Twee. The Gentle Revolution in Music, Books, Television, Fashion, and Film by Mark Spitz. New York: Harper Collins, 2014. 352 pages
What does it mean to describe something as twee? Most of us understand the adjective just well enough to employ it as a slur, a way to describe an instance of art that is a bit too cute, or too nice, or overly aesthetic, or obtusely playing dumb. It is a mostly unconsidered dismissal that can be tossed off in any direction, at most anything that annoys us or strikes us an inauthentic. In other words, we cannot describe it, but we know what it looks like, and what it looks like is something like a Wes Anderson movie.
In Twee: The Gentle Revolution in Music, Books, Television, Fashion, and Film, author and former senior writer at Spin magazine Marc Spitz presents a unified theory of twee that offers a full-spectrum analysis of every Hydra-head of the American zeitgeist, to show how twee has ground down the meaner edges of our shared artistic experience. His cultural voracity is staggering, and he combines an understanding of history with an appreciation of aesthetics to show how the two are intertwined and growing together. The goal here is to prove that twee is not a mere fashion, but a genuine movement, a function of the evolution of the human experience as we move towards a more sensitive understanding of our predicament.
A definition is required, of course, and Spitz’s Herculean efforts to arrive at one certainly qualify him as the leader in the field. He is rightly unsatisfied with the Oxford English Dictionary definition (“excessively affected, quaint, pretty, or sentimental”), which he considers overly negative. After all, he notes, “there may be virtue here as well.” Spitz’s own definition spans an entire chapter, within which he lists eight bullet points enumerating the ethics of the twee ethos, among them: beauty over ugliness; a sharp, almost incapacitating awareness of darkness, death, and cruelty, which clashes with a steadfast focus on our essential goodness; the utter dispensing with of “cool” as it is conventionally known, often in favor of a kind of fetishization of the nerd, the geek, the dork, the virgin; a healthy suspicion of adulthood.
After establishing this foundation, he begins, of course, in Brooklyn, that epicenter of cool. “Brooklyn has become not just a borough of New York City,” he writes, “but rather an idea, an aesthetic, a selling device, an industry and a dream of some kind of global Narnia where everyone has the right books, clothes, shoes, records, cookies and pickles. Everyone is young and most of the young are twee.” Sptiz does pause to condemn the industrialized and very lucrative aspect of commercialized and exportable “Brooklyn,” but it must be admitted that if twee could remake the world, it would remake it into something resembling the square half-mile or so around the Bedford L train stop, where everything is hyper-understood and hyper-curated, an entire way of living arranged in talismans to ward off the looming mortality that has been the cornerstone of art for thousands of years.
How did this magical land come to exist? Spitz finds twee’s beginning in the most polar opposite imaginable—the trenches of WWI. It was there that a young Walt Disney drove an ambulance, “tending to the mangled and the dead.” Consider then the mind of the artist, containing that horror, while his hand first sketched the form of his famous mouse. Whereas others would choose to try to mirror the trauma of war, Disney would reject it entirely, creating a world of eternally young characters who know nothing of pain.
Once the ball of twee is rolling, Spitz follows it as it picks up speed and rolls over the entire artistic landscape. In discussing twee’s culture-wide infiltration, he reveals himself as one of the tribe, or at least a researcher so close to his subjects that the distinction cannot be cleanly drawn. He writes: “Twees cannot kick with the fray unless they carry a lot of cultural history in their heads, or at least on their devices: they are Jeopardy! contestants, boning up on the Felt, the Swell Maps, Judee Sill, Anne Sexton, Michel Gondry, Peanuts, Roald Dahl and The Phantom Tollbooth.”
A futher random sampling of the phenomena he adroitly brings into the discussion: Bored to Death, Natalie Wood, Pinocchio, The Catcher in the Rye, Anne Frank, Woody Allen, Sylvia Plath, Edward Gorey, Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, the Talking Heads, Morissey and the Smiths, Pitchforck, Portlandia, Jonathan Safran Foer, Where the Wild Things Are, Garden State, Girls, etc. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this book is Spitz’s seeming cultural omniscience; every page contains a shot-gun blast of supporting references that, as far as this Millennial reviewer can ascertain, all check out.
However, the argument, which begins with such epistemic strength, frequently devolves into less rigorous recitations of Spitz’s cultural knowledge, and the thread can get lost under a mountain of information pertaining to the formation of zines and indie music labels. But, through it all, Spitz writes with such an expansive-hearted appreciation for his subject that the reader, if not necessarily inclined to agree, is at least inclined to enjoy himself. Spitz is devilishly smart, funny and willing to show off in a delightful way that seems remarkably un-twee. Here he is, expounding of the fate of the term “indie,” which once implied actual independence: “Thus diluted of its ethic by the corporate ogres, ‘Indie’ required nothing from its adherents and, as a result, multiplied a hundredfold. Today, indie is a junk word, like Mod or hippie, used to inaccurately describe an item for sale on eBay.”
It is more than just a coincidence that, physically speaking, the book is just a bit twee itself, rejecting the common rectangle for a nearly square proportion. It is a sly kind of admission. Spitz knows that there is plenty in the twee canon worthy of dismissal or at least suspicion, but when it counts, he is a true believer. “The twee-verse is a mark of a slow evolution toward a better, kinder, humbler, more politicized, and ‘so pure’ human race, or at least one with a better record collection… [it’s] the only movement that’s going to make all these young people decent to each other.” Perhaps it is time to invest in a new corduroy blazer.