God, I hate the term “twee.” I was first introduced to it in the early 1990s, as it was a term used in the indie-pop scene. Often “twee” bands split the difference between musical amateurism and heartfelt, overly-precious, heart-on-sleeve sentimentality. Some bands, like Beat Happening, Heavenly, and The Vaselines, were able to transcend the term while many, many others were bogged down and could never escape it. Personally, I feel like the “twee” term exists solely because of an evil Axis alliance of Sanrio, Satan, and some forces I shan’t name, for fear of personal safety!
I’ve read other work by author Marc Spitz, and so I was at least willing to take a chance on his latest outing, Twee: The Gentle Revolution In Music, Books, Television, Fashion, and Film.
I hated it.
I hated it so much so that I threw it across the room.
I returned to it a little while later.
Five minutes later, it would once again become airborne.
Why the resistance, the utter disdain resulting in violence towards the poor little book? Good question. Perhaps it was too clever. Perhaps it was too clean-cut, too sarcastic, too ironic, too…twee.
Or perhaps it was because I felt like the “twee” phenomenon as I have known it has always been worthy of disdain.
Actually, in thinking about it, it was because there was a greater point being missed. What Spitz was describing was not, in fact, a new trend in the least. Many of the touchstones and defining artists and thinkers stem from decades past.
Case in point: JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is considered a seminal text for the Twee movement.
Ten years ago, it was seen as a seminal text for the emo movement.
Twenty years ago, it was seen as a seminal text for Generation X.
Thirty-five years ago, it was seen as a seminal text for the Punk movement.
Fifty years ago, it was seen as a seminal text for the Sixties generation.
Twee feels less like a defining tome as it does proof for the prosecution that youth culture is exactly the same for each generation—only the names change. So was my negative reaction due to that, or was it something greater—anger at seeing my youth culture experience illicitly and blatantly stolen, proclaimed as unique, and set in stone as an original thing, with Twee codifying this generational appropriation?
Yet I felt compelled to speak to Mr. Spitz. Why? Because I wanted to understand just why I felt the way I did. Was I missing a greater point? I sought him out because I wanted to figure myself out. He nervously chuckled when I revealed that I was one of those who reacted negatively to his book, but I have to say I enjoyed our conversation–and, really, I ultimately liked Twee, in spite of my initial tendencies to launch it across the room.
Twee. It’s such a noxious little word.
Since the book came out, I’ve had some interesting reactions to what it means, even though I took great pains to say I was re-framing the meaning of the word. To me, a word is just a word, and meanings grow over time. Look at the word “punk,” for instance. What’s now used as a catch-all term, whether it be for music, movies, literature, or fashion, but when you look at old news footage or newspapers from thirty years ago, it’s a term of contempt, and it had negative implications. That’s not the case today, where punk is revered, respected. It’s in museums, and people are okay with it. The nature and definition of words change over time, and I’ve sort of discovered that “twee” hasn’t changed yet. Maybe it won’t change at all. Maybe I’m absolutely wrong about it, but that’s okay; I don’t have anything at stake in terms of it changing or staying the same. I mean, I don’t think it’s going to alter the perception of the book one way or the other. To me, the book is a history of a certain aesthetic, and though you can deny that it exists, there is proof that it exists. There’s all this art and there are all these people involved in it, with commonalities that link them together.
It’s tricky, though. I think it’s a word that might be in flux, and maybe it’s in need of a book that helps codify it, which is why I wrote it. Someone had to re-frame punk to make it what it is today, and that person most likely was a writer—someone like Jon Savage in England’s Dreaming, who helped to frame it in an interesting, intellectual, objective way.
You mention that there have been people who have reacted to Twee in a negative way, and I have to tell you…I’m one of those people. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the book—I like the way you write—but I didn’t agree with some of the things you wrote.
(Laughs) So, are ya calling to give me shit?
No, I wanted to understand why I reacted the way I reacted. Whenever I don’t like something, I simply don’t like it and move on, but in the case of Twee, I had a strong reaction to it that led me to want to seek you out, so that I could maybe come to an understanding as to why I felt the way I did.
There’s a level of preciousness to some of these people that you just want to wipe the smile off of their face, to beat their smug self-satisfaction out of them. It’s a true, honest emotional reaction, but that doesn’t mean that these artists and people who have annoying tendencies aren’t sincere in wanting to make the world a better place. It’s bad to be mean to people, it’s bad to be cruel to people who aren’t like you—their hearts are in the right place. When I talked with Fred Armisen, director and writer of Portlandia, he said something similar to that. He said that every character that they parody, their hearts are in the right place, and that’s why the show is so funny. Nothing’s funnier than watching someone’s intentions going the opposite direction than what they intend.
Take Stuart Murdoch, for example. He’s a super talented singer and songwriter, but yet Belle & Sebastian, when If You’re Feeling Sinister came out, it caused such an intense reaction, even among people who would have been right for their audience. Looking back on it, I think it stems in large part from the cynicism of the listener.
