Bedroom Pop – Origins and Contentions Surrounding the New Wave of Indie Music

With reclaimed sounds and reclaimed fashion, a new world of Lo-Fi, laidback indie became known and defined as Bedroom Pop, more or less through one 2018 Spotify playlist. Artists like Clairo, Cuco, and Beabadoobee struck a chord; they understood what it was to be young, to look back at the past and wonder, but also look forward to where you want to be, all whilst forging your own identity in the present.

Clairo and Beabadoobee, Image: pinterest.co.uk

But Bedroom Pop, isn’t quite as straightforward as vintage clothing and nostalgia. It’s a musical rabbit hole that people may have been too quick to define. Every generation has had their own soundtrack, but in this heavily media saturated world, with access to the back catalogues of all these different eras, is Bedroom Pop really this brand-new phenomenon it has been portrayed to be? And does this title accurately convey the complexities of the music and artists that it’s intended to? What really are the origins and contentions surrounding the new wave of indie music?

Pioneers

The last couple of years has seen a resurgence of a more stripped back, raw style of music in the face of mass-produced mainstream pop, partly through necessity. This has reignited the Lo-Fi sounds and stylings originally pioneered by R. Stevie Moore and Daniel Johnson throughout the 1980’s. Known as the ‘Godfather of Home Recording’, R. Stevie Moore can be regarded as a founding father of the genre. It’s his basic practices of recording in a casual setting that’s allowed modern artists to begin to make music, gain a foothold in the industry and, ultimately, come to typify Lo-Fi in its new, modern environment. Moore worked in stylistic tandem with the late Daniel Johnson throughout the decade and beyond.

Daniel Johnston, Image: thebigtakeover.com

The definition of a tortured genius, he recorded his work on cassette tapes in his home whilst he fought against his own mental health issues. It was from this that his signature style was born. Described as ‘pure’ and ‘childlike’ at times, his music was raw and emotional, suiting the Lo-Fi sound to a tee. Despite this, however, his fame only skyrocketed in the early 90s when Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, himself plagued with mental illness, wore a Johnston t-shirt.

And, whilst artists such as Beabadoobee still identify Johnston as a major influence in their work, it was this blurring of indie and popularity that has led to Bedroom Pop artists regularly attracting 10s of millions of streams on Spotify and other music media platforms.

Development in the 90s

But of course, this was not an overnight transformation and, over the next two decades, the indie music scene took vast strides to transform this rough and ready sound into the more clean-cut finish closer to Bedroom Pop. Two of the major exponents of this evolution were Beck and Pavement, who ran with the Moore-esque feel but made it more accessible. These were artists signed to labels, producing and promoting studio albums whilst maintaining indie tags. Beck’s rise to prominence came in the wake of Lo-Fi style releases but as he developed, he expanded his repertoire, spanning and fusing multiple genres. And it was this that was really the key to his success, and the next step in the journey that brought us to the Bedroom Pop of today. Beck was able to appeal to different audiences outside of mainstream pop at the time, capturing the imagination of both US and UK audiences in one of the first proper instances of international indie.

Beck, Image: rollingstone.com

Pavement engrained themselves in the 90s scene more subtly. It was their committed cult following that really solidified them as a prototype for recent indie artists. Lyrically, they surmised everything it was to be individual. They were self-effacing, understated and aware of where they stood in the industry. Many commentators have now hailed their music and influence as some of the best of the decade and, with the prevalent streaming platforms of today, they are, once again, a leading voice in Lo-Fi.

Emergence in the 2010s

The evolved Lo-Fi sounds of Beck and Pavement created the mould from which the modern music revolution was born. Only in the 2010s was this really realised, and this has much to do with the modern music culture providing more links than ever to its past. Music media, such as Spotify, has provided young artists with a new avenue to explore styles and establish their own sounds. It’s well documented that Lo-Fi has been able to tap into a collective subconscious of today’s up and comers, who continually site its pioneers as inspiration, breeding the newest iteration of the style.

Clairo and Beabadoobee both paid tribute to Johnston upon his passing whilst the latter also penned a tribute to Pavement and their frontman in the form of ‘I Wish I Was Stephen Malkmus.’ Just as technological advances have allowed artists to go back in time, they have also allowed them to create their own Lo-fi style music from their bedrooms, garages, etc., thus continuing the DIY legacy the 80s trailblazers. Still Woozy exemplifies this, with all his music stemming from his garage in California. And to what does he accredit his growing success? Spotify’s ‘Fresh Finds’ playlist. This is the revolution and it’s coming from everywhere.

Embodiment of youth angst and ambivalence

But why has Bedroom Pop struck such a strong chord with so many young people, artists and consumers alike? Well, just as ‘The Bedroom’ becomes a sanctuary in our developing years, it now has a soundtrack that is not constrained by location. It’s that same feeling but accessible on the go. Bedroom Pop has become an underground voice of the youth, embodying their angst and ambivalence, whilst helping them in the challenges they face at this age, such as mental health and image issues, as well as feelings of disconnect from society.

