Jessica Wurster

Department of Art History and Communication Studies

McGill University, Montréal

April 2002

A thesis submitted to the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the degree of Master of Arts in Communications.

© Jessica Wurster 2002


Indiepop was, and is, a musical genre that coalesced around UK punk and post-punk in the early 1980s. From punk, indiepop borrowed certain ideas about the politics of cultural production. What differentiated it from punk was its sound: a decidedly pop emphasis on short, melodic song structures and seemingly simple instrumentation. In embracing independent production, indiepop staked a claim for subculture authenticity over the inauthentic mass products of the mainstream music industry. Yet the defining musical elements were characteristic of the historically feminine pop idiom. The result was indiepop, where masculine authenticity and feminine pop forms melded together and created a music scene that fit uneasily within traditional definitions of subculture. This thesis explores the means by which participants in indiepop, through a concerted project to write their version of musical history, made sense of their particular scene and its place within the larger sphere of (masculine) rock culture.


L’indiepop était, et il l’est encore, un genre musical qui s’est fusionné autour du punk britannique et le post-punk des années 80s. L’indiepop a emprunté de punk certains idées politiques, et ceux de la production culturelle. Ce qui l’a différencié de punk était son son musical: une accentuation résolue sur les structures de chanson courtes et melodiques, ainsi qui l’instrumentation d’une apparence simple. En adoptant la production indépendante, l’indiepop a jalonné une concession pour l’authenticité de la contre-culture sur l’inauthenticité des produits de masse de l’industrie musicale de courrant principale. Cependant, les éléments musicaux qui l’ont définie étaient typiques de l’historique locution féminine du pop. Le résultat était l’indiepop, dans lequel l’authenticité masculine et les formes féminines du pop se sont fondues et ont crées une scène musicale qui ne s’est pas bien accordé avec les traditionnelles définitions de contre-culture. Cette thèse explore les moyens avec lesquelles les participants d’indiepop agissent en concert et écrivent leur propre version de l’histoire musicale, en faisant le sens de leur scène particulière et sa place dans la sphère plus large de la culture (masculine) du rock.


Solitary a task as the writing of this thesis has been, the project could not have been completed without the assistance of many people: Professors Will Straw and Sheryl Hamilton were endlessly patient and unfailingly helpful in directing my work.

Steve Burt, Penny Gronbeck, Steve Guy, Shaw Hubbard, and Amit Pinchevski were sharp-eyed editors and good friends throughout the long and sometimes painful process of thesis completion. I owe Leslie Wu an extra debt of gratitude for her comments on several chapters at an particularly crucial stage. Special thanks to my friend and housemate Aleksandra Tomic who over the last two years has shown near boundless tolerance for talk about music and unwittingly listened to more “whiny” indiepop than she ever believed possible.

To my parents, Diane Lesnick and Tom Wurster, I am tremendously grateful for encouraging me in my pursuit of still more schooling.

Finally, this project would not have been possible without the hundreds of people who participate in the indiepop mailing list — over the last seven years, they have inspired me to think seriously about the politics of alternative culture and, best of all, helped me discover lots of fantastic music.


While feminists may have rejected rock as ‘masculinist,’ much feminist writing on music still accepts the terms of this rock ideology: like girls who invest in ‘subcultural capital,’ feminist critics are not immune to the desire for the feelings of cultural distinction which come from being ‘culturally one of the boys.’ There are good reasons for this: pop music criticism is still something of a ‘boyzone’ and more structured by ‘hipness’ than most academic fields. For women working in the field, producing feminist work may be hard enough, without having the added burden of being seen to take ‘girly music’ seriously.

(Hollows 174-5)1


So why should a feminist take pop music seriously? Feminist scholars of popular culture have long understood that pop has historically been marked (and dismissed) as a feminine genre lacking the “authenticity” of expression found in rock music. As Joanne Hollows points out, this musical form is not widely explored within the larger context of popular music studies. Although increasing numbers of scholars have turned their attention to issues of women in popular music, there is still much work to be done on both historic and contemporary pop music. Hollows further explains that in this work, “there has been little attempt by feminists to challenge the hierarchies that equated ‘feminine’ pop with ‘bad’ music” (175). When studied, pop is generally posited as “love songs and ‘teenybop,'” in other words, feminine forms for a female audience (Hollows 175). This understanding of pop limits the genre’s boundaries to unsophisticated music made by international celebrities. The teenage girls who are assumed to constitute this audience are painted as equally unsophisticated listeners who remain ignorant of the broader dimensions of musical culture. A growing body of literature on female fandom “challenges the idea that the teenybop fan sits alone in her bedroom passively absorbing the ideology of romance” (Hollows 180).

These reexaminations of the female fan are found particularly within cultural studies (Ehrenreich et al. , Garratt). Such works question the cultural assumptions that link “girly” music with quiescent consumption. Yet within this research there remains the lingering notion that pop acts themselves are largely the passive products of music industry machinations. These studies define pop primarily as a mass cultural product controlled by male producers and other Svengali figures charged with creating new groups. Now it is the Swedish production company responsible for dozens of teen pop hits from the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears; in the early 1960s, the prominent girl group sound was credited to the production skills of Phil Spector, Motown’s Holland-Dozier-Holland team, and the hit factory centered around New York City’s Brill Building.2 The view that these men were entirely responsible for the sound of their protégés has been questioned by only a few pop music researchers. Both Charlotte Greig and Mary E. Rohlfing have written on the role of girl group singers in the 1960s and women’s contributions to pop as a musical form. Their work begins to redress the received wisdom about women’s roles in the music industry. Still fewer scholars have looked at women who choose to create their own pop music, either within or outside the structures of the major label system.

In this paper, I want to “take ‘girly’ music seriously” by looking at indiepop. Indiepop was, and is, a musical genre that coalesced around UK punk and post-punk in the early 1980s. From punk, indiepop borrowed certain ideas about the politics of cultural production. Most notably indiepop adopted and adapted the notion that music should be made by and for its intended audience, independent of the structures of corporate-owned major labels. With this ideological stance came attendant claims to a kind of masculine cultural “authenticity.” In embracing independent production, indiepop staked a claim for subculture authenticity over the inauthentic mass cultural products of the mainstream music industry. What differentiated it from punk was its sound: a decidedly pop emphasis on melodic song structures and seemingly simple instrumentation. While indiepop will be more fully defined later, I take now, as one of the genre’s defining characteristics, its use of the historically feminine pop idiom. For indiepop performers, the turn to pop included melody, accessibility, song construction, intimacy and the absence of pretentious virtuosity and masculine aggression. This emphasis on femininity marked the genre as “girly” even as it incorporated elements of masculine authenticity. The prominence of women as musicians and participants in the scene surrounding the production of indiepop music further established the music as literally “girly.” Indiepop is “girly” too in the ways in which both men and women play with musical and emotional conventions of femininity. It is this interplay between authenticity and femininity that I wish to explore.

Why particularly would a feminist be interested in a sub-genre as marginal as British indiepop in the 1980s? Why is it still necessary to undertake a project reclaiming women’s roles in music? While indiepop may be perceived as ephemeral and marginal, it is no less so than the rave, indie rock and riot grrl music scenes that have received critical and academic attention in recent years.3 As Angela McRobbie has explained, larger social changes that have occurred since she first began examining issues of gender and subculture in the mid-1970s have made it necessary to examine smaller social phenomena for their cultural significance:

Now that class no longer underwrites the critical project of cultural analysis, and with ideology also recognized as too monolithic a category, too focused round the explanation of social passivity and conformity to be usefully alert to the more micrological level of dispute and contestation, space becomes available to scale down the field of study and to relinquish the claim on unity or totality in preference for pursuing what Laclau . . . has called ‘the dignity of the specific.’” (McRobbie, “Shut Up” 409-10)

Studies of small-scale subcultural movements can shed light on processes of contestation and meaning making within certain groups. In music studies, an examination of these processes may prove useful for a range of other subcultures. David Hesmondhalgh has devoted much of his academic career to the study of the institutional practices of independent music labels; his article “Indie: The Institutional Politics and Aesthetics of a Popular Music Genre” focuses in part on Creation Records, one of the largest labels associated with indiepop. To date, this is the only academic study that addresses indiepop and its attendant scene even peripherally. For the purposes of my study, his article on indie and another on post-punk have been very useful in thinking about issues of gender and authenticity in indiepop.

It might also seem redundant to investigate women’s participation in musical subcultures in a post-feminist era. But despite previous feminist interventions in cultural practices and scholarship around popular music, academics and fans alike perceive popular music as almost exclusively the domain of male rock’n’rollers. Even women explicitly vested in challenging sexist practices and actively creating space for themselves within popular music cultures continue to experience the closed doors of the rock boys’ clubhouse. The continued sexism in popular music scenes was highlighted in a recent discussion on the TypicalGirls mailing list. This email list is devoted to women in punk and post-punk in the late 1970s and 1980s. Both male and female participants are interested in recovering women’s roles in underground music of the period. Many members of the list were associated with the riot grrl movement of the early 90s that sought to redress the gender disparities in punk rock scenes and give young women a space in which to express themselves about highly personal issues such as sexual abuse. Yet a recent thread on women’s experiences in record stores focused on the lack of credibility and low status accorded to female music fans. Tobi Vail, a former member of one of the highest profile riot grrl bands and current employee of a well-known independent label, recounted the disdain with which she was treated by male customers when she worked as a record store clerk. As an academic looking at the pop side of popular music, I have seen persistent aspersions cast over my work. Scholarship that examines the role of women within subcultures is too often dismissed as a project “done” when Angela McRobbie, as a member of the Birmingham School so influential in formulating subcultural theory, criticized the gender assumptions in the work of some of her colleagues.4 But as recent publications like Sarah Thornton’s Club Cultures indicate, there remains much room for considered analysis of the relationship between gender and subculture.

Even as popular and critical canons expand to incorporate pop music from the 1960s and early 1970s, these revisionist efforts largely exclude women making music at the same time. The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson enjoys critical status as one of the primary influences on the newly rediscovered “now sound”; the Byrds are reclassified to highlight the pop jangle of their early records rather than their later country-rock flavor. While these gestures appear to offer significant canonical revisions, they serve simultaneously to reinscribe a male-dominated rock narrative. When a female artist is granted new credibility, it is generally not for her pop contributions but rather in some other form that highlights her connection with more “authentic” musical genres. Dusty Springfield’s transformation from forgotten chanteuse to stylish icon of Swinging London may have begun when the Pet Shop Boys drew her out of retirement to record their “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” as a synth-pop classic. But her most celebrated achievement remains the album Dusty in Memphis, recorded in Tennessee where producers brought out the “blue-eyed soul” aspects of her vocal stylings. Overlooked are the album’s songs, classic pop penned by near-legendary songwriters Carole King, Burt Bacharach and Randy Newman, among others. Pop is the means by which Dusty Springfield came to fame, but in canonizing her, the rock establishment forgives those tendencies in favor of “soul” and credibility in male terms.

Similarly, the treatment of the newly emergent “now sound” retro-genre is fraught with tension over the status of pop. This tension was highlighted in a recent Vanity Fair piece entitled “The Rock Snob’s Dictionary, Volume 2” in which the musical tastes of “archivally oriented hipster fogies” were defined for the casual music fan. As explained in the introduction, the revisionist tendencies among “serious” fans and the rock critical establishment extend to “artists who embody the current Snob vogue for ‘now sounds,’ that half-laudatory, half-contemptuous label for mid-century-style cocktail pop built on breezy harmonies and Bacharachesque orchestration” (Daly, Kamp and Mack 280). Because fans of the “now sounds” genre attempt to bring pop into a serious critical canon, their “rectorial earnestness” is met with contempt by many within the same elite popular music circles (284). But even in this revisionist pop genre, women are strangely absent. While Burt Bacharach is a touchstone of the “now sound,” Dionne Warwick, for whom he wrote many of his best known songs, is not included in the scope of the revived interest in his career. Such gendered omissions in musical revisionism are all too common. It is for these reasons that I am interested in indiepop, a genre that actively sought to reclaim pop stars for precisely the pop qualities of their music and an area in which female pop performers were accorded particular status.

In documenting the history of this “girly music,” I wish to explore the means by which participants in indiepop, through a concerted project to write their version of musical history, made sense of their particular scene and its place within the larger sphere of masculine rock culture. The result is a story woven from the dilemmas and tensions that characterize the making of any scene. As pop music scholar Will Straw describes, “A musical scene . . . is that cultural space in which a range of musical practices co-exist, interacting with each other within a wide variety of processes of differentiation, and according to widely varying trajectories of change and cross-fertilization.” Straw further ascribes the production of meaning in any popular music scene to the links made between current musical activities and the musical canon from which these activities draw (373). In order to situate and make sense of the musical practices that make up the scene, I will examine indiepop’s relationship to earlier musical moments from its first appearance to the present. In order to do so, I approach indiepop through varied sites and from multiple angles.

1 The title of this thesis borrows from Hollows, as quoted here.
2 A popular manifestation of this male-dominated narrative can be found in the Broadway musical Smokey Joe’s Cafe, which featured the songs of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller with little consideration of the singers, or musicians who recorded these now-ubiquitous songs.
3 See Sarah Thornton’s Club Cultures on dance music, Fairchild on indie rock, and Kearney on riot grrl.
4 For her critique of subcultural theory, see especially, “Settling Accounts with Subcultures: A Feminist Analysis” and, with Jenny Garber, “Girls and Subcultures,” reprinted as the first two chapters of McRobbie’s Feminism and Youth Culture.


Indiepop is not well defined within the larger context of popular music studies. Nor is it familiar to the majority of music fans and critics. But this investigation of indiepop culture is not meant to reclaim the genre with a linear telling of a singular history. No such definitive text exists within indiepop circles; my work is not intended as such a document. By necessity, this account is selective. It draws from the junction of indiepop artifacts and their corresponding discourse. In a catalogue essay for an exhibition of zines and other printed matter relating to American underground music in the 1980s, music journalist Douglas Wolk described the circulation of indie rock through ephemeral materials, “letters and mixed tapes sent to friends, records mail-ordered from the Ajax or K catalogue, college radio shows, mom-and-pop record stores, show posters, and a few billion photocopied zines, most of which sprouted for only an issue or a little more, then disappeared” (“100,000 Fireflies,” 6). Indiepop was disseminated by much the same means. In situating this phenomenon, I make use of the most accessible of these ephemera: records and CDs, mailing lists and websites, fan-produced zines and more general popular music periodicals.

The documentary materials surrounding indiepop function as paratexts, “liminal devices … that mediate the relations between text and reader”, music and listener (Macksey xi). As literary theorist Gérard Genette explains, such paratexts, whether contained within a book, such as the author’s name, a work’s title, preface, illustrations, or external to it (e.g., interviews, conversations, letters, diaries), “ensure the text’s presence in the world” (1). Taken together, indiepop’s paratexts produce a kind of vernacular scholarship in the documentation of important songs, bands and records; histories; antecedents; and genre divisions. This compiling and shifting of historical materials is the process through which participants in indiepop make sense out of the massive quantities of musical material in circulation in relation to their particular scene.

