TWEE: THE GENTLE REVOLUTION
Updated: Apr 26
The late Marc Spitz published his book Twee – The Gentle Revolution in Music, Books, Television, Fashion, and Film in 2014 (that Oxford comma probably delighting his target readership).
A lovely book sleeve binding all things Twee. Cover design by Amanda Kain. Cover illustration by Diane Labombarbe. Notably, the cage door is open, our bird has hopped beyond it - but hasn't actually left...
A bold rhetorical query on the rear of the paperback asks What is the most polarizing and important youth movement since hip-hop? Twee is the proposed response. And, staying on that back cover, for those searching for outputs and symptoms of this movement, examples follow:
Artisanal chocolate. Mustaches. Locally sourced vegetables. Etsy. Birds. Flea markets. Cult films. Horn-rimmed glasses.
Billed as the first definitive history of Twee, the work is a fine read for interested parties, although one that could also be sold as a handy device for those seeking to begin arguments over soy lattes and vegan brownies.
FROM A-TO-ZOOEY: ALL THE TWEE IN THE WORLD
Why’s that? Well, it’s because Spitz has taken Twee and, in his quest to define it, exploded it way beyond its description of a musical genre. Hence the volume’s form-spanning cover subtitle. Hence also the laundry list, residing in the blurb on the flipside, of what are named as Twee touchstones.
It’s an eclectic gang – one that would make the world’s strangest pop group. The full line-up, demonstrating Spitz’s recurring and flat refusal to alphabetise lists, is:
Walt Disney; James Dean; J.D. Salinger; Sylvia Plath; Dr. Seuss; Truman Capote; Maurice Sendak; Edward Gorey; Jean Seberg; the Kinks; Judy Blume; Nick Drake; Jonathan Richman; Beat Happening; the Smiths; They Might Be Giants; Nirvana; Belle and Sebastian; Wes Anderson; Pitchfork; This American Life; McSweeney’s; mumblecore; Vampire Weekend; Sufjan Stevens; Miranda July; Tavi Gevinson; Lena Dunham; Portlandia; and Zooey Deschanel.
Zooey Deschanel, one of Spitz's Twee touchstones, seen here with M. Ward. Together they comprise the band She & Him.
So it’s a fair bet that had this book’s title stopped at Twee, and no clues to its content been provided, browsers would have expected a work predicated on the pop music genre characterised by chiming guitars and boy/girl harmonies. By songs of love both lost and found or posted missing. By homespun videos. By a conscious rejection of rock’s macho themes and behaviours. And one, finally, often marginalised and ridiculed even within the broader indie bracket it resides in.
NOW THAT'S WHAT HE CALLS TWEE
With the field widened then, and with Twee regarded as a movement and not a pop genre, Spitz gets in early with a handy Spotter's Guide. On page 12, like the Moses of Twee coming down from the mount, he offers eight bulleted points he claims as the movement’s ethics.
So, rather than somebody’s mix tape (and it would be a tape) in book form, Spitz instead embarks on a more complicated and contentious mission of exploration. And he’s beckoning us along for the ride.
Pop is there, of course, and in particular the city of Glasgow is given Exhibit-A status as an unlikely source of important Twee bands: the Pastels and the Vaselines, for example. These groups are mentioned alongside the town’s Postcard Records from which the acts Orange Juice, Josef K and Aztec Camera had emerged in the very early 1980s.
Summer 1983: a sunny statement leads an award-winning civic pride campaign (and yes, they did get permission to use Roger Hargreaves' Mr. Happy).
Glasgow an unlikely source? Only because the city, as Spitz acknowledges, remains an industrial one, and that's even in the absence of the industries that used to define it.
Once upon a time, Scotland's largest city was known for its skills in shipbuilding and heavy industry. But also for its violence ( a Glasgow kiss is slang for a headbutt). Helpfully, it was named by the World Health Organisation, in 2005, as the murder capital of Europe. Glasgow has since lost that title, yet remains a town in which both football and minding your own business in the wrong place and at the wrong time can still provide a damn good excuse for a hiding.
For balance, the Glaswegian friendliness pointed to in brochure copy is also pretty much based on fact. Any tourist asking for directions should be prepared to learn also of that citizen's family history coupled with an expectation of a reciprocal exchange.
So, via interviews with the likes of Stephen McRobbie (the Pastels), and Lloyd Cole (a kind of adopted Glaswegian, though his band the Commotions was never an exponent of to-the-letter Twee pop) Spitz picks up on the weird contradiction of a hard-as-nails city producing soft-as-kittens pop. He revels also in a provincial town trumping London or, more accurately, its powerful-at-the-time (heck, even its existing-at-the-time) music press.
