Disclaimer: I spent most of my thirties playing ukulele, stylophone, trumpet, glockenspiel, and guitar in indiepop bands – and I’d do it again in half a heartbeat. After being in more traditionally rockin’ outfits when I was a kid, the idea of rock-star-as-extraterrestrial-other seemed so old-fashioned and irrelevant. I much preferred bands who got in front of their audiences with simple tools and fearlessly expressed themselves, regardless of their technical capacity. Publicly embracing your idiosyncrasies seemed like the only way to go…
I found the international indiepop and “twee” scenes to be incredibly cool. Our band never felt that we had to limit our instrumentation, subject matter, or performance style to fit in. The only folks who openly dismissed us were tired old rockists who were busy rehashing boring cliches from fifty or sixty years ago.
And yet, when this book was announced, I was shocked to see a fair amount of antagonism and hostility from the indiepop underground. It was greeted on the indiepop listserv (hosted, appropriately, at www.twee.net) with a post entitled “Anyone up for a book burning?” Said hostility was especially disappointing considering the fact that no one had read the damn thing. But the cantankerous reception proves one of author Marc Spitz’s central tenants in Twee: The Gentle Revolution in Music, Books, Television, Fashion, and Film: That entrance in what he calls the “twee tribe” comes at a price. You don’t just waltz in. You gotta prove what you know. People need to know that you’ve experienced an acceptable combination or canonical books, singles, albums, festivals, and films. A Peter Pan collar doesn’t hurt, either.
Hopefully it dawned on the haters, as it did on me, that this isn’t a book about our humble little underground. Our scene was just one ripple produced when certain stones hit the pond. In this thoughtfully composed, non-standard sized (of course) volume, Spitz isn’t necessarily concerned with celebrating ours or any underground. Honestly, there’s enough of that going on elsewhere. C86 nostalgia is pretty much a cottage industry at this point. Rather, his M.O. is to document a seismic shift in mainstream culture away from the aggression and intensity closely aligned and defined by the boomer-based rock revolution, and towards a more introspective, wistful, nostalgic, colorful, and tender outlook he defines as “twee.”
It’s a loaded term, “twee.” Some bands and fans embrace it as a defiant stance against what they see as a hard, cruel, slate-gray world. I’ve always thought it a convenient shorthand to dismiss something on the basis of purely external qualities – like saying, “I don’t want to listen to this band’s melodies and lyrics because they are playing toy instruments and wearing polka-dot dresses.”
I was curious to read Twee. I was wondering what it would say about my milieu and about the bigger picture. I’m a fan of a lot of the stuff he sites — of Salinger, of Belle and Sebastian, of the Smiths. I’ve enjoyed some of Wes Anderson’s movies. Hell, I’ve even come to like Zoe Deschanel (friends still balk when I protest that New Girl is actually a sharply written, incredibly well cast ensemble sitcom). But I’ve also been hung up on some of the fruits and farmers of this twee crop. So, what does Spitz set about to do here? What does he achieve?
Actually, quite a bit. Concise, at a little over 300 pages, Twee traces the movement back some seventy or eighty years, finding plausible twee godfathers and godmothers in figures like Sylvia Plath, Judy Blume, J.D. Salinger, and Maurice Sendak; forerunning aesthetics in the locally sourced and organically grown food movements; and sonic forbearers in musicians like Jonathan Richman and Nick Drake. He very eloquently disentangles the dense, often contradictory melange of self-absorption, reflection, nostalgia, rebellion, snobbery, egalitarianism, withdrawal, and DIY gumption that have come to inform and define the “twee” ethos.
In a series of chronologically arranged chapters, via his own interviews and secondary sources, Spitz pulls off the impressive writerly feat of illustrating just how disparate revolutionary voices from a variety of media coalesced into a slowly mounting cultural force which, over the decades, was able to exert considerable influence on mainstream filmmaking, advertising, music best-seller charts, and even urban demographics. Sure, little undergrounds — like the indiepop scene I like to call home — still exist in their isolated little eddies, but Spitz makes a very convincing case for how bedroom-based movements were eventually able to affect and (slightly) transform something as monolithic as Hollywood.
Of course, for all its greener pastures, “twee” is not entirely idyllic. While the movement strives for gender parity, Spitz wisely turns to the brilliant Julie Klausner (whose book I Don’t Care About Your Band should be required reading for music lovers and observers of sexual dynamics) for her cutting thoughts on how twee fashion infantilizes women. “Twee” remains a largely white, upper-middle-class phenomenon, and Spitz admits that, as the movement gains further momentum, the racial politics of must be addressed and resolved. The book ends inconclusively, as it should, with such key debates unresolved.
I wouldn’t be a good member of Spitz’s “Twee tribe” if I didn’t have a few lingering reservations – all relatively nit-picky. Given all the interdisciplinary give-and-take, an index would have been helpful. Photos, too, would have been appreciated, given how much fashion has to do with the overall aesthetic. There are some annoying typos that made the book seem rush-edited, e.g., the guy from the June Brides was named Phil Wilson, not “Phil Johnson.” After devoting a bit of time to the crucial sexual politics that informed the outlook of influential indie label Sarah Records, it seems disingenuous (and sexist) for Spitz to refer to Isobel Campbell from Belle and Sebastian as a “Sarah Records-style cutie pie” in a later chapter.
But, yeah, from start to finish, I liked it. It cuts a broad cultural swath and I recommend it without reservation. With this being a music-focused site, I’ll add that, if you’re looking for something more specifically about classic indiepop music, I’d recommend two recent Cherry Red boxed sets: Scared to Get Happy: A Story of Indiepop and C86: The Deluxe Edition. For a crash course in the richness of the current indiepop scene, Google “Popfest” and find one near you, or make the trek to England and immerse yourself in the Indietracks festival. Look for me.