Saturday, October 27, 2007

Do You Have to Stop Writing to Start Living?

Someone emailed me recently, which made me re-read the Twee As Fuck article on Pitchfork. It turned out I had quite a few thoughts on it, so I decided to post it here. Read the article first, please.

There are some things I feel uncomfortable about. Like how they say indie wasn't cool, sexy, arty or fiery. That just depends on your ideals. I don't think there's anything sexier or cooler than Orange Juice, Josef K or Subway Sect. You only need to take the smallest step outside of the heterosexual, patriarchal bubble to realise that. It's all about creating another universe, which is what subcultures essentially are. Mainstream 'cool' is one thing and indie 'cool' is another. Originally pop was a subculture, perhaps one of the first big youth cultures. It was just the kids who listened to rock'n'roll in 1955. And every label was an indie label. When pop became mainstream, punk became the new subculture. Punk, actually, started in 1965 with garage groups like the Count Five. And from 1978 onwards it splintered into a million fractions - from death metal to acid house.

Then of course indie became mainstream, just like punk had. That's why indie is such a nullified word today, and we have to make up our own names. No one really called it anorak, or c86, or shambling - back in the day. I prefer to call it just 'pop', because my definition of pop is quite narrow as it is. For me indie from the early 80s was pop, the rest was an extension of advanced capitalism and the 'record industry'. Even if artists like Madonna had a great deal of self-control, they let themselves become products. T
hat doesn't mean bands like McCarthy were radical or opposed the system; after all their records weren't for free (although the say that in one of their songs!) and their goal was to be on Top of the Pops. But like all creative output it's a comment on society - be it its politics, one's own subculture, the commodity value of pop etc.

It's hard writing about pop and eschewing all preconceptions and clichés. Twee As Fuck tries to generalise, make it simple. If you write about music you have start from the other end, from our own experiences. Then you can start deconstructing, contradicting, complicating. But in the end it will always be about yourself, getting closer to 'what you think'. And never be boring!

Unfortunately indiepop records are becoming all the more collectible = expensive. Big companies (like eBay) are trying to profit on our subculture. The result is that the subculture is becoming all the more splintered and crystallised. While 'indiepop' is quite big, there's only a few thousand people around the world who listen to the same bands as me. I don't know if it would be preferable for everyone to suddenly start listening to The June Brides. The important thing is that there is enough enthusiasm from young people to continue creating this pop stuff. And that can come from fanaticism as much as populism. It reflects the tricky issue of how popular indiepop fans want their bands to be. They want them to be successful and recognised but not to turn into a new U2.

Another tricky issue are the accusations of asexuality, childishness, feyness and other things embedded in the 'twee' term. The article discusses this in relation to Sarah Records and how a band like The Field Mice can be seen as very introverted, afraid of the Afro-American roots of pop music. The attributes lined up seems more true for a group like Kraftwerk, who ironically became an important link in the evolution of dance music and hip-hop. The Field Mice did what they could, with the means offered them. Who would prefer two Englishmen playing awkward reggae over a Jamaican band? These days Wratten admits listening more to dub than anything else and he never understood the twee tag. True, they weren't very sexy, but they approached sexuality on an intellectual plane - in their lyrics and in their gender identities. And it was always passionate. True, they were more feminine than masculine. But why can't a male duo be feminine? Art is always more interesting when you start messing with the gender roles. In the 60s it was ok for girlgroups to be feminine and garage groups to be masculine. But in the 80s and 90s the anti-rock stance of Razorcuts and the feminism of Bikini Kill was a necessity. When Sarah Records first set up and still to this day, pop music was male dominated - as was the 'indie scene'. So why not weigh it up with some queerness?

