Scene Spotlight: Cuddlecore

Artist Spotlight courtesy of Callipygian Pigeon

Twee pop was ostensibly a response to the hyper-masculinity of early punk and the strictures it placed on scene signifiers. Belle & Sebastian and Beat Happening are probably the most famous twee pop bands, and certainly emblematic. But the genre starts further back, with the Pastels, the Vaselines, Orange Juice, the C-86 mixtape (at which point in England it jumped the shark and rode it across the Atlantic). Sugary foods feature prominently in twee lyrics (“twee” itself referencing an infant’s mispronunciation of “sweet”), as do sex and death. All the best things. Twee popsters, who in the first wave (mid-late ’80s) were primarily middle-class, white British youngsters, took punk’s minimalism and turned it into miniaturism—small and cutesy. Check this self-consciously adorable rewrite of “Paradise City,” playing on twee pop’s other name, anorak pop (that’s how many of these kids wore parkas).

One of the loudest complaints about twee was (is) that it’s apolitical and naive, sometimes willfully so. The problem with this argument is that willful naiveté isa political position, just an apophatic one. Besides, twee pop bands were up to something about gender. In rewriting the rules of masculinity from jagged anger to lackadaisical heartbreak, ostensibly twee’s sense of masculinity is superior to punk’s. Their sexuality was simpler, all about handwritten letters with heart stickers or maybe kissing but strictly over the shirt. Twee’s men were less angry, more childlike—and more identified with (what they saw as) feminine signifiers. We, however, have a term now for twee’s vision of masculinity: Nice Guy™-ism. Cf. above: “Take me to anorak city where the girls are young and so pretty.” And just put these sour grapes in your ears:

The generous reading that this ironically diagnoses a subculture rather than represents it (a la “Losing My Edge”) still only plays if this is a feeling present in the subculture.

One of the bands referenced in “Pop Songs” is Heavenly, a twee band slightly older than Tullycraft. Heavenly was born from the ashes of Talulah Gosh, a central British twee pop band—minus a few members. So if Talulah Gosh is twee, why was Heavenly this other thing: “cuddlecore”?

And what the hell is cuddlecore?

See, in the years between Gosh and Heavenly, two things happened: riot grrrl and the Vancouver band cub. Riot grrrl appropriated the codes of masculinity in American hardcore and used them for a take-no-sh!t feminism. cub, however, used punk sounds and structures but doubled down on femme signifiers. They performed in pajamas, sang about chinchillas and minor heartbreaks, and covered Beat Happening. Needless to say, in the grotesquely sexist punk scene Bikini Kill was critiquing across the border, “cuddlecore” was a pejorative. But it caught on even among fans because it was addressing something missing from indie music: the right to be feminine in whatever damn way you pleased, including lace ruffle socks. If punk men were embodying socialized codes of masculinity in order to turn them toward subversive political ends, cuddlecore musicians were doing the same with femininity. While femme embodiment might derive from patriarchal oppression, femme-ness was not a source of patriarchy, and there was pleasure to be had in performing it.

So cuddlecore became something of a retroactive term for all melodic punk with female singers. Because Heavenly post-dates cub, they were cuddlecore. And because of Heavenly’s genealogy, Talulah Gosh became cuddlecore. And then cuddlecore was subgenre of twee.

At the risk of participating in this retroactive marginalization of a certain mode of punk (the kind sung by femmes with sing-song voices), I want to give the pre-history of cuddlecore as I see it.

In 1969, the Velvet Underground released their self-titled masterpiece, which ended with “After Hours.” Mo Tucker sang lead for the first time, and her breathy, high-pitched timbre was a radical shift from Lou Reed’s spare, doomed melodies. It was even a fairly sweet portrait of young love. And just look at that music video! An even better example would be “I’m Sticking With You,” which made it into the Juno soundtrack (!), but though it was recorded around this time it wasn’t released until 1985’s VU.