The physical artifacts of 1980s indiepop are the records released at the time, and the more recently reissued CDs that compile the singles and albums of bands largely lost to musical memory. The songs themselves are essential elements of an indiepop aesthetic; the lyrical content provides evidence of indiepop’s central themes and a song’s sound provides an indication of musical reference points. But the musical aspects of records and CDs are only part of the significance of any release. Paratextual sources like the liner notes of indiepop CD reissues contextualize the music’s relationship to the indiepop scene. Liner notes are often the only “official” histories of obscure bands. With these reissues, music once inaccessible due to the limited nature of its original release and the current collector market becomes more widely available. The liner notes supplement the often-minimal information on an original release with a wealth of previously unknown detail and provide context as to a band’s importance to current music scenes. Beyond a basic informational role, the reissuing of CDs serves a curatorial function. The re-release contributes to processes of (re)canonization through which the music and attendant information become enmeshed again in the wider context of genre definition and contestation within which the reissue circulates. When fans and small record labels decide to reissue an album, or to compile all of a band’s output onto CD for the first time, these decisions announce the significance of that musical moment. To fan and researcher alike, such gestures are vital in making sense of indiepop’s history.

Internet spaces provide another forum for the documentation of indiepop. Indiepop as a scene exists as much in the exchanges and links between the websites and email discussion lists run by fans, record labels, and bands as in any physical space. This space is created most actively on internet mailing lists. Among the lists devoted to the genre, the indiepop mailing list, formed in 1994, has the longest history in the relatively short life of the internet. Its full archives, publicly available and searchable, record the process of contestation that marked the growth and international dissemination of indiepop as a genre throughout the 1990s. Discussions on the list involve a continually shifting base of several hundred fan-participants who buy, sell, and trade music; run labels; organize shows; play in bands; host radio shows; and produce zines and websites. The archived exchanges between members are captured in the abbreviated and fragmented structure of email “threads.” No single email sent to the list provides a complete account of indiepop; however, when read as a series of linked discussions, the archives provide a space for the public memory and collective history of indiepop.

The partial accounts in the indiepop archives are supplemented by websites. Taken together, these internet sources furnish the documentation that provides a sense of historical depth to indiepop. Web sources include music databases, label and band-run sites, web zines, and sites created by fans. These sites often build upon the content of one another with links between, for example, a detailed discography on a fan site and information on a band’s the latest release from their label’s website. Increasingly, the web is home to sites devoted to bands long forgotten and out-of-print. Fans act as amateur historians as they attempt to document a band or scene’s active lifespan by digitally compiling press clippings, album reviews, discographies and tour dates. Indiepop has such a site in the TweeNet website, which catalogues information on bands, labels and people associated with indiepop from the mid-1980s to the present. The site’s beginnings coincide with those of the indiepop mailing list; like the list archive, it is a continually growing collection of histories and information. TweeNet’s content incorporates both database entries, original articles and elements taken from other sources, particularly web zines. Sites like TweeNet, which narrowly focus on collecting all available information on a single music genre, are likely the most authoritative resources on micro-music scenes. More general music databases are also useful sources for basic information about little known bands and near-canonical genre histories.

Web zines are another increasingly important source for historical perspectives on indiepop. As internet access became more and more widespread and distribution for small-scale periodicals more difficult, web zines increasingly supplanted print media. Like their print counterparts, web zines are produced by individuals or small groups. They provide a forum for music reviews and historical retrospectives, as well as more free-form ruminations on indiepop.

While the late 1990s saw traditional zines replaced almost entirely by web zines, older zines remain important sources of data and arguments about indiepop. Stephen Duncombe, author of the only book-length academic study of zines, explains the way that zines hold community networks together by presenting information on specific regional scenes and providing a forum for the working out of diverse ideas about particular cultural interests (56). In the mid to late 80s, self-published fanzines served these functions in the construction and dissemination of the indiepop scene. Operating much as the internet does in the contemporary indiepop, the mail-based distribution networks in which zines were embedded helped to establish indiepop in places far from its UK origins. This was particularly true in the US.

Zines too served as a forum for discussions of indiepop’s oppositional relationship to the music industry. Certain rants served as position statements for segments of the indiepop community, and became both rallying points and sources of contention among fans. While these zines were usually produced in micro-quantities, generally not more than a few hundred copies, their influence is found in later zines as well as internet sites. Seminal titles like Are You Scared To Get Happy? and Juniper Beri-Beri are often referenced by name. The writers for Tangents, a print zine that moved on-line in the late 1990s, frequently mention these zines as inspiration for their work; Incite! ’s Tim Alborn does too.5 Borrowing from the aesthetic style of earlier zines is another way zine makers paid homage to their predecessors. Adventure Playground liberally appropriated stylistic elements from the zines and other print ephemera put out by the Sarah Records label and evinces a similar approach to subject matter as well.6 Although indiepop zines from the 1980s left an indelible mark on the scene, they remain little explored outside the subculture. Given the ephemeral nature of the zines, there are few repositories of such materials and the earlier UK zines are extremely difficult to come by. At this writing and to the best of my knowledge, no academic collections — not even Britain’s National Music Library — maintain adequate holdings of indiepop zines and related print documents. As a result, I rely primarily on secondary accounts of these early zines, as well as zines from my collection and those of other fans dating from the late 80s to the mid-90s.

More traditional music magazines situate indiepop within the broader context of other genres in the way they catalogue the diverse sounds that characterize such alternative musics (Straw 381). The British weekly paper the New Musical Express, commonly known as the NME, played a crucial role in shaping indiepop. Along with the various other weekly music papers in existence over the last two decades, the NME provided information on popular music to the general reader, highlighting new acts and printing chart data for both independent and major labels releases. These papers were the predominant source of music news for most of the UK other than state-run BBC radio. The US has no similar weekly periodicals aimed at music fans. For much of the 80s, independent music coverage was ghetto-ized and relegated to the underground press. This changed somewhat with the early-90s popularization of “alternative”; mainstream music publications then began featuring indie bands in occasional music reviews or a column devoted to such releases. Smaller music magazines that developed in the wake of the underground and alternative scenes in the US in the 80s covered indie bands in greater numbers and with more depth than their mainstream counterparts. As with zines, however, these popular periodicals are infrequently collected in libraries and access to them is limited. Many of the issues I referenced were those saved by myself or other fans who shared their collections with me.

The scattered and unorganized nature of the source material presents many points of entry into an examination of indiepop as a scene. Because indiepop exists in largely ignored little corners of musical history, traditional archival research would not reveal sufficient material for analysis, nor would a reliance solely on mainstream music publications. Instead, my approach mirrors the eclectic nature of the material itself. Since these ephemeral materials are obscure and not generally archived, this project draws heavily upon my experiences as an indiepop fan and collector. In working through a methodological approach to the study of this scene, I drew on personal experience and associations related to being an indiepop fan. My research is based on participant-observation as well the analysis of artifacts. Ten years of involvement with indiepop scenes as a fan — buying music and zines, attending shows and exchanging mix tapes — along with experience as a DJ at a US college radio station, gave me rich material to analyze. As a fan, I have not only the primary source materials from my personal collection, but also the familiarity to make the necessary judgments as to authority of these sources. This process involves assessing the credibility of people involved in indiepop. A thorough grounding in indiepop culture was particularly necessary in light of the internet’s importance as a repository of indiepop culture. Much has been written over the last few years about the difficulties in determining the veracity of material posted on the internet. Given the nature of indiepop as an underground scene lacking coherent documentation and riven with internal dissent about the status of the genre, all internet sources are highly subjective. A reliance on web sources, from general music databases to indiepop band sites, requires a keen sense of the scene in order to evaluate the material presented therein.

Simon Frith describes this claim to authority on the part of the fan as “popular cultural capital” ( Performing Rites 9). How better, in the absence of authoritative sources, to assess whether a source “knows his stuff” (e.g., possesses “popular cultural capital”) than from the personal knowledge and experience of a fan? As pop fan, zine author and popular culture scholar Stephen Burt indicates, fans are central to any subcultural study. “Explanations of subcultures should listen to — and perhaps trust — fans: from their reactions, outsiders can learn how to talk about what their music does, how the fans describe their reactions and why” (Amateurs 162). I hope that my position as an indiepop fan brings such an understanding to this project.

Though I will sometimes have to choose between conflicting accounts, I am not concerned here with presenting one authoritative story of indiepop; instead I mean to examine the various stories musicians, fans and participants have told in recordings and their associated paratexts, in zines and magazines, and on mailing lists and websites. This investigation should open up the complexities in interpreting historical narratives of popular music and gender. Such micro-genre histories, as products of the discourse around the scene itself, are an integral part of any musical community. The histories constructed by indiepop fans structure meaning within the scene through narrative strategies of revelation, concealment, and exclusion. The overt conflicts and subtle contradictions between these accounts are part of the discursive processes through which participants give coherence to a variety of generic practices both within indiepop and in relation to other music scenes.

In examining indiepop histories for specifically gendered meanings, my feminist analysis both converges with, and departs from, the feminist concerns indigenous to indiepop. In the process of creating its own canon, indiepop used some of the same strategies as those commonly used in second wave feminist projects to reclaim the cultural contributions of women previously “lost” to history. Indiepop bands and fans actively culled a canon for the genre from earlier musical moments, particularly 60s girl groups and post-punk, in which women played a significant role. Both male and female fans also highlight the significance of feminine pop tropes in indiepop. These processes of canonical revision and reevaluation of gender status are significant political gestures because they are those “through which particular social differences . . . are articulated within the building of audiences around particular coalitions of musical form” (Straw 384).

Crucial to an understanding of indiepop is an analysis of the ways in which indiepop draws upon both the feminine and the feminist as it tells its own story through these histories. Music scholar Mavis Bayton suggests that feminists are less interested in popular music than other forms of pop culture because rock is seen as a masculine, “serious” form and pop is perceived as “‘feminine’ frivolity” (51-2). Indiepop adopted elements of masculine rock authenticity and feminine pop forms. This examination of the contradictions in the development of indiepop, albeit a small segment of British independent music, raises larger questions around the making of meanings, and particularly gendered meanings, in popular music.

5 A search of the Tangents site <http://www.tangents.co.uk> reveals many such references. See also the article from Incite! 12, reprinted in The Ascent of Western Civilization exhibition catalogue (14).
6 One issue of Steve Burt’s Adventure Playground is archived on the web, although the design loses something in the translation http://www.accommodatingly.com/zine/ap3/> (no longer available)



In order to make sense of the terms “indie” and “pop” as utilized in the British indiepop scene, one must first understand the context from which these genre descriptors emerged, as the very meanings of the words are unstable in music circles. In this chapter, I explore their histories and trace the use of the terms through several musical moments crucial to the development of indiepop: the well-documented British punk movement;7 post-punk, which sprang up fast on the heels of punk, and which has begun to receive critical and academic attention in recent years;8 and the lesser-known New Pop moment of 1981 and 1982, as well as the genre known simply as “indie” that also began to come together at that time.

First, what is pop? Clearly derived from the word popular, pop music was a generic term for all popular music from the early days of Tin Pan Alley to the mid-1960s. Pop was not identified with a particular sound until rock was positioned in opposition to it. Once this dichotomy emerged, the meaning of pop became more diffuse. Is it a specific sound or aesthetic sensibility? Does pop’s meaning derive primarily from its roots in the popular? Does it signify a certain political sensibility?

The specific valences of the term “pop” differ markedly in usage on either side of the Atlantic. Music critic Elisabeth Vincentelli explains the ways in which rock and pop are distinguished in the US:

In the US, rock is absurdly masculinized; it embodies all the stereotypically male pursuits (cars, chicks, significance, beer, self-pity). Pop, on the other hand, is loaded with feminine connotations: it triggers visions of hordes of hysterical, barely nubile girls screaming at the Beatles/Duran Duran/New Kids on the Block. (67)

These gendered connotations are tied to the history of rock music in North America. In the 1960s, rock music acquired an identity distinct from that of chart pop. In the hippie and student movements of the period, culture, and especially a bohemian culture that embraced rock music, was seen as a significant site of political struggle. Sociologists Simon Frith and Howard Horne explain this shift as a move away from pop’s associations with escape:

Music still confirmed the desires of youth, but those desires were changing: music was needed, now, to symbolize and express the feeling of a new generation that it could embody real cultural and political change. Pop became rock and musicians redefined their practice. ‘Art’ rock — the musical background to the counter-culture — was not concerned to ‘reflect’ the ideas of a wider community, it was a source of missionary zeal about consumption, leisure, and style. (56)

The popular roots of pop music were subsumed into counter-cultural forms of expression. Rock ideology drew from the folk music tradition of protest songs, seen by the counter-culture as older and more “authentic” expressions of political sentiment than the broad cultural appeals of mass-marketed pop songs. This reasoning owed much to the critique of the culture industry set forth by Adorno and Horkheimer. As the study of popular music entered the academy, “male leftists, with the radical political commitments of the ‘1968 generation,’ largely [drove] the shape of the early waves of scholarship, ‘rockist,’ ‘masculinist’ and anti-establishment as it [was]” (Middleton 213). As such, pop was found lacking as a medium for political expression because of its commodity status. Rock instead harnessed Romantic notions of artistic individuality to achieve its “high” culture aims at a remove from the commercialism of mass culture (Frith and Horne 56).

Adherence to these rock myths is crucial even today for a performer to be accepted as “authentic” by the rock critical establishment. Again, Beach Boy Brian Wilson is a prime example. The Beach Boys are synonymous with early 1960s carefree California surf and sun, perfectly captured in the breezy harmonies of pop songs like “Good Vibrations” and “California Girls.” But with the turn to rock in the late 60s, pop groups like the Beach Boys were perceived as increasingly irrelevant and all but dismissed by the rock establishment.9 As with the band’s reclaimed role in the “now sounds” genre, the group had to be reconceptualized in rock terms in order to gain critical favor. To do so, the mantle of musical genius within the group has been placed solely upon Brian Wilson. His talent is inevitably framed within the terms of the tortured artist. This reframing was highlighted in the 1995 documentary Brian Wilson - I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times where the very title of the film painted the musician as visionary artist. It was taken from a Wilson-penned song off the Beach Boys’ critically lauded 1966 album Pet Sounds. In the liner notes to the 1990 CD reissue of the album, Wilson described the song’s message of alienation. “It’s about a guy who was crying out because he thought he was too advanced, and that he’d eventually have to leave people behind. All my friends thought I was crazy to do Pet Sounds.” This remark is telling given Wilson’s well-noted struggles with mental illness dating back to the mid-60s. When the song title is positioned in conjunction with Wilson’s name as it is in the name of the documentary on his life, Wilson is depicted as one removed from the realm of the everyday and with access to experiences beyond those of “normal” people. Only through this reclamation of Wilson’s mental illness as artistic genius are the Beach Boys’ pop songs granted significance within the rock canon.

