When Ben Hopkins, Liv Bruce, and touring bassist Nicholas Cummings took the stage in San Francisco on Wednesday, it was to a sold-out and somber crowd. Hopkins took stock of the situation right away. “I want to acknowledge what happened yesterday,” Hopkins said, referring to Donald Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. “It’s been a fucked up 24 hours,” he continued.”…It’s very scary, and very real.”
But, Hopkins noted, this show was an opportunity for the crowd to find solidarity in each other. “This space doesn’t just exist in a PWR BTTM show,” they said. “It exists with your friends, [with your] community, and on your iPhone.” Throughout the night, both Hopkins and Bruce spoke of different models of queer solidarity, highlighting the vulnerable and caring language brought to queer relationships and community. “Longevity [in our relationships] hasn’t always been a given,” Bruce said. “We frequently [have to] form loving relationships quickly.”
On Wednesday, solidarity felt like the crowd screaming lyrics onto the stage. It felt like asking for pronouns, complimenting makeup, and smiling at strangers. It felt like jumping up and down, like queercore, like punk, like going to a concert because you believe the band will fight for you. I saw queer solidarity when the crowd laughed at PWR BTTM’s jokes, winced at their more resonant lyrics, and cheered at their statements of affirmation and rage. Most notably, I saw solidarity when local band Jay Som lent all of their gear to PWR BTTM after the band’s bus was stolen in the city, and when Jay Som’s Melina Duterte stuck around to see PWR BTTM live for her first time.
Onstage, Hopkins, Bruce, and Cummings bantered, speaking of scootering to a Grindr date, Bravo TV show Below Deck (watch it, if only to gape at the huge wads of cash crew members regularly receive in tips) Panera cards, and loving mugs. They are just as magnetic in conversation as they are in performance — and the safety and comfort provided by their joy and silliness is certainly part of the band’s draw.
PWR BTTM provided a cathartic musical performance, too. Hopkins was, as always, incredible on guitar: their performance on squealing guitar songs like “Ugly Cherries” and “West Texas” is transcendent — with fingers moving vividly across the neck of the guitar, Hopkins draws out sharp and vibrant melodies. Bruce on drums is magnetic, but it’s the songs that Bruce leads vocally which most awe. In addition to crowd favorite “I Wanna Boi,” Bruce’s standout vocal performance was on a new song, which they described as about “explaining gender neutral pronouns at a garden party.”
As in the rest of PWR BTTM’s discography, the emotional core of the garden-party song is driven by narration and stripped down honesty, paired with wit and a brutal sense of self-sacrificing humor. “Do you want to ask me something?” Bruce croons. “Do you want to look at me?” Faced with the exhausting reality of an expectant hetero audience, Bruce swerves into candid humor: “Do you want to learn a new trick?” they ask, referring to the use of gender-neutral pronouns. Bruce finishes: “I swear you’d be so good at it.”
It’s remarkable that PWR BTTM is able to turn a painful reminder of queer erasure into a moment of joy for a sold-out crowd. More remarkable still is the number of queer and trans youth that show up for the band. I spoke with one such group of high schoolers, who were nervous about missing a night of homework, but really excited to be at Rickshaw Stop. “They’re really important to me because they’re so visible,” said Lucas, a repeat PWR BTTM attendee.
From left to right: Teague, Jensen, Lucas, Ezri, Deena
In our country’s climate of transphobia, they hypervisbiity of trans women and genderqueer femmes, particularly women and femmes of color, can put them in further danger. With that in mind, the space that PWR BTTM holds for queer and trans youth takes on a more serious tone. For some youth the promise of bodily safety and autonomy at a PWR BTTM show means everything.
“This is the beginning of great political work to be done,” said Bruce during a break in the set. “We need to focus our anger towards systems and institutions. [I’m] excited to learn to work together.” Bruce said their greatest hope for PWR BTTM shows was that attendees would meet new comrades and friends; in the crowd people could come together and make something new. Surrounded by my friends and community — one old friend, a few new, a friend who just moved back to the city, and my therapist (she was at the show too) — I felt held, and ready to get to work. I also felt sad: How is it that we must come to a PWR BTTM show to be reminded that we own our own bodies? When will the urge to give ourselves up to white-centric heteronormativity go away?
“The most radical thing [about our job] is that we’re in a visibly filled-out queer community every night,” said Hopkins on stage. “I don’t think there’s room for fear.” With an incoming VP who has supported conversion therapy and the prospect of Obama’s Affordable Care Act disappearing, it might be valuable to recognize whom and how we fear. A few blocks away from Rickshaw Stop, at the edge of the Castro, hangs one of the first AIDS quilts ever made, a reminder that the queer community cannot trust their bodies to be cared for by systems of power.
During the AIDS crisis, as now, the most vulnerable bodies were queer and trans bodies of color. Even within queer communities, white people are protected by white supremacy. More white women voted for Donald Trump than Hillary Clinton — a resounding reminder of the protective power of whiteness. White queers are less likely to be stopped by police, assaulted by passers-by, or lose their health care entirely (wealth and assets are generational). And when queer people move to be together, white queer people can disrupt immigrant and POC spaces.
Within the frightening symbol of San Francisco’s AIDS quilts lies a map of queer care: the stitches stitched predominately by queer women, a reminder of resilience in the face of epidemic. And even with reminders of institutionalized homophobia stretching across Twitter feeds and news reports, joy hung in the air on Wednesday night. “I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be,” said Vivi, who was attending a PWR BTTM show for their first time. And this sentiment — that being right there, in a room full of queer bodies and grief and frustration and joy, was what felt good — resounded throughout the night.
Vivi, attending a PWR BTTM show for their first time
The end to PWR BTTM’s set didn’t signal an end to the show: The crowd broke into dance after the band took the stage, twirling, spinning, and bouncing off of each other. It was a needed release — the stress of the week, as well as the emotional highs and lows of talking about queerness in a queer crowd, flooded out in a burst of movement.
“Things are gonna go wrong, and stuff is going to break,” Hopkins said towards the end of the show. “But thanks for standing by us […] Some people don’t think you’re real, but [this crowd] is proof that we are, and we’re pissed, and we’re gonna get what we want.”