Then in 1983, a band literally named after a candy assortment, Dolly Mixture, cut their double album Demonstration Tapes, which kicks off with the rocking “Dream Come True,” indebted to Lou Reed’s beloved girl groups as much as the Vibrators. After a short blast of guitar: “My mother told me I should stay home.” What a way to introduce yourself to the indie kids! None of the squall of anxiety you’d expect from a scene still reeling from the Sex Pistols and X-Ray Spex. And yet Fvcked Up covered it in 2006 along with “Anorak City.”

Four years later, Talulah Gosh dropped “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction (Thank God),” with a matter-of-fact melancholy, or even nihilism, that subtends both twee and cuddlecore. It seems to be directed at the twee scene itself:

Did you know I’m a pessimist?
Have you ever wanted to die?
Have you no decency?
It’s a hard world, that’s no lie.
All the experiences you have had,
Sometime you must let me know how you tell the good from the bad.

The sense of internecine discord will reach a horrifying limit point in Heavenly (we’ll get there), but here they’re already critiquing the happy-go-luckiness of the scene’s boys, who can’t understand an existential fatigue that Gosh argues is gendered.

The next year, the Primitives (not Lou Reed’s first band, but the one that was on the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack) were picking up what the Jesus & Mary Chain were putting down. Lovely is maybe the first actual cuddlecore album. (Talulah Gosh, e.g. was working exclusively in singles—a feature of the twee scene that traded in small print 7″s and hand-labelled mixtapes.) In “Spacehead,” rumbling, unstoppable drums and thick blushes of distortion undergird Tracy Tracy’s goofy ode to a whimsical object of desire.

One of the most important bands in the movement put out their very small discography at this time (a cynic might say they’re important because their discography was so small—twee loves potential more than actualization). Black Tambourine is a central influence on Dum Dum Girls, the Vivian Girls, and the Pains of Being Pure at Heart. They aren’t quite canonical, partly because they didn’t have time and partly because they were American, but they follow the Velvet Underground rule: “Only 1000 people bought their cd, but all of them started bands.” They darkened the sound of cuddlecore, which previously had some sort of bright counterpoint to the torrents of guitar. Black Tambourine dispensed with that and enunciated the doomed romanticism in songs like “Throw Aggi Off the Bridge” (that would be Aggi Wright of the Pastels—it’s a love letter to her partner Stephen) and “Drown.” But they did decide to cover Suicide’s most uplifting song.

Over in the Pacific Northwest, Beat Happening started happening. Calvin Johnson started K Records to release his band’s material but became the premier distributor of British twee pop (including Talulah Gosh and Heavenly). However, his legacy is still the controversially amateur Beat. Their live shows were notorious for untuned guitars, buckets as drum sets, extemporaneous lyrics, and Johnson’s provocative sexuality. He might have written songs about baked alaska and coy crushes, but (according to Our Band Could Be Your Life) once turned to his friend before a show and said, “Ah, yes, a college show. You know what that means, don’t you? Lots of young girls in striped T-shirts and no bras.” A sweet boy. Luckily for us, when they actually recorded, we got gems from Heather Lewis like “Knick Knack,” off of 1989’s Black Candy.

(Basically an aside: one of the lesser-known bands from this period was Love Child, who on their 1991 cd Okay? put out the swinging “Cigarette Ash.” Alan Licht does some twisty guitar work, expanding the sonic palette for cuddlecore even if no one ultimately took him up on it.)

And soon enough, we get cuddlecore proper when cub releases their debut, Betti-Cola, in 1993. A Canadian trio that originally had Neko Case on drums, they wrote in sing-song but played in tinny miasmas of guitar that harkened back to early distortion rather than the droning, diaphanous textures My Bloody Valentine was popularizing. cub sounded like the house band at a sock hop—indeed, Betti-Cola‘s cover art was drawn by Archie‘s Dan DeCarlo. “Satan sucks, but you’re the best.” How wholesome!