Like the Beach Boys, the all-female trio Sleater-Kinney have been welcomed into a rock establishment in terms of a masculine authenticity that harkens back to the mythology of rock originating in the 60s. Long-time rock critic Greil Marcus is one of the band’s most ardent champions; with each new Sleater-Kinney release, he fills dozens of magazine and newspaper pages singing their praises. An article by Marcus, originally published in the New York Times, relates Sleater-Kinney’s politics to the political stances of 60s rock music over the more obvious punk and riot grrl movements with which the band have been associated since coming together in the early 1990s. Marcus sets up this discussion by quoting fellow music writer Stanley Booth, “In the 60s, we believed in a myth — that music had the power to change people’s lives. Today we believe in a myth — that music is just entertainment” (“Raising the Stakes” 322). Here Marcus repeats the dichotomy set up in the 60s, (rock) music as politics pitted against (pop) music for pleasure. Describing Sleater-Kinney’s appearance at the Fillmore Theater in San Francisco, a venue that is more associated with 60s West Coast rock than contemporary punk bands, Marcus compares guitarist and singer Corin Tucker to Grace Slick’s appearance on the same stage with Jefferson Airplane in 1966 (321). Although Marcus cites the band members’ admiration for the music and politics of 60s artists like Bob Dylan, their sound and their ideological stances are shaped more directly by the punk and indie rock movements that provided the immediate backdrop for their own origins. Sleater-Kinney’s playing is much more firmly rooted in the amateurist “Do It Yourself” (DIY) aesthetic encouraged by the indie, punk and riot grrl movements that were so prominent in the early 1990s in the Pacific Northwest than it is in the virtuosity and excess of a band like Jefferson Airplane. But for a critic like Marcus, such origins are less important than links to the all-encompassing significance of the primal 60s rock moment. Sleater-Kinney are important not as a result of their own generational and geographic context but because their roots can be traced to the critical origins of rock. Whether, like the Beach Boys, performers work in a feminine pop vein or, like Sleater-Kinney, are themselves female, popular musicians must be positioned to conform to masculine rock myths in order be legitimated and gain critical acceptance.

Frith and Horne indicate that the specialist knowledge needed to decipher this art rock ideology “was always constructed around a sense of difference from the ‘mass’ pop audience” (57-8). As rock’s audience saw itself as increasingly specialized, it became marked as a subculture. Sarah Thornton explains in the Subcultures Reader that since sociologists first turned their attention to subcultures in the late 1940s and 1950s, these cultures have been associated with certain traits: authenticity, deviance, resistance, and opposition (2-5). This opposition was always in relation to a commercially produced, inauthentic, homogeneous, conformist, and passive dominant culture (Hollows 163). Thornton, in her work on British dance music cultures, further maps these subcultural traits as those generally associated with “masculinity,” and the traits of the “mainstream” as those associated with “femininity” ( Club Cultures 115). In this way, pop came to be considered mainstream and rock considered underground and authentic, pop became associated with femininity and rock with masculinity.

In the US, this distinction is made explicit within the very structure of the popular music charts. The music industry journal Billboard has had separate charts for “Album-Oriented Rock” and various sub-genres of pop music since the late 1960s. In contrast, the British charts are referred to in blanket terms as “pop charts.” Even the “Top of the Pops” program which has aired on UK television for decades showcases both rock and pop music genres. In the UK, the word “pop” has retained more of its original sense: that of music that is popular. Although British music circles do regard pop music differently from that of rock, the term is still used generically to refer to a broad spectrum of popular music.

The members of synth-pop band the Pet Shop Boys, Chris Tennant and Neil Lowe, discuss these distinctions in an interview found in the liner notes to their B-sides collection Alternative. Lowe takes exception to the different ways in which Americans and the British perceive of pop music:

What really gets me is the way [Americans] talk about their music as if there was some intellectual content or the lyrics are great, or something, whereas English music is disparaged for being kind of simple... To Americans pop or rock music is not about enjoyment. English music is about excitement and enjoyment and the thrill of the whole thing. This is something the Americans point out as a weakness of Britain, that it’s new and exciting, that it doesn’t have longevity.

In the US, pop was, and is still, dismissed as escapist because it lacked the politically charged meanings of rock. As Lowe points out, for Britons, pop music centers on pleasure and enjoyment rather than the “serious” political dimensions of rock. But that does not mean that pop cannot be both serious and pleasurable.

Pop holds wider connotations of political possibility in the UK than in the US. The sense of escape in pop was harnessed for different purposes in Britain. In his history of British punk, Jon Savage describes pop as a means of escape from class structure, “the one place in English society where you can reinvent yourself, where the donning of a new jacket can appear a political act” (England’s Dreaming 12). Speaking of the contemporary British pop band Saint Etienne, Elisabeth Vincentelli argues that pop’s transformative possibilities lie in the way pop bands take “the world they evolve in” and “recreate it, improve it, paint blue or pink over the gray and brown” (69). Inherent in this sense of possibility is the accessibility of pop; anyone can harness its transformative potential. The politics of possibility that pop retained in a British context was integral to the way in which the indiepop scene defined itself.

7 My account of punk draws heavily on Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming, which is widely considered to be the most thorough, and thoroughly complicated, account of British punk. It is but one of hundreds of books and articles written on punk since 1976. See also Marcus, Lipstick Traces for a less densely detailed, more theoretical reading of punk.
8 In 2003, music writer Simon Reynolds plans to publish what will likely be the first book-length treatment of post-punk. See his “Independents” essay on the topic <http://members.aol.com/blissout/postpunk.htm> (no longer available). He indicates that over the last year or two, post-punk has been documented on CDs that compile and reissue tracks from relevant bands and which are released on a seemingly monthly basis.
9 See David Leaf’s liner notes to the joint cod reissue of the Beach Boys albums Smiley Smile and Wild Honey (featuring “Good Vibrations”) for a detailed account of the rock counter-culture response to the band’s pop themes of pleasure and escape.


Is indie a sound? Or is it a politic? This debate rages on in independent music scenes as it has since the early years of punk and post-punk. The term “indie” is derived from “independent” and developed as a reference to the conditions in which music was produced in late 1970s punk. Rather than being made under the auspices of a major label, indie music was produced by small labels that operated outside the multinational music industry’s corporate structures of production and distribution. Although independent labels had existed for decades, the origins of indie lie in punk’s politicization of this independent production. A decade earlier, musicians rejected pop because they perceived the form’s slick commercial aesthetic and banal themes as inappropriate for the expression of a new cultural politics. George McKay, in his book on cultures of resistance in Britain, connects punk with the earlier 1960s hippie project of social change. “One of the things hippy [sic] and punk had in common . . . was an oppositional impulse, an idealism or rhetoric of idealism. For both, politics and culture were, or could be, or should be, the same thing” (5). Punk’s expression of this fusion of culture and politics became a rejection not just of the commodification of musical expression, but also of major label modes of production (Hesmondhalgh, “Indie” 37).

With the first wave of punk records released by major labels, punk bands formed in cities and towns across the UK. After their experiences with early punk bands (the Sex Pistols’ brief but notorious tenure with EMI being the most visible), many major labels shied away from signing other punk acts.10 To get their music heard, people formed labels to release records by their own bands and those of their friends in the local scene. The rejection of corporate musical culture quickly took on dimensions beyond entrepreneurial pragmatism. The result was DIY, a philosophic marriage of aesthetics and politics. Accessibility, autonomy and decentralization were its main tenets (Savage, England’s Dreaming 417; Hesmondhalgh, “Post-Punk” 256). As institutions of mass culture, major labels existed at a remove from the local and the personal. To a devoted music fan like Mark Perry, member of punk band Alternative TV and founder of the early punk zine Sniffin’ Glue, a fan’s relationship to rock music before punk was always at a distance:

Rock music wasn’t crap before punk but I’d always had this feeling that there was a gap between us, the fans, and them, the bands, that you couldn’t cross. . . . People in bands seemed somehow special, in so much as I thought myself as ordinary. . . . I was so far from being in a band, or being even remotely involved in the music business, that I might as well as had desires of going to the moon. It wasn’t going to happen. [sic] (11)

Punk challenged this gulf between fan and rock celebrity. The DIY ethic propagated within punk rock communities encouraged fans to cross the traditional boundaries between performer and audience by actively participating in the creation of cultural products that reflected their interests rather than those of the corporate culture industries.

The benefits of working with an indie label were obvious to many punk bands who felt that major label profit motives were at odds with their musical goals, as laid out by Hesmondhalgh in his work on independent labels. “In choosing to work with a post-punk independent like Rough Trade rather than a major record company, musicians were effectively trading in short-term financial security for a sense of collaboration and co-operation, and the feeling of a shared musical culture” (“Post-Punk” 262). Indie labels like Rough Trade and Cherry Red had a tremendous impact on the articulation of indie as a political sensibility. Rough Trade in particular operated with socialist-inspired business practices that were at odds with those of major labels (“Indie” 36). Rather than conceiving of their bands as “romantically ‘autonomous’ of the commercial work of the company,” Rough Trade “was consciously forefronting the mutual interdependence of creative and ‘commercial’ work in the recording industry” (“Post-Punk” 262). Other indie labels that did not diverge so far from the music industry’s traditional business practices shared related ideological positions with an emphasis on the authenticity they saw as inherent in operating at a distance from major labels (“Indie” 37-8).

Independent labels rapidly developed enough of their own infrastructure to be self-sufficient in producing new bands (Cavanagh 54). With this explosion came music industry recognition. The meaning of indie was codified with the creation of the indie music charts in the UK. The chart was first published in the music industry trade journal Record Business in January of 1980 and put together by Iain McNay, head of the indie label Cherry Red. A record’s inclusion on this chart was a specific indication of its label’s often-politicized business practices. Compiler and statistician of the chart Barry Lazell explained:

[I]ndie is not a musical or artistic definition, though it has grown to be one in the music press of the 90s. To have indie status, a record - or the label on which it was released - had to be one which was independently distributed: produced, manufactured, marketed and put into the shops without recourse to the corporate framework of the major record companies which have traditionally controlled virtually all aspects of the music industry.

But as Lazell also suggests, indie took on other associations. Indie as politics and indie as sound became increasingly intertwined. With the rejection of the business practices of major labels came a similar rejection of their musical practices. Indie aesthetics were characterized by a style and a musical sound that flaunted a lack of virtuosity and professionalism verging on ineptitude. It was “an aesthetic based on mobilization and access . . . [which] encouraged the unskilled and untrained to take the means of musical production into their own hands” (Hesmondhalgh, “Indie” 37). These aspects of indie were rooted in the political nature of independent production and distribution, but eventually became somewhat disassociated from it. The aestheticization of indie was central to the redefinition of punk that occurred in the early 80s, as will be explored further later in this chapter.

10 See Savage’s England’s Dreaming for an in-depth account of the Sex Pistols’ battles with major labels.


While the Ramones were not independently released, they epitomized the indie DIY aesthetic with their simple, sloppy, lightning-fast three-chord songs. As is well noted in punk histories, the Ramones were probably the most influential New York City band in kick-starting punk in the UK. The band’s first album, released in April 1976, was widely available and their British tour in July was seen by many who went on to play significant roles in punk (Perry 14-5). The notes accompanying the Ramones’ Anthology CD relate a conversation between members of the Clash and Johnny Ramone before the American band’s first show in London. When the Clash expressed reservations about playing in public because they lacked virtuosic musical abilities, Johnny encouraged them by saying, “I hope you’re coming tonight. We’re lousy. We can’t play. If you wait until you can play, you’ll be too old to get up there. We stink, really. But it’s great” (8). The Ramones embraced their inability to play “real” music and showed others that they too could form a band, release records and go on tour.

British punk chronicler Jon Savage describes the power of the band’s music:

The Ramones learned on stage, fighting, slowly refining all the time. What had emerged by early 1975 was a reductio ad absurdum of the story of pop music so far: the Beatles, the Girl Groups, the Beach Boys, the Stooges, Herman’s Hermits, pulped down into songs so brief that they reflected the fragmented attention timespan of the first TV generation. There was no melody, only distortion and sheer, brutal speed. ( England’s Dreaming 90-1)

What to Savage sounded like the reduction of pop to noise was recognized by indiepop’s predecessors as the bare essence of the pop song re-energized through speed and simplicity, as will be explored further in the next chapter. At its most basic, how far removed is a minute-long punk romp from the classic three-minute pop song structure? Both share an emphasis on an economy of form and an unmistakably playful pleasure-driven sensibility.

In 1979, Tom Carson described the Ramones’ song “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” as an “unremitting frenzy of all-out exhilaration,” far removed from the nihilistic tendencies of other punk bands. The song was a punk-rock anthem of “pure, cataclysmic joy “(441-2). The pop influences evident in “Sheena” were very different from the angry rock aggression of other punk bands’ sound. But dozens of bands and labels saw in the Ramones’ version of musical history a story they wanted to continue in a resolutely pop vein. And the message of accessibility in their DIY aesthetic inspired countless teens to pick up guitars despite traditional barriers to access like not knowing how to play. This amateur “anyone can do it” attitude would be central to the development of the underground music that flourished in the Ramones’ wake.

Within a year or so of the Ramones’ first appearance in the UK, a few British punk bands were also attempting to inject similar elements of pop pleasure into what had quickly become the punk formula of masculine aggression. Their attempts to rethink punk as pleasure included actively critiquing the function of gender in popular music. Although many of these bands formed within a year or two of punk’s explosion in the UK in 1976, the new bands were referred to as post-punk. The primary point of distinction between post-punk and the punk of but a year earlier was its more developed political dimension (McKay 75). Bands like the Buzzcocks and those associated with the Rough Trade label were some of the earliest proponents of these ideas. They actively drew from their experiences at various art colleges rather than the punk stereotype of the ignorant working-class youth (Hesmondhalgh, “Indie” 39-40). Frith and Horne called punk the “ultimate art school music movement.” Punk “brought to a head fifteen years of questions about creativity in a mass medium, and tried to keep in play bohemian ideals of authenticity and Pop art ideals of artifice” (124). The move from DIY as necessity to DIY as ideology was spurred by these art school bands who claimed artistic autonomy as the rationale for maintaining control over their own music. As Hesmondhalgh points out, the bands that were associated with this art school turn took the punk questioning of rockist institutional practices as an opportunity to also play with the musical and lyrical tropes of the pop song (“Indie” 39). These bands were the progenitors of post-punk and New Pop; the roots of indiepop lie in the scenes that began to solidify around them.

The Buzzcocks were one of the first to link an amateur musical aesthetic with independent production values. The band are widely credited with starting the first “indie” punk label to release their own records: their “Spiral Scratch” EP was self-released in February 1977 on New Hormones label. The Buzzcocks’ efforts helped create the one of the earliest regional punk scenes in their hometown of Manchester. The band’s success proved that music could flourish outside London, the UK’s cultural center.

