The idea behind Big Feelings grew out of my love of a certain sound that I heard in some rock bands and not in others. The earliest inkling of this interest started when I was in middle-school and listening obsessively to the Smashing Pumpkins. When I went to college, I learned that the magic sound I heard in their music had to do with chord extensions—at least part of the reason that the Pumpkins sounded different from other bands I knew was because they utilized chords with more notes in them.
I didn’t really think about this again until after I finished my PhD. I had been listening to a handful of amazing records, and thinking about the fact that all my favorite bands were headed by women. Then the New York Times published “Women are Making the Best Rock Music Today: Here Are the Bands That Prove It”. While the framing of the article problematically suggested that women were suddenly play rock music again (whereas this has always been the case), it was notable that even a mainstream outlet like the Times was noticing a lot of great music coming out around the same time. And while each of these bands each sound unique, it seemed to me that a greater number than I had ever heard were utilizing the kinds of extended harmonies of which I had been so enamored as a child. That sound, among other aspects of the music, meant that the 2017 moment sounded distinct from the last period in which “women in rock” were recognized by the press, when the 90s riot grrrl movement was a significant cultural touchstone.
Around 2019, as I was finishing up my dissertation, I started to take some initial steps into researching this music, first connecting the use of extended chords to Susan McClary’s famous arguments about the way that chromaticism has been gendered feminine in the Western tradition. Because this wasn’t my main research project at the time, it proceeded in fits and starts, something I could only work on when an opportunity presented itself. The next time I worked on this was for a 2020 lecture I gave at Miami University on the music of one of my favorite groups, The Ophelias. Throughout this process, my ideas about the music changed each time I thought about it.
Finally, I had the chance to present my findings at the International Association for the Study of Popular Music conference in 2021. That talk was later published in the “Field Notes” section of the Journal of Popular Music Studies (transcript available here). In this talk, I laid out five tendencies that I understand to be characteristic of the music that I now refer to with the label “Big Feelings”. These include:
- The central role of women, queer, non-binary / gender non-conforming musicians.
- A turn away from overtly political topics toward more personal explorations of feelings, experiences, and other “abstract” subject matter .
- A 90s-inflected approach to rock music vocabulary.
- Use of chord extensions not heard in rock genres that have been traditionally coded masculine.
- Clear, tuneful approaches to melody.
Taken together, I suggest, these characteristics produce a (queer) feminist affect in the music that feels present and perceptible even if political orientations are not discussed outright in the music.
I set up this website to start testing my hypotheses about Big Feelings bands by reaching out to fans of the music. I want to talk to people at shows and online about how they experience the music, how they come to it, and what they get out of it. This will help me to do justice to the great bands I want to study.