Gay Rock Icon, Ben Hopkins of PWR BTTM, is Allegedly a Serial Rapist who is accused of raping a Lesbian Fan
By Rory Winston
PWR BTTM is not Eldridge Cleaver. Pageant is not the next Soul on Ice. And I am not Norman Mailer. But there is an untold story here, one I feel has been neglected by the media that has focused all its attention on the allegations of rape surrounding the ever more infamous gay rock band, PWR BTTM, allegations which have indefinitely postponed the release of their drag-punk album, Pageant.
As if the recent Milo Yiannopoulos episodes weren’t enough to warn young sexually open cosmopolitans that wolves can dress themselves in Merino sheep clothing, they now have to contend with Ben Hopkins – the seemingly lurid half of the questionably dynamic Bo-Peep-gone-bad duo PWR BTTM, a queer rock band that, judging by recent events, has less in common with the Sex Pistols than with ‘Sex, the automatic rifle.’ As the lead singer and guitarist of the duo, Hopkins is a malevolent cover version of Blur’s classic Boys and Girls, being a “boy who hates girls who likes boys who hate boys.” Standing accused of everything from misogyny to rape to sexual assault, pedophilia and predatory behavior, Hopkins is a homophobe’s wet dream. He is a poster boy for the kind of sex offending stereotype relentlessly sought-for by gay-bashers – an ironic situation considering the fact that most of his songs are about empowering the weak and creating safe spaces for the underdog.
Having been marked a ‘sick punk’ by those who hate punk rock, a ‘debauched bugger sodomite’ by those who still believe Oscar Wilde got off easy, Hopkins is, paradoxically, a man who spent a post-graduate lifetime encouraging gays to stand up against the type of person he, himself, is now accused of being. This scandal is doubly hard to take for a fan base comprised primarily of those inspired by his message. Are the allegations true? And what does it have to do with the quality of his songs? Although, as of yet, there is no answer to the first question, his art does merit reevaluation for the simple reason that it has never been properly evaluated in its own right. At best, it has been lauded as a pleasurable contingency of a positive message, a message which may now have turned out to be not as much well-meaning as, well, just mean. Before looking into the whys are wherefores about his entire reputation hinging more on what he represents than what he creates, we should examine the recent ‘glitz-in-bits-storm’ surrounding him.
Recent allegations leveled by an alleged woman – referred to as Jen for the sake of anonymity – contend that PWR BTTM’s Hopkins forced her into having sex while refusing to wear protection. Jen claims that beside the first attack, she woke to the sight of the rocker trying to have a second go at her on the very same night. While Jen, purportedly, tried to forget, she alleges that for Hopkins it was business as usual. No contrition.
If we go by what Jen says, Hopkins is a sociopath whose thing is forcing lesbians to have sex with their supposed gay icon (the icon being him). Instead of attempting an amends, Hopkins apparently followed up by sending her nude photos. And since she had earlier been subject to rape – not having undergone counseling after an unreported event in High School – she misguidedly assumed that situations such as these were of her own making, turning her into an easy mark for Hopkins’s pathology.
Owing to the fact that victim and victimizer worked at the same venues and had mutual friends and colleagues, it took a mere one month before Hopkins found yet a third opportunity to assault her. It was after this last assault that Jen finally realized she could no longer keep silent. Some survival mechanism kicked in and she confided to a receptive ear – one belonging to a musician that moved in the same circles as Hopkins. No sooner had she explained what transpired than she was besieged by stories from people that had, allegedly, been victimized as well.
Those working with the band noted that lurid accounts of Hopkins’s earlier sexual abuses had first surfaced among the local queer community shortly after December when an offensive photo of a grinning Hopkins in his early twenties, sitting at the beach drawing a swastika in the sand, had been leaked online. Though this sort of gesture hints more towards regressive childish behavior – since even Jewish kids like myself have done similarly insensitive things as confused adolescents flirting with taboos – there is something a bit odd about a person in his late twenties getting his jollies from preteen transgressions. Though, at the time, Hopkins publicly dismissed the troubling image in a single tweet, decrying the incident as the prank of a “stupid kid,” (well done there) his apology was not well received. At least, not as readily as Prince Harry’s contrition in 2005 (when the royal was spotted sporting a Nazi uniform for a costume party). The reason for the skepticism surrounding Hopkins: there were too much in the way of egregious hearsay surrounding Hopkins already.
Meanwhile, Hopkins’s bandmate, Liv Bruce, continued his work, with a deaf ear (forgive the musical slight) to such rumors, striving to create a legacy with the punk magnitude of New Order while evoking the queer edginess of those like Pansy Division. But stories surrounding Hopkins simply wouldn’t abate. He was not just some enfant terrible with an unapologetic air roving in the gay limelight; he was being pegged, instead, as a veritable ´je ne regrette rien’ rapist, a sexual predator and bully with no conscience and few pangs of remorse.
