With a mix of Ramones-esque three-chord pop fury, girl-group sweetness, bubblegum hooks, and childlike innocence, Shonen Knife were once primed to make it big. The '90s saw them touring with Nirvana, releasing albums (Let's Knife and Rock Animals) on two different major labels, getting airtime on MTV, and playing Lollapalooza. For this to happen to a Japanese twee pop band, one that lacks most technical skill—and whose singing ability can best be described as cute or charming (yet never good)—is quite a feat. Typically, twee only harbors a small, rabid fanbase, with the occasional band (say Belle and Sebastian) able to turn critical acclaim into bank account-swelling success. Shonen Knife was almost there.
Given their exposure and instantly hummable songs, that Shonen Knife never broke is somewhat baffling, although it's most likely due to the genre they call home. The one constant, and probably main complaint of twee music, whether disguised as anything from C86 to jangle pop, is its level of sugarcoated naïvety. Songs often fall into four simple categories—songs about music, budding romances, cuddly animals, and breakups. Such topics, covered with an adolescent sincerity that rubs most people the wrong way, assures that most bands will never make it beyond obscurity. Over time, even super-fans tend to grow out of their love for all things twee, because in the end substance always outweighs superficiality.
Shonen Knife are nothing if not simple fun, and one thing that stands out in looking at their career is that they've been at this for a quarter of a century. For any band, that's an impressive accomplishment, but for an indie-pop band it's downright astounding. Sure, they may not have caught that big break we were all expecting, but they've remained consistent. At the very worst, Shonen Knife will be remembered as a cult band, and it's comforting to know that someone has been able to tackle twee so effortlessly for such a long time without ever missing a (simple 4/4) beat.