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Review: PWR BTTM, 'Pageant'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released.

PWR BTTM's sophomore full-length is <em>Pageant</em>
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
PWR BTTM's sophomore full-length is Pageant

Every episode of RuPaul's Drag Race — reality TV's finest drag queen competition — ends the same way. Host and judge RuPaul turns to the assembled queens and says, with an air of total sincerity: "If you can't love yourself, how in the hell are you going to love somebody else?" The sentimental send-off is corny, but it comprises a powerful truth about being queer: In a world where LGBT identity can get you fired from your job, or kicked out of your home — or jailed or even killed — the act of loving yourself (and loving the capacity of queerness to upset entrenched norms) can be radical.

Pageant, the sophomore album from pop-punk duo PWR BTTM, may as well take RuPaul's question as a mission statement. Over 13 tracks, the duo fleshes out its razor-sharp pop-punk sound while exploring the challenges and rewards of queer self-actualization.

The music of PWR BTTM has been, since the band's origins, steeped in queer identity. Ben Hopkins and Liv Bruce identify as queer and use they/them pronouns; Bruce also identifies as non-binary and transfeminine. The songs on the band's debut album, Ugly Cherries, combined immaculate pop-punk hooks and earnest lyrics with queer aesthetics. That's not to say Hopkins and Bruce use queerness as a crutch; instead, queerness simply informs the two members' songwriting as one of many aspects of their lives.

Bruce and Hopkins both sing, drum and play guitar, and most of PWR BTTM's early music features just those instruments. Pageant builds on that palette: Many tracks include horns and flutes, and some even feature the operatic vocals of Hopkins' mother. The album feels larger and more mainstage-ready than the band's earlier music, while retaining the intimacy fostered during years of performing in dorm rooms and basement venues. Most importantly, PWR BTTM hasn't lost its sense of joy: the kind that inundates the songs' singalong hooks, cascades from Hopkins's flamboyantly extravagant guitar solos and sparkles in Bruce's campy, swaggering humor.

In this political moment, an album based on vague notions of queer triumph would feel incomplete at best — and hollow at worst. Broad, sweeping statements about self-confidence are useful (and Pageant has them, like the anthemic "Big Beautiful Day"), but an entire album of them would be facile. Instead, Pageant explores what it takes to arrive at the kind of self-love that has radical potential, and it's in these moments of tenderness and confusion that Pageant is most powerful. In "LOL," Hopkins sings "When you are queer, you are always 19." The lyric is heartbreaking in its delivery; it took my breath away when I first heard it, having the magical quality of reflecting back to me the personal and universal nature of my own experiences. When you are queer, pop songs that grant that kind of mirror are rare and essential. Pageant provides them.

Pageant also avoids cliche by grounding itself in bodies and the conflicts they create. There are bodies as the objects of desire ("Oh Boy") and bodies that are the object of mockery ("New Trick"); there's autonomy over bodies ("Kids' Table") and the lack of autonomy ("Pageant"). The songs dignify these bodies and their struggles by connecting them to something greater: personal growth, yes, but also a powerful reimagining of what it means to exist within or outside contemporary notions of gender and sexuality. They do so with joy, humor and humanity, with glitter, grief and pride. Pageant is a soundtrack for outsiders on the way to loving themselves — queer and complicated as that process may be.

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