This is the second time in my life that that I’ve had most of a review written only to have to go back and delete it, rewrite it, and start from scratch because of something that happened in the news cycle surrounding the album’s release. The first time was for David Bowie’s Blackstar. I had about half of a review, as well as scribbled down notes and anecdotes that I was hoping to later funnel into the rest of it, on the Saturday morning after the album had dropped. Then Bowie died. And while tragic, Bowie’s passing made Blackstar not just a better album but a mysterious eulogy fueled by a different contextual narrative and it made writing that review, listening to that record, and discussing it with friends all more worthwhile. The second time was last week, for a review I was working on for Crossfader for PWR BTTM’s Pageant.
I don’t mind telling you how exactly that review was structured and executed because no one will probably get to read the whole thing at this point. First I wrote about my experience with 2015’s Ugly Cherries, and how it was brimming with potential while never quite hitting the mark. Then I brought up my immediate trepidations about a follow up, and how I feared that both on a lyrical and thematic level, but also on a musical level, PWR BTTM would struggle with a sophomore record. I brought up the minor Diet Cig/Pitchfork controversy and how I was afraid that the music journalists who politically populate the moderate to the extreme left would be quick to praise woke albums by artists like PWR BTTM even if they weren’t really that good. These were just some of my musings that were leading up to my rebuttal to my former self: That this album is actually really, really good.
Here’s a quick passage from the former review and while I wasn’t fully done writing it, I imagine this likely would have been the final paragraph: “Pageant sufficiently circumvents almost all of the potential issues I had needlessly projected onto it. Rather than doubling down on the queer-centric reality check diary entries that made Ugly Cherries feel fresh, PWR BTTM decide to go more broad and offer a glamorous and life-affirming garage rock album that epitomizes the struggles of a ‘Be Yourself and Fuck The Haters’ mentality with millennial bravado. While Diet Cig’s brand of “wokeness” left me wishing for something better (just as Ugly Cherries had in 2015), PWR BTTM created something bold and beautiful with Pageant.”
Watching fans react to this news over that initial 48-hours was absolutely fascinating. This felt different than other controversies in recent memory, at least in part due to how central safe spaces and being yourself was to the messaging and the art of the band. I struggled to find an apt comparison to how much PWR BTTM’s fall from grace so directly impacted the way someone would look at their art, and the only one I found was Bill Cosby. His string of lawsuits significantly tainted, if not entirely diminished, his wholesome status as both America’s Dad and as the preeminent clean comic. But even this felt more personal. Watching hundreds and hundreds of young queer men and women turn their back on PWR BTTM in real time was heartbreaking insomuch as it saw an entire movement’s leaders become heretics of the very thing their art had been preaching against. While his reaction could probably be implied, we never really had to deal with considering what Cliff Huxtable would have said about Bill Cosby’s action. But for PWR BTTM, the predatory nature of these allegations spit in the face of everything the duo stood for. Never have I ever thought so much about this meme in one weekend.
As a cis white man, I can’t really even begin to comprehend what members of the LGBT music community are going through as they watch their idols fall, and separating art from the artist in this situation is immensely difficult. This isn’t like listening to “Billy Jean” by Michael Jackson or air guitar shredding to Chuck Berry. Those things are nonetheless problematic, and I acknowledge that, but “Billy Jean” isn’t about children and “No Particular Place to Go” isn’t about beating your wife. PWR BTTM made their image and what they stood for so central to their music that it’s hard to ignore when you hear the things they’re saying in their lyrics. It’s difficult to listen to the opening lines of their single “Big Beautiful Day” and take anything else being said here seriously: “There are men in every town who live to bring you down / Make themselves feel bigger making you feel small.” The level of hypocrisy in a lot of these songs is disheartening and downright sickening. Here’s a quick list of the more blatant lyrics and songs that feature a similar amount of problematic dishonesty:
“Take pity upon me, I know honesty is a virtue / Take pity upon me, I won’t lie if it will hurt you” – “Won’t”
“Why does every boy on the street have something to tell me? / Why does every boy on the street have something to say? / Why does every man in a suit have something to sell me? / And what would I give just to make them all go away?” – “Sissy”
“Don’t tease me / I just can’t take it / Don’t tease me / I just can’t fake it” – “Wash”
“Oh Boy” in its entirety is somewhat cringeworthy in how predatory the lyrics can come off.
