In writing his new book on the Twee aesthetic, Marc Spitz found himself collecting stuffed animals.
“These old fashioned stuffed animals are like $75 a piece,” he laughs. “They’re not cheap; they’re these mohair stuffed animals from the ‘50s. I started thinking, ‘Well, I don’t have a hippo. Or a lion or a monkey.’ That binge is over now that the book is done. I don’t have to go to a rehab center. I don’t even know what to do with them now, put them back on eBay, I guess.”
It’s telling how writing a book about Twee sent Spitz looking to childhood for inspiration. Twee is represented by Wes Anderson’s precocious youths who act like adults and adults who act like children, Morrissey’s miserable childhood at the hands of belligerent ghouls running Manchester schools and Holden Caulfield kicking and screaming at the adult world’s phoniness.
Still, reducing Twee to a tweet-length definition is impossible. That’s one reason Marc Spitz’s new book, Twee: The Gentle Revolution in Music, Books, Television, Fashion and Film, includes over 350 pages detailing just under 70 years of the phenomenon’s amorphous and eclectic history.
You may have a different word for this culture of bespectacled, art-obsessed precocity, and Spitz would be fine with that. “I didn’t know I would call it Twee, but I knew it was something,” he says. “Sometimes I regret calling it Twee and think there might be a better word for it, but I knew that it was something shared.”
Twee: The Gentle Revolution is a cultural history about The Diary of Anne Frank, Buddy Holly, Edward Gorey, The Bell Jar, Jonathan Richman, Pee-wee Herman, The Smiths, Belle & Sebastian, Wes Anderson and many more individuals and works of art mapping the wistful world. It’s as much about how you dress and conduct yourself as it is about the books, music and films you appreciate. Spitz saw all this and thought such a far-reaching movement had yet to receive a proper codification.
“People are into anti-cool, cardigan sweaters, nerd glasses, Belle & Sebastian,” he says. “There were dozens and dozens of things which accrued to create an aesthetic that people now understand as an aesthetic. If you take just one of those things and look at it, it’s a curiosity. But if you take all of them, it’s a way of expressing yourself, especially if you’re young. It’s a movement you can belong to like punk rock.”
Spitz already covered punk rock (of the West Coast, Los Angeles variety) in We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk alongside Brendan Mullen. A longtime rock journalist, he’s interviewed all four Smiths (Morrissey twice) and written biographies of David Bowie and Mick Jagger. Twee: The Gentle Revolution is far from his first rodeo, and it’s difficult to imagine a better person to give the movement the coverage it deserves.
“I wanted a record of things coming together for a certain type of un-macho/uncool—or anti-macho/anti-cool—thrift store and Internet savvy people,” Spitz says. “They could be the kind of people you want to punch in the face, but they could also be kind of heroic as far as anti-bullying and stuff like that. If one kid reads it and doesn’t feel like a freak, then that’s always a good thing.”
But Spitz looks at Twee and still sees room for progress. For all the movement’s ingenuity and celebration of originality, he thinks it could benefit from more diversity.
“There are no paper-doll cutouts,” he says. “There’s no pattern you can stitch together. There are elements of it in someone like Kanye West and his craftsmanship and sensitivity. Some of the people he’s wanted to collaborate with indicate that it’s there, whether he’s aware of it or not. I see it in someone like him or Prince.”
If the litmus test to be a Twee hero is a youth spent in introverted appreciation of under-the-radar music, Spitz points out Kurt Cobain qualifies as much as Morrissey. It’s refreshing to see him place as much of an emphasis on the differences between these icons as on their similarities. And, as the subtitle of the book suggests, Twee’s most unifying factor is championing gentleness, innocence, kindness and beauty. Spitz’s panorama of profiles proves those sentiments can be equally backed by both Nirvana’s aggression and The Smiths’ melancholy.
Spitz devotes plenty of pages to the bands and filmmakers you already love, but he also highlights lesser-known yet inspiring artists.
“I discovered Another Sunny Day, The Flatmates, The Field Mice,” Spitz says. “I got really, really into Orange Juice for a period and all the pre-Belle & Sebastian Scottish stuff.”
Twee: The Gentle Revolution includes a playlist of songs, a reading list and a queue of movies to check out, opening the doorway to the wide world Spitz has portrayed in miniature throughout the book. An admirable guide, he’s well versed in the territory he takes you to tour.
Mack Hayden has written for Paste, Relevant and Curator. He spends most of his time wondering when he can listen to Pavement and eat Chipotle again while worrying people will find out how much he actually likes Coldplay. He reads a lot and tweets from @unionmack, too.