There's a band called I'm From Barcelona. They have a video that gained popularity on YouTube: It's of their song We're From Barcelona. It shows a lot of young people swaying and singing along to its sweet and catchy melody. The words are nonsensical. The style of music is nostalgic: It sounds like mid-seventies easy-listening pop, with a brass band accompaniment. It reminds me a bit of the famous I'd like To Teach The World To Sing Coca-Cola advertisement; it has that same mix of vague pacifism and corporate blandness.
The weirdness of contemporary culture cannot be more accurately represented than by this band, and by its non-ironic popularity. Actually, I have no idea if its popularity is ironic or not. It's not clear if the song is a joke or not. Well, parts of it clearly are: First of all they're not from Barcelona, they're from Sweden. And they're clearly being silly at least part of the time.
But the group's creator, one Emmanuel Lundgren, writes in all earnestness on his website ( ) that his music is "explosive happy pop songs" and that they are "fuelled by love and vacation." The backdrop imagery on that website, though, is an illustration that would not be out of place on a dentist's wall. . . . Is that a joke or not?
Well, one thing that indicates that hipsters are behind this is that the band stems from a clique: Lundgren explains that there are 29 people singing on the record because when he came up with his songs, he had all his friends to his apartment, with all their instruments, to help record it. So the record is as much a celebration of belonging to this cool set. And the element that finally proves their cool beyond all questioning is, as usual, their appearance: These are young Swedes in the international hipster uniforms of second-hand clothes -- lots of wool cardigans and pyjamas -- and piles and mounds and whacks of facial hair. Facial hair, in case you haven't been following, is mandatory for young musicians these days, and it must be as outrageously nostalgic as possible: greasy little mustaches, mutton-chop sideburns -- these are the markers of the contemporary arts graduate with his own whimsical blog.
In fact, this group is part of a musical school with impeccable hipster credentials. The tendency is called "twee" or "twee pop," and it has been around since the 1980s; it is only recently that Sweden has become a global production centre for this genre. The word means exactly what it always has: overly cute, affectedly quaint. It probably derives from a child's pronunciation of "sweet." It's the word that comes to mind in describing a tea shop with too much floral wallpaper.
There are hundreds of bands all over the world that delight in this appellation: They make soft songs with acoustic guitars, on the whole, and they sing about summer girls and sunshine or about their cats. They make a cult of gentleness.
The Ur-twee band, in my opinion, was the eighties group the Smiths, with their whiny songs about urban neurosis. A nineties girl band called the Sundays also went a long way to defining the aesthetic. A contemporary group you may have heard of, called Belle and Sebastian, is perhaps the most famous one to fit the moniker. Other twee bands include the Lucksmiths, Cat's Miaow, the Field Mice and a variety of others with sun or sunshine in their names. (The funniest belongs to the Swedish outfit Suburban Kids With Biblical Names.) You can often hear the Canadian forms of the genre on CBC Radio 3 on Saturday evenings.
The record labels who put this stuff out are proudly small and not based in huge urban centres. They put pictures of their kitty cats on their websites, along with defiant manifestos.
It's interesting that such calculated wimpiness is vaunted as being somehow anti-establishment. The manifestos and blog entries claim that twee pop is a reaction against the chest-thumping machismo of punk rock and other loud forms of indie rock. It calls angst-ridden rock "pretentious."
This I find amusing, as I can't think of anything more pretentious than the affectations of these fashion-obsessed students. Like all movements that begin in anti-cool, this one has inevitably become itself cool. Sorry kids; you can't get away from it.
Is it ironic? I think, on the whole, it is not. The people I know who listen to this music (who are uniformly female) just really like the soft sweet songs. And the shaggy-haired soulful boys in sweaters who stare out from the album covers are of course the very embodiment of sensitivity.
I'm From Barcelona is a slightly more complicated case: This is the serious product of a group that can't, for reasons of pride, appear to take anything seriously, so they make a joke of it.
I find such pervasive irony rather cowardly; at its worst, it is nihilistic. But then I can't listen to five minutes of any of this stuff without wanting to break something. This is a clear indication of my non-hip status, which is a corollary of age.