The grandiose blurbs on the back cover of Marc Spitz’s Twee promise the reader a book that will analyze “the most polarizing and important youth movement since hop-hop,” and one that will do so “in the same way that Douglas Coupland branded Generation X.” Well, that would have sold me, even if I weren’t being paid to review it. As someone who still enthusiastically debates the exact moment when grunge became post-grunge, I’m a sucker for philosophizing about What The Kids Are Up To These Days and What It All Means.
But what days, exactly, are “these days?” In his introduction, “Hello, Brooklyn,” Spitz “marvel[s] at the transformation of [his] former home from working-class immigrant stronghold and rent haven for a few dozen pioneering artists to open-air supermarket for the privileged and precious.” The aforementioned P&P kids, we learn, are defined largely by listening to Belle and Sebastian, endlessly rewatching The Royal Tenenbaums, and digging all the other things B+B listed in its A-Z index of the book. But we’ve been hearing these jokes since the Dean Scream was a fresh meme, so right from the get-go, Twee begs the question “What precisely is the difference between twee and hipsters?”
The obvious answer, I suppose, is that “hipsters” are people whereas “twee” is an aesthetic—but other than the mere substitution of an adjective for a noun, how is Twee anything other than a dusting-off of a piece about hipsters from 2006? Was Spitz diligently waiting, like any good sociologist, for the dust of hipsterism to settle, in order that more solid pronouncements could be made in the light of history? Or is twee something legitimately different, although indubitably derived, from hipsterism, along the lines of the relationship between, say, Punk and New Wave? Spitz avoids answering this question (significantly, he only uses the word hipster three times, and not until page 157), but what he puts right up front is the assertion that twee is important: “Brooklyn,” as a concept, Spitz trumpets, is “our greatest export to the world right now, the way ‘Hollywood’ was a half century ago and Silicon Valley was three decades later.” Even more important than the almost certainly non-existent Seattle to which I fantasized about moving in the eighth grade?! I must read on!
After obligatory lip service is paid to the facts that virtually all hipst— sorry, I mean twee people— are upper-middle-class whites, that the characters on Girls act younger than they are, and that no-one really knows what artisanal means (there’s a disturbing touch of “communism doesn’t work” tut-tutting in the way Spitz rolls his eyes at the sweater-knitting, preserves-jarring, DIY side of twee), the tome takes up a more interesting task: tracing the roots of twee. The constant, six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon-style connections are amusing, but the more of them Spitz makes, the less they seem to prove: Natalie Wood’s character in Splendor in the Grass is twee, and that title is from a Wordsworth poem, and… hey, Wordsworth was twee too! I’m not denying that Wordsworth was twee, but if we’re defining twee as a bittersweet fixation on childhood innocence, then that doesn’t specifically describe “Williamsburg and Greenpoint in the last decade” so much as it describes “the predominant concern of all artistic endeavor since the Enlightenment.” If James Dean and the Beatles are twee, then everything is twee, and if everything is twee, then what’s the point of talking about it?
With his chains of pop dominos (Jean-Jacques Rousseau à Dr. Seuss à The Smiths), Spitz more than occasionally echoes vintage Camille Paglia in one of her everything-is-everything-else fever dreams (Elvis is Byron! Dietrich is Dickinson! RuPaul is Chaucer!). It’s fun to read, but does it ever prove anything? (Anne Frank was the female Holden Caulfield, and that’s why twee girls have bangs!) And why does Spitz lack the modicum of self-awareness necessary ever to stop and point out that doing this very thing is perhaps the height of tweedom? What, after all, is more hipst— sorry, twee— than pointing out to people that you know where everything came from, but they don’t?