Savage credits this distance from the capital for the lessening of punk’s macho and elitist tendencies ( England’s Dreaming 298). Like the Ramones, the Buzzcocks’ version of punk had pop tendencies. The band even wrote love songs, a largely taboo subject in punk. Other bands in the movement generally rejected or outright attacked such seemingly trite lyrical conventions. The band Crass, for one, parodied romantic conceptions of love through songs and cultural intervention tactics (Hesmondhalgh, “Indie” 40). The Buzzcocks, on the other hand, worked within the traditional scope of the love song, including the word “love” in the title of three separate singles. “Love You More,” “Ever Fallen in Love,” and “You Say You Don’t Love Me” are but the most obvious tracks exploring personal relationships on the band’s compilation Singles Going Steady. Songs like “Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)?” did not dismiss love outright or mock its feminine associations, but instead dissected its “cruel vicissitudes” in a vein much like their pop predecessors in 60s girl groups (Paytress, n. pag). Although encased in layers of distortion, the lyrics Pete Shelley sang expressed a resigned male perspective on romantic rejection. In “Orgasm Addict,” the Buzzcocks explored sex but without the male bravado typical of rock songs by bands like the Rolling Stones (Frith and McRobbie 372). As Savage points out, the Buzzcocks song “finally admits the laughter that is too often banished from sex . . .“ ( England’s Dreaming 407). The Buzzcocks and other bands like the Vic Godard-fronted Subway Sect did not make music about the standard expressions of male power. Rather they played with weakness and introversion (Savage, England’s Dreaming 419). The interrogation to which these bands subjected traditional masculine rock norms would provide inspiration for several generations of male indie musicians.

These gestures were part of a larger exploration of gender politics in post-punk. Viv Albertine of the Slits described this turn as an attempt by both male and female musicians to rework rock’s masculinist tendencies:

became more macho as people’s Rock’n’Roll tendencies started to sneak back out again . . . but there were those who stuck with questioning. The whole thing was about looking at things with a fresh eye, and sexuality had to be looked at, there were so many problems in there that had to be solved. (qtd. in Savage, England’s Dreaming 418)

Bands worked with formal as well as lyrical experimentation around these themes. With its pop tendencies, post-punk was an ideal forum for the exploration of these issues because, “nowhere has pop been so active as in that area so firmly delineated as ‘private’ by the dominant culture — sexuality and gender” (Savage, “Gender and Pop” n. pag.). Borrowing from the feminist ethos of the personal as political, post-punk bands also interrogated gender in everyday life. As Greil Marcus explains in his inimitable style, for post-punk bands, “the most obvious facts of love or money, of habit or news, were neither obvious nor facts, but interested constructions, mysteries of credulity and power” ( Lipstick Traces 437). These bands took none of the commonplaces of popular music for granted; everything was open to question.

Despite post-punk interventions in the increasingly male-dominated punk scene, the masculinist tendencies remained in punk’s offshoots. While the accessibility of DIY had encouraged many women to get involved in the music, punk solidified into a “very blokeish” genre. Punk journalist Jon Savage shared the post-punk ethic of gender questioning. “I HATED the bully boy aspect of Punk which began to emerge in later 1977... Being a lad was not what Punk was initially about" (qtd. in Reynolds, “Independents”). But the postpunks’ best efforts to rethink gender relations existed along side a louder, faster and sometimes violent strand of punk. This punk development embraced a perceived working-class authenticity, “felt to embody the anger of the dispossessed and disempowered” (Hesmondhalgh, “Indie” 39). Its resulting forms, hardcore and Oi!, codified punk’s aggression and hyper-masculinity. The hardcore movement was visibly male dominated “not only in terms of band composition and lyrical content, but also in live performance where girls [were] often crowded out of the pit — in other words, literally marginalized — by the aggressive jostling of the boys” (Gottlieb and Wald 257). In Oi!, its most violent manifestation, the anger in this side of punk was put to reactionary ends and channeled into racism and fascism (“Indie” 40; Savage, England’s Dreaming 583). Even bands like Crass who preached an explicitly leftist and feminist political agenda were part of this larger punk turn toward masculine aggression. Despite their progressive politics, the sound of Crass’ music quickly took on a hyper-masculine and violent tone associated with less progressive elements of punk. “Setting aside their communistic lifestyle, there’s a contradiction between the peaceful, egalitarian state espoused by Crass and the apocalyptic, masculinist cultural practice that expresses and explores that desire” (McKay 99). This contradiction was in part a result of the band’s adherence to the most basic of punk sounds, with only lyrical content to signal their radical leftist aims (Hesmondhalgh, “Indie” 40). The progressive indie spirit of “accessibility, autonomy and decentralization” that was once so central to a punk ethic was no longer pivotal to the expanding movement.



Post -punk bands experimented with form and wrote a new gender consciousness into punk, but their audience was limited. The more popular loud, aggressive punk sound dominated the underground music scene and made it difficult for those bands with a different sound to draw attention to themselves. Bands who were frustrated by the difficulties of getting their message across to a wider audience than could be accomplished in the art milieu of post-punk were ready to change their tactics. “New Pop,” as spelled out on the pages of NME by journalists like Paul Morley, was the next step. 11 This new ethic was rooted in punk, but without the same degree of emphasis on indie “authenticity.” “New Pop kept from punk an emphasis on economy (the single), awareness of the business (the importance of control), DIY — but this time the goals were higher, the charts, aided by technology (synths, drum machines)” (Reynolds, “New Pop” 467-8).

This desire to break into the charts was decidedly at odds with the earliest manifestation of the indie production ethic by labels like Rough Trade.

Instead, New Pop artists looked to pop as a way to get their message out. >Simon Reynolds defined this moment in the pages of Monitor, a UK zine devoted to a kind of armchair theorizing about popular music:

New Pop involved a conscious and brave attempt to bridge the separation between ‘progressive’ pop and mass/chart pop — a divide which has existed since 1967 and is also, broadly, one between boys and girls, middle-class and working class leisure. . . . (“New Pop” 467)

Gender politics in music were being re-evaluated by working with pop, the feminized form of mass culture. Suddenly, punk bands actively claimed pop as their rightful heritage, reordering the rock canon in favor of pop songs that had previously been considered among the most debased. Bob Stanley, pop connoisseur and member of the dance-pop band St. Etienne, recalled “the New Pop boom of ‘81/’82 when Nick Heyward convincingly claimed that ‘Last Train to Clarksville’ is more important than the entire Doors back catalogue” (n. pag). The idea that a song recorded by a made-for-TV group like the Monkees and not even written by the band could be better than “real” rock musicians the Doors was outrageous. Since the Beatles first ushered in rock’s singer-songwriter era, a band that did not write their own material had no claim to that precious ideological commodity, authenticity. But New Pop bands were not interested in that sort of credibility. They were looking for a means of expression that was accessible not just in its production values but also in the familiarity of its sound.

The British group Weekend bridged New Pop and post-punk, moving away from the experimental atmospherics of their previous incarnation as Young Marble Giants in favor of an inviting jazz-inflected pop. Weekend’s only album was called La Varieté, described in the liner notes as “the French term for popular radio, everything that’s not heavy rock; music drawing on diversity and depth.” The anti-rock stance implicit in the title did not preclude the band from taking up pop with a purpose. Guitarist Simon Booth is quoted in the liner notes describing their aesthetic decision to make serious pop music:

It all comes back to popular music, which in the sixties used to fill every space —- music on the radio, music you showered to, anything. That’s what the album does, it caters for all that but in a way I don’t think is disposable —- there’s an emotional content there, which gives you that lasting quality. (n. pag.)

Weekend emphasized pop because of its possibilities for depth of emotional expressiveness, and as a background to everyday life. Like other proponents of a New Pop ethic, they believed that pop’s commonplace qualities gave it more power to reflect everyday emotional realities, without rock’s pretense or bombast.

Not everyone agreed that this pop move was the best means to rejuvenate a punk spirit or even that pop could be considered a part of the punk project at all. Some saw any return to pop as a return to the safety of mainstream music produced by major labels. Even before New Pop, the major punk bands had wrestled with their commodity status and punk ethics:

In 1978, the Sex Pistols had fragmented; Sid Vicious was under arrest for murder and on the way to death by rock cliché in the States; the Damned, the Jam, and the Clash were trying with varying success to bridge the gap between punk antagonism and pop sensibility — it looked like things were being made safe again, opposition was being channeled and recuperated, rebellion commodified.” (McKay 73)

Punk’s domination in the music press had turned it, only two years after its beginnings, into yet another musical product. The opposing stances toward pop reflect the contested cultural status of pop in a rock era. Frith and Horne characterize this turn as an outgrowth of the competing discourses with which punk bands were working. New Pop bands wanted to play with the commodity status of pop but remained embedded in the artistic discourses of creativity and authenticity (144). However successful in the short term, the New Pop project was marked by the incompatibility of these ideas.

Champions of New Pop like Reynolds saw it as an a way to extricate punk from stagnation through the transcendent possibilities of pop escapism, a rejection of the argument that pop is an inherently stagnant form because of its association with mass culture. New Pop bands appreciated the feminine aspects of pop as the genre’s best qualities; they used punk politics and pop aesthetics as a means of breaking down the gender barriers set up in the artificial pop/rock divide. “Faced with the specter of punk turning into what had been its original target - progressive rock - the only way out was pop: the investment in the word ‘pop’ against ‘rock’ was a renewal of faith in the possibility of breaking the boys/girls divide” (Reynolds 467). The New Pop moment was short, but its impact was strongly felt in other indie scenes.

11 See Morley’s Ask which compiles many of the interviews in which he first articulated this sensibility.


At the same time that New Pop bands were emphasizing a slicker pop sound that would land their message in the charts, there was another politically minded aesthetic choice being made among a segment of the indie community. DIY was increasingly as much about a series of aesthetic decisions as it was about a means of production. Like New Pop, it became a way of negotiating indie politics from a stylistic point of view. This sensibility was based on DIY, but was not necessarily related to the means of production. As described earlier, it was an amateur aesthetic that favored accessibility over technical proficiency.

DIY was not limited to music; cultural expression of all kinds was encouraged.12 Mark Perry put out the first issue of Sniffin’ Glue in the summer of 1976. By the time the zine’s fifth issue came out in November, there were dozens of other punk zines. “Most of the stuff was rubbish but that wasn’t the point. What was important was that they were doing it — having a go, getting involved. To me, it’s what the whole thing was about” (30). As Perry so well explains, standards of artistic quality that favored training and skill were irrelevant to the DIY project. In emphasizing simplicity and accessibility as central tenets, control, the third aspect of the indie ethic, was placed in the hands of the producers of culture who in this case were also its main consumers. If it was DIY, anyone should be able to do it, not just those fortunate enough to possess a background in music or art or business or any other professional domain related to the culture industries. Artistic merit rested in the mere fact of a project’s existence. And anyone who did it — released a record, published a zine, or organized a punk show — was a recognized participant in DIY culture.

When it came to music, the amateurish indie sound borrowed heavily from the Ramones’ lack of technical sophistication. This un-proficient sound was a shock tactic consciously designed in reaction to the slick production of mainstream music. As zine writer Chris Scott described, “A bit of incompetence can magically reawaken our senses, which have been dulled by a constant stream of blandness, blandness which is not inherent in any single piece of music, but a result of the thoroughly modern adequacy of the whole lot” (“Incompetence” n. pag.).

Indie bands with pop leanings saw the potential for this incompetence as an important, albeit unconventional, political contribution. Tim Vass, best known as a member of indiepop band the Razorcuts, describes indie politics of the early 80s scene. “We didn’t used to stand around the Living Room [a London club night organized by Creation Records founder Alan McGee] talking about politics. . . . In our youthful naivety, we thought that making good pop records was a political gesture” (qtd. in Cavanagh 117). Although now dismissive of the scene’s lack of sophistication, Vass aptly sums up the indie project of the day. Politics was rooted in pop, a way of challenging hierarchies in the music industry and having some fun in the process. However, the relationships of independent labels to their major label counterparts were complicated by changes to music industry practices. Indie status became increasingly difficult to determine when records on indie labels began to be distributed by the majors and major labels started providing seed money to new “psuedo-indies” (Hesmondhalgh, “Indie” 51). Given this confusion, it is not difficult to see why any popular music that exhibited an amateur aesthetic came to be perceived as indie, regardless of production context.

Far from the complications of the London music industry, an indie scene developed in Glasgow that spawned a number of important indiepop players, bands, and labels. Foremost among them was the Postcard label, founded by Alan Horne in 1979. The label “pioneered a new approach, recuperating the Do-It-Yourself spirit of ‘77 punk for an independent musical entrepreneurialism, defining the new, aggressive pop-oriented indie rock label” (“Rock of Scotland”, n. pag). While Postcard operated independent of major label production and distribution, that did not preclude Horne from aiming for the charts with his releases. Edwyn Collins and his band Orange Juice recorded for the label in part because of this refusal to adhere to an indie ideology that favored DIY >ethics over mainstream success. Collins criticized Rough Trade for their fiercely held indie beliefs, describing them as “ineffectual and lack[ing] the wherewithal to get records in the charts”. In contrast, he explained, “[T]hat was the whole Postcard manifesto — to get our sort of indie music in the charts“ (qtd. in Cavanagh 42). Like the bands associated with New Pop, Postcard bands aimed for the charts with a musical sound that combined the inexpensive and unsophisticated recording techniques characteristic of indie with the accessible pop sounds of mainstream groups. The label wore its mainstream influences quite literally on its sleeve, revising Motown’s slogan “the Sound of Young America” as the “Sound of Young Scotland” (Cavanagh 32). Orange Juice, as Postcard’s flagship band, were the perfect manifestation of these influences, mixing soul and R&B and classic pop elements with an underground sensibility.

The band’s first release was also the first for Postcard — the single “Falling and Laughing” came out in February 1980. “It was a landmark in modern music. We thought that we were doing something absolutely new, even though you can obviously spot the references if you have a bit of perception,” said Collins (qtd. in Thrills 22). In this and later songs, “Orange Juice fused Velvet Underground with Chic and projected an image of fey naiveté” (Reynolds, “Independents” n. pag). The band’s “fey” image was calculated from the start as a challenge to the punk orthodoxy that characterized the Glasgow scene; the group chose their name as a sugary contrast to punk’s aggressively lad-ish tendencies (Cavanagh 21). Orange Juice continued to play with tropes of stereotypical masculinity in the mocking and ironic tones of songs like “(I Guess I’m Just a Little) Too Sensitive” and “Consolation Prize.” The refrain of “Consolation Prize,” in particular, established the band’s sarcastic take on romantic relationships: “I’ll be your consolation prize / Although I know / I’ll never be man enough for you.” The sensitive and fey sensibility that was Orange Juice’s hallmark would become increasingly common in the indiepop scene.13

Fellow Glaswegian Alan McGee was inspired to start his own label by the blend of indie aesthetics and a desire for chart success in the endeavors of people like Horne. But unlike the Postcard label, McGee’s Creation Records was based in London, close to the major players in the music industry and where there was easy access to the British music press. Creation was one of the final bridges between post-punk and the 80s indie guitar pop era. David Cavanagh documented this history in a recent book devoted to the label, where he describes the Creation vision:

McGee imagined Creation as the premier indie for new guitar music, issuing only top-of-the-range pop-psychedelia in colorful, highly collectible, hand-folded sleeves. The bands would be art-conscious —in the way that the Television Personalities and the Times were art-conscious — and the records would be summery and melodic, but with a punk edge. (58)

As this description of the label’s goals suggests, Creation was more concerned with an indie aesthetic than the indie politics of labels like Rough Trade. According to Hesmondhalgh, “Creation was . . . a company built very much around a set of aesthetic concerns: in particular, a reverence for a certain ‘classic’ pop/rock canon . . .“ (“Indie” 36). That canon incorporated “a lineage of classic British bands, such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and the Jam” (Hesmondhalgh, “Indie” 46). The most explicit of these references was in the label’s name, inspired by an obscure British pop-pysch band active in the late 60s called The Creation.

