After Tragedy, Tour Mates Pity Sex, PWR BTTM, and Petal Respond Through Music

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My photo feature with Pity Sex, PWR BTTM, and Petal had been in the works for weeks, and my assignment was simple – get to the venue before sound check, take pictures of the bands hanging out, and enjoy the performance. But when 49 people are shot dead in a gay nightclub the day before a show, the assignment isn’t that simple anymore.

How can a writer properly represent the way a band reacts and responds to an incomprehensible mass murder? How can queer punk icons like PWR BTTM provide support to their fans and community while they themselves are still mourning?

As planned, I arrive at Union Transfer at 3:30 PM. I meet the members of Pity Sex and stand to the side of the stage with my camera while the four-piece and the Union Transfer staff sort through a mess of cables, amps, pedals, and duct tape.

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“I’ve been getting tweets that some people aren’t comfortable coming to the show tonight,” a Union Transfer staff member says.

He’s clearly referring to the weekend’s horrible events. First, The Voice singer Christina Grimmie was shot while signing autographs in Orlando. Next, 49 people were shot and killed in a gay nightclub in in the same city. Fifty-three more people were injured. It was the largest mass shooting in American history.

For Pity Sex, PWR BTTM, Petal, and every other band on tour right now, the show must go on. When an entire community and its allies are speechless with grief, what does it mean for musicians to step on stage and force themselves to speak?

While he plugs in pedals before soundcheck, Pity Sex singer and guitarist Brennan Greaves mentions to me, “We’re playing Orlando soon and we’ve been thinking a lot about how to handle that.”

I later find out via Pity Sex’s Instagram that the three bands on tour have decided that all proceeds from their show next week in Orlando will benefit the Pulse Tragedy Community Fund, which was created on GoFundMe to support the Orlando victims and their families.

The pre-show routine continues as planned. Pity Sex drummer Sean St. Charles spearheads a gigantic delivery order from Hip City Veg, a Philadelphia vegan chain. We agonize over whether or not we want to order sweet potato fries. Ben Hopkins of PWR BTTM tells a dramatic story in the green room about why Oddish is his favorite Pokémon. Brennan Greaves fawns over two miniature-sized bottles of bourbon.

It’s not all fun backstage, though. While members of Pity Sex and Petal eat their vegan burgers, Liv takes a guitar and finds privacy in an empty green room. I assume Liv is just messing around and sit down with them.

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“Britty just tried putting on a PWR BTTM temporary tattoo on her neck, it was so funny,” I say. “What are you up to?”

“I’m trying to learn the chords to ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,'” Liv tells me.

Liv practices "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" pre-show

While Liv tries to memorize lyrics and sings softly, I continue to make idle small talk. Eventually, Liv says to me, “Sorry if I’m a little distant, I just have a lot on my mind today.” Somehow, I don’t yet make the connection to understand what Liv is doing.

The first band to take the stage on Sunday night is Petal, Pity Sex’s labelmates on Run For Cover records. A few songs in, Petal’s singer and guitarist Kiley Lotz stops to address the crowd. It’s difficult for Lotz to describe how she feels about the shooting in Orlando – she wants people to feel safe at her shows. When she starts to choke up and stutter, she begins to play her guitar instead.

During “Heaven,” Petal’s final song of the night, Ben cheers for his friend Kiley. “This song is such a banger,” he tells me, smiling wide. Now that he’s about to perform, Ben is wearing a long, patterned maxi dress and an American flag fanny pack. Purple glitter is smeared across his face. Ben dresses in drag every night on tour – it’s part of PWR BTTM’s performance.

Backstage, a tall, white candle sits outside of the PWR BTTM green room. Ben grabs it and places it behind an amp as he and Liv walk on stage together.

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Ben and Liv open the show by asserting that their shows are “safer spaces,” which means that the venue’s bathrooms become gender neutral and moshing in the crowd will not be tolerated. Everyone is welcome at a PWR BTTM show, so long as they respect the people around them.

If you’re a fan of the Brooklyn duo, you know what to expect. There’s glitter, there’s drag queen antics, and there’s rock ‘n’ roll. In “Serving Goffman,” Liv Bruce sings, “I held my breath in a suit and tie/Because I didn’t know I could fight back/I wanna put the whole world in drag/but I’m starting to realize it’s already like that.” Between songs, Bruce makes a joke about something being “aggressively neutral… like [their] gender,” and the crowd roars. In their live performances, PWR BTTM tries their best to create an environment where all people are celebrated and appreciated.

When PWR BTTM finishes their final song, Ben glances at the sound booth. “One more?” he quietly asks the sound people. They hesitate. “You know what, we’re doing one more. It’s important.”

The staff at the sound booth chuckle. “Did you hear him? He said ‘it’s important.'” When Ben picks up the white candle, lights it, and holds it up to the crowd, the sound people realize what’s happening. They’re eager to let PWR BTTM remain on stage. It’s important – far more important than getting a few minutes behind on schedule.

“This is for the victims in Orlando,” Ben says and walks off to the side of the stage. Liv grabs their guitar and begins to play “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in a quiet, incredibly emotional solo performance.

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Ben is right – Liv’s performance is important. It’s important for the queer people and people of color who were nervous about attending a queer punk show the night after a mass shooting in a gay club. It’s important for people who fear danger every day because of their identities. It’s important for 49 dead and 53 injured. It’s important for all of us who are grieving.

When an entire community is in mourning, how can the unapologetically, proudly, beautifully queer duo PWR BTTM not react? How can anything do justice to the death of 49 individuals – the fear, sadness, and frustration of the LGBTQ community?

We need bands like PWR BTTM who acknowledge their community’s grief and encourage their fans to dance, but also understand that mourning is necessary.

Liv’s performance of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” gave everyone in the room chills. We were left speechless.

In the Petal song “Camera Lens II,” Kiley Lotz sings, “And in attendance of these times/I’m sorry if I seemed unable to move/unable to speak/unable to breathe.” But something about music can overcome silence when a tragedy is so consuming that speech fails. What we take for granted fails.

Music may not be able to rid the world of hatred, but at the very least, it can bring us beauty. Liv’s last-minute performance was beautiful. Each band was beautiful. On the night after the largest mass shooting in our country’s history, the crowd was cheering. It was beautiful. It was devastating. It was beautiful.

To help the families of the victims in Orlando, consider donating to the Pulse Tragedy Community Fund.