To be twee, or not to be twee

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On June 3, Marc Spitz’s new book, Twee: The Gentle Revolution in Music, Books, Television, Fashion and Film was published by IT Books/Harper Collins.

But hang on a minute: what does twee actually mean? An adjective with slightly onomatopoeic and diminutive implications  — originally thought to represent a childish pronunciation of sweet, its straightforward meaning according to the OED is sweet, dainty or chic; but this British colloquialism has a distinctively derogatory flavor — one that smacks of more affectedly and repellently quaint: precious or overly saccharine, rather than simply sweet.

The Telegraph in summing up Philippe Le Guay’s movie Cycling with Moliere declares that “twee groanishness abounds”. An English reader gets exactly what that means, even if we haven’t seen the film in question: we’re unlikely to pay the cost of admission and candied popcorn if we’re in for an evening of groanish twee. But have Americans taken that quaint 4-letter word and taken it too far — or gone slightly off course in their understanding of it?

In the U.S., twee has more childish connotations. It’s one of a few words that have been adopted retrospectively (ie. fairly recently) to describe certain examples or sub-genres of indie pop, owing partly to what some have described as the music genre’s “revolt into childhood”. [I hear the British cry go up: What’s that got to do with twee, except for its origins in childish mispronunciation?] In an article titled “Twee as Fuck” in 2005, Pitchfork introduced the history of the indie pop movement: “As of the mid-1990s, there were a hell of a lot of kids like this in America: Happy pop geeks in love with all things pretty, listening to seven-inch singles released on tiny labels, writing songs about crushes, and taking a good deal of pride in the fact that everyone else found their music disgustingly cute and amateurish and girly. This is the story of how they got there– a partial history of the indie pop project, and a beginner’s guide to what it meant.”

Spitz is now taking the word to new heights (or infantile lows), describing what he sees as a whole youth movement springing out of a calculated and even cynical orientation towards and focus on childhood innocence and sweetness — taking in everything from Walt Disney 50s kitsch and Ferdinand the Bull to Zooey Deschanel and artisinal Brooklyn hipsters in the 21st-century’s own tweens. [Full disclosure here: I haven’t yet read the book, but am gathering a sense of his thesis from the author’s own interviews, the publisher’s promotional copy, and a collection of often slightly bemused reviews.)

In Spitz’s own words — in which, incidentally, he nominalizes the quaint British adjective: “Twees, as I saw them, were souls with an almost incapacitating awareness of darkness, death and cruelty, who made the personal choice to focus on essential goodness and sweetness. They kept a tether to childhood and innocence and a tether to adulthood as is required by the politically and socially active.  They had a healthy interest in sex but also a healthy wariness and shyness when it came to the deed.  Where there was a wild lust, it was for knowledge, whether it meant the musical arrangements on or sequence of an album, the filmographies of supporting players in an old Truffaut or Hal Ashby film. What’s so terrible about that?  Sure, they all moved to Brooklyn and ruined it, but I lived in Brooklyn in 1992 and with full acknowledgment of those gentrified out of affordable housing, it wasn’t that great when it was dead empty and you could hear your footsteps echo on Bedford Avenue at 10 p.m.”

Hmmmm.

HarperCollins summarizes the book as follows: “Vampire Weekend, Garden State, Miranda July, Belle and Sebastian, Wes Anderson, Mumblecore, McSweeney’s, Morrissey, beards, artisanal pickles, food trucks, crocheted owls on Etsy, ukuleles, kittens and Zooey Deschanel—all are examples of a cultural aesthetic of calculated precocity known as Twee. … In Twee, journalist and cultural observer Marc Spitz surveys the rising Twee movement in music, art, film, fashion, food and politics and examines the cross-pollinated generation that embodies it—from aging hipsters to nerd girls, indie snobs to idealistic industrialists. Spitz outlines the history of twee—the first strong, diverse, and wildly influential youth movement since Punk in the ’70s and Hip Hop in the ’80s—showing how awkward glamour and fierce independence has become part of the zeitgeist.”

I’m a bit lost here. This is what I think of when I hear the word twee:

balmoraltwee

I think Marc Spitz and I must agree to disatwee …

1 thought on “To be twee, or not to be twee

  1. Pingback: 20 words that haven’t crossed the pond « Words, Phrases & Expressions « Glossophilia

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