And things get dark, pretty fast. On the 2007 re-release of cub’s second album, Come Out Come Out, there’s a live version of “Cast a Shadow” in which a male audience member creeps his way into joining them on harmonica. “Girls, I think besides being in love with you, you’re going to tour Europe. I even have a place for us to stay.” While they were belittled for, well, basically the same reasons people made fun of Zooey Deschanel, the originary cuddlecore band used their record to record sexism at a rock show. Riot grrrl embedded an explicit critique of sexism in their music, but cub shows how the lack of politics in their music does not mean that these politics are suddenly not relevant to their life—or that their style somehow forecloses sexism. Rather, maybe, men feel free to respond to their “cuteness” with a particular brand of I’m-sweet-you’re-sweet sexism, same as the twee-pop boys.

Heavenly takes this critique this further into distressing realism. With 1995’s P.U.N.K. Girl EP, they use the materials of cuddlecore to indict the buried misogyny in the twee scene. The final song, “So?,” starts with Amelia going over her actions that were read as overtures, wondering if these were mistakes on her part. Strictly a cappella, it’s uncomfortably intimate as she recounts her insecurities before deciding that, even if they were mistakes, “Nothing I did or could ever have done would justify what you did to me last night.” The middle song, “Hearts and Crosses,” makes explicit what remains ambiguous (if you’re really trying to dodge it) in “So?” What seems to be a bubbly ditty about youthful desire turns into a fairly graphic description of the main character’s sexual assault. Cuddlecore curdles in a way riot grrrl’s straightforward polemics never could—there is a hard core under the fetching melodies, all the more terrifying for being cloaked in the markers of vulnerable sweetness.

First-wave cuddlecore basically ended with Maow, the band to which Neko Case decamped after cub. Fellow Vancouverites, they absorbed the cuddlecore label mostly by proximity. They seem to me to be fairly straightforward twang-punk with pronounced feminist lyrics. Take, for example, the wild, perverse, TRP-nightmare power fantasy “Wank,” from their only album, 1996’s The Unforgiving Sounds of…. I don’t even need to explicate this one:

From the bar I blow you a kiss
Impossible for you to resist
You really wish you could take me home
Boy, you’re going home alone
And I know tonight you want to be with me

As twee pop continues its resurgence in contemporary indie (thanks, Sufjan), so much so that it’s basically a metonym for indie pop itself, I wanted to write about the prehistory of bands and songwriters like Dum Dum Girls, Angel Olsen, Mitski, and Frankie Cosmos, who have all produced masterworks of twee that are seriously indebted to cuddlecore, and the politics of femme punk aggression (and cuddliness).

Cuteness is still something of a frontier for gender emancipation.

Thumbnail

So what can this mode do right now? Times New Viking produced an anthem for this new wave, and it just so happens to be the best of neo-post-cuddlecore (sorry).

Remove the insides of things
Please don’t have fear for common beings
Have lust for rivalries
Be in love with novelties

The bassist for the Vivian Girls, Kickball Katy, put out a tiny masterpiece of sadomasochistic desire under her solo moniker La Sera, with the refrain “I done wrong” as a stomach-churning reason one might feel they deserve heartbreak. There’s something that seems almost regressive about it, until we’re forced to accept that emotional reports are not political ideals. That might be scarier than heartbreak itself.

One of the purest expressions of cuddlecore phenomenology came from Colleen Green a few years back. “Heavy Sh!t” put her on the indie radar for its absolutely distilled chorus: “Heavy sh!t, on my mind / Weighs a ton, not a good time.” Ironic, winking, but also genuinely felt and floating above a churning, nauseated guitar chug and primitive drum machine.

One band in particular seems to have the right idea about the history of this subsub(sub…)genre: Golden Grrrls. It’s right there in the name. Bea Arthur as Kathleen Hanna.

And lastly, this EP from the Maybellines. This group is less than a footnote, but I love them. There is close to nothing about them on the internet, so I had to upload this EP myself (plz don’t sic a DMCA notice on me) if anybody were to hear them.

FURTHER READING
This really good article is like the only extant piece of criticism on cuddlecore. The author includes Veruca Salt though, which… maaaayyyyybeeeeeeee.