To make matters worse, when news of Jen’s fate finally went viral, the duo released a press statement to the effect that the allegations “come as a surprise,” asserting that ‘they desire nothing more than to be made fully aware of any impropriety, requesting all those with any information to please come forward and contact them at their earliest convenience so that they could rectify the situation and sort things out.’ This, of course, was a complete lie, if Jen is to be believed. In fact, it was a fabrication that for the first time implicated the otherwise “well-meaning Bruce” since, as Jen attests, he was one of the first to ‘reach out’ to her when rumors began circulating.
Jen had – or so she claims – confided in Bruce. According to her statements, he listened attentively as she disclosed all the sordid details. Whether he was concerned about her, or merely doing damage-control for his band, is up for speculation; but what Jen does allege is that after mulling over the accusations, Bruce implausibly suggested that she ‘should reach out directly to Hopkins since, perhaps, Ben didn’t really know what was going down or what he was doing.’ Great idea. What could possibly go wrong. Of course, Jen had no intention of confronting Hopkins and what happened next ensured her that edification was nowhere down the road since the ‘two boys’ simply went back to being a band as though nothing had transpired.
Recently, newer allegations have been amassing. Attributed to a mysterious Facebook/Twitter ID account under the sobriquet of one Kitty Cordero-Kolin, a large number of alleged sources seem to be confirming our worst fears. As usual, rumors have a way of rallying behind what often starts out as in-house gossip. We hear tell of Hopkins the consummate misogynist who once grabbed a female colleague’s lipstick during a scheduled rehearsal and decided to draw all over her face with it. Speaking in her own name, the elusive spokesperson herself, Cordero-Kolin, has been quoted messaging the pair with the words, “I’ll buy your album once you stop harassing queer women.”
Though uncorroborated, it is stated that in quite a few of the Chicago clubs frequented by Hopkins – small venues wherein DIY bands thrive – there are posted signs that read that Hopkins is a known sexual predator. Most within the aforementioned niche group and the local queer scene are allegedly aware of his predisposition to bully fans, make sexual advances after being told No, and even make moves on minors. Some have even allegedly gone on the record stating that there should be ‘safe spaces’ where those like PWR BTTM who espouse ‘safe places’ for a living are not allowed and that it might be wise to boycott their music.
The fallout? Since May 13th, Polyvinyl Record Company has dropped PWR BTTM from its label, making a point to side with the alleged victim(s). Likewise, bands such as Tancred, T-Rextasy, Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, and iji have all jumped ship and removed their names from a previously planned joint tour. In themselves, these are questionable moves given that they were made only after all the furor and only after several of the venues had already canceled tour dates.
To be blunt, it’s hard to tell what is or isn’t a bonafide response and what can be deemed merely a precautionary reaction to bad press passing itself off as genuine concern. In an age when distancing oneself from those that have been accused of crimes has become a marketing tool, and affiliating with the ‘right kind of people’ helps build credibility, differentiating between candid disgust and feigned indignation comes down to a matter of faith. Motivations are often hard to discern when loyalty can prove to be a financial liability and disavowal can become an asset.
Still the question must be asked: Does disassociation improve one’s own credibility? We’re pretty aware that the work of those distancing themselves from PWR BTTM is not any better or worse for the wear and I wouldn’t advise anyone to invest in an album based on what the band is or isn’t supporting. Does a label that wants nothing to do with its former product appear more viable because of it? Certainly not Polyvinyl Record since rather than initiate the investigation (risking negative press early on), they merely responded to the onslaught. Had they removed the product prior to it becoming more of a possible liability than an asset, it would have been a different story.
So is this a case of people and concerns bailing because they felt ‘rape by association’ and wanted to ensure that they weren’t abetting the efforts of a serial rapist or were they simply switching uniforms in international waters because the weather was getting rough. Mutiny or revolution?
If one were cynical… Okay, I’m cynical by nature and to me, PWR BTTM’s abandonment by their label is no different from Rupert Murdoch demanding Bill O’Reilly’s resignation – a meaningless gesture that, in reality, was more deceitful than standing by him and risking going down with the ship (a fate Murdoch and the sponsors of the O’Reilly Factor would have deserved since they had merrily financed the pirate for years, abandoning him – some with righteous indignation – only after war ships had them surrounded). Avoiding implication in a crime is not in itself a thing to be celebrated.
While in this case, Polyvinyl Record may have been motivated by the right reasons, it is not a given, in fact no more so than the very actions of PWR BTTM which have a long way from legally being proven. The current behavior of Polyvinyl tells us little more than that PWR BTTM had fair-weather friends. Would I stop listening to PWR BTTM if their albums were great works of art? No. While I might despise them on a personal level, and hope that they be prosecuted and that their income be given to their victims, I’d probably go on listening with pleasure that was not even remotely the guilty kind. Maybe it’s just the family I was brought up in where my grandfather and dad – both holocaust survivors – listened to Richard Wagner despite being aware that he was not only a consummate anti-Semite but a composer whose music held a special place in the Third Reich. I myself had grown up with a thing for Ezra Pound. While many Jews like myself may have had reason enough to hate both Wagner and Pound, I believe few Jewish music aficionados or poetry enthusiasts would have stopped listening or reading.
