Cutey bands exploit their wonder years' with punk
Sheila Burgel and I almost don't make it to class on time. Burgel wants out, for her it is just another dull school day. For me, high school was a three-year old memory I had wanted to forget or at least revise by going through it once more today -- without the pressure. It's 8:30 a.m. and Burgel is pouting her best with puffy, cruddy blue eyes and frowning with Blossom-sized lips.
She makes her best case.
"I don't know if I can deal with a full day of school," she whines to me, slouching against the kitchen table. "I'm soooo tired and I'm sooo sick."
With her mom outta sight in their sprawling Scarsdale, N.Y. home and her brother and live-in maid still asleep, I give her little slack. I drove five hours so I could go back to high school and I wasn't going to take no for an answer. She was stuck, she knew it and we headed out for Scarsdale High.
Driving down Oak Lane, I daydream about lockers, three-ring binders and greasy cafeteria food, Burgel's mind is on other things --tonight her band Raggedy Ann is playing its final show, which she calls "the end of an era," at Under Acme in the East Village. Wearing her mood in all black minus a green German army jacket, high school is the last place she wants to be; she admits Scarsdale High was never ready for her brand of cutesy love rock.
"I don't mind school, but it's not the ideal high school life," she warns, zipping her 1992 Nissan Pathfinder into a parking space. "Everyone's classified -- the jocks, the druggies, the nerds. I basically don't fit into any of those categories. If there was a music-obsessed group, I'd probably be there."
Trudging up the steps into a side entrance, I realize I'm way more excited about school than Burgel is. No one understands what she or Raggedy Ann is all about. She wants the rush of the city while others are content on applying to "good" schools. She wants to write pop songs and bliss out on Slowdive and Saint Etienne, her peers are content on keg parties and Green Day cover bands.
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Puckering up to the pop song, indie innocents and burnouts are returning to their wonder years. While high school may be a drag for Burgel, it's being re-sold as inspirational finger paint for indie popsters. Being a punk now means ya got to know the way to Sesame Street and the nearest X-girl store. Like dyed blond and barretted Freudians armed with yak paks, plastic lunch boxes, baby T's and Brownie sweaters, it's become OK to be cute. You can look like Pippi Longstocking and get away without being teased.
Using Pat Maley's Yo-Yo compilations as cute blueprints, cuddlecore is becoming the new pop escapism for an indie scene facing a mid-life crisis. The question remains, can you really go back? Are we stealing a past that wasn't really ours?
Walking through Scarsdale High's maze of beige lockers and quiet corridors, I am a bit skeptical. I'm not used to this type of mind confinement. Moving in almost slow motion from one end of the school to the next, I feel like I am constantly being stared at by some uppity kids wandering the halls. Everything operates by the tick of the clock and we have plenty of time before Burgel's first-period social studies class.
We stop to hang out with Burgel's friend, Missy Gasson, who is sitting at the foot of her open locker using the relative peace to work on some Christmas cards. They discuss tonight's show, whereupon Gasson quickly interrupts to dish the latest gossip about her ex-boyfriend who is now at Rikers Prison and is handing out Gasson's phone number to curious inmates.
"I figured he'd cleaned up, you know," she explains. "He was like found taking a leak in public and they found crack vials on him. He told me he was holding them for a friend. I'm like 'bullshit' ."
Burgel isn't too excited by this revelation. Thankfully, the bell rings and we make our way into Mr. Beach's classroom. Burgel, a senior, knows the plan. Working her way straight to the right back corner, propping her legs up, jamming her feet into the spokes of her desk, she wants to recline and coast through the year. As Beach lectures on corporate downsizing and the new Republican mandate, Burgel doesn't lift a finger, opting to daydream and flip through her day planner.
It didn't take long to ditch the books for pop music. During her freshman year, it started with the Pixies' "Here Comes Your Man" and a convincing boyfriend who was into shoe-gazers. To her Kim Deal was God and pop heaven was spinning the Blake Babies' Sunburn.
"When I first heard the Blake Babies, I thought it was so weird," she recalls. "Hearing Juliana Hatfield, I'm like 'What kind of voice is that, it's so high and so sweet.' "
For Burgel, Raggedy Ann's sweetness, or rather cuteness comes natural.
"We didn't intend to be cute," she offers. "We just wanted to play pop music."
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Since Mo Tucker first innocently hammed her way through "After Hours," loud noise makers have always held a cute side, be it girlish or geekish. It has just taken a helluva long time for punks to finally coddle that inner child.
