Photo Illustration: Renee Klahr/NPR; Courtesy of Michael Galinsky
NPR Music’s Turning the Tables is a project envisioned to challenge sexist and exclusionary conversations about musical greatness. Up until now we have focused on overturning conventional, patriarchal best-of lists and histories of popular music. But this time, it’s personal. For 2021, we’re digging into our own relationships to the records we love, asking: How do we know as listeners when a piece of music is important to us? How do we break free of institutional pressures on our taste while still taking the lessons of history into account? What does it mean to make a truly personal canon? The essays in this series will excavate our unique relationships with the albums we love, from unimpeachable classics by major stars to subcultural gamechangers and personal revelations. Because the way that certain music comes to hold a central place in our lives isn’t just a reflection of how we develop our taste, but how we come to our perspective on the world.
Before I learned to start hating myself, I learned to love music. Spice Girls were the first obsession, a fiery burst of autonomous artistic interest, what I now view as an early expression of fandom. I adored those five resolute British women in impossibly high platform shoes, so much larger than life that they couldn’t be close to the ground. When they spoke, they shouted, and about “girl power,” liberating me into consumerism. (At one point, I slept with their special-edition Polaroid camera next to me.) Of course, then, I didn’t recognize the Spice Girls mantra as brilliant marketing lifted from feminism’s roots, and so, my hair done up in Baby Spice pigtails, peace sign extended, smiling ear to ear, I posed. Baby was always my favorite.
Then there was Britney, the Baby of Y2K pop princesses. She was as beautiful as a Texas wildflower, or at least as delicate as one. (As resilient, too, listeners would later come to find.) I longed to be like her, and when the longing became too painful, I vilified her. Misogyny was easy: My early adolescence lined up perfectly with third wave emo and pop-punk, where the girls weren’t, and so I stopped listening to women entirely. Unlike Britney and her ilk, this was “serious art,” I told myself. It was valuable because it was motivated by rage, spiky and fast, which meant good music was made by imprudent men yelling about desirable, devilish women. And in the most harrowing cases, girls. I hated them, but mostly, I hated myself for not being them, and for not knowing how to articulate my own anger. Later, in early adulthood, I’d come to realize that punk allowed women to exorcise frustration, too, but that was only after I started taking a hard look at my own internalized sexism. In my mind, serious sounds were exclusively hard sounds — until I heard Tiger Trap.
Rarely does a life-altering album reveal itself, right away, to alter your life, but Tiger Trap’s self-titled debut came pretty close. It was 2009; I was an indie-pop-curious college freshman — no doubt a product of the Slumberland Records bands that were popular in indie-rock circles at the time — but ultimately, I was whimsy-averse. My best friend at the time and I could be found on Friday nights chugging whiskey shooters, feeling morally superior to what we viewed to be a sexless, fanciful Brooklyn music scene: a world influenced by twee “revivalism,” as if the enduring success of Zooey Deschanel, Wes Anderson, Eames furniture and secondhand cardigans was flash-in-the-pan. (Five years later, the late great Marc Spitz released a book on the gentle revolution’s ubiquity, arguing that twee is “the most powerful youth movement since punk and hip-hop.”) Of course, fans of quaint music get busy, too, and punk is more than just having a bad attitude. We decided we were fed up with rock and roll egos, and yet, I was controlled by my own.
Then I heard Tiger Trap’s only album, 1993’s Tiger Trap, released on the subculture powerhouse K Records (whose logo Kurt Cobain had tattooed on his arm) the year after I was born. To my ears, it was immediately legible; twee pop, it turned out, was fervently informed by punk: snappy riffs, fast-track tempos, propulsive drums. Unlike the Sacramento band’s riot grrrl contemporaries in the Pacific Northwest, Tiger Trap’s sugar-y sweet punk was more in line with U.K. guitar pop bands like Talulah Gosh (“You’re Sleeping”), critical of DIY punk’s preference for phalluses and articulating that defiance with post-adolescent crush songs: intricate instrumentals (“Tore a Hole,”) discordant detours (“Eight Wheels”) and most frequently, ascendant love rock (“Words and Smiles,” “For Sure,” it’s everywhere.) The band lacked Bikini Kill’s straightforward protest, but shared in its pursuit of pleasure. Tiger Trap’s joyful redolence was immediately revolutionary to my ears. The album was a courageous explication of women’s benevolent desires, a collection of songs that offered cradling sympathy, what I recognized as a compassionate objection to an oppressive world. The album doesn’t pretend to be a safe space, but it allowed me to put down my shield. I was growing heavy; this was light.
Greatest of all: Upon first listen, I realized whimsy wasn’t a death sentence, and that Tiger Trap’s record was far from milquetoast (another internalized sexism I adopted somewhere down the line). Sonically, it’s the chemical crash of a sugar rush, dangerously addictive and so, so sweet on the senses. Tiger Trap sounded simple, sure, like the best punk bands, but Rose Melberg and her group were far from amateurish. Unlike the best punk bands, she demonstrated a masterful understanding of melody. Even her voice — soft and commanding, two qualities not opposite one another but often assumed to be converse — is uniquely intransigent, unlike anything I had familiarized myself with. I immediately adored her, and the band and the record — first fighting the impulse to become defensive (anyone who found the album “darling,” I assumed, wasn’t listening closely enough) then embracing its ebullience, Tiger Trap’s most soothing characteristic. Dance the pain away, feel cute while doing so. (It takes a great band with excellent musicality to pull off a refrain of “my broken heart,” and a bridge equally as sentimental: “How could you do something so ugly when you had / Just said you loved me moments before?”) The record is soft — not as soft as, say, Melberg’s later band, The Softies — and in doing so, subversive. Tiger Trap’s tender pop was punk in a hushed tone. I was, and remain, hooked.
