The Null Device
It is an early afternoon during the Easter bank holiday weekend, at an indiepop weekender at an art venue in Cardiff. A band is playing on stage, fuzzy guitar lines, drums and female vocals mixing together. The audience, or those who have arrived early, are standing and watching; they tend to be in their mid-30s and older; women wear hair slides and floral/polka-dot dresses, while the Mod Dad look, with Fred Perry polo shirts, short hair and sideburns, is popular among the menfolk. In front of the stage, what might have once been the mosh pit is now a children's play area, replete with LED-illuminated balloons. about four or five young children run around, squealing and bouncing the balloons. Wearing ear protectors, they appear to be unaware of the grown-ups on the stage holding guitars, the relationship between them doing this and the sound coming out of the speakers, or that there would be any reason to not run around in front of the stage. The concept of a “gig” seems to be alien to them. Elsewhere, smaller children bop gently up and down in time to the music in their mothers' hands, animated by parental enthusiasm; they gawp bewilderedly, their faces showing only undifferentiated emotion. The squawls of babies fill the gaps between songs and add a novel accompaniment to the jangly melodies. Occasionally, a musty odour fills the air and a balding guy in a faded Milky Wimpshake T-shirt leaves hurriedly, carrying a discomforted-looking infant to a baby-changing area.
Once upon a time, pop/rock/alternative music consumption was strictly for teenagers; you got into it when the adolescence hormones hit your bloodstream and you needed something that was yours and not your parents', spent a few years spending your pocket money on 7" records and dressing in a way your grown-up self might later find as embarrassing as your parents did at the time, and dropped it just as quickly when you Grew Up, got a job, married and had kids of your own and were saddled with the burden of adult responsibilities which you would carry unto the grave. Gradually the boundaries got pushed back, and a whole market of “adult-oriented rock” emerged; engineered to soothe the nerves of stressed Responsible Adults whilst providing them with just enough of a hit of what excited their younger selves a quarter-century earlier, it tended to a sort of soaring, platitudinal blandness; a weak substitute for what had been forfeited. Though over the past few decades, the idea that one must check one's musical/subcultural identity at the door of adulthood has been eroded even further. The pioneers may well have been the Goths, who stubbornly refused to Grow Out Of It well into middle age and beyond; though soon, the commodification of cool into cultural capital opened the doors further, until soon we had shops in trendy areas selling Ramones baby clothes and lullaby renditions of The Cure and Nirvana, and bands classified, back-handedly, as “dad-rock” or “dad-house”. This isn't completely universal—after all, supermarkets flog millions of records by the likes of Coldplay and Ed Sheeran for people who either never were into music or else vaguely remember what it felt like but have no desire to regress to that phase of their lives—but one no longer has to be a fringe-dwelling bohemian to remain particular about music
Of all the genres and subcultures, though, the indiepop scene seems to have become uniquely small-child-inclusive. As a critical mass of indiepop kids hit middle age and have kids of their own, they are more likely to bring them, en masse, to gigs and festivals, and adapt the events themselves for the kids; songs with rude words are dropped or bowdlerised, balloons are provided, and the gig becomes a mass playdate first, and a musical performance only tangentially to this. Flocks of toddlers run around, yelping and shouting gleefully, and it is seen to be their right to do so; anybody who objects to this getting in the way of their enjoyment of the music may as well be a fascist or a Tory or something equally unspeakable. The music's almost just a side product for the parents' benefit. Elsewhere, there are indiepop baby discos, acclimatising young ears to Belle & Sebastian and Allo Darlin' from an early age. Perhaps, elsewhere, there are pint-sized punks pogoing anarchically to toddler-friendly renditions of Anarchy In The UK, baby discos spinning gnarly brostep, or black-clad toddlers running around like swarms of ground-hugging bats at the Whitby Gothic Weekend, but such possibilities notwithstanding, this seems to be peculiar to indiepop. There are no boisterous toddlers at, say, shoegaze, psych or post-rock gigs; other festivals may have a few small children in attendance, but they are fewer in number, and where special provision has been made for them, it is away from the stages.