The 1991 single Speeding Motorcycle (Paperhouse Records) parked opposite one incarnation of The Pastels: Katrina, Aggi and Stephen.
Another Glaswegian Twee touchstone referenced at this point is Clare Grogan. This local-girl-made-good found early-80s success with the band Altered Images (like, proper Top of the Pops success, not the ‘we’ve almost sold out of the first twenty-five fanzines’ variety).
Grogan’s girlish demeanour, all party dresses, coy expressions and highly pitched vocals, would resonate, by accident or design, through Twee bands to come.
The group's 1981 single I Could Be Happy in fact features in the suggested playlist that closes Spitz's book. This is the opportune moment to mention that it's found also in the Neverland in Shadow Twee Playlist on Spotify. But more of that later.
December 1981, and Clare Grogan is in party mood.
For Grogan, pop larks sat alongside acting gigs too, most famously via a pivotal role in another of Spitz’s Twee touchstones, Bill Forsyth’s comedy film Gregory’s Girl (1981).
It’s a sweet and sassy story, set in the unfashionable, awkwardly constructed town of Cumbernauld (according to the Idler Book of Crap Towns it’s said students of town planning are brought here to witness an example of what not to do). Often defined also by its proximity to both burlier, beefier Glasgow and the ostensibly more genteel capital, Edinburgh, Cumbernauld will, however, always be able to boast of Gregory’s Girl in a way that neither of its larger neighbours can.
HOPE FOR HOPELESS ROMANTICS
Built upon firm Twee tropes of ineptitude, haplessness and infatuation, Gregory's Girl is a film well-loved beyond its Scottish homeland. This is probably thanks to its natural tone and universal, borders-busting themes of first love and coming of age.
Gregory idolises football ace Dorothy, but it's the demure Susan who eventually wins his heart.
Here, the eponymous schoolboy Gregory (John Gordon Sinclair), with a little help from precocious younger sister Madeleine, eventually winds up with the right girl. Spoiler alert: it’s Grogan’s quieter, bobbed and beret-sporting Susan, not the glamorous, football-playing Dorothy, played by Dee Hepburn.
Girls – for they are girls and not women – pull the strings for Gregory. It’s a combination of his sister’s advice and Dorothy and friends’ subtle push towards Susan that sees the pair, in a celebrated scene, dancing together as they lie horizontally on one of the town’s green spaces.
A small network of girls has made it happen. “It’s just the way girls work.” Susan explains to Gregory, and it’s as if she’s disclosing something never previously articulated, “They help each other.” And thus is revealed what every Twee boy knew all along: there really is a furtive system that exists. But it’s one you will never notice functioning in the background.
The modern-day symbol of GODDESS, the top-secret global network of girls and women. The society has no hierarchy or headquarters and serves to advance the sharing of ideas and information regarding virtually any topic or pursuit. It's thought the organisation has operated since ancient times. Indeed, Egyptian hieroglyphics have recently been discovered which are reckoned to illustrate the complicated process of reclaiming loaned-out records and DVDs from recently banished boyfriends.
"WHEN YOU GROW UP, YOUR HEART DIES"
Whilst Susan and Gregory are actually a great fit, a few years later, John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club, another angsty, school-set drama, would conjure up a reverse-trick by pairing the seemingly mismatched. Specifically, Molly Ringwald’s popular princess with Judd Nelson’s brooding criminal. Then Ally Sheedy’s basket-case goth-girl with Emilio Estevez’s pumped-up athlete (although in, one of the film's less self-aware turns, not before she is 'prettified' and given a conventional makeover).
Before and after. Ally Sheedy's Allison Reynolds is made pretty in pink.
With five principal players occupying the detention room, conventionally someone must remain on the shelf though. Step forward Anthony Michael Hall’s Brian, the film’s least grown-up, least showy character. Six years later he’d lose Winona Ryder to Edward Scissorhands too. Some guys just have no luck whatsoever.
The Breakfast Club: the Criminal; the Athlete, the Basket Case; the Princess; and the Brain.
WAS IT JUST A DREAM?
The side-loading from Postcard and Pastels into Gregorys and Girls is a good example of what Spitz is up to: skilfully hopping from art form to art form, and all the while stitching each component together with his squirrel-spun Twee thread and vintage Singer sewing machine.
