The Birth and Perplexing Permutations of Indie Pop
Where pop music pervades, indie pop evades.
Indie pop is to mainstream pop what a lone candle is to a large spotlight. In sound, it varies greatly, but not so greatly as to avoid description. Think punk rock + Brian Wilson and you’ll have conceptualized the bulk of it.
As a subculture, indie pop inherits greatly from indie in general. In fact, at least initially, the two terms were one and the same. However, as indie pop came into its own, certain subtleties morphed into sizable distinctions and distinctions to definitions of its various sub-categorizations.
If twee were a picture, it’d be pastel.
Fittingly, a twee band goes by that name precisely, lending the subgenre’s shameless, slobbering cuteness a particularly punk-leaning slant in their own singular style.
Twee pop powered through to its own almost cloying horizon of sound on a largely perpendicular path from punk rock. Blame post-punk for the sudden artistic exodus from punk rock’s lax-gone-stringent format.
Punk rock began as rebellion, but morphed all too readily into a rule book of its own (as all genres ultimately do). Soon enough, its sound was set in stone and post-punk, a further rebellion from such rules, was born. Twee formed from indie pop, which itself was but a single part of the deliberately nebulous post-punk space.
Twee pop powered through to its own almost cloying horizon of sound on a largely perpendicular path from punk rock.
Post-punk’s entire “raison d’être” being predicated on pushing boundaries beyond expectations, it came to be that any expectations at all to form around musicians and styles it engendered chipped away at its very existence. Once post-punk solidified into separate movements, it was effectively no more, and its wake bore out all manner of avant-garde genres from shoegaze to alternative dance. But hey, it’s ok. Indie pop brought us shibuya-kei.
Arguably born of so-called “City Pop,” another Japanese musical manifestation, and the ’60s in Western sound, Shibuya-kei cleared the way for pop and loungey jazz to mesh mid-way through the ’90s.
Where city pop rebelled against the music of tradition, Shibuya-kei created a new tradition of music altogether.
Bands like Flipper’s Guitar feathered in the jazz juice just enough to distract your ears from an avalanche of pop underpinnings. Bands that followed, found the free-flowing feel in the burgeoning genre liberating enough to allow for parallels with acid jazz and full-blown funk to form.
Modern variants abound, despite the subgenre’s heyday having come and gone. Bands like Lamp have kept the flame alight in its more choral incarnation, drawing quite plainly from Bacharach’s semi-symphonic musings.
Bands that followed, found the free-flowing feel in the burgeoning genre liberating enough to allow for parallels with acid jazz and full-blown funk to form.
Where and How it Began
In essence, it was the home-grown, garage sound that separated indie pop from the wider world of popular music at its start.
It has always differed subtly yet significantly from its cousins at opposite ends of the indie rock and mainstream pop spectrum. It’s less feisty and more ‘feely’ than the indie rock it was born of at the end of the ’70s, but brought a backyard and bedroom feel to full-blown pop music. Indie pop hinged on its need for greater intimacy and creative freedom, while it left the door ajar for more mainstream influences to blow in unimpeded.
Indie pop hinged on its need for greater intimacy and creative freedom, while it left the door ajar for more mainstream influences to blow in unimpeded.
This complex relationship with the influences that birthed it brought its primary purpose to light:
To humanize the mainstream without entering the mainstream.
The sound itself ironically became at least mildly popular until about halfway through the ’90s, at which point it largely took its toys home again, where it first began. But, it never totally went away. Its many branches birthed ever more varieties of the source, spanning the gamut from jangle pop to lo-fi and all manner in-between.
Orchestral trappings and careful composition characterize chamber pop. Prominent figureheads of the sound include the likes of Eric Matthews, whose work provides a particularly clear example of its fused format.
Soft, flowing, feel-good and intentionally lounge-suited, chamber or “ork-pop” (orchestral pop) benefited from the contributions of such bands like the High Llamas and Jellyfish in the forming phase and development of its distinctively retro-modern tone. The latter of the two produced a particularly spicy variant of the sound, infused with the sharp pizzazz of razor-edged soul and blues to boot.
Chamber pop artists were particularly opposed to simplicity and, to put it simply, they put a lot into their music.
Chamber pop artists were particularly opposed to simplicity and, to put it simply, they put a lot into their music. It wouldn’t truly be chamber pop unless it took a semi-complete orchestra to play it live, after all. Needless to say, this didn’t really pan out well for their strategic growth and popularity at an individual act and artist level. Labels loathe to lavishly furnish unrecognized talents’ every waning whim for entirely underground releases. Hard to blame them, honestly; any of the subgenre’s associated acts actually garnering much of a profit was a bit of a pipe dream at the time. However, some years later, a new musical dream would emerge with a similar sound, minus the implied financial overhead.
Soft as shoegaze and hazy as a cloud bank, dream pop is the apotheosis of gentle, catchy rock. There’s appreciable overlap between this indie pop designation and twee, but dream pop suffers no real limitation in subject matter. The mid-’80s birthed this nebulous new sound from the foundation of bands like My Bloody Valentine.
The later manifestation of yet another derivative sound, “chillwave,” owes its existence in large part to dream pop’s appearance and proliferation.
Field Mouse make modern music of the subgenre, scrubbing the sonic spectrum to a sudsy soundscape of squeaky clean fluff, only occasionally exhibiting the odd edge the sub-genre can sometimes take on, with more powerful punk influence.
Soft as shoegaze and hazy as a cloud bank, dream pop is the apotheosis of gentle, catchy rock.
In contrast to the predominantly rock-inspired acts of dream pop, it’s interesting to note that more mainstream musicians like Lana Del Rey entirely fit the bill too, implying aspects of indie pop will always bubble up to the surface of the industry to some degree.
Far more indie pop derivatives exist than were touched on here, but all bear the mark of divergence from the norms of the mainstream as well as the rabid rebellion of the intentionally underground. Given the wildly approachable sound and scene, it seems the continued emergence of new categories is mostly a matter of time…