On Twee

‘Twee’ is a purported youth-oriented, cultural niche, one that is arguably a subset of ‘hipsterdom’. Anna Schaffner reviews Marc Spitz’s book Twee: The Gentle Revolution in Music, Books, Television, Fashion, and Film:

Since the Second World War, Spitz argues, there has been a “gentle revolution” in our sensibilities, aesthetics and tastes, driven by an ethos of kindness and a quest for purity in an impure world. Originally a niche phenomenon, the aesthetics and ethics of Twee have infiltrated mainstream film, fashion, literature, music and food. Spitz defines the movement’s key features as an unabashed celebration of beauty, whimsy and preciousness, a nostalgic fetishization of childhood paired with a wariness of sexuality, and a glorification of the awkward and geeky.

While one can take issue with many of the things Spitz, or others, may label as Twee, the rather incontrovertible entries of Twee-ness appear to be:

  • J.D. Salinger
  • Wes Anderson
  • Belle & Sebastian
  • Hello Kitty
  • Zooey Deschanel

Salinger is probably the granddaddy of the genre: This is because it is the characters in his stories who exhibit many of the behaviors of the Twee adherent… the Glass family is twee…. Margot Tennenbaum (from Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums) could be a Glass family member… and, ergo, she is Twee. (In terms of the aesthetics of the Twee adherent, the fashion is towards nerdiness and geekiness. Horn-rimmed glasses, floral patterns, that sort of thing.)

Belle & Sebastian? This one I don’t get. Prime era Brian Wilson came first. As did the whimsy of The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night. Mid-era Kinks (e.g., Something Else, Village Green Preservation Society), a band I’m a huge fan of, are often cited as Twee, and I would concur in that Ray Davies evokes a nostalgia for a bygone, if imaginary, England.

Zooey is something of an Anglo embodiment of Hello Kitty, so her inclusion makes sense.

To the above list, I would offer the following cultural pastiche to the mix:

  • Breakfast at Tiffany’s
  • Burt Bacharach
  • Sunshine Pop (e.g., the Mamas & the Papas; Free Design)
  • Walt Disney
  • Tiki culture (the Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyworld; exotica lounge music)
  • Fred Armisen (the male counterpart to Zooey Deschanel)

How is it, one might ask, that Twee differs, if at all, from that of the ‘Hipster’. In a Salon piece, Spitz writes:

When I sold the book, people were still lumping those I saw as “twee” under that often maligned umbrella term “Hipster.” But Twees were not Hipsters.  Hipsters went out and did drugs and wore white belts. Twees, as I idealized, stayed in and wrote in their diaries (or on their blogs) and wore cardigans and listened to the Zombies, the Go-Betweens and Galaxie 500. They weren’t scruffy. They’d tamed the bushy, Hipster pornstache into a nifty, waxed and groomed thing of beauty. They also ate locally sourced  pickles and beer. Most people hated them even more than Hipsters.

Spitz’s “Mods vs. Rockers” binary here seems more a fashion observation than anything substantive, a consequence of living too long in a Brooklyn Bubble. Insofar as Twee is an identifiable cultural genre, I would certainly situate it as a subset of ‘hipster’, as a particular niche of generalized nostalgia for childhood, for faux-innocence, with a substantial sway towards leisurely, escapist kitsch circa 1950 through… oh, about 1965.

Within the tiresome and seemingly endless postmodernist cycle that is hipster meta-level cynicism (aka conformist ‘irony’), the adherents of Twee can certainly be accused of dishing out predictable hipster barrages of snickering. The much ballyhooed ‘Death of Hipsterdom’ hasn’t yet arrived, an eschatological hiccup hopefully not long in the making, as evident in James Parker’s piece in The Atlantic called “The Twee Revolution”:

Eight years ago or so, the alternative paper I was working for sent me out to review a couple of folk-noise-psych-indie-beardie-weirdie bands. I had a dreadful night. The bands were bad enough—“fumbling,” I scratched in my notebook, “infantile”—but what really did me in was the audience. Instead of baying for the blood of these lightweights, as in the Darwinian days of old, the gathered young people—behatted, bebearded, besmiling—obliged them with patters of validating applause. I had seen it before, this fond curiosity, this acclamation of the undercooked, but never so much of it in one place: the whole event seemed to exult in its own half-bakedness. Be as crap as you like was the message to the performers. The crapper, the better. We’re here for you.

Egads, I feel the need to wash my hands after spending this much time writing about mutual navel-gazing masturbation sessions by NYC culturalistas.

Of Spitz’s smorgasbord of cited Twee talismans, one Amazon commenter astutely notes:

He conflates a number of pop trends that are seen in Brooklyn, but I don’t see how they can all be twee.

Most of the book is a list of what is twee and what isn’t, with a little history and opinion mixed in. He wraps it up with the opinion that twee will make the world a ‘softer’ place, and he says that’s a good thing. I think he needs to step back and get a little perspective. Soft is fun when you can afford it, but hard people will exploit soft people whenever they get the chance.

Amen, bro.

At the end of the day, like the phenomenon of the hipster, there is implicit whiteness in Twee, something I celebrate, for its sui generis phenotypes.

In a brief Amazon.com interview, Spitz — who by all appearances is a walking stereotype of the liberal Brooklyn hipster — bemoans this implicit whiteness:

“You’ll notice that most of the people I named above are not minorities. I think like Punk and Hip Hop for a movement to really stick it has to be more inclusive with regard to both race and gender and class.”


That’s what needs to happen.

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