For the bands involved with Creation, the point of entry into indie music circles was knowledge of the rock canon rather than the more open DIY ethic of accessibility. Post-punk and New Pop attempts to play with pop form were of little interest to this segment of the indie community. Instead, entry into alternative-rock culture became associated with “an activity of apprenticeship” where musical knowledge was shared among predominantly male fans (Straw 378). The exclusionary nature of this apprenticeship had an impact on the roles open to women in indie culture.

Hesmondhalgh postulates, "There was a period during which the work of Creation suggested a complicated mix of rockist nostalgia and post-punk experimentalism and a set of competing discourses about sexuality” (“Indie” 46). Hesmondhalgh cites late 80s and early 90s records by Primal Scream and My Bloody Valentine as prime examples; I would situate this moment much earlier in Creation’s history. Although only few Creation bands shared this emphasis, the jangly guitar pop sound prevalent in so many of the label’s early releases from Primal Scream, the Bodines, Biff Bang Pow! and the Loft, among others, played a major role in inspiring other bands with a decidedly feminine side.

The band on the Creation roster that represented the strongest incarnation of a feminine pop ethic were the Pastels. Their aesthetic sensibility had little to do with the 60s rock culture that Alan McGee and his label so valorized. They did, however, share social connections dating back to the Glasgow punk scene, which is how the band were signed to Creation. The band formed in 1982, but over the course of their long career became associated with a later indiepop sound. Inspired by Orange Juice, the Pastels played up an even more fey naiveté in their extremely amateur and limited musical vocabulary (Appelstein, “Pastels” 7; Cavanagh 41). “[I]f the Sex Pistols convinced everyone that rock bands didn’t have to know how to play, the Pastels’ shamblingly winsome singles convinced the Scots that pop songs with real appeal could be cobbled together using punk’s restricted toolbox” (“Rock of Scotland” n. pag.). Echoing the references of New Pop groups, Stephen Pastel (born Stephen McRobbie) described the band’s musical tastes as a mix of New York art rock, punk, and pop. “I think the Velvets are a lot more substantial than The Monkees. But then again I like The Ramones better than the Velvets and maybe The Ramones relate more closely to The Monkees than the Velvets” (qtd. in Aston, 11). This mixture of influences and their lack of technical skill combined to create a “lopsided little-boy-lost” pop sound was to inspire many of the bands central to indiepop in the mid-80s and beyond, as I will explore in the next chapter (Aston 11).

Several bands came together during the same period as the Pastels in different corners of the international indie music universe, all featuring the same amateurist aesthetic. Formed in Olympia, Washington in 1983, not long after the Pastels, Beat Happening shared with the Scottish band a pop sound that at times nearly fell apart from sheer incompetence. Beat Happening’s style was rudimentary at best. In keeping with the most basic DIY tenets, their instruments were guitars from thrift stores and yogurt containers for drums (Azerrad 462). There was no bass. Members of Beat Happening inspired a scene in Olympia that would resonate with bands across the US and the world.14

At even further remove from mainstream music centers, Australian pop band the Cannanes were also creating an amateurist brand of pop music in early 80s.

The Cannanes were one of several bands [including the Pastels] around the world who had independently adopted a musical approach like Beat Happening’s. Maybe it’s no coincidence that they all sounded similar — with severely limited technique, musical resemblances were inevitable — but the sensibility, the impulse behind the approach, was cause for serious bonding. (Azerrad 474)

Links between the bands were forged through the post with the exchange of fanzines and cassette tapes. Eventually, the Pastels, Beat Happening and the Cannanes would all release records on each other’s labels and tour in their respective countries, and members of the three bands maintain connections with their various regional scenes to this day.

Their songs borrowed from the varied musical movements in the wake of punk, forming sonic links between punk’s politicization of production, the New Pop emphasis on the pop song, and the stripped down simplicity of the indie aesthetic. Out of this mixture, the twee aesthetic that characterized mid-80s indiepop was forged and codified in the form of a compilation called C86.

12 For an account of the DIY links between zines and punk, see Duncombe 117-26.

13 All songs available on the Orange Juice compilation album, The Esteemed (The Very Best Of).
14 See the Beat Happening chapter in Azerrad (454-91) for more on the band’s influential role in US indie.


In May of 1986, the British weekly music paper NME, in conjunction with the Rough Trade label, released a mail-order cassette compilation called C86 that showcased the top bands of the year. Taking its name from the C-60 and C-90 designations of length on blank cassettes, the compilation’s title also referred to the “class of 86” in music. Many of these bands, the Pastels among them, shared a sound that was jangly and guitar-based, and influenced equally by the aesthetics of punk, New Pop, and indie.

The release of the C86 compilation is widely regarded as the moment indiepop coalesced as a distinct genre. The cassette is so associated with indiepop that, for many fans, the two are virtually synonymous. The NME’s advertisements for the cassette were partly responsible for this overlap. Ads for “NME C86: This Year’s Models” trumpeted, “With the independent music scene in its finest artistic fettle for eons, your caring NME collective have assembled a quintessential cast starring 22 of the year’s most crucial contenders on one single spool of utter splendour.” With no mention of a particular genre, “C86” became the name for this type of indie music (Cavanagh 171).

The All Music Guide includes an entry on C86 that highlights the canonical role played by the compilation within the larger indiepop genre:

Also dubbed "anorak pop" and "shambling" by the British press, the C-86 movement was itself short-lived, but it influenced hordes of upcoming bands on both sides of the Atlantic who absorbed the scene's key lessons of simplicity and honesty to stunning effect, resulting in music — given the universal label of twee pop — whose hallmarks included boy-girl harmonies, lovelorn lyrics, infectious melodies, and simple, unaffected performances. (“C-86”)

The “simplicity and honesty” of C86 bands drew from the indie sector’s amateurist approach to music making, represented best on the cassette by Stephen Pastel’s characteristically flat delivery on the Pastels’ song “Breaking Lines.” Other bands on the compilation included the girl-group inspired, female-fronted Shop Assistants, and the fast-paced, chiming guitar sounds of the Close Lobsters, Primal Scream and the Bodines (the latter two on Creation Records). These groups spelled out the formula for hundreds of C86-styled indie guitar bands in the UK and beyond.

The use of “C86” as a descriptive term for indiepop music has become so common that an explanation of its origins is included in the TweeNet website’s “Frequently Asked Questions” section for newcomers to the scene. According to indiepop mailing list co-founder Steve Thornton, the term has come to signify “jangly-strummy guitars, hyper-melodic songs, and slightly-out-tune vocals, emphasizing all the classic points of the now-familiar indiepop style.” However, those who were involved in the indie scene when the C86 cassette was released make a distinction between what the C86 designation referred to at the time and what it has come to mean within indiepop circles. In a post to the Indiepop mailing list, Andy Dean reflected on the qualified nature of the C86 classification:

I . . . took . . . C86 to apply to the indiepop elements of the tape and have selectively ignored the other tracks. To me C86 was things like the Shop Assistants, Mighty Mighty, Flatmates, (early) Primal Scream, Talulah Gosh, 53rd and 3rd Records, stuff like that (all very 60s influenced thinking about it). So, only about a third of the C86 tape was (what I call) C86 bands, curious.

In his definition of C86, Steve Thornton too explained that the term refers to more than just the bands on the cassette:

When you see “C-86” as a reference point [on TweeNet and in indiepop list posts], that's what they're referring to - a particular style of . . . British indiepop that encompasses lots of bands that weren't on C-86 as well, like Talulah Gosh and so on.”

But Thornton was also careful to distinguish the “more revved up and harmonious and slightly-out-of-tune“ C86 sound from that of the “sad and quiet and slightly-out-of-tune” British indiepop from later in the decade (“C-86”). These measured explications are necessary to ensure the “correct” understanding of C86’s place within the indiepop canon.

An indiepop list member who posted under the pseudonym “the duke of harringay” emphasized another use of the C86 moniker. In the British music press it was frequently a negative description of indiepop bands:

[T]he C86 term came to be applied to all the indiepop groups of the era, and the term got used to death for several years sometimes as a disparaging description of 'janglepop' or 'shambling' 'anorak' types. Usually in fact the sense of criticism was fair enough, but a lot of groups got tainted unfairly by the concept... One good thing is that generally it was non-rock, and it was always the rock journalists who criticised loudest, so fair do.

The duke’s [sic] account of the media’s treatment of the C86 phenomenon accentuates the warranted nature of this criticism but also defends the bands against those writers with an overly “rockist” bent who failed to appreciate the oppositional nature of the indie reclamation of pop.

With this negative use, the term C86 became something of an embarrassment for many of the associated bands. Cavanagh explains the derisory connotations that accumulated around the word in the music papers:

Instantly, the moniker had a sneering undertone: a helter-skelter, jangly racket, performed by four or more pale boys with hurt feelings. By July when [indie concert organizers Cerne] Canning and [Simon] Esplen promoted the cassette with a week of gigs at the ICA, C86 — and C86 — were already being damned from all sides” (Cavanagh 171).

The reviews for “Rock Week at the ICA” in the NME were erratic at best. Each day of the 5-night showcase at London’s Institute for Contemporary Arts was assessed by a different music writer who brought their particular aesthetic biases to the show. Describing the Shop Assistants’ performance on Monday, the first night of the series, David Quantick said, “Back and forth the chord shapes go, little sketches of tunes, mumbling along with them. Why they waste their time with these songs is beyond me.” Other bands fared better at the hands of more sympathetic reviewers, but one particular criticism ran throughout discussions of the C86 scene — it was overwhelming white, in sound and in audience.

Cavanagh’s characterization of indiepop band members as “pale boys” was not without some truth. The majority of participants in the indie scene were white. And with the C86 sound, indie fans turned their backs on any influences from musical genres historically associated with blacks like soul and R&B. Simon Reynolds saw indie music as “perhaps unconsciously . . . in opposition to . . . chart trends [and] almost entirely in revolt against black music” (“What’s Missing” n. pag.). This turn came as a shock to older post-punk musicians who had strived to incorporate a range of sounds from the pop charts and beyond into their music. The rejection of any trace of soul from the new indie sound was particularly felt by one of the C86 scene’s primary inspirations:

Ex-members of Orange Juice, hearing their six-year old music played back at them through a filter of daintiness were horror-stricken. They regarded C86 as a gross misrepresentation of their band. Here was a generation of musicians content to revisit the romantic themes of Edwyn Collins’ songs, yet completely ignore the influences of soul, disco and black R&B that had been indigenous to Orange Juice’s work. (Cavanagh 171)

The members of Orange Juice were quick to assess the “white-washing” of indie music relative to their more heterogeneous sonic influences. While it was not true of every band associated with the scene, a majority borrowed stylistically from their direct antecedents in punk and earlier indie bands. The band on the C86 compilation with the most obvious pre-punk influences was a Creation Records act. In keeping with the label’s pronounced interest in late 60s pop-psychedelia, Primal Scream’s “Velocity Girl” track featured a jangly guitar sound indebted more to the early pop work of the Byrds than R&B-tinged rock and roll.

The lack of an audible “black” sound in indiepop was part of the indie disavowal of mainstream music industry business practices. In retreating from the corporate music industry ethos, indiepop fans also distanced themselves from the mainstream sounds produced under such conditions. Jeff Barrett, a press officer for Creation Records at the time of C86’s release and founder of the Head label whose band the Servants were on the tape, appreciated the indiepop sound, but felt that it paled in significance in light of burgeoning genres like rap and hip hop:

“Suddenly there were all these groups. . . . It was good — but it was also kind of sad, because everything was ‘sha-la-la’ and flowers. I thought it was quite dreadful that a lot of crap was being heralded as the cutting edge of music. I mean, Public Enemy versus the Pastels — come on!” (Cavanagh 172)

Public Enemy’s songs were overtly political, addressing the conditions of black Americans in the inner city. With the explicit references to Black Power slogans, as in the album title It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the group drew from the history of 1960s protest movements, in a similar vein to the politicized gestures of the rock tradition. The Pastels, in contrast, were pop, and shambolic, fey pop at that. How could music with such “girly” overtones carry the same sort of political message as Public Enemy? This question is one central to the gender politics of indiepop.

By the mid-80s, dance music and rap, genres traditionally associated with African Americans, dominated the charts. The perception of indie and C86 as anti-hip hop was part of the larger history of the formation of counter-cultural and subcultural musical forms in opposition to the mainstream music industry. As Straw explains, other groups took up chart sounds as a response to the whiteness of this same bohemian rock culture:

The particular condition of alternative rock music culture . . . has been shaped in part by the way in which coalitions of black teenagers, young girls listening to Top 40 radio, and urban club-goers have coalesced around a dance music mainstream and its margins, and thus heightened the insularity of white, bohemian musical culture. (384-5)

C86 set themselves apart from mainstream chart sounds in much the same way. The result was constant criticism of the genre’s whiteness. “As with so many oppositional genres in popular music . . . indie was contradictory: its counter-hegemonic aims could only be maintained, it seems, by erecting exclusionary barriers around the culture” (Hesmondhalgh, “Indie” 38).

For indiepop, these “exclusionary barriers” took shape through conscious processes of recanonization. Hesmondhalgh classifies these revisions of the rock canon as a dismissal of the black musical traditions of R&B and reggae that influenced early 80s post-punk. Instead, indie bands attempted to construct a canon of “white, underground rock references” (“Indie” 38).

Music journalists as well as academics like Hesmondhalgh posit a racial analysis of indie’s turn to “‘jangly’ guitars, and emphasis on clever and/or sensitive lyrics inherited from the singer/songwriter tradition in rock and pop, and minimal focus on rhythm track“ as a move away from the mainstream and black sounds (Hesmondhalgh, “Indie” 38). While these accounts are not without merit, I see in this process an admittedly partial, but very significant gesture of canonical revision, one where black influences in pop music are not rejected per se but rather where female and feminine ones are emphasized. In embracing a feminine pop aesthetic and actively drawing from the work of earlier female performers, the indiepop scene rejected the rock myths of white bohemian culture. In doing so, there was an inadvertent rejection of the tropes of black masculinity (authenticity of expression, unbridled sexuality, etc.) upon which so many of these rock myths were based.

Race and gender are so intertwined in the history of popular music that they are difficult to separate. The emphasis in indiepop on the gendered aspects of pop left other equally critical issues around race unexplored. What this absence meant for indie music and for larger rock cultures is open to question. Here, however, I am concerned primarily with the explicit critique of gender in indiepop. I leave an in-depth exploration of race in independent music for another study.



