Village Voice 05.10.2017 : Page 22
24 May 10 -May 16, 2017 VILLAGE VOICE.com boys than glitzed-up rock stars. If their over-the-top appearance is what brings audiences into their world, the quality of songs like these — whatever the subject matter — is what’s going to keep people around. “We write songs about things that we believe in, but we also play our in-struments really well and practice them a lot and really care about the craftsman-‘We just bring out the best in each other,’ says Ben ship of what we do,” says Ben. There is the noted influence of shredders like Weezer and the White Stripes. The two share an affection for James Taylor, and there is a sense throughout that, stripped bare to acoustic guitar and voice, these songs could appeal in any context, to al-most any audience. “People see me in drag and that’s what they see. They see us as gender-nonconforming people and that’s [it],” says Ben. “[James Taylor’s music] is so simple and clean and perfect, and simple and clean are not two things that come to mind when you think of PWR BTTM. But I think that is kind of at the beating heart of what we do.” here’s long been queer swagger and spandex in rock music, from Jobriath and Freddie Mercury to the feminist punk of Nineties riot grrrl bands like Huggy Bear, but PWR BTTM’s friskiness, joy, and defiance feels pro-found for a moment in time in which gender and identity are excitingly — if tenuously — exploding right in front of us. There is, perhaps, more freedom for LGBTQ people than ever in some senses, but visibility has brought its own dangers: The Advocate reported in March that there has been a spike in murders of trans people around the country in 2017. “When I just look at, like, the queer world, I see this really important moment when the people who have benefited most from the gay rights movement” — meaning white gay men — “could turn their backs on all other marginalized peo-ple. They can have a life that is pretty much completely unhindered by their gayness now if they want,” says Ben. “Are T you just going to take that and enjoy it and forget about everyone else?” It’s hard to look at last November’s election and a victory for Mike Pence, a character who feels pulled right out of The Handmaid’s Tale , and not wonder if every step for-ward is met with a terrifying lurch back-ward. Liv tells me that their way of dealing with that is ensuring that when people do encounter queerness in pop culture, there will be a healthy dose of radical spirit to what they see. “I see peo-ple learning what it means to fight back for the first time — people going to their first protests, people calling their sena-tors regularly for the first time,” says Liv. Barring whatever positive influence their success has had on the world, PWR BTTM has, at the very least, had the ef-fect of making Liv and Ben more relaxed with themselves. “We just bring out the best in each other,” says Ben. “It would have taken a lot longer to get to an under-standing of where I stand on the gender spectrum without PWR BTTM,” says Liv. As the temperature and sun start to drop, before heading off — Ben to buy a plant, Liv to an anti-Trump rally in the city — they both express to me that, for all their bravado onstage, the best part about performing as PWR BTTM might just be that it forces them to figure out how to perform as themselves. “I came out of the closet through the band — I was sort of not publicly identifying as anything,” says Ben. “And PWR BTTM was the first place that I made public queer art. I never had [a] ‘Hey, I’m coming out’ moment — I just started writing punk songs about it.” By now, Ben has changed into a plaid shirt and a pair of jeans, something of an everyday uniform, and wiped off the glit-ter and paint with cold cream and a towel, but Liv has remained in the same yellow floral dress from the shoot, telling me that while wearing dresses and skirts used to be just an onstage thing, in the past year or so it’s become increasingly comfortable to wear things from the women’s side of the aisle day to day. “I think that’s the job of being a performing artist — seeming confident when you’re not. I can’t think of a single performer who I really enjoy who ever looks scared onstage,” says Liv. “When you’re on-stage, and you have instruments, that’s a very safe place to experiment.” Which is to say: Sometimes you gotta fake it before you make it, and if PWR BTTM have been playing the part of Brooklyn’s most famously fearless rock star queers, that fiction is starting to become reality.