One deserved bit of praise is that Twee is a valuable source of indie trivia (I didn’t know, for example, that Stuart Murdoch and Isobel Campbell of Belle and Sebastian had met at an Edwyn Collins show), and many pop-culture aficionados will doubtless think it worth the modest cover price for this reason alone. There’s nothing wrong with impeccably researched pop history for its own sake. But Spitz flounders when he insists that twee is a movement, rather than simply a descriptor, and “the hardest movement to credibly join,” at that. I agree that twee is roughly as “hard to join” as the Illuminati, but that’s only because it tends to be difficult to join something that doesn’t really exist—or, at least, exists only if you define it as Everything That Smart Young People Have Liked For The Last 60 Years. Sure, Vampire Weekend is twee, but was REM really twee? And Elvis Costello? I’m pretty sure if you called Elvis Costello “twee” to his face, he’d punch you in the balls, and that’s not very twee. (Conversely, the book makes not one mention of Regina Spektor, who actually is twee, presumably because she cannot coherently be compared to Jean Seberg, and Spitz loves comparing women to Jean Seberg, presumably to show that he knows who Jean Seberg is.)
By not sufficiently contrasting what is supposedly twee with anything that is definitively not twee (aside from the oft-raised specter of “bullies”), the book eventually takes on a sort of “Hey, you’re right, that is a thing that exists!” reference-rap quality, as though the popular (and, I suppose, twee) blog Stuff White People Like were 316 pages of prose. Love letters to pop culture are generally enjoyable reads, and Twee is certainly no exception—you just can’t put too much stock in Spitz’s diagnoses, or you’ll wind up with a paradox migraine (Judy Blume is both Punk and Twee, QED!). Like a scare piece on the evening news about rainbow parties or vodka eyeballing, Twee seems aimed at clueless older people rather than the kids who are supposedly into all this stuff: after referring to the acronym “LOL,” Spitz actually bothers to explain what it stands for.
Despite Spitz’s repeated proclamation that to embrace twee is to reject the very notion of being “cool,” Twee reads like nothing so much as a checklist of things from the past that young people should know about if they want to be, in fact, cool. (Sylvia Plath? Check. Harold and Maude? Check. The Violent Femmes? Check. Edward Gorey? Check.) If being thin and attractive and well dressed and smoking cigarettes while watching angsty films is what “twee” means instead of what “cool” means, then what does “cool” mean? Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
This is not something I find myself saying often, but Twee might have worked better as an explicit gender-studies analysis, rather than as a pop-culture potlatch that refers to gender roles only occasionally and usually apropos of something else. What a history of twee really traces, the reader eventually suspects, is a history of permission for men to be non- (or even anti-) macho. Spitz marks “the idea of guys not being dicks” as a sine qua non of twee early on and, when rooting modern twee in a cultural nexus of Disney and Beat Poetry in postwar suburbia, points out that “a loud, primal yowl of honesty, or a whispered plea for sweetness was not embarrassing or unseemly or, most crucially, unmasculine” [emphasis mine]. After all, the idea of women liking kittens and gardening is not exactly new—except, of course, to the current generation of young women, who grew up under the aegis of take-no-prisoners 1990s campus feminism, thereby becoming the first girls who ever had the opportunity to define acting like girls as subversive. It’s only the boys joining in that’s remarkable, doubly so because of the oddly disguised way in which they’re doing it.
As a resident of Brooklyn, I think I know a thing or two about twee, and what’s always struck me most is that, despite the apotheosis of symbolic eunuchs like Jesse Eisenberg and Michael Cera, it’s actually the most traditionally gender-normative youth subculture we’ve seen since the days of Elvis, albeit in an aggressively stylized, we’re-just-kidding way. But are we? How long can girls knit in pink dresses and boys grow beards, build bookshelves, and give backyard chickens the chop before it’s no longer all a big joke? I’m not complaining. I like pink on girls, and I build a mean bookshelf. I just suspect that what Spitz—and most people—see as a refusal to grow up might actually be an excuse to grow up, by virtue of turning masculinity, femininity, and adulthood into parodies of themselves. The most interesting aspect of twee culture by far (and, I’m willing to bet, what will become its most significant cultural legacy) is its relentless and legitimately troubled Is-This-Feminist? handwringing, divorced from the feminist elders of academia courtesy of the blogosphere. But Spitz only takes this on briefly at the buzzer, presumably because it made structural sense to save the inevitable anatomizing of Zooey Deschanel for the end, in order not to be “antweeclimactic.”