Pop has always made some noise on the fringes of the indie community. With Beat Happening and early K stuff to the British "twee" bands (most notably the Pastels and Talulah Gosh) and Sarah-heads during the '80s, cutey pop rarely made it onto teen Trapper Keepers.
But, between riot grrrl and Veruca Salt's American Thighs, the indie scene has crept slowly into mainstream suburban bedrooms as it has upped the cute quotient. The transition to strip-malls has transformed grrrls into girls and made cuteness a selling point. Merry-Go-Round dresses up their storefront mannequins like Bikini Kill's Tobi Vail and Kathi Wilcox; X-girl fashions are worn on "90210"; and Juliana Hatfield guest starred as an angel in the Christmas episode of the teen-driven drama, "My So-Called Life."
And bands such as Bunnygrunt, Tummy Ache, Tully Craft, Cub, Grover, Pest 5000, the Softies, Emily's Sassy Lime, the Rickets, Delightful Little Nothings, Heavenly and Strawberry Story are playing up to those images. The now split-up Tiger Trap once did a show on roller skates. Cub has given presents to its audience and played shows in their pajamas and LA's Polar Goldie Cats wear backpacks on stage.
"For years and years we've had a like Maximum Rock 'n' Roll scene with old-school punk stuff, it just got kind of old," says Sean Tollefson, 26, singer and bassist in the now-defunct Crayon and currently in Six Cents and Natalie, and Tully Craft.
"Maybe it's a reaction to that. It was like how rockin' can we be. It could be how cute can we be. Cuteness can still be punk but in a different way," he said.
Cub's bassist and singer, Lisa Marr, sees little value in plain old punk shock values.
"I'd never smash my guitar, I'd feel terrible if I did, I love my guitar," Marr said.
For many of those aging indie vets, the shock comes from real problems, i.e. car payments, rent and crummy jobs. Cute culture is easy escapism where playing kickball certainly beats figuring out a checkbook.
"I'm 23 years old. My life isn't cute, it's hard, it's confusing especially with the community I've chosen to be a part of for so long," Rose Melberg, singer and guitarist for the Softies, confesses. "It's really comforting to put yourself in a child-like state of mind. The aesthetic is so immediate -- it's big, bright colors, big, simple words, simple melodies. Things like that are easy to understand. I see it as my inability to grow up, I try not to really grow up. I may want to stay 10 years old."
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While Peggy Orenstien's book, SchoolGirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap provides evidence that being a girl is still a difficult proposition, women are finding feminism in girldom from Courtney Love's baby doll to Cub's "Hello Kitty." Aging barretted-bands such as Cub, Pest 5000 and Heavenly are re-envisioning girls in their strong, tough-minded imagery.
Patti Schmidt, singer and bassist for Pest 5000, admits being cute has its rewards.
"There's power in girlishness and power in cuteness if you control it," she explains. "Most of my songs, they're sort of this recess fight where you win every time."
To Heavenly's Amelia Fletcher, cuddlecore can be a celebration of girlishness. "It's about not being ashamed of it," Fletcher offers. "I mean, I spent from age 13 to age 17 trying to act like I was 25 and trying to prove to boys I knew all about sex and I didn't and trying to prove I was cool and no one could hurt me when they could. At 18, I thought 'fuck it, I don't care anymore. I'm just gonna be what I feel like being.' "
But to many teen-age girls playing in bands, the point is lost. Despite the inroads made since the early '90s, many girls remain isolated, especially if they're in a cutesy band. No matter what 20-something women see being a girl as, in the high school confines, the old rules still hold firm. The guys still play that whole "I'm punker than you" popularity game.
"People out of high school writing about high school is kind of sick, being in high school is sick enough," says one 16-year-old girl, who refused to give her name. "It's a bit of a farce."
Bands such as the Rickets, Raggedy Ann, Emily's Sassy Lime and Tummy Ache use their youthfulness as an asset -- to deconstruct the high school hell. Larry Jackson, drummer for the Rickets, says his band focuses their lyrics on high school situations out of protest.
"Another School Song" rips into the teen institution with lines such as, "I've got to do my time everyday/All the teachers hate me cause I have nothing to say."
While the true kid groups wrestle with real roots and the older generations attempt to reclaim their own, cute culture has exploded into the typical cat fighting.
"Everyone is trying to out cute each other," reports Tummy Ache's singer Valentina Silva, 17. "It's like 'Oh, I have a Muppets lunch box.' 'Oh, I have a Strawberry Shortcake lunch box.' If those were the best years of your life then why go on?"