I would like to extend to everyone a sincere apology. I’m sorry to any friend, acquaintance or random passerby happening to linger unluckily while holding the door for me at the post office whom I have exposed to my crippling condition. It really isn’t my fault; I’m sure if you described my undoubtedly pathological behavior to the WebMD symptom checker you would find that I am the sufferer of a real-life problem, maybe even one with an impressive-sounding scientific name. Out with it, I suppose: I am addicted to talking about indie pop.
Indie pop — that giggling love child of 1980s post-punk and the wily melodies of girl groups from the 1960s: Oh! how your jangling guitars and lovesick lyrics and British sensibilities slay me! I can’t possibly contain the words; they tumble out in waves as driving as the tambourine lines they describe. No music nerd should be forced to endure the agony of keeping mum, and I feel this is doubly true for fans of music this delightful and life-affirming. The best indie pop is adorable without being sickening, exuberant in its frankness, and piercing in its celebration of the ordinary. The illness, then, manifests itself as a rash of enthusiasm that I can’t help but indulge.
The outbreaks of music history word vomit occur when I should be doing anything else: running children through psychology studies (no really — just today I came dangerously close to exposing an unassuming grad student listening to indie pop to a dose of embarrassing giddiness), standing at the cashier to order food during bustling lunchtime hours, hanging out and doing, you know, stuff, late at night (again, truly so sorry, but it wasn’t my fault, you noticed the handmade Indie Pop Picnic poster I have taped above my desk!). I have made a fool/out-of-class-section-asshole of myself to enough strangers and friends only looking to enjoy Belle & Sebastian in peace, so I feel like I should get it all out now. A brief history, for the benefit of everyone I have yet to infect:
In 1986, music magazine New Musical Express, or NME, in conjunction with Rough Trade records, released a cassette compilation called “C86,” featuring a collection of soon-to-be-iconic bands like the Pastels, the Wedding Present, and Primal Scream that embraced a wide-eyed, bouncing sound, offhanded production value, jangly guitar work, and sincere, if not objectively talented, vocals. Using as a launch pad the smart, candy-colored post-punk of bands like Orange Juice and the Television Personalities of the late 1970s and early 1980s, “C86” highlighted an unpredictable new direction for the punk genre: less political and snotty, but just as DIY and democratic. Youth culture reacted eagerly in response to this new movement because fans of post-punk embraced freedom and respect, but simply weren’t lusting for revolution. Finally, the scene had a chance to be run by people just like them. Some, like the legendary Sarah Records, took the aesthetic even further; bands like the Field Mice and Heavenly created music that maintained the internal drive of “C86” but introduced a saccharine, feminine twist that, endearingly, led it to be called “twee.”
But by the mid-1990s, the UK music scene had all but disowned indie pop. Though bastions of American twee were popping up across the country (most prominently in Olympia, Wash. with Calvin Johnson’s K Records and in Athens, Ga. with Kindercore), UK indie pop acts like the Clientele, Camera Obscura and the Concretes were falling far out of favor with the critics, who pushed heavily for the transition to new trends in shoegaze and grunge as a sort of imagined backlash to a rapid and crisply technological world. In 1995, Sarah Records released their very last compilation, the poignant “There and Back Again Lane,” and as the label folded, the indie pop scene quickly turned from a bustling reality to the object of melancholic nostalgia. Pure indie pop, with its sharp punk roots intact, is a thing of a brilliant and thoroughly mythologized past; only in recent years has it been revived by bands like the Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Love is All.
Ah! Now that I have that off my chest, I’ll say that this is, admittedly, an extremely specific and wistful obsession. After all, this is music that sounds at varying extremes like it was made by part-time professors, very young children, and/or the lanky friends of that overly sensitive guy who works at the bingo hall in the community center rec room. And upon reflection, I realize that there are probably other conversations worth having than the history of a foregone musical subgenre. But the sickness runs deeper than Calvin Johnson’s baritone, and maybe I kind of like it. It’s like Christopher Walken (would have) said (had he known about twee): I got a fever, and the only prescription is more indie pop!