Safe & Sound: PWR BTTM and the Safe Space Problem

Bands like PWR BTTM and Cabbage capitalise on modern hunger for progressive icons and safe space – that's why recent allegations of abuse and harassment are not only upsetting, they're a betrayal of trust

Feature by Toby Sharpe | 13 Jul 2017

Recently, two bands have disappointed – and disgusted – their fans. PWR BTTM, an American queer glam punk band, and Cabbage, a British indie-rock darling, are both under intense scrutiny after their lead singers have been accused of sexual misconduct. While celebrities abusing their status in this way is hardly a new phenomenon, these cases are particularly shocking because the public persona of each act was inextricably tied to ideas of social justice and safe spaces. These bands, and others like them, are part of a new wave which appeals to young, politically active people – often women, non-binary, and queer folk. The social justice demographic is a pool of money to be tapped into – something that many mainstream acts have often overlooked. It's intoxicating to feel safe.

I’m part of that demographic, and a few months ago, I went to see PWR BTTM in Glasgow. It was a jubilant gig, with all the hallmarks of a queer-as-heck night, from our furtively applying glitter on the train-ride over, to the newly applied gender-neutral bathroom stickers. These gigs were marketed as a safe(r) space; a place where we could be queer in harmony, without threat of violence. To that end, the band repeatedly reminded us not to mosh too hard, to make sure everyone around us was having a wonderful time. The songs appealed to both the glitz of gay life, and the pain and loneliness inflicted upon queer people by straight society.

It was a glorious evening; one of those nights that leaves a taste in the mouth as sweet as butterscotch. That taste turned rancid a few weeks later, though, when allegations came to light that Ben Hopkins (one half of the PWR BTTM duo) had sexually abused and then harassed one or more of their fans. It started to feel as though all of PWR BTTM’s safe space bluster was part of the act.

Similar stories are emerging about Cabbage, whose lead singer apparently has made aggressive sexual gestures and advances towards female fans part of his shtick – particularly disappointing from a band whose fanbase similarly adored their feminist-friendly, self-appointed ally status. Both bands deny reports of any sexual misdemeanours.

These bands’ betrayals of their fanbase hurts so much because their followers have a desperate need for spaces where they can express themselves. In a world of straight, white, mediocre idols, we are desperate for heroes from our own communities who represent us – or claim to. I was definitely taken in – at that gig, I felt the sheer bliss that I imagine straight people feel most of the time. I finally felt accepted, in a place of my own.

I can only wonder how the young girls at Cabbage gigs might have felt watching the performances of straight men they felt safe around, whose entire image was constructed around the premise ‘I’m not like those other guys, you can feel safe around me’. We’re eager for allies as well as emblems. We’re so often told that we need straight white men to defend us that it can be such a blessing and a relief to finally find men who seem harmless. It hurts all the more to find out that this trust just gave them the opportunity to insidiously fuck you over at a later date.

The safe space debate

Debates rage in the press about university students’ demand for safe(r) spaces; aged left-wingers bemoan the transformation of radical young warriors into supposed weaklings, while fascists and their fans mock the ‘snowflake-ification’ of the millennial demographic. This is all pretty absurd, considering that the reaction of many Western right-wingers, when criticised for problematic behaviour, is to lash out and demand safe spaces of their own to spout bigotry freely.

However, safe spaces aren’t just found on university campuses. While the name might sound new to an older generation especially, the basic rule of a safe space is the age-old etiquette of ‘just don’t be a dickhead’. A safe space is a place where people can be free to talk as themselves, without fear of reprimand or insult. The concept behind safe space is actually pretty normal to most people: you’d expect not to be laughed at when talking to your doctor about your warts, one hopes that your priest wouldn’t spit at you in the confessional booth, and your Alcoholics’ Anonymous meeting is unlikely to call you a faker who’s desperate for attention.

Society is full of pockets of quiet, of trust, of safety. Without them we’d explode. Even so, the toxic response to any demand for a safe space is immediate and predictable: ‘You need to be confronted with other opinions, not coddled!’

Here’s the thing I don’t get: do right-wingers and safe space critics imagine that minorities grow up in cotton wool, only meeting opposing views during freshers week? The notion that oppressed folk are unfamiliar with the opinions of those opposed to our very existence is illogical. I learned that people are homophobic before I knew I was gay. If you think minorities don’t know about the way the world holds contempt for us, you’re the ones with your eyes covered by a frosty lens of snowflakes. All we need to do is turn on the TV. Read the Daily Mail. Walk down the street alone at night and wonder if danger lurks. We are constantly reminded that the world isn’t safe for us. A safe space is brief respite, and when bands like PWR BTTM capitalise on this trust to make a buck, before abusing it to hurt us further, it gets all the more depressing.

What’s the solution?

Trust nobody? Fear all possible allies as fake? Close our hearts to hope? I think not – at least not totally. One of the things that’s wonderful about the queer community is that we hold ourselves to account rather better than our straight fellows. While Hollywood applauds accused abusers like Casey Affleck or Michael Fassbender, or Chris Brown inks yet another album deal, we got PWR BTTM ditched from their label pretty much immediately – although it seems like, with the help of lawyers, the band may still engender a renaissance.

And while we’re pretty dope at pushing enemies off podiums, we’re also getting better at valorising good work: look at the successes of bands like MUNA, whose music combines radical vulnerability with blazing calls for love and dance, of singers like Mitski who appeal for a gentler, wiser way to make music and listen to it, or movements to make gigs better for women, or festivals a generally safer environment for staff, singers, and guests.

The focus of our efforts shouldn’t be on building heroes or idols, or tearing people down at a moment’s notice, but somewhere in the middle. What matters in our communities is ensuring that queer people actually have a chance at a life where they can express themselves, where they can be happy, and where they can be safe.