Ingrid Michaelson, “Girls Chase Boys,” Lights Out (2014)
I really like this song! We did it at the Jukebox earlier in the year, to lukewarm response, but it passed me by and I only just heard it recently. (I swear this is not the reason why.)
Apparently Michaelson is a singer-songwriter who has a fanbase that is passionate, larger than you might think, but not particularly possessed of cultural cachet. She’s known for contributing songs to Grey’s Anatomy, which might account for her status on the margins of popular music; it’s a show young enough to have an audience interested in a lively soundtrack, but old and female enough not to have anyone else care. But I still don’t really know much about Michaelson, so mostly I’m just guessing.
I like “Girls Chase Boys” basically because I think it’s cute, and as with considering something to be clever, it’s not a particularly defensible explanation for the appeal of a song. One person’s cute is another’s cloying, and I’m not sure I can accurately predict even for myself what it takes for something to fall on the safe side of the line distinguishing charming from nauseating.
So I think the Postal Service, early Architecture in Helsinki, All Girl Summer Fun Band, and Lisa Mitchell’s “Coin Laundry" to be kinda adorable, and Karmin, I’m From Barcelona, the songs in which Robyn is happy, and Owl City’s “Fireflies” to be pretty gross. The Regina Spektor and Ben Folds duet “You Don’t Know Me" is treacly, but I like it anyway. (It has a lot in common with the Michaelson song, actually.) I consider Frente’s "Accidently Kelly Street" to be completely endearing, but I might not think that if I hadn’t first heard it when I was nine years old. Meaghan Trainor’s "All About That Bass" could strike the right person as cute. Why is it I love Feist’s "Mushaboom" but "1234" leaves me cold?
If there is something stark that distinguishes the good from the bad amongst this collection, I’m not sure I could pinpoint it. If someone were to hold the complete opposite view to me on each of those songs, I wouldn’t be able to say what it was that set us on different sides of the fence. Cute works in mysterious ways.
Why is cute appealing at all in music? It’s often not; its often an indicator of insubstantiality; of triviality; of the elevation of aesthetic over meaning, and a flimsy and unserious aesthetic at that. Cute is flim-flam. It is feminine. It is childish. More troubling for those of us tempted to defend it on the basis that all of those prior things should not necessarily be considered bad is that cute is also, more often than not, white and monied — look at my list of artists above — suggesting it’s a luxury of the moderately privileged. Perhaps that’s why, in pop music, cute is the province of middle class white women — though middle class white men who deploy it seem to attract less scrutiny.
(There is a non-white cute in the Japanese aesthetic of kawaii — which folks seem to consider directly translatable to cute in English, and I wish I knew enough about Japanese culture to say definitively whether they are indeed interchangeable. Nonetheless, for Westerners, kawaii is a non-White cuteness, sure, but it’s also exoticised foreign cuteness.)
A close ancestor of cute in today’s indie-pop is probably the twee bands of the 1980s and 1990s. The names alone suggest as much: Sarah Records, The Field Mice, Talulah Gosh. Later, Belle and Sebastian named themselves for a children’s cartoon. The Lucksmiths and Darren Hanlon share a wordy vocal style that echoes the repetitive directness of a child’s speech. These bands were wont to augment their sound with lo-fi accompaniments that share a rudimentary quality with toy instruments: glockenspiel, drum machine, ukelele, cheap keyboards, handclaps. Tilly and the Wall used tap shoes for percussion.
Especially in the early days, many of these groups cut the preciousness of their sound with dark or wistful or unexpectedly adult themes (there’s a deep sadness to the Field Mice’s “Emma’s House”; Another Sunny Day sang “You Should All Be Murdered”; Belle and Sebastian songs were fey odes to sex and religion). But this seemed to fall by the wayside as cute continued its hold on indie-pop into the early ’00s. And not always at the expense of the music, either; many songs of this era survived arrested development, sexlessness, or an aversion to low-end. For every Devendra Banhart there was a Pipettes. For every awful Moldy Peaches song there was a great Moldy Peaches song.
At the Jukebox, Crystal said of “Girls Chase Boys,” “The clap-stomp-plink-clash percussive quality of all of Michaelson’s instrumentation isn’t quite trendy,” and that’s right, but it’s very cute, and typical to this style. In my attempts to make adwave happen (it still might!) I said, discussing Anna Kendricks’s “Cups”:
…advertisers have found in this specific indie-pop sound the perfect accompaniment for a product pitch. But what is it about trad-folk facsimile, merely good-enough vocals, airy arrangements, and musique concrete hooks — chimes, claps, whistling, cups — that so evidently suggests 21st century commerce? Well, there’s plenty of aural space for voice over. The style of singing is approachable in the same way punk is; the amateurism is inclusive. The acoustic sounds suggest a Walden-esque (or at least Etsy-an) authenticity. Given the — fair or otherwise — cultural connotations indie rock shares with a young and cosmopolitan leisure class, there’s probably an aspirational element as well. And it helps that many people seem to genuinely like this music; the mode is fun and the hooks are ear-catching in their compositional unfamiliarity.
Adwave isn’t always cute; it isn’t always terrible either. The feel-good vibe seems appropriate here; again at the Jukebox, Katherine chastised the Michaelson track as “a breakup song for breakups so blithely unemotional you don’t need songs,” but it sounds to me more like a post-break-up song, a tune for the times when the worst is over and you feel like you might be able to start building yourself back into being a normal person again. “All the broken hearts in the world still beat” is a great lyric and in the context of the song, it sounds like a hard-won realisation, not vacuous optimism. Still, it would still sound perfect soundtracking a thirty-second slot promoting the newest Apple product.
Another word for adwave — and “Girls Chase Boys” fits even better into this category — might be lifestyle indie, with the adjective being used in the same sense as it is in lifestyle magazines. Lifestyle indie, whose origins I’ll date to Peter Bjorn and John’s “Young Folks” and whose most significant moments include Foster The People’s “Pumped Up Kicks,” fun.’s “We are Young,” and the entire existence of American Authors, is indie rock not about a lifestyle — Pavement was that — but that presents itself as a product designed to fit as seamlessly into one’s lifestyle as a throw rug or a new dining set or a coffee table book from Urban Outfitters. It’s indie pop where the set of artistic ideals have been flipped from those of indie rock (music assumed, correctly or otherwise, to be “virtually impossible to make .. compatible with mainstream tastes in the first place”) to those of pop (catchiness, immediacy, spectacle) only with the crucial handicap that it discounts the personability and charisma of mainstream pop stars. (Perhaps someone somewhere actually does consider Nate Ruess to be their own personal Harry Styles; if so, that is wonderful!)
I checked out a couple other Ingrid Michaelson songs, and none I’ve come across seems particularly charming, (“You and I" begins by rhyming "honey" with "money" and "funny" with "bunny"!) so I don’t think I’m missing a special talent. This does seem to suggest lifestyle indie, though I would argue "Girls Chase Boys," in its I-get-knocked-down determination, has a stronger emotional tug than anything I’ve heard from that sphere since MGMT’s trio of debut singles. But if "Girls Chase Boys" is cute like a cute wall fixture or a nice set of stationery, then those are lovely things to have! One of my friends bought a finely detailed hand-drawn map of Washington DC off the Internet and I totally covet it; it’s compact and beautiful. And "Girls Chase Boys" is a song I have to stop myself from listening to too often in case I grow tired of it too quickly.