The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Last week, PWR BTTM was the Next Big Thing in punk. Now the band is in ruins, and fans are reeling.

Ben Hopkins, left, and Liv Bruce, on drums, of PWR BTTM perform during the South by Southwest festival in Austin in March. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for SXSW)
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A week ago, the celebrated New York punk band PWR BTTM — a.k.a Liv Bruce and Ben Hopkins, a duo of gender-nonconforming artists in their 20s — was preparing for the triumphant release of a highly anticipated sophomore record, “Pageant.” Rave reviews were pouring in: “PWR BTTM Is America’s Next Great Rock Band,” Vice declared. The new record was “bombastic and sincere,” said the Village Voice; “fabulously defiant,” said the New York Times. The band seemed poised for a breakthrough moment.

But then came a May 10 Facebook post accusing Hopkins of a history of sexual assault and predatory behavior, a warning message that rapidly spread across social media. In a matter of days, the band’s idolized status had utterly imploded; by Tuesday, PWR BTTM’s music had all but vanished online, after its record label requested that the band’s work be removed from digital stores and streaming services.

It was a stunningly sudden fall for a band that had ascended to the heights of the queer punk scene, adored by fans and praised by critics since the release of its debut album, “Ugly Cherries,” in 2015. The pair’s exuberant, rebellious songs resonated deeply with many in the LGBTQ community; onstage, Hopkins and Bruce strutted in shimmery garb and glittery makeup, blasting messages of empowerment and acceptance to throngs of ecstatic fans who scream-sang along. The band’s persona was rooted in a sense of social justice and inclusion; when homophobic protesters descended on a PWR BTTM show in Mississippi in November, the duo ignored the hateful vitriol and offered audience members a safe way to access the venue through a back entrance.

But the band’s glowing public image rapidly unraveled after Facebook user Kitty Cordero-Kolin wrote a post alleging that Hopkins had engaged in sexual assault and predatory advances on multiple occasions. Cordero-Kolin (who uses gender-neutral pronouns) claimed they had personally witnessed this behavior, according to a report in Jezebel: “I have personally seen Ben initiate inappropriate sexual contact with people despite several ‘nos’ and without warning or consent,” Cordero-Kolin wrote, adding that they had also been told that Hopkins had made “unwanted advances on minors despite knowing their age.”

Through a publicist, PWR BTTM declined to comment for this story.

Cordero-Kolin’s post included a photograph of Hopkins posing on a beach beside a swastika etched in sand, an image that first surfaced in December and was quickly addressed by the band: “It was from a time in my life where I thought being ‘politically incorrect’ was really funny and had literally no concept of my actions,” Hopkins tweeted at the time. “To anyone who was hurt by this image, know that it was me as a stupid kid and not who I am today, and I am so so sorry.”

Cordero-Kolin did not respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post. Their post was originally shared in a closed Facebook group, but it quickly reverberated across Twitter and Reddit, and PWR BTTM responded to the escalating scandal with a statement on Twitter on Thursday afternoon.

The band emphasized that “the alleged behavior is not representative of who Ben is” and noted that Hopkins had not been contacted by anyone alleging abuse: “These allegations are shocking to us and we take them very seriously,” the statement said.

Hopkins and Bruce added that they had set up an email address to be monitored by a professional mediator, “through which a survivor or someone working directly with a survivor can discuss the allegations being expressed on social media.” Hopkins would not have access to the account, the statement said.

Despite the attempt at damage control, the scandal escalated Friday after a woman identified only by the pseudonym “Jen” told Jezebel that she had been assaulted by Hopkins while she was intoxicated after a PWR BTTM show last year. Jen said Hopkins had initiated sex without her consent and refused to wear protection, and later sent unsolicited nude photos to her, according to Jezebel. The band’s statement expressing shock about the allegations was disingenuous, Jen claimed in the interview, because she had previously spoken to Bruce at length about what happened.

From there, the fallout was swift and absolute, with rapid-fire rejections over the next 48 hours: Touring members of the band abruptly quit; several opening bands withdrew from an upcoming tour; Salty Artist Management announced that it had severed ties with PWR BTTM; the Hopscotch Music Festival dropped the band from its lineup; and the record label Polyvinyl released a statement saying that it would no longer be distributing PWR BTTM’s music. Father/Daughter Records, which released the band’s debut album, followed suit, and by Tuesday, PWR BTTM’s music was no longer available on iTunes or Apple Music. Polyvinyl confirmed that the band’s distributors had requested that its music be removed from streaming services and online retailers.

“There is absolutely no place in the world for hate, violence, abuse, discrimination or predatory behavior of any kind,” Polyvinyl said in its statement. “In keeping with this philosophy, we want to let everyone know that we are ceasing to sell and distribute PWR BTTM’s music.” The company added that it would refund purchases of “Pageant” and make donations to nonprofit organizations that support victims of sexual abuse and LGBTQ-related violence.

Though the band did not comment on the fate of its planned tour to support “Pageant,” venues across the country announced that PWR BTTM shows had been canceled and offered refunds to fans who had already purchased tickets.

In the aftermath of the band’s shocking collapse, fans took to social media to share feelings of profound disappointment and betrayal. Many applauded the queer punk community for immediately taking action to hold the band accountable. Others noted that PWR BTTM’s rapid fall stood in stark contrast to the careers of other artists — like rapper Chris Brown or singer-songwriter Front Porch Step — who have also faced allegations of abuse but escaped comparable consequences.

The speed and severity of the response may have surprised some — particularly in the absence of an identified accuser or an official complaint — but the queer punk community has learned, over the years, practices of acceptance and support for its most vulnerable and marginalized members, who often don’t feel safe reporting an assault or violation to authorities.

“We as queer people don’t have necessarily the best relationship with police in many, many, many circumstances,” said Jes Skolnik, a music writer who closely followed the growing controversy and wrote about the band’s statement. “Your first inclination might not be to go to police; it might be to talk to your friends and talk to people around you and have them help… there’s a certain way of thinking about handling things without police involvement, thinking about how to handle things fairly.”

The band’s downfall wasn’t just because of the nature of its fan base, Skolnik added, but the identity of the band itself.

“They were all about body autonomy and consent and positive representation, and that, too, is the reason people responded so clearly to this band in particular,” Skolnik said. The accusations against Hopkins were “so clearly contrary to who this band is.”

But the band’s fans are also resilient, said Skolnik, who has seen people coming together to heal and rebuild in the wake of a profound loss.

“This was a really important band for a lot of kids who were just finding their identity, and that touched me because I know what it feels like to be let down by somebody who you feel has made it easier to express who you are,” Skolnik said. “But the kids are so cool, and they are able to find each other. So they were doing things like making lists of new queer bands to love and talking about loving the queer bands in your neighborhood and looking to your local scenes for inspiration.”

Some young members of the community are forming support groups or just offering to listen to others who need to talk, Skolnik said.

“That was amazing to see,” they said. “These kids are wrestling with a hole in their heart, and thinking that there are lots of other people out there who are heartbroken, too, and saying: Let’s see if we can make something positive out of that.”