Cavanagh’s “four or more pale boys with hurt feelings,” quoted earlier, conveys more than just the whiteness of the indie scene. Implied in this statement is a sarcastic attack on the distinctly unmacho current that ran through much C86 music. As suggested in the earlier discussion of the Pastels, many of these bands wrote songs that emphasized a willfully naive and delicate emotional sensitivity. This sensibility was self-consciously contrary to rockist machismo, so much so that bands were often defensive in their response to criticism from the music press. “Twee” was the term most often used to describe this strand of mid-80s indiepop. It was often used derogatorily by the same writers who criticized the genre’s whiteness. In response, twee became a rallying cry for fans of the genre. Even now, the primary web site devoted to indiepop is called TweeNet. As explained on the site, the word’s dictionary definition is "‘affectedly or inappropriately dainty or quaint’" and its use by indiepop fans is intended as ironic (Hahndorf).

As indicated in Steve Thornton’s explanation of indiepop in the Introduction to the TweeNet website, “twee” was but one of many feminizing insults used to describe indiepop fans:

They call it "wimpy" and "twee", but Pop Kids everywhere know that the true spirit of Punk Rock lives on not in the mass-marketed "alternative" scene, or the sub-metal caterwauling of testosterone-poisoned grunge-rockers, but in the simple and pure efforts of kids banging out sweet delicious songs on cheap guitars. (“What Is TweeNet?”)

With this usage, indiepop participants explicitly acknowledged the feminine characteristics associated with the pop music they created and proudly claim these traits as the most positive aspect of their particular scene.

Contemporary accounts by indiepop fans and sympathetic journalists continue to emphasize this feminine quality. Ian Rickert, who runs the Bumblebear label in Brooklyn, New York, defended the use of feminine terms to describe indiepop in a 2000 post to the indiepop mailing list:

I personally see "girly" (in terms of music) to just be a (VERY positive) lack of testosterone. In the case of "weak", I don't think it applies so much to the lyrics or technical skill or physical constitution of the band, but rather to the jangly/soft/sometimes...insecure way things are handled—and not feeling the constant need to "rock out", or worse yet "rock out with your cock out."

This brief statement was a complex articulation of indiepop’s defining aesthetic as negotiated over the previous two decades of musical history in the wake of punk. For those in the indiepop scene, terms like “girly” and “weak” do not retain the negative connotations they might in a more “rock” context. In the tradition of “twee,” Rickert used these words to signal positive feminine traits in indiepop music. This fan’s preference for “soft” indiepop over the overt “testosterone” in most rock music expressed the conscious play with masculine and feminine qualities that became codified as the defining aspect of the genre with the C86 compilation.

A newspaper article on current San Francisco indiepop band the Fairways described the continued antagonism that indiepop bands encounter in relation to more rock-based genres:

[B]ands like the Fairways can make some people nearly furious. The macho rock establishment often seems weirdly threatened by what boy critics sometimes call "wimp rock"; witness the vitriol heaped on the pathbreaking twee label Sarah Records, one of the Fairways' greatest influences. (Goldberg)

The persistence of negative critical responses to pop bands like the Fairways is the thread that connects twenty-first century indiepop with the music released by labels like Sarah in the late 1980s. Throughout the genre’s history, in both Britain and the US, indiepop has been subject to hostile criticism because of the use of historically feminine characteristics. This femininity was expressed through prominent melodic structures in songs about love and romance coupled with an intentionally simple amateurist playing style that challenged masculine notions of artistic genius.


With the release of the C86 compilation, all these elements came together in the sounds of bands like the Wedding Present, the Bodines, and Primal Scream. Steve Thornton captures the magnitude of the compilation’s impact on indie fans:

[I]t was the indiepop songs [on C86] like "This Boy Can Wait", "Therese", "Velocity Girl" and so on that struck deeply in the hearts of pathetic little unpopular wankers like us, and started something of a revolution that eventually turned into "twee" and Sarah and all the rest. (“C-86”)

For the indie fans who perceived themselves at odds with the dominant masculinity of the rock underground, C86 signaled the existence of a more appealing musical scene. This “revolution” found expression in the aesthetic of sensitivity that ran through the music of these bands and became the defining quality of indiepop.

Essential to this embracing of a sensitive aesthetic was the use of the pop song form. The All Music Guide conveyed indiepop’s sonic character in an account that compared the genre to its counterpart in the American rock underground. “Indie rock's more melodic, less noisy, and relatively angst-free counterpart, Indie Pop reflects the underground's softer, sweeter side, with a greater emphasis on harmonies, arrangements, and songcraft.” The centrality of the “song craft” to indiepop is consistently reiterated, even in the preferred formats for releasing indiepop music. In his web-based music review column The War Against Silence, glenn macdonald [sic] described the essence of indiepop as captured in the split single, in which two bands each record one side of a 45. macdonald saw in this admittedly esoteric format “the aesthetic drive to isolate the individual song” that so characterizes indiepop.

The single — whether a two-band split; a compilation showcasing three, four, or even more artists; or the traditional one artist, two song format — is the basic unit of indiepop. The continued importance of the 45, or seven-inch (7”) as the vinyl single is more commonly known in indiepop, is a means for the genre to maintain a connection with pre-rock musical history, before the rise of the LP as the primary unit of expression in popular music. Although the CD has come to dominate in indiepop just as it has in the rest of the music industry, bands continue to release 7” singles for their cultural significance. Simon Frith described the demise of the single in the 1980s, mourning the loss of a format that, as he saw it, “define[d] the art of mass music” (Facing the Music 4). This seemingly archaic format links the genre to the chart pop of the 1950s and early 1960s, when pop singles were as much a means to hear new songs as they were a forum for specific groups (Rohlfing 103). One-hit wonders were common — a group would release a single that became a chart hit and then fade into obscurity or vanish altogether. This career trajectory was especially common among the girl groups popular in the early 1960s — a period where more female performers had songs in the charts than at any previous time in chart history (Smith 99). This emphasis on the song also resulted in several instances where the women who were credited with a release and photographed for the record sleeve were not the same performers that sang on the recording contained inside.15 For the producers of such acts the singer was unimportant. The fans were seemingly unconcerned by such discrepancies as well — a song’s romantic sentiment was the key to its popularity (Greig 53-4).

To some, the girl group focus on “well-crafted romantic ballads” was a rejection of the earlier male anger of rock ‘n’ roll performers like Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry (Rohlfing 111). Indeed, the “nice girl” image of the girl groups was a significant revision of the wilder themes of earlier rock ‘n’ roll songs. The romantic themes of girl group songs were far removed from the “Jailhouse Rock” of the 1950s (Greig 50-1). But that did not preclude these songs’ expressive potential for the reworking of rock ‘n’ roll in feminine terms.

Sensitivity in indiepop is related to the larger history of sentimentality in the pop song (Frith, “Pop Music” 104). J. G. Peatman performed a content analysis of the music charts in the 1940s and found that “all successful pop songs are about romantic love” (qtd. in Frith, “Pop Music” 102). Indiepop songs are no different — love is still the primary subject for pop song in this genre. As Savage suggests, people use love songs to express those things that cannot be discussed publicly. “[T]he word ‘Love’ that is omnipresent in the pop lexicon reads not so much as a romantic cliché but as a coded entry into the world of the private, into the world of pleasure and self-discovery” (“Gender and Pop”, n. pag.). Love songs provide a forum for the public performance of private sentiments, particularly for men who may be constrained by social convention from expressing such “soft” emotions in other settings (Cohen 234). Like their girl group predecessors, indiepop bands used love songs to convey the complex negotiations of romantic and sexual relationships in a strongly gendered popular music medium.

Sensitivity in indiepop songs was demonstrated in both lyrical content and in music. Sounds soft and delicate were combined with lyrics expressing a defiantly gentle nature in boy-fronted bands like the Field Mice and Another Sunny Day. When the sound was more aggressive, it was often in a playful manner — as with the songs of Shop Assistants and Talulah Gosh. With such diverse sounds, the boundaries between pop and rock may not have been readily distinguishable to all listeners. As Frith has explained, “pop is defined as much by what it isn’t as by what it is” (“Pop Music” 95). But although bands like the Field Mice and the Shop Assistants worked in different tempos, their songs shared pop characteristics that were obvious to fans. Other more academic audiences failed to make this distinction, as they were “made up of people who think the Shop Assistants are a ‘rock’ band,” as music zine writer Chris Scott described with utter derision (“Popular Culture” n. pag.). Although the band’s songs were fast and loud, they were still pop. What marked indiepop was the absence of rock’s anger and the presence of a certain sensitivity, particularly from male artists. These bands appropriated traditionally feminine characteristics and utilized them to full extent in their music. With such songs, indiepop bands were working to turn the violent, shocking and masculinized aspects of punk into something overtly “girly” and “weak.”

In 1986, Hillary Little reviewed an exhibition of works by punk graphic designer Jaime Reid in the zine Monitor. Little reacted strongly against the nihilistic and ironic imagery in Reid’s work. “The joke just compounds violence with cynicism and why should I toughen up?” she asks. Just as Little wondered why she should be forced to adopt a tough emotional facade to play the punk game, the Field Mice song “Sensitive” asked the same question more broadly:

If the sun going down can make me cry
Why should I
Why should I
Why should I not like
The way I am?

With its driving bass line, “Sensitive” was probably the most “rock” song recorded by the Field Mice, but the keening vocal delivery and bouncy rhythms were pure pop. First released in 1989 as a 7” on the influential Bristol-based label Sarah Records, the song became something of an indiepop anthem with the lyrics providing a position statement on masculinity in the scene. Singer Bobby Wratten’s flat but insistent vocals added to the defiant sense of pride in sensitivity. These lines were a response to those who would attack the singer for the depth of his feeling, for his freely expressed tears. It was a calculated response to rock masculinity’s perceived inability to address a full range of emotional complexity. An earlier verse acknowledged the singer’s vulnerability with the line, “By showing you I'm sensitive / You do risk being crucified / Crucified by those you are unlike.” In so nakedly revealing feelings, in merely acknowledging the existence of such “girly” emotions as sadness, he broke from expected male rock norms of “toughness” and rationality. The singer’s response to a sunset was not rational. He was not interested in why he reacted this way, but instead wanted acceptance for himself as he was rather than a critique of the ways in which he diverged from gender norms. The entirety of the soft and sensitive nature of indiepop was distilled in these lines.

This version of sensitivity was not fully accepted by all participants in indiepop. For many fans, the aching sincerity in Wratten’s delivery verged on an excessive and over-wrought emotionalism. For example, in a discussion of the band’s lyrics on the indiepop mailing list, former June Brides member Phil Wilson wrote, “Oh, what a sensitive soul. Sounds like he should get out more often ;-).” Wilson signaled the implied irony in his statement using the internet convention of a winking “emoticon.” But for all the professed discomfort with the band’s highly personal and emotional songwriting, “Sensitive” still inspires an impassioned response from indiepop fans. Every aspect of the song echoes the wimpy sensibility present through the history of indiepop, down to the band’s over-the-top twee name. Gayle Wald explained that, in alternative music subcultures, the twee aspects of this sensitivity signaled a more complicated position than may be apparent to the casual listener:

The relentless cuteness of these representations, which might be merely sentimentalizing or idealizing under other circumstances, signifie[d] ironically within the context of punk youth music subcultures, where ‘youth’ [was] more likely to be associated with aggression, violence, and crisis, and where youth and youthfulness [were] frequently conflated with boyhood. (595-6)

So in indiepop, cuteness was a means to signal opposition to the presumed “aggression, violence, and crisis” in other DIY subcultures. The Field Mice’s project was part of the same reaction against punk’s hard-edged tendencies that Little invokes.

“Sensitive” was part of a musical lineage stretching back to Orange Juice. Orange Juice brought sensitivity to the fore with the song “I Guess I’m Just a Little Too Sensitive.” Other indie bands of the day also used pop as a means to critique masculinity. The Smiths, in particular, made use of sensitivity, borrowing heavily from Orange Juice and adding their own version of wryly bitter commentary. “Morrissey’s trademark lyrical style combined a fascination with dead-end culture and a concern for gender ambivalence; Marr’s guitar stylings featured a Scottish jangle and a Mancunian wit unlike any other sound in the underground” (“Rough Trade” n. pag.). Like their Scottish predecessor Orange Juice, the Smiths worked out “gender ambivalence” through a redefined masculinity — fey, androgynous, and flirting with homosexuality as on the song “Hand in Glove.” Lead singer Morrissey cultivated an intentionally ambiguous sexual persona that was sometimes misinterpreted, as in a Rolling Stone profile where the writer described him as openly gay (Rogan 198-9).

Simon Reynolds connected the band’s version of masculinity to New Pop:

The Smiths . . . surpass pop at being pop. They have color and brightness, but it’s natural rather than cosmetic — like flowers or stars. . . . They keep alive a strand in New Pop of male fragility — but are perhaps too delicate for pop competition 1985 (the Smiths won’t, can’t do video). (“New Pop” 470)

While the Smiths might not have achieved the level of chart success they and their label would have liked, the band injected a sensitive streak into pop music far beyond the UK indie sector. In the US, the band’s releases were distributed by Sire Records, a major label affiliate that ensured that the Smiths’ albums were available everywhere from major chain music stores to small local indie shops. These releases were not always well publicized but they were available on the racks for those who sought them out. Even with little of Sire’s promotional muscle behind them, their hugely popular tours attracted crowds similar in size to those of bands with much higher profiles (Rogan 237). Although they never topped the charts, this touring and widespread distribution allowed the band’s influence to seep into a segment of the US population that would later embrace indiepop whole-heartedly with the “alternative” boom of a the early 90s.

Reynolds also championed the Smiths in an article from an earlier issue of Monitor. As with their indiepop counterparts, the band’s “enemies are those who laugh at their idea of ‘sensitivity,’ who abet what comes with the new conservatism — an entrenchment of normal sex roles and sexuality.” The critique of the unemotional masculinity of rock that the Field Mice presented in “Sensitive” followed directly from that of the Smiths. As Reynolds explained, “For many, the Smiths are the only group making a connection between pop and (their) reality — the experience of adolescents, the unemployed, the fucked-up, are written out of pop’s script.” The Smiths, like the Field Mice, “tried to puncture for a few minutes the glacial cool of pop, make a sort of divine grace out of awkwardness, get through” (“What’s Missing?” n. pag.).

“Grace out of awkwardness” became a significant factor in indie aesthetics in the later 80s. An indie variant that emphasized a decadent, even dandified, image was another avenue for the exploration of the aesthetic and political dimensions of sensitivity. While not particularly popular with the same crowd that liked C86-styled jangle pop, decadent indie became influential in the 90s despite its origins outside the main currents of the genre. The lush mix of synthesizers and guitars and overwrought lyrics of artists like Momus and the band Felt was the link between the accessible jazz pop of Weekend and early 90s indiepop bands like Blueboy who combined lyrics about male sexuality with a complex pop sound complete with strings.

Both Nick Currie in his Momus persona and Lawrence of Felt released albums on Creation and Cherry Red throughout the 1980s and continue to perform in various guises today. Felt made “expressive mood-music with guitar solos people could whistle on their way to work” with sensual vocals provided by Lawrence (Cavanagh 165). Momus combined a similarly ornate sound with a pointedly playful attitude to social norms around gender and sexuality. In his critique of traditional heterosexual masculinity, Momus made use of the image of the homosexual dandy. His most overt explication of this image was came his song “The Homosexual” on the Tender Pervert album:

The homosexual they call me it's all the same to me
That spectre they projected I will now pretend to be
Since their neurosis is what passes for normality
It's okay with me if I'm queer

With lines like these, Momus picked up on the sexual ambiguity of the Smiths and played with it in an even more gleefully in-your-face demeanor. An NME writer described him as "[o]ne of the most provocative, intelligent songwriters around; someone who'll tackle sexuality, (im)morality, and the sins of the world with almost embarrassing sincerity" (Brown n. pag.).