Why indiepop has, upon its members' parenthood, shifted wholesale into a toddler-friendly environment is not certain. Perhaps it's a natural outgrowth of the “twee” signifier, which originated in the 1980s as a rejection of the hypermasculinity of hardcore and/or post-punk rock, instead embracing, with varying degrees of irony, the signifiers of childhood. Much in the way that things that start as ironic appropriations often end up shedding the irony and continuing with some degree of sincerity (as seen, for example, with the “ironic” sexism of 1990s “lad” magazines), a scene whose zines and button badges copied old children's books might transform from a subculture questioning the inherent conservatism in the childish/mature dichotomy to a subculture tailor-made for small children and their parents.
It'll be interesting to see whether the toddlerification of indiepop changes the subject matter of it more than removing the word “fuck” from lyrics. Thematically, indiepop songs do tend to hover around adolescence and its long decay envelope, with themes of crushes, break-ups and being in or out of love cropping up disproportionately often. These days, this is even more so than in, say, the C86 days, as “twee” became stylised and codified into a somewhat excessively fey, cupcakey aesthetic, and some of the oddness of 1980s-vintage indie has been replaced by chaste adolescent romance like a plot from an Archie comic soundtracked by vintage Motown girl groups. Perhaps as the under-5 demographic at indiepop gigs swells, these themes will be displaced to some extent by songs about dinosaurs, monkeys, pirates, rocket ships, monkeys who are rocket-ship pirates, poop and other things more likely to appeal to actual small children.
Secondly, it will be interesting to see what a generation of kids who were brought up listening to twee pop from birth end up doing when adolescence, and the need to individuate themselves, hits them.
Anarchist anthropologist David Graeber (of Debt: The First 5,000 Years and On Bullshit Jobs fame) writes in the Baffler about the evolution of business attire, and in particular, the paradox of the necktie:
No doubt, part of the objection to the tie is to the pure arbitrariness of the thing. A tie serves no function. It doesn’t hold your trousers up or keep you warm. But at the same time, it’s uncomfortable, so much so that putting it on does somehow feel like a gesture of submission, a reluctant pledge of allegiance to everything the suit is supposed to represent.
[t]he business suit derives not from aristocratic formal wear, but from hunting clothes—this is why fox-hunters, for instance, still wear something very much like one. Both uniforms are a kind of active wear, adopted by a class of people who wanted to define themselves through their actions. Actually, I suspect that the ultimate derivation of the business suit is from a suit of armor. The suit, after all, encases your body, covering as much of it as possible; what minimal openings to the world such clothes do afford—at your neck and sleeves—are bound tightly together by ties and cuff links. The contours of the body are thus obscured, in striking contrast with women’s formal wear, which, even in covering the body, constantly hints at revealing it, and particularly at revealing its most sexualized aspects. Skirts, even when they cover the lower half of the body completely, tend to form an open-ended cone whose apex is between the legs, and except in the most prudish times, there has been some gesture toward revealing the cleavage. It’s almost as if the staid uniformity of men’s attire is meant to efface individuality just as its design is meant to make the body itself invisible; women’s formal wear, on the other hand, makes the wearer both an individual and an object to be seen. Indeed, the conventions of higher-class fashion ensure that any woman wearing such an outfit is obliged to devote a good deal of time and energy to monitoring herself to make sure too much is not revealed and, more generally, to constantly thinking about what she looks like.
I suggest a simple formula: To express power through display is to say to those over whom one exercises it, “Behold, see how I have been treated. I have been treated this way because of who I am. Now you, too, must treat me this way.” Kings cover themselves with gold as a way of saying that you must cover them with gold as well. To refuse any such display, in contrast, is to say, “You simply have no idea what I am capable of.”As for the necktie, Graeber's theory as to its provenance is a somewhat Freudian one; essentially, the tie is a sort of symbolic, decorporealised codpiece:
Couldn’t we say that a tie is really a symbolic displacement of the penis, only an intellectualized penis, dangling not from one’s crotch but from one’s head, chosen from among an almost infinite variety of other ties by an act of mental will? Hey, this would explain a lot—why men who wear bow ties are universally taken to be nerds, for example. True, a bow tie could be taken for a pair of testicles. But even so, bow ties are small, and they point in entirely the wrong direction. Mafiosi wear ties that are too fat and colorful; dissipated sophisticates wear thin ties; cowboys wear string ties that produce the effect you might expect from wearing a bow tie and a regular tie at the same time—ordinarily, this would be too unsubtle, but cowboys are mythic he-men who can get away with it. (James Bond can also get away with a bow tie, but then he’s basically just a giant penis anyway.)