Book Review: Twee by Marc Spitz

Though anything overly cliquish, with rules of operation and preconceived notions, makes me squirm, I realized that I had made assumptions of my own about the word “Twee,” and any movement that might be associated with it. So with mixed feelings did I pick up one mouthful of a title: Twee: The Gentle Revolution in Music, Books, Television, Fashion, and Film by Marc Spitz.

Spitz begins by acknowledging that, for some, Twee is a pejorative term meant to denote anything overly cutesy, saccharine, or too earnest, yet, “All things Twee are very Indie,” he says, “All things Indie are not necessarily Twee … yet.”

And herein lies the problem with Twee the book — Spitz, in an effort to understand more than one aesthetic and artistic trend, crams a lot of cultural anecdotes and movements under the Twee umbrella. Niceness and obsessiveness may find their way into Twee territory, but I’d argue that, like his Indie comparison, not everything is meant to be defined in that way.

Twee - The Gentle Revolution by Marc Spitz (cover)Twee yearns to welcome a spectrum,” he writes in the first chapter, “Hello Brooklyn!” He defines the Twee code of ethics as such:

  • 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 “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.

And in that last bullet point, we see the first flickering of conflicted condescension prevalent throughout the book. Sometimes I wasn’t sure if Spitz was making fun of the movement or defending it. Maybe it was a bit of both, but in a cultural study in which the author inserts himself into the story here and there, I expected a stronger stance. He can talk about all the great stuff coming from independent labels like K Records or Rough Trade, and then go on to talk about the artistic merits of ’80s Glasgow, but then he can turn around and write:

Naturally trusting (or yearning to be trusting) as it is, the Twee Tribe has already proven to be a very tricky one, perhaps the trickiest of them all, to join. Unlike Punk or Hip-Hop, an aspiring tribal Twee cannot get there simply via haircut or by turning one’s baseball cap around. You have to read … a lot … and, generally, alone. You have to make friends with your Crosley suitcase turntable and record collection, your Criterion Collection, your 33 1/3 books, and your cut-out-and-pasted photos of dead film stars and authors. Simply taking yourself outside of society isn’t enough. Once outside, you have to actually study. Twees cannot kick with the fray unless they carry a lot of history in their heads, or at least on their devices: they are Jeopardy! contestants, boning up on Felt, the Swell Maps, Judee Sill, Anne Sexton, Michael Gondry, Peanuts, Roald Dahl, and The Phantom Tollbooth. And you don’t only have to know those bands and books and filmmakers; you have to formulate an aesthetic around them.

Does that not sound like he’s mocking it? Elsewhere he references the desire for “purity” in all things, and how dead celebrities are inherently more interesting to Twee culture because they remain “perfect.” It’s like he’s reporting from just outside Twee’s borders, saying, “Oh look how cute these children are, with their caring.”

If Spitz’s feelings were conflicted, he should have said so, rather than expending all this effort making things in which he was interested fit the parameters of the book. He clearly loves certain films and bands (The Smiths, Belle & Sebastian, and Jonathan Richman in particular), but then he puzzles by saying things like R.E.M. were only Twee until Michael Stipe lost his hair (AKA … gained wider popularity?).

But then:

The line between major and Indie labels is all but erased when a band on Merge can sell hundreds of thousands of copies and debut at number one on the Billboard charts. It’s as if Cobain died from a disease called “cred” that we now have a vaccine for. “We’re in a post-cred world,” says local singer/songwriter Sean Nelson. “Culturally, there’s no such thing anymore. If you’re under thirty, the idea of selling out simply does not exist. Who gives a shit?”

Okay, now I will be the first to argue that the concept of “selling out” is bullshit, and yes, I’m 31, so maybe my twenty-something person-understanding is a bit rusty, but still… have you met indie/hipster/Twee kids lately? Those jokes about “I was into [x] before it was cool” persist for a reason. And if Spitz is going to go out of his way to say that Twee is all about authenticity and just doing your thing and that success is nice to have and that people don’t sell out, why the instructional paragraphs on how to “join the Tribe?”

He spends almost as much time in the book outlining why certain Punk bands were actually more Twee than Punk (and I capitalize the labels here because he does). Spitz has a great love for 1980s music from the UK — as do I — and while I do enjoy hearing about what people were doing with music, film and art during that time, I wondered why he didn’t just write a book about that. You love Morrissey? Awesome. Write about him. If anyone is mired in childhood and awkward sexuality, he’s your guy (though perhaps he fails on the “niceness” front about eleventy-billion times over). You want to talk about The Buzzcocks? Outstanding, but do we need to go out of our way to say that Sylvia Plath is the godmother of their lyric-writing because they reference suicide?

I mean, I’m far more of a Johnny Marr fan, but Twee the book does not spend a lot of time talking about him because “He was a flashy, record-collecting teenager who could kick with the cool crowd and didn’t need the protection of a little room. But he needed words.”

Is that my problem here, that I’m a shouty person who is perfectly fine with whatever “cool” means? Or with embracing any awkwardness as cool? Am I just not the right audience? Because while Twee seems to encompass a lot of things I really enjoy — handmade notebooks, good food, DIY musicians — I’m an adult who is loathe to label anything without a proper definition and citation relationship. In the case of Twee, the definition does not accurately match the given examples.

I am all for obsessive knowledge gathering, but take a position. Love it, dislike it, or articulate why you’re struggling to understand. When Spitz, also the author of a novel titled How Soon is Never?, focuses on what he really enjoys, I am with him. I want to hear about 1980s post-punk, alternative rock and pop. I understand that love, and I can sense his love through his writing. The other stuff? Eh.

If it’s a case of him taking a self-mocking stance, wondering if he himself is part of the Twee Tribe, then that should be made clear. Because it isn’t, Twee: The Gentle Revolution comes off as 300+ pages of patronizing affection, the way one indulges a child’s love for something we don’t understand.

I’m critical here, but I didn’t hate this book. This book made me assess my own ideas of what “Twee” and “Indie” mean, and I agree that Twee is the nice and pretty end of the DIY spectrum, but The Jam it ain’t.

(Brief Digression: Have you heard The Jam, Marc Spitz? Lines like,“I’d prefer a plague to the Eton rifles” and “There’s tarts and whores but you’re much more/ You’re a different kind because you want their mind,” etc.? They may have been anti-establishment, but kind and nerdy, they were not.)

I have not read any of Mark Spitz’s work when he is focused on one subject — for example, he’s also written a David Bowie biography — and I wonder if I’d be less critical with it. I hope so. I’d like to think that he does not come across as a meticulous researcher with an unfocused perspective in all of his work, but that’s how Twee shakes out. It could have been better, and that’s the most Gentle way I can say it.

 

Full Disclosure: It! Books (now called Dey Street Books) sent me this. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

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Sara Habein

Sara Habein is the author of Infinite Disposable, a collection of microfiction, and her work has appeared on The Rumpus, Pajiba and Word Riot, among others. Her book reviews and other commentary appear at Glorified Love Letters, and she is the co-manager of Electric City Creative.

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