Odd, though, is the writer’s missed opportunity when referring to a well-known Grogan interview of the era. It is an NME piece and in a narrative device it reinvented the singer as a figure named Taloolah Gosh. Five or so years later, an Oxford band would appropriate that character and begin operating under a more conventional spelling: Talulah Gosh.
Oxford dreamers: the band circa 1986, alongside an extensive compilation released by Damaged Goods in 2013.
Then, thanks to a slim but sumptuous discography they’d quickly become Twee standard-bearers, their records released on the Edinburgh-based 53rd & 3rd label, itself part-run by the Pastels’ McRobbie and recognised as a key contributor to the Twee movement.
Curiously, Talulah Gosh is absent from the book, as in fact is any mention of the band's highly prolific member Amelia Fletcher.
Authentically one of the indie scene’s most important fixtures, Fletcher’s subsequent bands, including Heavenly and Tender Trap, caught the eyes of revered Twee labels like Sarah Records, K and Elefant. For a book on Twee, her non-appearance is a big miss in both the text and in that playlist forming one of several appendices covering also books and TV/film.
Talulah Gosh's song Escalator Over the Hill does though pop up on the Welcome to Neverland in Shadow playlist over on Spotify. So that's something.
Arguably the greatest Talulah Gosh song, Bringing Up Baby is unleashed, 1987, on 53rd & 3rd. The label's cataloguing system began with the word AGARR, followed by the release's number. This is AGARR 14, and the word stood for 'As Good As Ramones Records'. It looks like Ramones singer Joey Ramone is making a cameo in an image clearly referencing the 1938 Katharine Hepburn & Cary Grant film of the same name.
TWEE IS TOUGH. HONESTLY
Twee (the movement, not Spitz’s book) is a tough sell. The word itself – said to derive from a young child’s (mis)pronunciation of 'sweet' – is often used as a pejorative. Certainly, pop-wise, it has become a convenient descriptor; a four-letter shorthand for too cute to consume or take seriously.
The irony though is that a label like Sarah Records – a Twee touchstone despite its eclectic roster – actually applied hard-nosed, grown-up rigour and rules to its practices, perhaps considering Twee, as Spitz does, an authentic ideology rather than merely a genre.
'NOTHING SHOULD BE FOREVER'
Sarah rejected, for example, the indie-sleeve staple that reliably installed glum and pretty women and girls beneath a one-colour tint (Smiths sleeves to an extent). Nor did it exploit completists by releasing multiple formats of singles, or compilation-only extra tracks. And, in August 1995, the sentimentality stapled to all things Twee was absent when Sarah quit - splitting more the way a band does, rather than merely ceasing trading like a label would - after almost 100 7” single releases.
'DARE to tear things apart': the elegant, rallying death of Sarah Records, as announced via the music-press ad the label created.
But today it remains easy to marginalise Sarah and all things Twee, wherever they might pop up across that Spitz roll call of Music, Books, Television, Fashion, and Film. It seems the only thing required is the all-dismissing T-word.
IT REALLY ALL DEPENDS ON HOW YOU TAKE YOUR TWEE
There will always be grumbles. Movements, defined by people of differing views, are naturally subjective, and as a movement Twee is subjective-ier than most. One person’s twee pop might be another’s indie rock, so there will remain scope for fastidious discussion and argument as X band isn’t Twee because... and Y film surely is due to... The only guarantee is an argument. And even those in accord will eventually find disagreement if they only look hard enough.
For some, Spitz’s touchstones, artisanal chocolate for example, will cross the line dangerously into Hipster territory. As will wood-carving and $9 jars of jam. It really all depends on how you take your Twee.
But even if you disagree with some or most of his assertions, or you identify omissions along the way, the book is a jolly good read. It’s a loss to Twee specifically, and pop culture commentary generally, that Spitz – a veteran of mags including Spin and Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and Uncut, and an author of novels and biographies – died, aged 47 in February 2017.
Marc Spitz, cataloguer of all things Twee.
Neverland in Shadow, in case you’re wondering what the connection is, consciously embraces Twee. It was always the plan to poison the real world with vintage frocks and collecting-culture, massive respect for animals and a distaste for Big Business.
The principal influence, as ever, are J.M. Barrie’s original works. After all, Peter, with his determination to remain always a boy, and to maintain the healthy suspicion of adulthood Spitz offers as an ethic, is surely a Twee hero.
And Wendy? Pulled in both directions, she’s compelled to be mother and playmate. To assume arguably the most important grown-up role of them all. Yet to stay, like Peter, forever young.