When it comes to PWR BTTM there is, however, a different dilemma. They aren’t as it turns out famous solely for their music or lyrics, despite the spurious accolades thrust upon them. To be fair, among the supporting bands that have been mentioned, Tancred merits far more artistic accolades for its sheer compositional skill and Jess Abbots haunting vocals than Hopkins or Bruce do or did. Weather one felt that Tancred should have refused to play with PWR BTTM sooner (since they knew the allegations months before the crisis surfaced), or they should have stuck steady with the band (since the entire present fiasco may be no more than ugly rumors), their art is worthy of attention without necessitating any additional heroics from their part.
The truth is that PWR BTTM is different. It has always been cashing in on its underdog status. If not exactly cashing in, at least, getting by. The band is a unique, if belabored, cross between pop punk and queer rock with an aura of credibility that is an inseparable from their art. While lines like “I don’t really care exactly what we do together cause it’s probably better than sleeping alone” sound an awful lot like a bad, albeit gay, version of Stephen Stills’s 1970’s lyrics “And if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with,” the ‘albeit gay’ aspect makes it important because it empowers a group that is sorely lacking confidence with a virile punk attitude.
Then again, the scandal presently surrounding PWR BTTM probably forces many to reexamine other lines from the very same song. Lyrics that used to sound emotionally affirmative can easily be reinterpreted as vicarious. Take for instance: “My girl’s so sad/ Everything I do makes her mad/ Cries and cries till his eyes are red/ Two ugly cherries up in his head.” Although the verse doesn’t exactly boast flashes of brilliance in terms of imagery, it does have an unmistakable urgency to it because it bears the very potent message that ‘we should all be able to love the very aesthetic flaws we would ordinarily be repulsed by when they appear in someone we care for.’ There is a punk-like humanity to the lyrics that drives home a very in-yer-face kind of solace.
Rereading it with the present turn of events in mind is quite a game changer considering it can now mean: “I love being in love with someone so disgustingly needy… well, if for no other reason than it makes me feel powerful and is a major turn-on” And this is the problem in celebrating bands for their message alone. In celebrating what they represent rather than how they are able to represent it, the value of their art becomes irrevocably tied to how much value we place on the persona of the artist who created it. It also forces us into the idiotic situation of feeling like enablers for possible future abuses, or sponsors of a ‘food-for-famine for fame’ venture.
Within the genre of pop punk, PWR BTTM was a bearer of a much needed gay message – a message that now bears a ‘return to sender’ stamp on it. When PWR BTTM was being compared to The Clash on the basis of attitude rather than their brilliant fusion of genres and groove, we should have known there might be trouble. When others mentioned Siouxsie and the Banshees and were thinking of PWR BTTM’s makeup more than any nuances in their vocals, it should have been a warning. When we heard the names of former punk legends like the Lurkers and Stranglers being dropped by punk connoisseurs, it would have been time to ask ‘are we talking memorable melodies and hooks or activities that the names of those former bands evoke?’ After all, when it comes time to abandoning ship, it makes a whole lot more sense to do so knowing that it’s because the Captain is a drunk who’s drawn to icebergs than because the first mate downloads kiddie porn. While one is a felony that should be punished, the other puts our lives – as well as the ones of those aboard – in immediate danger.
And when it comes to PWR BTTM, the question beyond their crime must be: was there anything there in the first place to have merited our attention besides the noble ideals we mistakenly thought they were representing. Are we overlooking the possible Eldridge Cleavers of the rock world. Then again, their message was never of the Marilyn Manson kind. Would there upcoming album have been some soul-searching revelation the likes of Soul on Ice? Unlikely given that they did their best to cover-up their behavior rather than explain it. Is it my job as a reviewer to pursue a Norman Mailer-like direction and beseech listeners to be receptive to PWR BTTM’s work in spite of – or perhaps, precisely because of – their sullied histories. Not likely. Since they did not make art of their coming to terms with their crimes but, instead, rode pop’s ‘good ship lollipop’ while delivering little if anything to really think about beyond platitudes (even if the clichés came at a much needed time within a sorely needy genre).
Although it is wrong to take the allegations being leveled against PWR BTTM at face value – since absolutely nothing has been officially substantiated so far! – it’s similarly hard to say that regardless of outcome this is a band whose art – lyrics, music and expression thereof – is substantial regardless. Should the work of PWR BTTM be considered meaningful when separated from the lives of their members? At this rate, it’s not likely we’ll be getting the answer to this question anytime soon.