I didn’t have a particular sparkle pattern in mind when I streaked purple glitter down the sides of my face, but I ended up resembling a disco King Diamond.
The great thing about glitter is that it never stays where it’s supposed to. You can still see the metallic dust rubbed into the cracked leather of my friend Emily’s passenger seat. I spilled it there while smearing my face with a costume shop craft supply — in broad June daylight — to achieve the aforementioned look. Its purpose: to be gayer than usual for queer indie rock band PWR BTTM’s show at Sidewinder.
Namely, I was emulating one half of the New York duo, the outrageously ornate Ben Hopkins, whom I’d seen perform with bandmate Liv Bruce on my birthday just months before at South by Southwest Music Festival. Hopkins dresses in craft-bin drag and takes a carpet-bomb approach to personal cosmetology. Bruce prefers sleeker frocks and a cleaner mug, it must be noted. After reviewing that March show at ScratcHouse, I wrote of the band that “I don’t predict radio success or anything, but I do foresee an exponentially growing cult.” The first prediction remains up for evaluation, but on the second count, put one in the “W” column.
A stroll through PWR BTTM’s Twitter timeline results in periodic glitter bombs to the eyes — retweeted photos of fans who have attacked themselves with a small fortune worth of Wet n Wild, a la Hopkins. The church is not just recruiting show-going kids, either. Over the remainder of 2016, PWR BTTM signed to Polyvinyl Records, got write-ups from the New York Times, NPR and Noisey and scored a spot on Rolling Stone’s list of the top 50 songs of the year — in the top 10, no less! The band have dropped a few singles to follow up their debut album, “Ugly Cherries,” and a sophomore LP, “Pageant,” is coming soon.
This year, PWR BTTM careens into Austin with their gender-nonconforming glee while the state is at a flashpoint. The Texas Capitol swirls with talk of the “bathroom bill,” aka Senate Bill 6, which would require public schools and government buildings to limit public bathroom use to the sex listed on a person’s birth certificate, as well as overturn any local ordinances that require transgender-friendly bathrooms. Meanwhile, both Hopkins and Bruce request that all venues they play have readily accessible, gender-neutral restrooms for their fans.
To a certain extent, it’s impossible to separate PWR BTTM from politics; with full throats, they advocate all things queer, and all things queer are politicized in America. But intertwined with this is the fact that PWR BTTM, y’know, rocks. Their songs are the stuff of pop-punk education, lovingly willed into existence through the sounds of your neighbor’s mom’s garage. As it says on the band’s official Facebook page: “Ben usually plays guitar/Liv usually plays drums/we both sing/~anything can happen~.” From only two instruments struts fierce power. Live, they’re Dolly Parton-esque in their wit, with just enough of an absurdist streak to keep it sexy. (Not that Dolly isn’t inherently absurd, when you stop to think about it.) From PWR BTTM’s 2016 fest stop: “Do you ever tell a joke so surreal in your own drag queen band that no one gets it but you?”
Sometimes, PWR BTTM’s lyrics are radical because they’re not, like the affirming mundanities of “I Wanna Boi” and the unifying concept of just wanting someone to keep the bed warm while you shower. Sometimes, their lyrics are just radical, period, as on latest single “Big Beautiful Day”:
“There are men in every town who live to bring you down
Make themselves feel bigger making you feel small
My advice is to look incredible
As you make their lives regrettable by being your damn self
God, it’s so exhausting”
And so, back to looking incredible: As I sweated beneath my violet-encrusted handiwork at the band’s June show, Hopkins passed my friends and I on his way to the stage for soundcheck. He gave me a quick look and a golden “Yaaas” for my sparkling efforts. That’s enough to make you want to bust the glitter out again. Luckily, there will be a few opportunities at SXSW, as PWR BTTM seems poised for the kind of March marathon that’s launched so many — Anderson.Paak, Haim and Chvrches in recent years — to the next level of ubiquity.
Just like glitter, they’ll be impossible not to notice once they start spreading.
PWR BTTM at SXSW
The band plays official SXSW showcases at 7:30 p.m. March 15 at Stubb’s and midnight March 16 at Cheer Up Charlie’s. They’re also playing some unofficial shows: noon March 17 at Waterloo Records and March 18 at South by San Jose.