“Rock ‘n’ roll is a teenage sport, meant to be played by teenagers of all ages—they could be 15, 25, or 35. It all boils down to whether they’ve got the love in their hearts, that beautiful teenage spirit.”
Calvin Johnson, 1979
BY MIN CHEN
Not a few years after he made the above pronouncement to the New York Rocker, Calvin Johnson, fresh out of his teen years, formed Beat Happening. The Olympia-based trio prided itself on its unschooled musicianship and lo-fi aesthetic, deployed in service of an equally childlike worldview. In Beat Happening’s universe are juvenescent hallmarks—rabbits to be fed on “Fourteen” and crushes to be had on “Bewitched”—occasionally glimpsed through the tender lens of nostalgia (“Who let norms come to harm?” asks “Indian Summer”). Not everything is this innocent though. Those artless means are also applied to artful ends: “I got a playhouse so let’s stop / We won’t argue and we won’t talk / We’ll just take off all our clothes / In my playhouse that’s how it goes,” Johnson sings on “Playhouse,” in full realization of his teenage spirit.
Beat Happening’s shambling sound and unworldly stance throughout the ’80s and ’90s were not isolated incidents. While echoing The Shaggs that came before it (see: “My Pal Foot Foot”), those same qualities could also be found in artists from The Shop Assistants (“Safety Net”) to Daniel Johnston (“True Love Will Find You In The End”), and much later, The White Stripes (“We’re Going To Be Friends”) to The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (“Young Adult Friction”). However raw and childlike these approaches, they were often apt vessels for very adult emotions—longing, confusion, joy, and as demonstrated above, desire—made plain and direct, and delivered with utmost sincerity and vulnerability.
Or as Girlpool intone on “Ideal World,” the opening number to their 2015 debut album Before The World Was Big, “I feel safest in knowing / That I am true.” The track’s but one entry point into the emotional plainspokenness that lines the Californian duo’s work. “We wanted [our songs] to be as close as possible to what we felt—really concentrated music,” insisted guitarist Cleo Tucker. “Vulnerability is something that comes out of being honest and confronting yourself.” So note the pair’s other compositions like 2014’s “Blah Blah Blah” (“You leave me crying in the fucking rain / I want you) or “Chinatown” (“If I loved myself, would I take it the wrong way?”), on which Tucker’s and bassist Harmony Tividad’s hearts are bared, their voices earnestly harmonizing against a backdrop of rudimentary riffs.
Unadorned and unaffected, Girlpool’s debut record personified a spontaneous, childlike perspective, practically guaranteeing an emotional candor from title to sleeve. Indeed, for a record christened Before The World Was Big (after a title track that asks, “Mom and Dad, I love you, do I show it enough?”), its cover duly depicted a pair of children, surrounded by colored building blocks and toy vehicles, and wearing expressions of neutral contentment. Drawn and colored with a rough hand, the image, created by artist and friend of the band Jaxon Demme, presents a cross between a 1950s stock picture and Henry Darger’s folksy, homespun Vivian Girls. It is ostensibly a picture of childhood play, made surreal by the butterfly wings sketched onto the girl’s back and given gravity by the black figures found amid the kid’s toys. (It’s also worth viewing the cover alongside Beat Happening’s 1985 debut or Daniel Johnston’s 1993 pressing Fun.)
While Big’s sleeve leaned into a raw realism, Demme’s cover for Girlpool’s sophomore Powerplant, released last year, served up abstraction. In fact, the artwork here is not just childlike, recalling childhood, but looks as if it emerged from a child’s hand. Against an earth-toned, fractured landscape, a crudely drawn pair of adult stick figures watches as its smaller counterparts, installed in a maroon wagon-like vehicle, are about to be drawn away by a young girl. She, unlike the forms she shares a frame with, is more faithfully rendered, given a practical body and set of clothes, even if her face seems to have been transplanted and thus, mask-like. Her steely stare is directed backward.
“She’s like a shelf the way she looks at the wall / A stock market dance while the poetry falls,” goes the title track—typifying the record’s key motif, “the industrialization of emotion,” as Tividad put it. “When you have a bunch of experiences in a row where you feel a certain thing, where you grow a lot,” she added, “you’re almost mass producing emotion with different people.” As hinted at by its cover, the album features an existential and emotional fluctuation as the world grows ever bigger. Call it growing pains. “I know I met you in a house of cards / Stuck in the swoon of affection false and true,” sing the pair on “Kiss and Burn.” And as Tividad further explained: “Your perception on your environment is always different. You can also go back to something you experienced five years ago and think it was less than ideal but in the moment you may have been super stoked. It’s the same thing of understanding the past, present, and the future.”
It’s the same way the girl on the cover gazes back, her hand gripping the handle of a mechanized vehicle containing figurative representations of children, presumably to lead it forward. In the undertow of every plaintive, childlike tune—by Girlpool or Beat Happening—is that bittersweet tang of nostalgia. It’s the hazy yearning for yesterday (also see Girlpool’s lo–tech videos), when the world was small and emotions were big. To be childlike or teenage here, after all, is not to be so naive or arrested in development, but to receive everything with all the generosity and openness of a child. “I think that’s just being a human, feeling small, struggling, and caring about somebody, and wishing they could realize their fullness, that they’re worth it, infinite, special, beautiful,” said Tucker of their poignant “Soup.” “I think that’s love and so it’s totally important to us.”