Bands have always been polarizing—much more so than movies or TV shows. There are people who hate The Smiths and can’t listen to a single song, while there are others who worship them as if they’re holy and treat their records as sacramental relics. Some hear a band like Sonic Youth and think it’s just noise, while others believe that their music is on par with John Coltrane. In the case of Belle and Sebastian, like you said, you can’t argue with the songwriting or the musicianship—it’s excellent. The reaction comes more from the delivery; whispered, soft vocals in the time of shouty Liam Gallagher-style swagger, it only exacerbates the preciousness. You walk away thinking, “here’s this person staying in their bedroom and saying the world is vulgar—where do they get off?” But that’s an interesting question. Are those critics and haters doing so because of Stuart Murdoch, or because of the people who are buying their records? Do people who hate The Smiths do so because of Morrissey, or do they hate them because of the fans who take on the Morrissey persona and act as if they’re miserable? I think it’s the latter; while some might hate the singer, I think a lot of it is a negative reaction to people being inauthentic. I think ultimately it’s all about sincerity. I’d like to think that Morrissey truly believes in the causes he supports, but can I assume that those who listen and take on airs like Morrissey are equally sincere in their beliefs? Or are those listeners simply using the Smiths as cultural currency, a t-shirt of a band they don’t really know?
About a decade ago, a book came out called Nothing Feels Good, and was about the then-ascending “Emo” trend. As I read Twee, I started to get the sense that I could take a paragraph out of your book and one out of that book, swap the terms for each other, and no one would be the wiser. I felt like what you’re tapping into isn’t necessarily a new thing, that what you’re ultimately talking about is youth culture.
Ah, Andy Greenwald. I worked with him at Spin, and remember that book well. (Pauses) I see your point, even if I don’t think that’s particularly fair; our books are different, the times were different, but I see your point. We’re talking about the nostalgia of youth. I mean, nobody literally wants to go back to high school, do they? I don’t think they do. But what they want are those feelings, those emotions, and a spirit and innocence that’s real. It’s an irresistible feeling. Everybody feels that way at some point, irrespective of what their sensibilities are, and when the real world is looming overhead, it can be terrifying, especially at a time where the future isn’t assured and you don’t know what’s coming next. Andy’s intent was different, because he really loved bands like Dashboard Confessional, and he wanted to write about them and share the culture around them to a wider audience.
What I meant wasn’t necessarily about the emo scene in general, or that book. Twenty years ago, when Generation X started to become a thing, one would see the same cultural reference points: “Oh, Gen X’er’s are Holden Caulfield, they’re into the nostalgic things like Saturday morning cartoons.” It was the same thing, except the name had changed. It’s a continuum.
I agree with you, but that’s just the way the machine works. Like The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin back to America as something called rock and roll. The primary emotions and qualities still have to ring true, but culture is cyclical. You’re absolutely right; it’s the same shit, just on a different day. Twee, as I see it, has a little bit more structure than emo or other similar scenes. I don’t know if you agree with that; I’m thinking…well, like Walter in The Big Lebowski: “Say what you will about the tenants of Twee, at least it’s an ethos!” (Laughs) To me, emo just seemed really self-involved and self-centered. Don’t get me wrong, if that’s what you like, that’s cool. Maybe I view emo kids in the same sort critical light that people view Twee.
As I read on, I started to feel like your use of the term “Twee” was tongue-in-cheek, that maybe you were taking the piss, and by the end of the book, I wasn’t exactly sure just how serious you were about it all.
Yeah! I think you’re the first person to pick up on that. There is definitely an authorial distance between the subject and the writer. I may have personal feelings about some of these artists and I might have a full shelf of Wes Anderson DVDs. Yes, I have an emotional investment, but yet, I’m still keeping my distance. To me, it’s much more of a commentary about the scene. For some reason, and I’m not sure why—perhaps it’s because of my previous work, or maybe it’s because they’re so tense and fucking suspicious of what people say—but people just haven’t gotten the humorous side. They take everything so literally, and because of that, they lose sight of the greater picture.
I did an interview recently, and the interviewer, she didn’t get it. When I was working on the book, I knew that I wanted it to open with a scene, so I wrote about the flea market in Brooklyn. This interviewer, she just sort of tore into me, saying, “You are so contemptuous! You really hate these people!” I’m sitting there, thinking, “You fucking completely missed the point.” Maybe there’s a subtlety in the writing that she just didn’t get, or maybe I didn’t do my job and keep a balance, but I was trying to be a fly on the wall, and she thought I was completely ripping the scene apart. So thank you for picking up on that. It’s nice to know someone saw it! (Laughs)
How has the book been received, generally, and what would you say to your critics?
It’s been generally well-received; in fact, I think it’s been better received than I thought it would be. I was expecting a backlash; people who attempt to define or describe generational movements and trends have often had to face a certain amount of criticism and disdain. Sure, I’ve had some, but as of now, I’m pleased.
As for my critics? (Laughs) Well, y’know, it’s just a book, you don’t have to agree with it or read it. I’m open for debate on it, and always willing to hear other peoples’ views—who knows, I could be entirely wrong. Time will tell…so, we’ll see! (Laughs)