Twenty years of twee

The battle between stripes and gingham at last week’s Chickfactor indie pop festival in Brooklyn ended staunchly in a tie, with floral-pattern and perennial dark horse candidate, polkadots, trailing just behind. Among the other attire on display on the Bell House dance floor, my floral dress fit in as well as I could have hoped.

I was not, however, carrying a small child in my arms, which seemed to be the amusing if unsurprising trend among the crowd. After all, though the venue was a bar as kid-unfriendly as any, the festival was a celebration of the 20th anniversary of Chickfactor magazine, a veritable twee and indie pop bible in print from 1992 to 2002. Those who remember its ingenuous charm best are now old enough to be parents. They demonstrated this on Thursday by proudly displaying their toddlers in bob hair-dos and rainbow-colored earplugs. This was undoubtedly the most earnestly adorable setting I’ve found myself in.

Earnestly adorable has certainly been the aesthetic of choice for the entirety of the indie pop movement, and this festival was no different. Chickfactor was founded in Washington D.C. by Gail O’Hara and Pam Berry, two names that would make any pop nerd smile. Its list of contributing writers includes nearly everyone who was anyone in and around the scene, from Stephen Merritt of the Magnetic Fields to Lois Maffeo of Lois and Stephen Duffy of Duran Duran.

The magazine was so important at the time that Belle and Sebastian immortalized its interview process in an eponymous song (“What was it I saw in New York? I’m not the same anymore,” they aptly muse). Standing in a room of old friends, collaborators and long-time fans of a single forum that had been writing about indie pop for longer than I’ve been alive made me inexplicably proud.

For all these aging popkids with sassy cat-eye glasses poking out from beneath straight bangs, the real dream of the 90s had been temporarily relocated from the endearingly gritty Portland of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein and revived in Park Slope. Before niche genres could proliferate on the internet, zines and well-curated record labels were able to create an entire alternative world of art and fame. This is perhaps one of the most alluring aspects of indie pop.

In this case, everyone present was invested enough to be star struck by the talent lined up. Boys in button-covered jeans jackets discussed the various merits of the Honeybunch singles available at the merch table, and everyone cheered at the appearance of the MC, drummer and indie pop staple Phoebe Summersquash, whose banter between sets became more and more delightfully anecdotal as she downed her cups of beer. While she rambled on about her crush on the lead singer of Honeybunch, the atmosphere felt like peeking behind the scenes of the cool sort of mom’s night out.

The whole thing played out like a game of tag between long lost friends who had never quite outgrown frolicking. The special guests included Ladybug Transistor, who played on Team Stripes and whose surprise appearance made me impossibly giddy. Pam Berry graced the stage herself, despite claiming to be terrified of performing, and Rose Melberg and Jen Sbragia, the two lovely ladies who make up the Softies, hadn’t played together in a decade but harmonized as sweetly as on any recording.

The humility of all of the performers underscored the fantastical playfulness of the indie pop sensibility. Many of them came out into the audience and danced lankily to the place-holding music between sets, and Pam Berry, to whom credit for not only Chickfactor, but also the band Black Tambourine and the seminal record label Slumberland, is owed, said that she was positively baffled that anyone would be here to see her. Of course, she must know her place in the culture, but like anyone else there who went on to lead ordinary-person lives, was shocked to see the way it has lasted over decades.

Before the sets had finished, I slipped out past the merch table and bought a commemorative poster. The bulk of the image is a photograph of a spread complete with a papier-mâché cherry tree and trumpet, black and white photographs and miniature instruments. The names of all the performers who had joined in the festival over its three nights were clustered at the top. I walked out into the warm Brooklyn night carrying an alternative pantheon of music rolled up under my arm. A couple in front of me held hands, one in gingham, one in stripes, with a very sleepy little girl in-between. Everyone seemed pleased that indie pop had touched a new generation.

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