Pony – Rex Orange County, Image: wikipedia.com

There is a strong confessional tone to much of the music and, for proof of this, you need look no further than Rex Orange County’s latest album Pony, that documents his experiences with love, health and self-worth. An ability to talk about subjects that affect both artist and audience makes this music transferable, and the sounds of the adopted Lo-Fi techniques aid the ambivalent nature of the genre and occupy a space that is somewhat ‘other’ from main society, whilst allowing for inclusion of anyone who finds value in the lyrics. Rex’s song ‘Always’ from his aforementioned album opens up with an experience that is personal but felt by many and creates an artist-audience rapport through shared experiences that tend to be overlooked through an expectation to move on.

International and Universal

A great deal of the success that Bedroom Pop has found stems from the universality that it has been allowed through subject and music media. Many of the genre’s most popular artists hail from different cultures, countries, and backgrounds, even managing to bridge the gap between West and East with near unrivalled success. You can move from the Americas, through Europe, to Asia and beyond to the tune of the Mexican-American Cuco, the American Gus Dapperton, the Norwegian Boy Pablo, the British Rex Orange County, the Filipino-British Beabadoobee and the Thai (by way of New Zealand) Phum Viphurit.

Phum Viphurit, Image: medium.com

This sort of reach and draw to audiences reflects the power of the modern music industry, its shift back to DIY stylings and, once more, the strength of the subjects the artists choose to explore. Being both universal and international feeds into the self-tailored ideologies of the original Lo-Fi that first popularized it as a style in the 1980s.

Styles

Bedroom Pop has been widely accepted as the title for this new iteration of Lo-Fi styles, but with the many varying influences of artists there is a large degree of variation in what is produced within the genre. Sounds can vary from Lo-Fi Jazz and Hip Hop (like mxmtoon) to Synth style R&B (Steve Lacy) to Psychedelia (Good Morning) in a way unlike any other genre, so should it really all fall under this one term? Would it not make sense to view Bedroom Pop more as an umbrella term for artists experimenting with their own sound in this formative medium? It can certainly be argued.

Inspirations come from many places and what people are exposed to by their parents often goes a long way to informing their musical pathway. The variations in musical style make it a hard genre to define and forcing it together, especially given the fluid nature of modern identification in all aspects of life, can lead to confusion and demotivation in an otherwise thriving scene.

A place in today’s narrative

What really works for artists operating under this umbrella is their very apparent place in today’s narrative that has grown their popularity. Many of the artists are willing to talk, or at least sing, about issues such as mental health, gender roles and stereotypes, which helps such discussions in wider society. This creates a blurring of lines between stylistic and societal norms that imitates the new youth of today, whose access to internet and media leads to far more personal identification.

Contentions – Production

It’s easy to accept this new music as ‘just Bedroom Pop’, but that would be ignoring the complexities of both music and artist. As with anything that embodies a group, a feeling, a time, there are many contentions surrounding this area. Firstly, you must look at the production value of these new bedroom tracks. Many critics may be quick to point out that the production value has ascended far beyond what may be expected of Lo-Fi tracks, with collaborations with producers serving to prove this point. Look at the Rex Orange County hit ‘Loving Is Easy’ produced by Benny Sings – just one example of a collaboration with a major producer.

Now, this can be seen as misleading and, in some ways, betraying the genre and its history. And, whilst the production value has indeed rocketed, it’s not at the expense of the integrity of the music. It’s all still rooted in the honesty and original charm and there is a DIY ethos surrounding the production of music by the artists, for them and their audiences. A higher production value is not synonymous with a sacrifice of the intimacy of the work. There must be a level of trust in the artist not to abandon their sound for the mainstream, but they must also be allowed to grow and realise what they want from their career. A pure focus on Lo-fi in a practical production way can distract, even detract, from the work itself.

It can go the other way too. Billie Eilish is critically acclaimed yet produced her album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? from her home and then ended up on the James Bond score with ‘No Time To Die”.

Contentions – Longevity

Another contention surrounds the longevity of the genre. Is it a phase or credible long-term? This remains to be seen but, given the impact of both Beck and Pavement influences to this day, it has potential. The main question is whether the audiences will grow up with the artists they love and embrace their journey into potentially more mature avenues.

With the current age tapping into the themes of teen angst and identity, it could lose direction as artists grow, but it cannot be disregarded as a phase simply on a hypothetical basis, or you risk alienating a group who already see themselves on the edge of society. Ultimately this all comes together for the question; is Bedroom Pop the new wave of indie music in the modern musicscape? It’s proliferating the mainstream in ways we haven’t seen since the Britpop of the 1990s and occupying a hole in the music industry away from manufactured pop. Much of these arguments can, and have, been angled at wider indie producers before but, with the access to any artist at your fingertips, perhaps it’s taste, rather than big money labels, that are once more driving musical evolution?

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