical landscape in the first place. Yet sometimes we confuse the things we want with the things we need. Sure, we wanted a band that refused to submit to rigid gender rules, a band that we hoped would open the doors for other likeminded individuals and show record labels queer representation in music wouldn’t steer a majority of audiences away. Instead, we got what we needed. A grave reminder that even in safe spaces, even in the midst of other marginalized people, a woman’s body is under near constant attack. The only silver lining in all of this is how quickly the general public gravitated to the side of the accuser without questioning how she acted in the situation, what she could have done different.
There will be plenty of queer artists in the future without the moral bankruptcy of PWR BTTM, but we can all do better to not lay the weight of an entire group of people on the back of one band. And make no mistake; that’s not a defense of the band. It’s a defense for the people who felt PWR BTTM truly represented them only to realize they believed in a house of cards. PWR BTTM may have been frauds, but the enthusiasm, the pride, the identity they brought to their fans was legitimate. While we can erase them, ain’t no fucking way they’re fucking that up.
If you or anyone you know has been the victim of sexual assault, please visit RAINN for assistance. Their toll-free number is 800.656.4673.