Like the Field Mice, the depth of emotional sincerity in Momus’ songs was met with mixed reactions. The response to Momus was based on his calculated use of controversial themes of decadent sexuality and morality. The Field Mice were equally calculating in their advocacy of a new ethic of sensitivity in masculinity. In the Smiths, Morrissey too courted controversy with his sexually ambiguous persona and lyrics. In their songs reinterpreting conventional masculinity, bands associated with the indie scene imbued the love song with a complexity that was lacking in the rationalized vision of love presented in other pop forms during the mid 80s. Reynolds articulated these two approaches to the love song in an article called “Against Health and Efficiency” where he praised several indie bands, including the Smiths, for their problematizing of love and eroticism:

These groups, and others, attempt to recover the awe, which is absent, scoured from, modern ideas of love. They see that a very large part of love’s point lies in the difficulty; that tension is more interesting than release, experience rather than repletion. (n. pag.)

In indiepop, the flagship label for this version of the love song was Sarah Records, home to the Field Mice and dozens of other sensitive boy bands.

Sarah Records was a seminal micro-indie label founded in 1987 and based in Bristol that primarily released 7” singles. Matt Haynes and Clare Wadd, the labels’ founders, were polemical in their stance, a mix of socialist and indie ideals that they explored in the zines and sleeve inserts included with their releases. Wadd was particularly articulate about her politics, which included a significant feminist component. She described her experiences as a woman running a label in a zine called Lemonade, one of a pair that accompanied the release of a flexi disc by the band Christine’s Cat. The first page of the zine spelled out her analysis of the role of women in indiepop. To capture the anger with which she spat these lines, it is worth quoting her at length:

This is a fanzine for girls which means it won’t be full of terribly drippy tales of . . . short spotty boys writing odes to Amelia or Andrea because that’s so fucking boring, boys writing for boys writing popsongs about girls I want to read something written for ME for a change... It wouldn’t be too much to ask would it? Oh, I’m sure you have some terrible sad emotion to communicate when you say how sixteen rosy cheeks and cute bobbed blonde cycled out of the mist and didn’t even SMILE...but then it’s probably because you kept blathering on about fields and trees and stars when all she wanted was a bloody good FUCK... [sic] (n. pag.)

She continued throughout the zine to detail about how angry she was to be reduced to Haynes's girlfriend in press accounts of Sarah Records, to receive hundreds of letters addressed to “Matt and Clare” and rarely the other way around, and sometimes not to be acknowledged at all for her role in the label when it was run by “two people: joint decisions, equal finance etc. . . . TWO of us, equals for once.”

The releases on her own label often perpetuated the very sorts of gender imbalances that Wadd described. Another Sunny Day's indiepop classic "I'm In Love With A Girl Who Doesn't Know I Exist" might have better been called "I'm In Love With a Girl Who Doesn't Exist." As Wadd detailed in the pages of her zine, the indiepop bands who so defiantly declared their sensitivity were reworking masculinity with little thought as to what that position might mean for girls in the scene. Indiepop boys celebrated their anti-masculinity with sensitive lyrics, foppish haircuts and anoraks. But where was the gender critique in the female indiepop equivalent of a girl in a flowery dress and hairclips singing sweet love songs? As Angela McRobbie and Jenny Garber pointed out in relation to the androgynous iconography of early 70s glam artists like David Bowie and Gary Glitter, “the feminising of the male image . . . should not blind us to the asymmetry which remains in relation to the feminine image. There is much less sexual fluidity permitted to girls. The girl is by definition ‘forever feminine’” (18). Gottlieb and Wald suggest that “[o]ne reason for this might be precisely because male experiments with gender, however liberating or transgressive, are still uncomfortably fraught, constantly requiring reference to a stable femininity” (257).

Not ten years after the conscientiously articulated, progressive gender politics of post-punk, indie guitar pop was centered on “four boys in our corduroys.” This characterization, taken from a contemporary song lyric from indiepop band Belle and Sebastian, rang as true when it was recorded in 1998 as it might have in 1988. Indie’s feyness and the attendant derision applied only to boys; girls were seemingly eliminated from the picture before it was even fully formed. Only one band who released records on Sarah offered an alternative vision for girls in indiepop. Talulah Gosh (and their later incarnation as Heavenly) were a co-ed band in which women played a prominent role in articulating a revised gender politics for indiepop. To understand how they came to this parallel position, one must turn to another side of the genre where strong female voices staked out another vision of the love song, establishing links between the indiepop scene and the girl groups of the early 60s.

15 Producer Phil Spector was often responsible for such deceptions. The Crystals were but one group whose vocals Spector replaced with those of session singers; Darlene Love’s voice was substituted for those of the Crystals on their number-one hit “He’s A Rebel” and her vocals were used on hits credited to a number of other (sometimes entirely fictious) groups (Greig 48, 52-55).


How did women fit into this sensitivity paradigm? How did they negotiate the tensions between 60s romance and 80s punk-inflected feminism? To the sweet sounds and sharp lyrics of these girl groups, indiepop bands added the speed and energy of punk and an emphasis on politicized independent production. In both sensitive boy pop and girl group-inspired pop, these bands made use of a kind of pop historical revisionism. Drawing heavily from the post-punk bands of the early 80s, the jangly guitar sound that marked most indiepop had been codified into a genre by with the release of the C86 cassette. In the years before C86, the contentious process of deriving a sound and a canon drew not only from immediate post-punk and New Pop precursors but also from a sound popular decades earlier.

These bands were not the first to turn to girl group sounds. As indicated previously, the punk sound of the Ramones was culled in part from this pre-rock movement. Indiepop bands were, in turn, inspired to reexamine the girl group era by the Ramones’ use of the sound. Indie and indiepop girl bands from the early 80s and into the 90s cited the Ramones as a significant reference point as much for expanding the accepted punk canon as for their own music — the liner notes to albums by Dolly Mixture and Helen Love all make this connection explicit (Stanley n. pag.; Helen Love n pag.).16

The mapping of musical lineage is not a straightforward process, nor are a band or scene’s influences just random musical borrowings of sounds the members find appealing. Rather, it is a conscious process whereby decisions are made as to which references are central to a collective sense of identity and, of equal importance, which are not. Indiepop claimed roots for itself in earlier music from the 1960s and 1970s. Bands consciously borrowed from a wide spectrum of 60s pop. At its most simplified, indiepop credited its existence to a meeting of the girl group sound and punk rock. The All Music Guide’s definition of Twee Pop described it as a genre “influenced in equal measure by the jangly guitar pop of the Smiths, the three-chord naiveté of the Ramones, and the nostalgic sweetness of the girl group era” (n. pag.). The essence of this reclamation of the girl group sound drew heavily from the legacy of groups like the Shirelles and the Shangri Las.

Twee pop’s use of girl groups sounds was central to the formation of a sensitive aesthetic for girls. From the Shangri Las, the Shirelles and other 60s girl groups, indiepop chose to identify its inspirations in their harmonies and the seeming simplicity of their lyrical content. In this conscious effort to create a canon for the genre, indiepop recognized girl groups as a musical moment when pop was a significant means of expression for girls. In the early days of rock and roll, male performers dominated teenage tastes. But with the rise of the girl groups, “[t]he rock ‘n’ roll idol had now become the subject of the girls’ songs, rather than the instigator of the music himself” (Greig 51). This interpretation of the transition from one musical era to the next differed from the traditional critical understanding of girl groups as entirely the tools of the producers who assembled the groups (particularly those groups associated with Phil Spector). The traditional interpretation “serves only to advance an inaccurate portrayal of one man with a vision, carving out his niche against all odds” (Rohlfing 110). Even feminist scholars of popular music have not adequately analyzed the masculinist reading of the girl group era. Simon Frith and Angela McRobbie, in their seminal article on “Rock and Sexuality,” gloss over the transition to the girl group era. They described the era as one understood critically as the “decline” of rock ‘n’ roll through a “process of ‘feminization’” and suggested that this transition warranted further study (383). In the more than two decades since their article’s initial publication, this work is only now being addressed. Keir Keightley has discussed the periodization of rock music history, describing the “in-between years” of 1955-1964 as years when women dominated the charts (116-7). Indiepop’s celebration of the girl group music of this period was very important as a rewriting of the dominant rock narrative in which the “British invasion” of rock music which began in 1964 with the Beatles’ first appearance in the US is the critical moment in rock (117).

This reclamation of pop was part of the early 80s New Pop move to recuperate pop’s significance to the wider history of popular music. Indie fan and music writer Chris Scott described the shifts in rock culture of the late 1960s away from the mass cultural sounds of pop, as having a decidedly negative impact on women’s roles in popular music:

It seems to me the greatest effect of the hippy upswell was simply the destruction of the strong images of women into which so much work had gone in the earlier 60s — by Dusty Springfield and Sandie Shaw for starters — along with the suppression of their right to make images of men — just listen to the Shangri Las. All this was replaced by Joplin. (“Popular Culture” n. pag.)

Here Scott makes a connection also made by early indiepop bands — there is an explicitly feminist dimension to the project of reclaiming pop music. As Will Straw has explained, the development of canonical knowledge is related to a specifically masculine collector culture:

[T]he cultivation of connoisseurship in rock culture — tracking down old albums, learning genealogical links between bands, and so on — has traditionally been one rite of passage through which the masculinism of rock-music culture has been perpetuated.” (376)

The acquisition of such knowledge was used to promote masculine ends by those associated with the Creation Records label, as explored earlier. But other indiepop bands attempted to utilize these connoisseurist tactics to rewrite the canon with feminist ends.

One of the most obvious ways of paying homage and laying claim to a musical heritage is by recording cover versions of songs associated with earlier artists. The Pastels covered the Shangri Las, recording “Past, Present and Future” for their early Tea-Time Tales single. Fellow Glasgow band the BMX Bandits covered an girl group song originally performed by Skeeter Davis, a singer better known for her later country work than the sweet pop of “I Can’t Stay Mad at You.” The BMX Bandits’ version used singer Duglas Stewart’s high falsetto to full advantage, carefully replicating Davis’ infectiously cheerful delivery on submissive and placating lines like “Even when I cry / I can’t stay mad at you.” If Davis’ version gave a sense of disjunction between lyrics and vocal stylings, the gender inversion in the BMX Bandits’ cover gave the song an even more incongruous feel.

The sweet sounds of girl groups mixed with sharp and sassy lyrics with an oft-critical edge on boy-girl relationships and provided the pop template for many 80s indiepop groups. Women in bands were particularly active in rewriting the girl group formula in the model of sensitive indiepop. The Marine Girls and Dolly Mixture were two bands active in the late 70s and early 80s, making music parallel to, but not necessarily part of, the post-punk scene. For these bands, sensitivity meant an awareness of the conditions for women in pop history and in everyday life. They might not have been aware of it at the time, but their rationale for forming bands was feminist in nature. In a 1997 interview, Jane Fox of the Marine Girls reflected on her experiences as a teenage girl in a band in the early 80s. She described how others “were picking up on the quite feminist content of it” while she did not label her actions as such:

I know at the time I wouldn’t have been able to talk about or be eloquent about it. Although I knew that I just wanted to get on with what I was interested in, and thought that girls played in bands and how annoying it was that there weren’t any. (qtd. in Appelstein, “Whatever Became of Alice and Jane” n. pag.)

Fox may not have identified as feminist at the time, but she was able to connect the everyday experience of playing a guitar with an absence of female players and act upon this realization. Fox’s band mate in the Marine Girls, Tracey Thorn was more openly feminist and criticized the music press for failing to print the feminist views she expressed in interviews (Rumsey and Little n. pag.). The Marine Girls’ DIY example was important to indiepop’s feminization of amateurism.

Dolly Mixture also utilized musically and lyrically revisionist tactics, mixing DIY with a more overtly feminist consciousness than their contemporaries in the Marine Girls. Formed in 1979, they took the DIY three-chord aesthetic and the rapid fire delivery of the Ramones, added a sweetly twee vocal style, looked to the subject matter of 60s girl groups for lyrical inspiration and created a sound very similar to what would be called indiepop eight years later. Dolly Mixture tried to rewrite the formula of 60s girl groups though punk rock and feminism, especially with songs like "Will He Kiss Me Tonight?” This song borrowed the framing of its title from the Shirelles’ version of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” in which the singers asked rhetorically whether a sexual encounter was necessarily a sign of male romantic attachment. In their song, Dolly Mixture inscribed a message of feminine strength in the face of the passive apprehension of the Shirelles’ song. The lyrics of “Will He Kiss Me Tonight?” reworked the seemingly demure romantic quiescence of girl group songs into a statement of independence. The chorus succinctly summarizes this position:

Doesn’t matter if the stars are bright
I really don’t mind if there ain’t no moonlight
I don’t believe in love at first sight
Will he kiss me tonight?

Borrowing from a mixture of punk and feminist politics, the three teenage girls in Dolly Mixture updated the love song to reflect their everyday lives, rejecting the standard scenarios of romance in favor of a more direct expression of what a woman might want from such an encounter — a kiss that will presumably lead to sex. Although a number of girl group songs focused on women’s sexual desires, most notably the Shirelles’ song mentioned above, they lacked the explicit articulation of desire found in this Dolly Mixture tune.

For all the band’s feminist independence, when they were signed to Chrysalis the label made a blatant attempt to package the band in the music industry model of a passive girl group. Band member Rachel Bor explained that the band were resistant, not wanting to project “a little girlie image type thing” but were unable to exercise control over the major label producers working on the recording session (qtd. in Appelstein, “Remember This” n. pag.). Dolly Mixture’s one major label release was a cover of “Baby It’s You,” first performed by the Shirelles. Although the band members liked music from that era and recorded covers of two other girl group songs of their own volition — the Shangri Las’ “Leader of the Pack” and “The Loco-Motion” (first recorded by Little Eva) — they were not content to be molded by outside influences (Appelstein, “Remember This” n.pag.). What the band did do was retain the emotional affect of girl group songs, not in songs about expected themes like “unrealized crushes on boys, or . . . innocence” but rather by singing about “apologies, nostalgia pieces, regrets or warnings” (Burt, “Dolly Mixture” 53). At first listen, Dolly Mixture’s songs sound almost as if they are lost girl group classics, but the lyrics and amateur playing soon give away the context of their production within late 70s punk and feminism.

