The Null Device
Dorian Lynskey, music journalist and author of 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs has posted a blog article about the rising infantilisation of culture, as seen in everything from food packaging to utility bills being written in a cutesy first-person voice. The catalyst having been a Sainsbury's branding exercise renaming tiger bread to “giraffe bread“, allegedly at the behest of a small child:
Surely rechristening a product to appease someone not long out of nappies marks some kind of turning point in the infantilisation of branding: a seemingly interminable trend which makes grown men think it’s OK to give their age as “27 & 3/4” without being shoved into a canal. Maybe I should ask my five-year-old daughter to rebrand the Jerusalem artichoke, which is neither an artichoke nor from Jerusalem, and we can all start cooking with Goblinhead instead. Or would that be “a bit silly”?(And Sainsbury's aren't the only supermarket to do this; according to Morrison's, the natural voice of food products is first-person, in a wobbly, childlike handwriting, which is perhaps somewhat disturbing. I'm not sure I'd like the idea of eating a loaf of bread with the ascribed personality of a small, cheerful child.)
I think it’s partly related to the Cult of the Child, defined by one blogger as “the brainwashing some parents undergo that convinces them their children are innately, infallibly wise, untainted by worldly prejudices, and therefore their opinions and pronouncements should be heeded as if they were handed down from the heavens, and their every wish should be indulged”. Parenthood, instead of marking the point at which one irrevocably becomes an adult, is often presented as a second go-around, with the parent eager to shrink the age gap. The packaging of Little Me Organics (“Lots of mummys got together to create a range that was carefully selected to be the best for their little ones…”) and Ella’s Kitchen baby food bizarrely addresses parents as if they were babies themselves, making childhood synonymous with those sacred concepts in upmarket food branding, “natural” and “pure”. Handwritten, obviously, because fonts are for phonies.
And that’s the thing. The brand’s voice is “childlike” but it’s not actually like a child at all, because real children are complicated and tempestuous and say all kinds of stuff: it’s the voice of a parent trying to get a child to do something by approximating their outlook. Innocentese is relentlessly chirpy and nice, in a profoundly white and middle-class way which connects with its affluent customer base.Lynskey puts the blame for this kind of quirkiness on the rise of faux-naïf indie culture (think Wes Anderson, Zooey Fucking Deschanel, &c.), with patient zero having been the twee indie-pop genre of the 1980s, where a rejection of adult tropes was a reaction to both reactionary rock'n'roll machismo, soulless corporate music product and sexualised consumerism.
When, a decade later, alternative rock had come to resemble the things it had once opposed, via Britpop and corporate grunge, key indie bands once again reached for the satchels. Belle & Sebastian named themselves after a children’s book and wrote some of their best songs about school, while Neutral Milk Hotel recorded an album inspired by Anne Frank and the lo-fi, pots-and-pans amateurism of a particularly enthusiastic summer camp. These were gifted songwriters creating idiosyncratic private worlds born of refusal and I don’t blame them for what followed anymore than I blame Nirvana for Nickelback, but over the following decade this cult of childhood became part of indie’s schtick.This sort of tweeness spread outward, to the less muscular fringes of dance music (Lemon Jelly and Mr. Scruff are mentioned), cinema (from Wes Anderson and such to more mainstream fare), and, so on. And as we all know, every oppositional stance gets commodified sooner or later, and in this case, the result is Innocent Smoothies, inanimate objects addressing people in the first person, and a surfeit of typefaces that look like wonky handwriting. Though the end of twee may be in sight:
I thought perhaps that the whole down-the-shitcan vibe of the world at the moment would puncture the whimsy bubble. If anything it seems to have intensified the need to escape to a wuvly innocent world where nobody’s heard of the Euro crisis or Iranian nukes. But I suspect that just as indie music and cinema laid the groundwork for Innocentese, the growing revulsion towards twee art is the first sign of a backlash against it among consumers. As the language becomes more common, more widely mocked, less trusted, it becomes less useful for brands and one day soon — I hope and pray — we will see the end of the Innocents.