Lately, all of my energy has been going into finishing my book. But last year around this time, I was also working on an idea called “Big Feelings”, which is an attempt to think about a particular strain, orientation, or tendency that I hear in indie rock after the 2000s period. I was working on this idea for the IASPM conference, which then got postponed due to covid. All to say: the conference is now finally coming up, and I’ve been really glad to get to work a little bit on this idea again.
Big Feelings is an attempt to name a certain approach to sound (melody, harmony, timbre), lyrical content, history, and gender performance that come together in indie rock after 2000 to produce a feminist affect in lieu of tackling politics directly. Although every band performs Big Feelings in different ways, I nevertheless hear an identifiable set of characteristics in the music, which are both broad enough to include lots of different kinds of bands, and narrow enough to identify specifically what they’re doing that’s so interesting.
For instance, as I’ve written here before, a big part of this has to do with the use of chord extensions that you don’t here in rock genres that have been traditionally coded masculine, particularly punk and punk adjacent genres. The usefully-named “power chord” has two notes. Big Feelings bands tend to avoid power chords in favor of chords with either lots of notes, and/or the inclusion extended harmonies (“extended” because they come from “above” the 3 notes of a triad, so that even if the chord is voiced with only a few notes, those notes come from a kind of “beyond”–the 7th, 9th, 11th, or 13th scale degrees and their variations). Big Feelings bands saturate their harmonies with extra chord tones, creating a lush and overmuch emotionality in sound–and it is this emphasis on feeling, emotion, and affect that (in part) makes this music political.
I’m not going to detail all of the characteristics here that I identify as a part of this umbrella term; I’ll do that in a future post where I also link the short presentation I’m giving at the IASPM conference. For now I’ll just say that for me, Big Feelings emerged as a concept to try to trace what happened to feminism in indie rock specifically after the riot grrrl movement. I’m really interested in this question because most critical attention to feminism and/in popular music usually moves away from rock around 1995, when The Spice Girls laid the groundwork for what scholars today refer to as postfeminist, popular feminist, or neoliberal feminist cultures. (These are specific but interrelated terms; see James 2020 for a comprehensive overview). So for me, Big Feelings is one of many possible answers to that question, an answer that aims to say something about rock specifically and not pop generally.
How funny, then, to read Laura Snapes’ excellent article in The Guardian last month, titled “Big feelings and nowhere to go: how gen z revived the power ballad”, in which she traces the emergence of vulnerability and emotional honesty in some of today’s most popular songs. This is definitely not unrelated to what I’m talking about, because emotional honesty as an organizing principle (or more accurately, total aesthetic framework) is, as Barry Shank writes, the “founding illusio” of indie rock. What this might indicate is that indie rock is having something of an effect on the broader pop landscape at the moment, helped along perhaps by lynchpin figures like Taylor Swift and Phoebe Bridgers, who either straddle both worlds or else are so big as to encompass them.
In my thinking, Big Feelings is a sort of comprehensive aesthetic that nevertheless has a large spread. At the core of the concept might be a number of bands who embody all of the different aspects that I identify with this aesthetic. But on the periphery, some bands might participate in only one or two of those elements. Because my development of this term is specific, that’s how I see many of the pop artists that Snapes writes about–they are definitely sharing in something of the social dynamic that informs an increased emphasis on feeling, emotionality, and vulnerability in our contemporary moment, even if not all of them participate equally in this post-riot grrrl, indie rock sound that I’m listening to in bands like Snail Mail and Soccer Mommy. There are no hard edges on this concept, but tendencies that get passed around, affects that meld together, and traces that are left in sound for the rest of us to try to sort out.