Dolly Mixture and the Marine Girls proved to be important touchstones in the development of a feminine and feminist sensibility among female indiepop performers. On the C86 compilation, the bands’ heir apparent was the Shop Assistants. In March of 1986, two months before C86’s release, the band was featured on the cover of NME. The accompanying article described the band’s “buzz saw” blend of pop and punk:

Their pop sensibilities [were] given sway over their inclination toward noise, and they [became] not a band that plays poppy punk, but one that deals in punky pop. That distinction looks ludicrous in print, but in practice it’s massive and vital, another of the Shop Assistants’ fistful of ace cards. (Kelly 23)

Such high praise was fleeting. By the end of the year, the quartet had become saddled with the feminizing “twee” tag that haunted many C86 bands, but with a twist — three of the four band members were female. A November interview opened with a litany of these remarks:

Cute. Sweet. Giggly. Innocent. Twee. Girls. Yes, three girls...one playing bass, one singing, one drumming it. Darlings. Fluffy toys. Softly spoken. Whispers. Sweetiepops. Fantasies projected from a paedophilic pop paternity — snatching the essence of originality and no-nonsense music to patronise and transform trivia. (O’Brien 23)

The band had become something of a novelty for the British music weeklies when their second single “Safety Net” on Edinburgh indie label 53rd & 3rd (a name taken from a Ramones song) topped the British indie charts in March and April. For the women in the band, the decision to make pop music came at a cost, a pigeonholing even more insistent than that of their male twee pop counterparts. But the band actively chose this course with their sonic combination of brash and bop.

Like Dolly Mixture, the Shop Assistants recorded a Shangri Las song, in this case “Train From Kansas City.” It was a knowing gesture, branding this plaintive tale of changing romantic loyalties with a new sensibility. As NME writer David Quantick explained in a review of their performance at the week of C86 showcase gigs in London, “Their ‘Train From Kansas City’ is not performed as a touchstone, a cred point, but with some kind of understanding of the song” (35). Slower than most of their other songs, the cover evinced sincerity from beneath fuzzed out guitars, especially in the opening lines, “Baby baby please believe me / I would never never do anything to hurt you.” There was a sense of genuine respect for the nuanced emotional complications of the song’s narrative, in marked contrast to lead track on their album, “I Don’t Wanna Be Friends With You.”17 The concluding lines of the latter song’s first verse stated in no uncertain terms just where the Shop Assistants stood in relation to girly passivity:

If you don’t love me any more
Just tell me you don’t want to know
But I don’t wanna be civilised
You leave me and I’ll scratch your eyes out

Then the chorus started, with sweet harmonizing over a refrain of “I don’t wanna be friends with you.” That the Shop Assistants could negotiate both emotional terrains with equal authority was a testament to the changing nature of femininity in indiepop and in popular culture generally.

Talulah Gosh, who continue to perform together in various combinations to this day (as Heavenly, Marine Research, and now Tender Trap) were a smart (Oxford-educated) co-ed foursome making pop punk in a similar vein to the buzz saw pop punk of the Shop Assistants. Their releases were recently compiled onto CD for the first time — Backwash was released by Olympia, Washington’s K Records, a label run by Calvin Johnson of the band Beat Happening. Most of the band’s songs were originally released by the aforementioned 53rd & 3rd label, run by members of the Pastels and the Shop Assistants. Enmeshed as they were in the networks of transcontinental indiepop, it is no surprise that their songs were indebted to the girl group sound, as band member Amelia Fletcher indicated in a fanzine interview with her post-Talulah Gosh group Heavenly (qtd. in Jennifer and Christina 23). Talulah Gosh never recorded any girl group songs; their approach served more as an update and a corrective to the absences in girl group narratives. “In Love For the Very First Time,” which clocked at a brief one minute and seven seconds, took on homosocial conventions of the girl group love song “where one could share one’s distress and apprehensions with others who were experiencing or had experienced the same” (Smith 102). Their song featured a vocal call and response where the two women could be addressing one another or an unheard male, serving to destabilize meaning in what otherwise could be read as a fairly traditional heterosexual love song. By allowing a possible queer reading of a girl group-styled song, the band opened up new possibilities for women within the constraints of femininity — both the 1960s girl group version and the 1980s twee indiepop boy version.

The redefined visions of femininity set forth by male and female participants in indiepop were part of the changing relationship of femininity to feminism over the last three decades. As Angela McRobbie has suggested, the meanings of femininity have become ever more fluid in this period (“Shut Up 408). Indiepop not only reflected but revealed some of these changes and continues to do so. Fanzine writer, musician and indiepop list member Sandi Superette [sic] expressed her version of a redefined femininity in a 2001 post to the mailing list:

i strongly object to the word "girly" being used in conjunction with "twee" and even worse "weak" !!! pop!!!! what is "weak" about "girly"? what would you define as "girly" anyways? softies (who hate to be called twee, i think)? laura watling? sleater-kinney? helen love? how does "weak" equate with "girly"? sure the softies and sleater-kinney are in two very different corners, but i don't think there's anything "weak" about the musical prowess, lyrics, etc. of these women. not to bite your head off, because i can probably figure out what you mean by "girly" and what i'd think of upon hearing the word, but it just troubles me that you're lamenting all this "girly" pop that is, to you, at the same time "weak". . . . anyways, to me there doesn't seem to be as much "girly" whatever pop as there used to be (at least not in the u.s. or in my city!) but maybe i'm just way out of touch! [sic]

As her account suggests, the active work of negotiating femininity in culture continues to take place within indiepop today.

16 The band Helen Love pay tribute to the Ramones in song as well as liner notes — their Radio Hits 2 compilation features two Ramones-related tracks, the self-explanatory “Joey Ramoney” and “Rockaway Beach For Me, Heartbreak Hotel For You” which borrows its title from the Ramones’ song “Rockaway Beach.”
17 Both songs are available on their self-titled album, reissued on Overground.


The struggle for self-definition in opposition to the mainstream is a familiar one in rock history, as I have detailed. For indiepop fans in particular, as David Hesmondhalgh described, “[t]he desire to stay on the margins [that was] so apparent in 1980s indie can sometimes reflect a contempt for popular culture” (“Indie” 53). But it can also reflect a pragmatic response to a dominant musical culture in which women are marginalized. In referring to the oppositional cultural politics that Stephen Duncombe ascribed to zine cultures, Stephen Burt explained that staunch oppositionality is not the only possible subject position for participants in alternative cultural forms:

Many zine writers and musicians have noticed the problem already, and tried to solve it, by finding ways to be “alternative” (i.e., creative, independent, original) without caring much about being aggressive or oppositional. . . . Musical subcultures — like the zines that often chronicle them — depend on being alternatives to some kind of mainstream. But that doesn’t mean they must define themselves only, or even mainly, by their opposition to the mainstream. The ‘negative’ identity that Duncombe sees as central to scenes everywhere doesn’t always determine what zine writers or pop bands or pop fans care about. (151-2)

Just as indiepop fans constructed the indie aspects of their scene in relation to the practices of the corporate music industry, they also borrowed sounds from mainstream chart pop.

The concerns central to indiepop are not wholly negative or oppositional. Indiepop’s history in the 1980s is a complicated one, in which a desire to retain masculine subcultural values of authenticity coincided with a variety of expressions of gender in a pop milieu, and a progressive project to make space for women in a popular music realm from which they were largely excluded. Given these conditions, indiepop’s contempt for popular culture was warranted — it reflected a disgust with the way in which women and feminine cultural values were dismissed from the larger musical discussion. The participants turned inward, creating an obscure and insular scene in which women expressed themselves loudly and clearly in a pop forum and men too were able to turn away from rock’s hardened masculinity in favor of a delicate sensitivity. These moves paved the way for the early 1990s riot grrl movements more explicit challenges to the masculine orthodoxies in rock and punk.

The links I have traced between girl groups, punk, post-punk, New Pop and indie that eventually coalesced into indiepop as a musical and subcultural form of feminist intervention are not clean, easy or uncomplicated. Indiepop’s use of femininity and authenticity is marked by the tensions between aesthetics and politics that run throughout the history of popular music as oppositional discourse. The genre played with various phases in the transformation of meaning in popular music. From the girl group era, they took a sense of playful girly pop as a means to explore romantic relationships. They challenged late 60s narratives that positioned rock as masculine and authentic and chart pop as feminine and inauthentic. From punk, indiepop borrowed the subcultural ideology of independence from the mainstream music industry’s modes of production — with this gesture, the notion of authenticity again entered the indiepop lexicon just as they tried to pry it apart from its earlier gendered meanings. Indiepop then drew upon the currents of gender critique in the music of post-punk and New Pop bands in the formation of its own specific ethic and aesthetic of sensitivity. Through these gestures of appropriation, rejection, and reconfiguration, there are tensions between the authentic “rock” world and that of disposable chart pop, as found in the use of and debates around the 7” single format. By addressing the role of indiepop in this history, I hope to have added a significant dimension to the understanding of the ways in which women have negotiated underground music cultures throughout the 80s. In actively culling a canon for the genre from earlier musical moments in which women played a significant role, masculine authenticity and feminine pop forms melded together and created a music scene that fit uneasily within traditional definitions of subculture.

The relationship between authenticity and femininity in indiepop is one that has under girded all my discussions of the scene. Arguments about pop and rock, the politics of production and aesthetic notions of pop perfection, race and gender, masculinity and femininity, are all linked by these concerns. Given popular culture’s traditional associations with the feminine and, by extension, the characterization of pop music as feminine, indiepop’s use of authenticity was a means of ascribing some credibility to a historically debased form. Rock music marked the form as masculine in order to attain legitimacy within the high and low culture divide, primarily through discourses of authenticity. Because men lay claim to this authenticity, they can also transgress this category without destabilizing the “essential” male-ness of their identity. Women involved in rock music subcultures had to establish that they belonged at all within the rock subcultural world.

This process of status negotiation is on-going. In the early 90s, riot grrl was a response to the continual instability of women’s status within punk rock communities; the movement was an effort to lay claim to their own authenticity within rock discourses, a necessary step before it was possible to appropriate tropes of masculinity or to transgress rock bou ndaries. But before riot grrl, there was indiepop where subcultural ideas of authenticity were applied to the most inauthentic of pop cultural forms — pop music.

In indiepop, punk rock became punk pop as masculine authenticity and pop forms were tweaked through an appropriation of pop songs into a canon revised to reflect indiepop’s relationship to gender during the early 1980s. Men and women negotiated this genre differently. Men were able to appropriate feminine characteristics and emotions embodied in the ironic reclamation of terms like “wimpy” and “twee.” Women worked within pop, the territory already set aside as “appropriate” for their musical expression and altered the formulas of older pop songs.

The relationships between pop and rock, masculinity and femininity are entangled with a host of other issues. Further explorations of issues relating to indiepop and black masculinity are important consideration for further study.

Gayle Wald explored the ways in which female “alternative” performers of the 1990s reinscribed “girl” with new cultural significance. She suggests that this gender play is not unproblematic, particularly in relation to race:

In focusing attention on gender performance as a privileged site and source of political oppositionality, critical questions of national, cultural, and racial appropriation can be made to disappear under the sign of transgressive gender performance. (590)

The use of tropes of sensitivity in indiepop is not unproblematic in relation to the issues Wald raises. Wald’s study is a useful starting point for more in-depth analysis of these issues in relation to indiepop.

In addition, the critique of masculinity in indiepop needs to be understood not just in relation to rock history but also to a specifically British cultural context. This music was developed against a backdrop of Thatcher-ite capitalism — how did this affect images of masculinity that circulated at the time? What implications did this political situation have for women’s cultural roles? Angela McRobbie proposed a starting point for this work:

[T]here has been a dramatic ‘unfixing’ of young women in British society over the last fifteen years [since McRobbie’s early work on girls and subcultures was published] which has been effected in the social institutions and can be seen in the field of commercial mass culture and in the various youth subcultures. There is now a greater degree of fluidity about what femininity means and how exactly it is anchored in social reality.” (“Shut Up” 408)

The multiple uses to which tropes of femininity are put in indiepop, uses that are at times feminist and other times not so clearly progressive, speak to this fluidity. This is the central contribution of indiepop to an understanding of gender and authenticity in underground music cultures.


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All references are to the most widely available versions of songs and albums. Additional information on the original releases is included where known or relevant. Unless otherwise noted, all releases are compact discs.

Another Sunny Day. “I’m In Love With A Girl Who Doesn’t Know I Exist.” Rec. 1988. There And Back Again Lane compilation. Sarah Records, 1995.

Beach Boys. “California Girls.” Today!/Summer Days & Nights. Capitol, 1990. (Original LPs released 1965).

——-. “Good Vibrations.” Rec. 1966. Smiley Smile/Wild Honey. Capitol, 1990. (Original LPs released 1967).

——-. Pet Sounds. Capitol, 1990. (Original LP released 1966).

Belle and Sebastian. “This Is Just A Modern Rock Song.” This Is Just A Modern Rock Song CD-EP. Jeepster, 1998.

BMX Bandits. “I Can’t Stay Mad At You.” Gettin’ Dirty CD single. Creation, 1995.

Buzzcocks. “Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)?”. Rec. 1978. Singles Going Steady. EMI, 2001.

C86 compilation. NME and Rough Trade, 1986. (Originally issued as a cassette available by mail from the NME music paper; later released on LP by Rough Trade).

Dolly Mixture. “Will He Kiss Me Tonight?”. Rec. 1979. The Demonstration Tapes. Royal Mint, 1995. (Original LP self-released 1983).

The Field Mice. “Sensitive.” Where’d You Learn To Kiss That Way? rec. 1989. Shinkansen, 1998. (Originally released as a 7” single on Sarah).

Helen Love. Radio Hits 2. Damaged Goods, 1997.

Marine Girls. Lazy Ways/Beach Party. Cooking Vinyl America, 1997. (Original LPs released by Cherry Red and Whaam Records in 1983 and 1981, respectively).

Momus. “The Homosexual.” Tender Pervert. Creation, 1988.

Orange Juice. The Esteemed (The Very Best Of). Polydor, 1992. (Includes selected tracks from the band’s major label releases).

Pastels. Suck On: Retrogressive 1983-1985. Rockville, 1988. (Compiles their early Creation Records singles and BBC radio sessions).

Pet Shop Boys (with Dusty Springfield). “What Have I Done to Deserve This ?” Rec. 1987. Discography: The Complete Singles Collection. EMI, 1991.

——-. Alternative. EMI, 1995.

Ramones. “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker.” Rec. 1977. Anthology: Hey! Ho! Let’s Go! . Warner Bros. and Rhino, 1999. (Original 45 released by Sire).

Shangri Las. Greatest Hits. Remember, n. date. (Original 45s released by Red Bird between 1964-1966).

Shirelles. “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” Rec. 1960. The Very Best of the Shirelles. Rhino, 1994. (Original 45 released by Scepter).

Shop Assistants. Will Anything Happen. Overground, 1997. (Original LP released by Chrysalis, 1986).

Sleater-Kinney. All Hands on the Bad One. Kill Rock Stars, 2000.

The Smiths. “Hand in Glove.” Rec. 1983. The Smiths. Sire, 1984. (Original 45 released by Rough Trade).

Springfield, Dusty. Dusty in Memphis. Rhino, 1999. (Original LP released by Atlantic, 1969).

Talulah Gosh. Backwash. K Records, 1996. (Compiles tracks originally recorded between 1986 and 1988).

Weekend. La Varieté. Vinyl Japan, 2000. (Original LP released by Rough Trade, 1982).