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My Week With… Twee-pop

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The idea of “genre” belongs largely to the record shop era, when a random fraction of all the world’s music was divided into opposing racks to satisfy music fans enslaved to one variety: the genre obsessive wanted complete freehold over a given square-footage of his local emporium, regardless of which spotty Saturday-job shelf-stacker made the arbitrary divisions in the first place.

With that in mind, it’s ironic that only with the demise of the record shop and, with it, the factional nature of pop, can the genre purist truly be happy. Only now, with all of history’s recorded sound nary a click away, one only needs a web connection and a blinkered imagination to genuinely gorge on a monoculture. But what would that feel like? Surely only a psychopath would brazenly ignore the modern, internet-enabled feast and plough on regardless with ham sandwiches. Or maybe there is some enlightenment to be had from going deep rather than wide? I spent a week listening exclusively to one family of genres – indiepop, and all its sing-song, indier-than-thou, doe-eyed associates – to see what gems awaited.

I began with Belle & Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister, because you don’t need to have a collection of corduroy trousers and duffel coats to acknowledge it as a classic of the modern cannon. But it ended up spoiling my appetite: I’d forgotten what a quietly magnanimous record it was, full of honest, carefully observed characters and emotions, and one which maintains its outsider personality while also offering open arms to any old stray that wants to join its gang.

By contrast, much of its facsimiles are more obsessed with proving their independent exclusivity against an imagined other than offering any particular warmth, and after spending time with Los Campesionos! and the first volume of Rough Trade’s Indiepop compilation during day one, the real hallmarks of the genre – the DIY aesthetic and ardent championing of amateurism; the revelling in mainstream persecution and proving oneself through obscurist knowledge; intermittent poignant introspection – were front and centre. Occasionally I would be bowled over by a song’s honesty, both lyrically and stylistically, but generally the music divided itself into bookish niceness and tiresome, attitude-laden paeans to kissing girls or being better than Kasabian.

Day two began with more of the same – a comp on Spotify called The Kids At The Club (whose cover is adorned, almost as if in parody, with a black and white photo of girl with a bowlie haircut and stripy top) and a dip into older waters with the cult-classic NME mixtape C86 – but by day three I was becoming unexpectedly naturalised: while rationally I could hear Helen Love or Pocketbooks and identify quietly self-disappointed men and women resorting to cultural snobbery in order to reassure themselves of their self-worth, I instinctively started getting behind them. I began resenting successful men with less indiepop trivia at their fingertips than me, feeling angrier at the world (and good about that anger), and seeing virtue and political agency in cack-handed drumming. I was all for hapless rebellion, and no longer suspicious of supposedly confessional songs about situations that were clearly made up (“I did the ironing in a cowboy hat” – no, Camera Obscure, you didn’t). In short, I was becoming radicalised.

On day five, though, I had my moment of clarity to a song by Tullycraft called “Pop Songs Your New Boyfriend’s Too Stupid To Know About”, which ticks all the indiepop boxes: wilfully crap musicianship, lyrics constructed to transform outsiderness into superiority, a catchy melody, the occasional wry joke. What really cut through, though, was a combination of ugly misanthropy and sheer redundancy: here was a bloke listing off little-known indie bands, of all things, in order to assert himself over an ex and her new partner, both of whom, one suspects, reckon he’s a bit of a berk anyway. The song is spun to make you think that heartbreaker over there and her new fancyman are philistine Green Day fans, and Mr Tullycraft is the real catch because he likes Neutral Milk Hotel. However, all I experienced was a crushing realisation that with indiepop, the only feelings of satisfaction available are those tethered to resentment. If you actually get the girl, sell the records – heaven forbid, find happiness – then prepare for a legion of bedroom saddo mediocrity devotees to start sharpening their toy xylophones.

Perhaps in the bygone pop landscape, where segregation was enforced by record store owners, indiepop’s fierce tribalism was useful: you knew which clubs to go to, who to pull and, perhaps most importantly, who to hate; there was an innate affiliation analogous to football fandom, where your team is best, everyone else is shit, and if everybody hates us, we don’t care. But in 2014, where every possible presentation of pop music is multicoloured, and where listening embarrassment derives more readily from a fondness for crap than for success, the emotional energy required to generate all that bitterness seems wasteful. My week with indiepop took me to the dark side, where the button-badge-wearing equivalent of Emperor Palpatine was encouraging me to “let the hate flow through you”. The only problem was, I struggled to see how that hate could deliver any joy.