The Pointlessly Precious Politics of Twee


What is “twee,” besides an adjective to describe something precious, saccharine or too cute? It’s an aesthetic, certainly, characterized by childlike quirkiness and employed by the likes of Wes Anderson and Zooey Deschanel. But is it also a movement? One that extends far beyond the isolated indie-pop scenes of 1980s Glasgow and Olympia to encompass everything from Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s to mumblecore filmmaking?

In his new book Twee: The Gentle Revolution in Music, Books, Television, Fashion, and Film, author and music journalist Marc Spitz argues that it is. In fact, he calls twee “the most powerful youth movement since Punk and Hip-Hop.” The book traces its subject from Walt Disney (a questionable starting point: is everything intended for children automatically twee?) to what is supposedly its ultimate expression in artisanal Brooklyn circa 2014 – and although it’s more of a history than a polemic, Twee is also both an attempted vindication of twee’s cultural and political values, and a strange, sometimes troubling example of what those values are.

The twee aesthetic remains a moving target throughout the book – what lies outside its boundaries and the ways in which it overlaps with related aesthetics, like kitsch and camp, are rarely explored – but in the service of defining twee as a movement, Spitz does take a moment to sketch out what he sees as the pillars of its “ethics”:

• Beauty over ugliness. • A sharp, almost incapacitating awareness of darkness, death, and cruelty, which clashes with a steadfast focus on our essential goodness. • A tether to childhood and its attendant innocence and lack of greed. • The utter dispensing with of the world “cool” as it’s conventionally known, often in favor of a kind of fetishization of the nerd, the geek, the dork, the virgin. • A healthy suspicion of adulthood. • An interest in sex but a wariness and shyness when it comes to the deed. • A lust for knowledge, whether it’s the sequence of an album, the supporting players in an old Hal Ashby or Robert Altman film, the lesser-known Judy Blume books, or how to grow the perfect purple, Italian, or Chinese eggplant or orange cauliflower. • The cultivation of a passion project, whether it’s a band, a zine, an Indie film, a website, or a food or clothing company. Whatever it is, in the eye of the Twee it is a force of good and something to live for.

There are seeds of a political philosophy strewn throughout this list: twee is anti-greed and suspicious of an adult world that revolves around avarice. More importantly, twee is aware of humanity’s capacity for violence and evil, but chooses to be optimistic about human nature nonetheless. This could be a progressive stance – one that not only believes we’re capable of improvement but works toward it. In practice, though, twee politics too often prescribe escapism and isolation, allowing the privileged to respond to crises both global and personal by sticking their fingers in their ears and yelling, “Na na na, can’t hear you!”

Still from Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan

Certainly, that is how I’ve used the trappings of twee in my own life – putting on a Beat Happening T-shirt while I drank tea and listened to indie-pop in a boarding-school dorm room, as a respite from a year that had (in its minor, boarding-school way) gotten a bit too adult. As Whit Stillman, the auteur known for making often-excellent talky films about wealthy, articulate young people (Metropolitan, Damsels in Distress), tells Spitz, “I think if the world is upside down, we should be watching delightful 1930s escapism — and charming comedies.” That’s a lovely thought, but it will never turn the world right-side up.

Twee may be tethered to some remote, romantic awareness of real human tragedy, but its practitioners’ squeamishness about the darkest corners of history and art is evident throughout the book, both in the examples Spitz cites and in his own pro-twee writing. Early chapters deal with the gentler crowd’s responses the Second World War, describing the Holocaust as an extreme example of “bullying” and calling Anne Frank a victim of what Holden Caulfield might have termed “general cruddiness.”

Explaining the service Neutral Milk Hotel’s Frank-inspired album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea did for its subject’s memory, Spitz writes, “As with Elie Weisel’s Night and Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, The Diary of a Young Girl has been assigned reading to middle and high school students in America for decades. It is the kind of book that many did awkward and sometimes hasty reports on, as, let’s face it, these books were downers.” (Also a “Debbie Downer” in Spitz’s parlance: Sylvia Plath.) It’s true, of course: those books are deeply depressing to read, and Jeff Mangum’s songs approach the Holocaust in a way that’s more appealing, dreamier and less straightforwardly harrowing. But you’re deluding yourself if you think Aeroplane – magical and meaningful and heartbreaking as it is – can stand in for Frank’s real-life diary or Levi’s concentration camp memoir. There’s something suspect about the politics of a movement that can’t confront the human cruelty and suffering of such a massive historical tragedy head-on.

Unlike most strains of punk and some sectors of the hip-hop world, twee – and Twee – may be idealistic, but it has little use for serious political commitment and the activism that springs from it. Spitz devotes an entire chapter to Kurt Cobain, largely ignoring Nirvana’s music in favor of the argument that his years in Olympia, Washington’s K Records-dominated scene instilled in him the core values of twee. But Spitz laments that, faced with a real world full of unenlightened fans, rather than a closed group of Pacific Northwest indie types, Cobain felt obligated to share his progressive ideals with his newfound audience of millions. “Cobain’s self-consciousness converted, in the face of his knucklehead audience, to an equally joyless sense of duty,” he writes, “and at the end of a long day of campaigning for the causes he believed in — gay rights, women’s rights — who wouldn’t want to unwind with a bag of dope?” (Self-serving interpretation of Cobain’s story aside, certainly there must be a few heroic souls out there with the fortitude to fight for change on a large scale without reaching for the needle…?)

