As much as the media, music or otherwise, is supposed to be an impartial arbiter of information for the public, inherent biases always slip through in some capacity. Since the election of President Trump, and even during the election—including where bathroom bills emerged in state houses that brought gender conformity and sexual orientation to the forefront—the entertainment media have been looking for any opportunities to get their licks in on political subjects through music coverage.
This means that artists or bands who the entertainment media believe represent a strong antithesis to President Trump and the new push of conservative ideals in society are often shoved to the forefront. All of a sudden, transgender frontperson for the punk rock band Against Me!, Laura Jane Grace, is receiving more media attention than in the entirety of her professional career. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, because Laura Jane Grace happens to be an articulate, forward-thinking, and inspirational member of the transgender community who can speak on such matters with authority from personal experience. Far from being forgotten or even admonished in the media for her stances or transgender status, Laura Jane Grace has been given a spotlight and a podium.
Similarly, over the last few weeks, an obsession grew for the self-proclaimed “queer punk” duo known as PWR BTTM. NPR, including NPR’s vaunted Tiny Desk Concert, Billboard, dozens of other media outlets, including some who don’t regularly cover music, saw the duo in their cross dressing garb and glitter faces as the perfect personification of the anti-Trump ideal, and fawned over them as the right band for our time—a way to stick a finger in the eye of growing conservative authoritarianism.
PWR BTTM, like Laura Jane Grace, became part of an agenda in music journalism to make the music secondary to the political narrative around particular artists. Ironically, artists who in the past may have suffered from discrimination in both the media and the public have been given an unnatural boost of coverage due to their minority status. Credit the growing Millennial quotient within the ranks of entertainment media for the blurring of coverage for musical performance with political action through social journalism.
The problem in the case of PWR BTTM is that the band had not been properly vetted as a viable carrier for a social or political cause before they were pushed to the forefront, which resulted in catastrophe when it was revealed that one of the members, Ben Hopkins, was a “known sexual predator,” and multiple victims and accounts began to be revealed on May 10th, sending all the positive coverage and powerful messages being lumped on the band into a voluminous tailspin.
Sponsors and supporting acts began pulling out of commitments with the band. By May 13th, the band’s record label Polyvinyl Records had pulled their catalog. By May 15th, their music had been removed from all major retailers. The issue was exacerbated by the revelations that management and fellow bandmate Liv Bruce knew of the allegations, but it was all covered up in the recent run up to the release of their second album Pageant.
In the rush to crown a relatively small band as anti-Trump superstars, entertainment media missed the big picture. In hindsight, there was every indication the band was not a just collection of social justice warriors looking to impugn a judgemental society through creative expression, but a haven for messages of aggressive sexual behavior, and specifically, a sexual miscreant who just happened to be gay.
The band’s name, PWR BTTM takes the vowels out of the slang phrase “power bottom,” which is defined by the Urban Dictionary: “While a bottom is usually submissive to his partner, a power bottom enjoys maintaining control over the top and/or the penetration, the normally dominant role in gay male sex.”
If a straight punk band had such a sexually suggestive name, you would probably be seeing media coverage questioning the misogyny of the connotations, and you certainly wouldn’t be seeing repeated coverage for it on NPR, with little to no questioning of the band’s motivations or message. In a rush to instill political narratives in the music space, entertainment media did not properly think through who they were putting on a pedestal with PWR BTTM.
Ultimately, equality is not about giving unfair advantage to artists due to sexual orientation or any other demographic classification, it’s about making sure that race, gender, or sexual orientation do not play into decision making when it comes to media coverage. With the national narrative about transgender rights and other issues at the forefront of the societal mindset, there is a natural opening to feature gay or transgender music artists in a way that gives perspective to readers on certain issues that is understandable, if not warranted or obligatory. But this should never supplant a proper vetting of such artists, or a critical questioning of the morals and message of the music.
There is a theory in the gay and transgender community, and shared with much of entertainment media, that the way to break down barriers of discrimination and homophobia is to push forward the most overt displays of homosexual culture in hopes to desensitize closed-minded individuals to its existence. The rise of PWR BTTM was very much an example of this philosophical exercise. But the efficacy of this approach to spreading inclusiveness is spurious at best. If anything, such actions tend to result in a backlash of which the election of President Trump might be the perfect example.
There is a prevailing sense in media journalism that the industry cannot sit idly on the sidelines during the current Trump unrest since the issues are so critical. Music journalists must find avenues to make inroads into the hearts and minds of listeners. But this should never be at the expense of impartiality, or moral equivalents.
The bright spot in the rise and fall of PWR BTTM is that most, if not all of those same outlets that were leading the charge to push the band to the forefront of the social conscious stream for the last few weeks, were also the very first to turn around and report on the band’s downfall as the revelations came pouring in. Unlike traditional political media, which is often reluctant to recant or give ground on any issue, it was many Millennial journalists and outlets who led the charge to expose PWR BTTM.
With the constant attention being sucked up by the endless political war the United States and many Western countries find themselves in, it has put entertainment media on very precarious footing for being a viable industry for the future. How can people think of music in times like these? But with the prevalence of fake news and bias coverage, it remains an imperative on music media, as it does all media, to not let biases or agendas bleed through coverage, while also fulfilling the journalistic duty of making sure artists and bands are not the victims of discrimination or inequality.