And of course, if you truly can’t remove yourself from the safe space preaching the band have built a platform on, then the rest of the songs are probably going to be pretty difficult to accept as well.
It’s all a shame too, because, as you could probably gather from my initial review, there is so much to appreciate and enjoy about this album. The millennial wisdom scattered throughout is amazing, and one of the broad concepts I was happy they’d tackled so effectively. I admit that songs like “Answer My Text” and “LOL” are, at this point, damaged goods, but those songs are filled with really cutting lyrics and a glossy production. Same goes for a lot of the songs Liv wrote theorizing transitioning bodies to affirm their gender, namely the contemplative album closer “Styrophome” and the pronoun consideration going on in “New Trick”. I was taken aback by how often, and how effective, they choose to slow things down. Listen to the horns on “Pageant” or “Styrofoam” or the American Football-noodling on “Oh, Boy” and you get a sense that from Ugly Cherries to Pageant there was a gained understanding of how to make a really dynamic album with ebbs and flows.
There are a few things to take away from the PWR BTTM controversy. The first is this: Why can this not be the template for EVERY instance of abuse or violence across all channels of art and entertainment. What a different and more pleasant world we would live in had Ray Rice been immediately cut by the Ravens, scrubbed of any mention by the NFL, and dropped by any sponsors, following the video of him committing third degree aggravated assault against his wife. Instead, that man got a bunch of fines and a two game suspension. I’m not here to say Ray Rice can’t pay his debt to society, make amends, and begin to become a better person in order to have a place in the world of professional football, just as I would never say this should be the end of either Liv or Ben’s music careers. But you have to put in the time. You have to build back trust. And in PWR BTTM’s case, more than other offenders, there’s a lot of trust to gain back.
The second takeaway, and this is somewhat harder to just accept, is that the PWR BTTM experience was real. Pageant was real. Separating art from artist is never easy, but the knee-jerk reaction to things like this is to completely disassociate any feelings we had with the art in question. The energy that PWR BTTM brought into the world wasn’t fake or inauthentic, and the community they’d created on social media wasn’t either. That energy will be found somewhere else soon enough. There are other great bands with queer-identifying members out there right now! There are also other bands making fun and exciting garage rock. There will be another PWR BTTM, don’t worry. But don’t try and brush off how special that music was, or how fun those shows might have been, or what a great community had been developed around their aesthetic – you don’t have to retrospectively condone your own experience. Relish in the time you spent with PWR BTTM, don’t regret it, and then move on to the next band (and, just my two cents, but you should make that band Snail Mail).
Do I still love Pageant? I’m still wrestling with that. If you can remove what PWR BTTM allegedly did from the way you listen to this album, bully to you, I’m not sure I’m there yet. I certainly don’t stand for the band anymore – how could you? But as for the art itself? I do still love a lot of these songs. It sucks feeling really slimy when “Big Beautiful Day” comes on because I cannot express how fucking amazing “Big Beautiful Day” was when it dropped. I think the best thing that could happen to Pageant is for it to go away for a while so some boutique label can re-distribute it in 10-15 years as (hopefully) a relic of a time when we so desperately needed to appoint a wave of essential queer rock idols. Honestly, Pageant is so good I could even see it existing as an underground inspiration for whatever kind of rock and roll comes next, a sort of hush-hush blueprint for how to make glam-y garage rock really hum. I hope these things of Pageant not because I endorse those who made it, but because what they made is a beautifully messaged and strongly crafted album, and for those reasons it should, in some capacity, live on.