The story of the musical genre known primarily as “indie pop” started with a mix. In 1986 the British music magazine NME released its C86 cassette compilation, featuring indie artists in the Eighties U.K. scene like the Wedding Present and the Pastels. The music, crafted from soft vocals, literary lyrics, and jangly guitars, had concise song structures despite its wistful air. Like with the early punk scene, these bands reveled in their amateurish talents. But where punk was aggressive, raw, and often masculine to a fault, indie pop celebrated other inclinations: softness, cuteness, femininity, and emotional vulnerability.
For a brief moment in the early Nineties, pockets of proudly “Twee as Fuck” culture spread worldwide, as kids wearing anoraks, glasses, and blunted bangs ventured out of their bedrooms to sort-of-dance at shows soundtracked by shambling pop. New York, always open to new subcultures, hosted TweeFest, a glorified house show, in 1995. It eventually became Popfest, an event that now has iterations in cities from Copenhagen to San Francisco. This month, the NYC edition celebrates its tenth year, with shows around Manhattan and Brooklyn, from May 19 to 22.
Its roots are evident in the interests of its organizers. “Britpop was exploding around the time I was really getting into music. I was obsessed with the bands coming out of the U.K. in the early-mid Nineties,” says Maz, a DJ of the New York dance party MONDO who goes only by his first name. He got involved with Popfest in 2009 and has helped steer the ship ever since. One of the festival’s curatorial goals, he says, is to mix the old with the new, booking a few older bands (including acts that reunite for the event) plus newer groups coming up in the community.
That philosophy has worked well for the festival: Several groups that have achieved wider acclaim, including the Pains of Being Pure at Heart and the Drums, played there early in their careers. It’s also a good place for a sunset: Indie pop stalwarts Tullycraft, whose song “Twee” is a self-effacing anthem for the genre, played their final show at the San Francisco festival in 2009. This year’s 33-band New York lineup underscores a continuing worldwide appeal; there are bands coming from the U.K. (Allo Darlin’), Sweden (Alpaca Sports), Indonesia (Sunny Summer Day), and, of course, New York (the Hairs).
The festival has endured despite indie pop’s ongoing existential struggles. Although the genre has an accessible sound and claims a few breakout successes (Belle & Sebastian come to mind), this music has never taken hold in a broader context. Its brief early-Nineties heyday gave way to the more rock-leaning sound of Pavement and Guided by Voices, who’d emerged around the same time and came to define mainstream indie. Still, the scene that music writer Nitsuh Abebe described in a definitive 2005 Pitchfork piece as “[making] stars out of shy boys who probably got swirlied in high school and idols out of girls who dressed like librarians” remains alive and well. Over the years, the festival has offered a chance for fans to see bands that, though often ignored by the larger music world, are legends in this niche.
“What few people understand about the NYC Popfest is that, despite it being held in one of the world’s most culturally influential cities and having the word ‘pop’ in its title, the actual music that is celebrated is about as commercially marginal as possible,” Kip Berman, the lead singer of the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, tells the Voice.
Singer-songwriter Katie Bennett, who will play this year’s festival with her band Free Cake for Every Creature, agrees. “[Popfest] celebrates music that isn’t always represented elsewhere because of mainstream media’s disregard for anything remotely cute, sweet, feminine, or childish,” she says. What Bennett is referring to is sometimes called rockism, a critical bias toward the masculinity and perceived authenticity of rock music over genres that don’t hit quite as hard, even if they derive from the same DIY ethos. (It’s part of the reason many indie fans worship Pavement but far fewer have heard of Tullycraft.)
But the critical paradigm has also shifted since indie pop first emerged. Rockism has given way to poptimism, an ideology that praises mainstream and other accessible music as having an artistic value equal to rock’s. The idea of empowered cuteness has also expanded beyond the realm of twee, with the Canadian producer-songwriter-singer Grimes embracing a whimsical aesthetic as complementary, rather than antithetical, to fierceness and self-possession.
Today’s musical landscape is expansive compared to the analog one onto which the C86 tape arrived, and songs that are precious and quiet can pale in comparison to the innovations (and often, revolutions) unfurling in electronic music, experimental music, hip-hop, and punk. But balance is vital to music, and indie pop at its best is pure bliss. In a time when most art is growing bigger, louder, and sleeker, a handmade nugget of musical euphoria feels more special than ever.