As for machismo vs. naivety - I agree with David Brogan that the only thing I want music not to be is 'muscular'. It can be raw, primitive, dirty and loud, but when that word comes to mind it just feels wrong. That's why I don't like the word 'rock' either, because I associate it with 'muscular'. Muscular can be good in mainstream contexts as it is certain subcultures, but pop should never go there. "We were never the guys in school who played guitar, who had long hair and were into Rush", Wratten has said. So why should they pretend? That's not saying The Field Mice didn't have their not-so-fey moments. Pop is essentially postmodern, which means it can never be described as solely being one thing. Pop can be naive sometimes, perhaps even dumb but that's not what makes it good or bad, unless it's a conscious stance. Many bands on Sarah had an element of romanticism, in believing in the beauty of the misunderstood artist, nature as inspiration; 'pastoral', the music and its images were often called. Subcultures are symptom of the postmodern, like avantgarde was a modernist notion. So as soon as the bands on Sarah started feeling pigeonholed they reacted and went in new directions. Pop is so self-conscious.

The last thing I disagree about is the analogy about folk and pop music in the 60s. Surely what was pop and what was folk in the 80s was the same as in the 60s. Anyone could listen to folk music in the early 60s - kids and parents. But pop was rebellious, youthful. True, folk artists like Dylan approached political subjects in their songwriting and students took them to their hearts. But The Shangri-Las were political in a more direct way, simply through their existence. Anyone could become a pop star. But not everyone could go to college or university. These days pop has slightly more political lyrics, perhaps a reflection of the higher standards of education. But the music most closely associated with radical politics is reggae, traditional punk and hip-hop (still). The Pastels, just like Beat Happening were never political in an outspoken way, but everything about them was radical, and to some people threatening and an object for ridicule and restriction.

Is there anything in spontaneity?
Is the only way to know
to let the pen and paper go
and do like they say and just be?


neri said...

Just say goodbye to clichés

twee is a cliché

nice blog!

Stefan said...


Det här är off-topic men jag undrar om vi kan skicka ett "recensions-ex" av The Dreamers skiva "Day for night" som vi gett ut nyligen? Såg att du nämnde dem positivt i ett gammalt inlägg och gillar bloggen överlag så det skulle vara kul om du skrev nåt.

Vilken adress ska skivan skickas till i så fall?

mvh Stefan, Friendly Noise

Matt said...

excellent post, chris. lots of good points made... particularly the second to last paragraph; agreed 100%

dumbmagician said...

Americans will forever mistake twee indie rock for indie pop. But from a true pop-kid viewpoint, the last thing amateurishness should signify is visceral rock attitude, which is what it did in all of that K-axis stuff.

Olympia as a center of American indie pop? Hardly. Try Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Veronica Lake translated the Field Mice for a U.S. audience, or Silver Spring, Maryland, where Vinyl Ink sold old Creation singles and Slumberland put out new records that tried to capture the spirit of old Creation singles. Or, even earlier, wherever it is in Illinois that Ric Menck is from--'cause it gave us the Paint Set and Choo Choo Train and the Big Maybe and the Reverbs and the Stupid Cupids and...

Marianthi said...

Fantastic entry, Kris. I agree with you on pretty much everything. Indiepop/pop can be political as it can be subversive and radical in ways that music critics will never understand, because it doesn't spell things out and doesn't hit you on the head with 'messages'.

That Pitchfork article was, to me, more a namedropping exercise than anything else. A cheap analysis of something presumed dead, when in reality is more alive than ever.

lostmusic said...

Nice post.

Although I can see why Pitchfork may be able to say that indie circa '85 or '86 wasn't "wasn't cool, sexy, arty or fiery" - I think that was the perception from outside the 'scene'* at the time. It was seen as shy boys and shy girls. Fey, if you will. I was always into the music but not so much the cutesy stuff that went with it. Fanzines were good. I was never into lollipops at gigs. But that's just a minor point.

They're all labels at the end of the day and no one label is going to work for all the bands in a 'scene'*. Because a lot of the band associated with C86/shambling were not fey, cutesy or even remotely twee. Bands like Bogshed, Big Flame etc. All undeniably indie in 1985/86. And they are rarely picked up as being part of the same thing, back then, when they were.

*just to let you know I hate the word 'scene' but can't think of another to use in these instances