The Twee Revolution

From Wes Anderson to Zooey Deschanel to Brooklynites on bicycles, a terrifying aesthetic is overtaking America.

Kelsey Dake

Eight years ago or so, the alternative paper I was working for sent me out to review a couple of folk-noise-psych-indie-beardie-weirdie bands. I had a dreadful night. The bands were bad enough—“fumbling,” I scratched in my notebook, “infantile”—but what really did me in was the audience. Instead of baying for the blood of these lightweights, as in the Darwinian days of old, the gathered young people—behatted, bebearded, besmiling—obliged them with patters of validating applause. I had seen it before, this fond curiosity, this acclamation of the undercooked, but never so much of it in one place: the whole event seemed to exult in its own half-bakedness. Be as crap as you like was the message to the performers. The crapper, the better. We’re here for you. I tottered home, wrote a homicidally nasty nervous breakdown of a review, and decided I should take myself out of circulation for a while. No more live reviews until I calmed down. A wave of Twee—as I now realize—had just broken over my head.

Is Twee the right word for it, for the strangely persistent modern sensibility that fructifies in the props departments of Wes Anderson movies, tapers into the waxed mustache-ends of young Brooklynites on bicycles, and detonates in a yeasty whiff every time someone pops open a microbrewed beer? Well, it is now. An across-the-board examination of this thing is long overdue, and the former Spin writer Marc Spitz is to be congratulated on having risen to the challenge. With Twee: The Gentle Revolution in Music, Books, Television, Fashion, and Film, he’s given it a name, and he’s given it a canon. (The canon is crucial, as we shall see.) And if his book is a little all over the place—well, so is Twee. Spitz hails it as “the most powerful youth movement since Punk and Hip-Hop.” He doesn’t even put an arguably in there, bless him. You’re Twee if you like artisanal hot sauce. You’re Twee if you hate bullies. Indeed, it’s Spitz’s contention that we’re all a bit Twee: the culture has turned. Twee’s core values include “a healthy suspicion of adulthood”; “a steadfast focus on our essential goodness”; “the cultivation of a passion project” (T-shirt company, organic food truck); and “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.”

The aesthetic lineage that Spitz proposes—his connect-the-dots survey of Tweedom across the decades, from Peanuts to Jonathan Richman to New Girl—starts with Mickey Mouse. Mickey’s shorts, his hooting eunuch voice, his taking arms against a sea of troubles: Spitz appoints him “the first American Twee icon.” Close behind in the Twee parade trots Ferdinand the Bull, followed by the contemplative elephant Horton, and then—trying hard not to be a virgin—Holden Caulfield. The point of these characters is the bravery with which they assert their tender selves. Or perhaps the tenderness with which they assert their brave selves. Whatever: in a shitty world, they’re taking a stand for beauty. We might quibble, you and I, with elements of Spitz’s Twee taxonomy, his Tweexonomy, what he calls his “heroes’ gallery of pajama people.” I can’t accept, for example, that Sylvia Plath, rising from the ashes with her red hair and eating men like air, was ever Twee—although I can accept that thinking she was Twee is Twee. And shouldn’t Kerouac be in there somewhere? (“Don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear?”) What about Vonnegut? But all of this just puts us further inside the Twee-dome. To bandy names like this, to compare pedigrees, is to play the deep game of Twee.

“Everyone has an anthropology,” wrote Walker Percy, right on the money as usual. “There is no not having one. If a man says he does not, all he is saying is that his anthropology is implicit, a set of assumptions which he has not thought to call into question.” Mother, father, doing laundry for your Twee son, washing his bike-messenger shorts or his “Three Wolf Moon” T-shirt, you may ask yourself, What does he stand for, this kid? What does he believe? Your hard-core Tweeniac, in the 21st century, appears quite settled in his floating-ness, quite rooted in his void. His anthropology looks like an aggregate of encrypted style statements, rarefied consumer choices, B sides, punch lines from canceled sitcoms, teeny-weeny totems and teeny-weeny taboos. In his mind, at least, he’s off the grid. He is easily ironized because he comes, in a sense, pre-ironized. Consider the cultural degradation of the “hipster”—once a jazz-and-orgasms spirit warrior with battle hymns by Norman Mailer, now a dude with a funny hat rooting through a bin of used vinyl. And he is easily exploited. One of the most beautiful lines in Spitz’s book, curiously or perhaps fittingly, comes in a description of the famous 1999 Volkswagen Cabriolet ad that (blech!) appropriated Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon.” Spitz calls it “a sort of blue-bathed grace moment of shyness and gentleness.”

The Twee food fads come and go, as do the tribally sanctioned T-shirts and the weekly musical subgenres. But I am grateful to Spitz for reminding me that Twee has, beneath all the chirping, something passionately affronted and defiant; that its embrace of underdogs—their flops, their freak-outs, their difficult third albums—has an actual moral application. Spitz plants the British singer Morrissey upon the throne of Twee. I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour / But heaven knows I’m miserable now. The yearning, the susceptibility. But Morrissey is too sleek and magnificent an ego for that ambiguous seat, I think. (He is also responsible for the radically un-Twee couplet When we’re in your scholarly room / Who will swallow whom?) Spitz is on firmer, which is to say much more unstable, ground with Kurt Cobain. Here was the Elvis of Twee, a complicated angel, “rock’n’roll’s own Little Prince,” not only a shockingly potent performer but a militant Twee ideologue. He inveighed against sexism and homophobia; he loathed jocks; he sang Grandma take me home; he painted his toenails; he used his fame to promote unpromotable bands. It may have been the massive drumming of Dave Grohl—nothing could be less Twee—that powered Nirvana into the mainstream, but Cobain, like all great figures, had already invented his own historical inevitability: he was, briefly and tormentedly, the bursting-through of generations of Twee.

Spitz describes Twee as a “revolution.” A gentle one, to be sure, but revolution is revolution. Has it happened? Is it happening? Have we lit the fuse of a transformative explosion on the twinkling tips of those Brooklyn mustaches? In Boston, as I write, two former college-football players have just been arraigned for beating a homeless man—a beating that might have been fatal were it not for the intervention, as reported by The Boston Globe, of “a petite woman in her 20s who asked not to be named.” The woman’s intervention was apparently literal: she placed her body between the victim and his attackers. Truly Salingerian, or Cobainian. A paradigmatic instance of Twee heroism, one might say. Defend the vulnerable. Disarm the tormentor. Be strong. Be Twee.

The Twee Pantheon

Wes Anderson: Outsider boy-heroes and tinkling glockenspiels? Check. Perennial struggle between innocence and experience? Check. Sudden, disorienting swerves into the dark side? Heavy, heavy check. Cinema’s primary auteur of Twee.

Zooey Deschanel: “Who’s that girl?” she inquires in winsome song, from behind the wheel of her comedy vehicle New Girl. Well, who is she? An actor-musician with a smoky voice for whom battalions of Twee roar in praise. “Kooky,” “quirky,” “dorky”—terrible words. But she did co-found a Web site called HelloGiggles.

Belle and Sebastian: More than the Smiths, more than Nirvana, Belle and Sebastian—with its Glaswegian jinglejangle and wry depressive undertow—is the folk music of Twee. Although of course folk music is the folk music of Twee.

Jonathan Safran Foer: Or at least the Jonathan Safran Foer of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, heartlessly excoriated by non-Twee critics for its “kitsch” take on 9/11. Meanies! Bullies!