“I am not a piece of food,” T-Rextasy’s lead singer, Lyris Faron, warns in a cartoonish Southern accent on their song "Chik’N." “I’m not that sweet / I can be rude / Don’t call me cupcake or honey pie / Pet names make me want to fucking die.” Opening with the band clapping and giggling, “Chik’N” is as much a joke as it is a pointed memo to leering dudes. The xylophone melodies and twangy, indie-pop instrumentation call to mind ’90s bands like Tullycraft and Cub, whose music brimmed with sweetness and youthful humor. The long-tail influence of those bands is evident in independent rock music right now, as a “sugar, spice, and everything snark” approach has coalesced into an informal scene of sorts.
You can hear it in the music of Seattle band Tacocat, whose surf-rock-inspired music is littered with pop culture references and irreverent humor. “Super fucking horny and I can’t have sex!” screams lead singer Emily Nokes on their 2010 song "UTI," and their new album Lost Time, out this month, skewers everything from horse girl culture to anonymous commenters on the Internet. The group is also part of a scene in Seattle that includes bands like Chastity Belt, Lisa Prank, and Childbirth, who favor DGAF candor about sex and their bodies, rendering tales of male entitlement with sarcasm.
Elsewhere, there’s the Madrid-based garage rock band Hinds, who deliver out-of-tune flirtations like “your hat is oversized, you’ve had a long night!” on their 2016 LP Leave Me Alone. With frequently absurd lyrics and a jangly, casual playing style, Hinds are more The Shaggs than The Kinks, all messy instrumentals and off-kilter harmonies. On The Prettiots's debut album from this year, Fun's Cool, lead singer Kay Kasparhauser sings of boring-but-hot boys in a flat, over-it monotone on minimalist songs like "Boys (That I Dated in High School)" and "Dream Boy." “I dreamed you proposed to me in the obituary section,” Kasparhauser sings on “Move to LA.” “Which makes sense for one who knows how much I love rejection.”
In between songs at her Frankie Cosmos performances, singer Greta Kline plies the audience with corny one-liners and a straight face. Her indie-pop music might sound saccharine on the surface, but it can curdle like milk when Kline’s lyrics turn dark, calling out those who’ve wronged her in cheery tones. “My soul is not like a water park / It's big but surprisingly dark,” she sings on the song “Sinister” from her new album Next Thing. “It's not as forgivable as you once thought / You'd still be here if it really was.” “I’d sell my soul for a free pen, on it the name of your corporation,” she jokes on “I’m 20,” a song about wanting to be as cool as a “washed-up” youth.
"Twee" as a descriptor for music has gone off the rails in recent years, but in all of its forms, the genre has forever stood in opposition to the too-cool rock music of the day. When Sarah Records–released twee music flourished in 1980s U.K., it was a reaction to the machismo of ’70s punk. And when twee rose in America during the 1990s, bands like Tiger Trap and Go Sailor were seen as a depoliticized parallel scene to riot grrrl; women were singing about their (love) lives, mixing sarcasm into their pop melodies, gleefully free of any trace of punk or hardcore influence. And while groups like T-Rextasy, Tacocat, and Frankie Cosmos are working at something far more genre-shifting than “twee,” calling on Ramones-y punk and surf rock and a slew of other genres, their music carries this reactionary tradition, a shot across the bow of apathetic rock music.
These groups present a different idea of what it means to be a political band, one that reacts to punk's predication on seriousness, scolding, and screaming. Onstage, artists like PWR BTTM and Tacocat joke, dance around, and dress up in glittery makeup and clothes with loud prints, pushing a positive, joyous energy into the room — drawing on the implicit queer tradition of The B-52's. These artists write music that recognizes that living isn’t a static affair, that joy is as effective a weapon as fury.
In a statement about PWR BTTM's song “Ugly Cherries,” singer Ben Hopkins says that the song is “an attempt to unpack my own queerness with humor and self-care.” Humor itself is self-care in a society that goads girls and queer kids to self-hatred; using it in music about darker subjects like misogyny and homophobia is a way to call it out. Being silly about something serious is also a way to process, to disempower, to get people to listen and think over what you are singing about. That’s a difficult balance, but pretending to be stoic all the time for the sake of art can be even harder.
This idea of not being afraid to laugh in rock music, or in many cases in the face of oppression and haters themselves, drives the work of many of these bands. What this new wave of jokey indie music is reacting to isn’t macho punk aggression, but numbness. This is music that doesn’t just invite audiences to dance and to celebrate themselves, but also to giggle, geek out, and not hold back.
It’s music, like PWR BTTM’s song "I Wanna Boi," that can toil in its own sadness and vulnerability but turn funny, as when member Liv Bruce sings that listeners can drop them a line at “firstname.lastname@example.org.” It’s why an artist like Frankie Cosmos, whose music may sound classically twee on the surface, can often be found thrashing on the floor with guitar in hand, and attests that her music is punk. These are bands that realize that you can have the soft with the hard; you can sing songs driven by intense aggression and then songs about loving your cats. Just because a band is unapologetically goofy doesn’t mean its art is a joke.