Friday, March 6, 2015

Falling and laughing

This review of a book supposedly about the "twee tribe" makes what seem to be good points while simultaneously missing the larger point. Here's how the review begins:
Consider the following phenomena: owl-shaped cushions, bird-print textiles and kitten ephemera. French horns, ukuleles and accordions. Grown women with wispy fringes who dress like little girls, grannies or Jean Seberg, and young men who sport excessively neat haircuts, horn-rimmed glasses and waistcoats. Cotton candy, gluten-free acai berry cupcakes and quinoa fritters with probiotic goat yoghurt. Anything that is locally sourced, vintage or artisanal. Cream-coloured retro bikes with wicker baskets and 1950s sun dresses in ice-cream shades. Polka dots and cocktails in jam glasses. The comic strip Peanuts, J. D. Salinger and Maurice Sendak. The Smiths and Belle and Sebastian. Taxidermy, stamp collecting and home baking. The films of Wes Anderson. What do they all share? According to Marc Spitz, they are emblems of “Twee” – “the most powerful youth movement since Punk and Hip-Hop”.
The problem is that there's twee and there's twee, literal twee and good twee. The good stuff is called twee as a self-deprecating joke, because it has tendencies in that direction. The cutesie twee is one of the gutters into which twee's ball perpetually runs the risk of falling. The other is nihilism. So almost everything listed above has nothing to do with the sub-culture of twee, except as a kind of accessory. If you appear too humorlessly angry or depressed you might add some ironic cuteness, like Morrissey riding a bike with National Health glasses on, or some 60s style like Amelia Fletcher wearing her hair "just like Jean Seberg's." But both also have clear punk influences and sing about wanting to die. It's not all bird-print textiles. (And the NHS specs are also both a show of solidarity with the working class and an outward sign of inner trouble. Annoying to some, perhaps, but not a form of steampunk whimsy.)

Speaking of bird-print, Edwyn Collins actually makes bird-print products, but if he's whimsical at all he's a very long way from being merely whimsical. The lyrics of "Consolation Prize," while jokey, are not a joke:
I wore my fringe like Roger McGuinn's
I was hoping to impress
So frightfully camp, it made you laugh
Tomorrow I'll buy myself a dress
How ludicrous          
Not surprisingly the song ends with the repeated line, "I'll never be man enough for you." It sounds likely to be true, but it's also despairing. Part of the essence of twee was, or is, the struggle of how to live when punk has changed everything but you don't want to be Vyvyan Basterd, when feminism has changed everything but you don't want to be Millie Tant, and when in some sense you want to die but you don't actually want to die. Being gluten-free has absolutely nothing to do with this. Irony and self-mockery, combining self-deprecation with a sense of humor, are more to the point. Perhaps these are features of the (suspiciously) ubiquitously maligned hipsterism of today, but if so I don't see it.


  1. Duncan, two recs if you haven't read them:

    Ordinary Ethics: Anthropolgy, Language, and Action by Michael Lambek, ed
    The Subject of Virtue: An Anthropology of Ethics and Freedom by James Laidlaw


    1. I haven't read either of them. Thanks!

  2. don't know the kids today but was just rereading GenX and for all its love of being clever it reminded me that the now infamous irony of my generation of Americans wasn't a pose but a being struck by,very different from the New Romantics across the pond.

    1. I have no idea what the New Romantics were thinking. That stuff mostly seemed like empty self-indulgence.

    2. yeah interesting, punk over there was more fashion-oriented too in some ways, maybe (Clash/U2 aside) they had just lost any political will/options and been left to pouting/posing?

    3. Could be. I think punk was sort of political in the UK, but not in a party political way. More a rejection of everything. Apathetic anarchy and all that. Which does sort of leave the door open for people who just want to pout and pose.