Still, I’m not suggesting that twee is ultimately apolitical, or even that certain factions that Spitz identifies as part of the movement don’t live by their beliefs. I just think those beliefs are a response to a sunnier world than the one where we actually live. In an attempt to locate twee’s impact on the culture at large, Spitz writes:

[T]he Twee-verse is a mark of a slow evolution toward a better, kinder, humbler, more politicized, and ‘so pure’ human race, or at least one with a better record collection. The new culture of kindness is helping us improve as Americans. Think of how we rally to every tragedy, whether it’s a natural disaster or a mad gunman shooting up a mall or movie theater. We are all connected as a species, and now via our phones, and this is of a piece with the ethics of Twee.

Contrasting it to punk, which he acknowledges is still a relevant youth movement in places like Pussy Riot-era Russia and the Middle East, Spitz insists that twee is “the only movement that’s going to make all these young people decent to each other.” But doesn’t the mere existence – the ubiquity, really – of mad gunmen suggest that America, too, has a long way to go before “a culture of kindness” can become one of our top priorities?

Admittedly, twee politics go beyond a generalized faith in human goodness; there are even some principles in which its practitioners believe enough to take a stand. Over and over, Spitz points to an embrace of the DIY spirit and a rejection of corporate greed. Which is wonderful, again, in theory. But in practice, it’s often a form of elitism – staying small and independent because you have the luxury to make art without needing to earn a living at it or (as Spitz’s slanted retelling of the Cobain myth suggests) don’t see the value in making compromises to communicate with the masses.

The other problem with the DIY-or-die mentality is that it so often flat-out misses the point of any larger-scale political conversation. To wit: “If Twee has a religion, it is Smiths worship. They are the last quarter century’s only truly holy concern when it comes to rock and roll,” Spitz writes. By refusing to cash in, he explains, Morrissey has ended up “less the villain or the sellout, the joke as it were, than Stipe, Bono, Robert Smith, Depeche Mode or any other soon-to-be huge peers” in the eyes of twee types. I’m sure many of Moz’s admirers would agree with Spitz, but pardon me for being suspicious of any movement that thinks it’s more important to put out records on indie labels than it is to, you know, refrain from making racist and xenophobic outbursts whenever someone shows up to interview you.

In fact, aside from a few brief shrugs in the direction of race, gender, and class, Twee the book is as unconcerned with identity politics as, well, twee the alleged movement has always seemed. If Kurt Cobain merits his own chapter, for instance, why is riot grrrl relegated to a few accusatory footnotes? (“Proto-Riot Grrrl made Cobain feel guilty not simply because of his gender but also his honest love for Kiss, Cheap Trick’s Heaven Tonight, and the Knack’s Get the Knack…”) Surely, riot grrrl’s Hello Kitty-championing, baby barrette-wearing aesthetic overlapped more with twee than some of the book’s other subjects, like Plath and the Velvet Underground. The vast majority of figures Spitz covers and interviews are white men, but he barely touches the question of why a movement characterized by its rejection of traditional masculinity hasn’t always made room for women or men of color.

Also left largely unexplored: a refreshingly clear-eyed quote on the class connotations of twee from the cultural critic Simon Reynolds: “It’s what depresses me slightly about [indie music], that it’s so tightly linked to class now. College-type people listen to it. The fact that it’s covered by NPR basically seems to indicate that it’s become a sort of class marker.” Despite comparing twee to punk and hip hop throughout the book, Spitz never finds much worth dissecting in regards to what they share and his “movement” lacks: origins in poor and working-class frustrations – unemployment, disenfranchisement, police brutality. Is a politics of kindness and gentleness really so daring when it comes from a position of bourgeois comfort, from artists whose greatest struggles typically spring from having been shy, bookish children?

It seems, at one point in Twee’s introduction, that Spitz will address the limitations of his subject. “I wonder, in my darker nights of the soul, ‘Am I writing a book for well-off white people?’” he writes. It doesn’t worry him for long, though. He continues: “But I press on and remind myself that to even question that is part of the problem. Twee, like Punk and Hip-Hop, no matter who pioneered it, is at its best pure and open, a meritocracy and a good party.”

In other words, the answer to the question Marc Spitz is not-particularly-insistently asking himself is “yes”: Twee is a book for well-off white people about an aesthetic (and, perhaps, a movement) exemplified and embraced by well-off white people. If you’re not bothered by that – and have a fondness for fuzzy sweaters and Belle and Sebastian — then you too might be a member of the Twee Tribe.