Loving Tiger Trap is at least partially responsible for turning me into a twee obsessive (used here as a near-synonym for “indie pop,”) manifesting in an annual indie pop prom concert, featuring bands like The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Waxahatchee, Bad Banana and Swearin, and a late-to-the-party member of the niche, Chickfactor zine-subscribed, cuddlecore pop audience. I learned to love sentimental sounds of all kinds — music a few years prior I assumed I wasn’t supposed to like and wrote off as frivolous, a word I’ve come to realize I was using as a synonym for feminine.
While it is energizing, to give yourself permission to like what you like — and for women and people of color, it may be political, too — it’s also not something I’m always willing to do. In that way, I can’t exactly call my admiration of Tiger Trap empowering, or uncomplicated. The songs are precious, and on the surface, unchallenging of women’s conventional gender expression. They are affectedly quaint; centering on unrequited crushes (“Prettiest Boy,”) adorkable companionship (“Puzzle Pieces”), introversion and insecurity (“Supreme Nothing.”) It is no doubt youthful music, pleasant pop that, were you to only listen to the lyrics, one might associate with some kind of arrested adolescence; regressive listening for any adult.
It’s a bit of a paradox. I love Tiger Trap. I love wearing peter pan collars and cozy sweaters and drinking tea and thinking about the songwriters Melberg no doubt inspired, but I am also frequently paralyzed by the fear of appearing too young, too juvenile, too cute-obsessed. Men infantilize women as a means of oppression, and by giving into my long repressed interest in cute music, what I had lost in the emo era, I sometimes wonder if I am doing the same to myself through indie pop or boy band music. What does that say about my own autonomy? If I am drawn to cute artistic pleasures, one of the many listening habits Tiger Trap opened up for me, what do I gain by prohibiting myself from enjoying it? Is it dangerous to give into that desire, even if it isn’t hurting anyone? Am I hurting myself? Or am I simply reiterating the boring misogyny of my adolescence? My face is round with pronounced dimples, a recessive gene inherited from my parents’ round, dimpled faces — I used to joke that we were built like cartoons, and what are cartoons if not adults’ imagined images, meant to appeal to the very young? “Cuteness” is in my DNA; a rejection of it feels a lot like self-hatred.
Plus, I’m not so sure the reading of Tiger Trap as naive or regressive is fair: Unlike many childhoods, Tiger Trap‘s twee is ever-aware of patriarchal cruelty. The songs sound jejune, but they could never be green. Only weary, and cute. These songs demonstrate what it means to be both of those things at once, rather than position them as diametrically opposed.
More than that, listening to Tiger Trap instilled in me new axes in which to appreciate art: Men performing anger isn’t the only avenue to “serious” music, and what is the value of labeling genres as “significant” and others “insignificant,” anyway? Punk’s abrasion and the balminess of indie pop have their value separately, and in all the ways they intersect now and may in the future. Without recognizing the glorious softness of Tiger Trap and indie pop more broadly, it is unlikely I would’ve opened by ears and heart to bright tones of black metal, the dreamy glissando of pedal steel, the endearing earnestness of most Disney teen pop performers, hell, the ascendent five-part harmonies of most boy band music. (That last one I’m especially appreciative of, because boy bands became the subject of my first book. And, let’s face it, there’s a shared “swoony passivity” in twee pop performers and in boy bands. Both worlds reject traditional masculinity; how they approach femininity is a different story.) It is not simply that I began to find value in gauzy sounds, but that I began to understand there are illimitable ways in which to listen. I’m forever struck by the word “softness,” too — it is frequently used to describe this music, and it is also a word used as a synonym for “plasticity.” In psychology, “plasticity” refers to “neuroplasticity,” brain cells’ ability to grow, adapt and reorganize in response to new experiences. What is Tiger Trap to me if not a catalyst for change, new soft listening that has fundamentally altered my approach to music?
There is no doubt a pop cultural infatuation with female adolescence (the “not a girl, not a woman” infantile state Britney sang about all those years ago, Baby Spice’s puerile moniker); is the winsome preservation of some childlike wonder damaging not only to myself, but to young people now, whose youth is a source of constant fetishization? Spitz once said people are drawn to “twee” because of a person’s inherent desirability for purity, but I think a more exacting word might be “goodness,” the form associated with innocence. (And that says nothing about the inherent whiteness of a group like Tiger Trap, a racial identity I can only partially relate to.) Those caveats aside, instead of simply objectifying girlhood, Tiger Trap taught me “softness” can mean exercising a capacity for awe and sensitivity. “Finding your inner child” is big business, anyway, and appreciating this record doesn’t make me any less of a woman, or more of a girl. It makes me a complicated person, simultaneously hard and soft, wise and exuberant, everything and nothing, a twee punk who loves both Baby Spice and Britney Spears. It allows me to shout my enthusiasm — to give me a language in which to love music, my own canon and, ultimately, myself.
Maria Sherman is a music and culture writer living in Brooklyn. She is the author of Larger Than Life: A History of Boy Bands from NKOTB to BTS.