What do Morrissey, Nick Drake, Dave Eggers, Judy Blume, Walt Disney, Zooey Deschanel, Lena Dunham and Kurt Cobain all have in common? According to a new book, they’re all critical figures, past and present, of the twee movement.
According to New York City-based rock journalist Marc Spitz, twee is the most important (and polarizing) pop cultural movement since hip-hop. Spitz is an energetic, thoughtful and incisive synthesizer of indie rock in particular, and his new book, Twee: The Gentle Revolution in Music, Books, Television, Fashion and Film
, is a provocative read.
Formerly a senior writer for Spin
, Spitz has also written biographies of Mick Jagger, David Bowie, two novels (one involving the Smiths and Morrissey), and last year published Poseur
, his explicit review of his own life of sex, drugs and rock and roll in 1990s New York as a struggling writer and addict. He spoke to us last week from his West Village home, and we began by asking him to explain what the hell “twee” actually is.
Marc Spitz: There’s a literal definition of twee, which anyone with a dictionary can look up. My definition of twee or the definition of twee that I gleaned from my research, I should say — I’m not being possessive of the definition — is a culture or youth movement that aggregated a lot of art that came way before it. I’m talking decades before it — in literature in film and music obviously, fashion, art from the ’60s, art from the ’70s, New Hollywood, art from the ’80s, indie rock, British boom — and sort of fastens together an aesthetic which has an ethic as well, which is based on kindness, independence, and a sort of pathological, not fear, but maybe anxiety when it comes to growing up.
CL: Let’s look at some of these archetypes of twee, such as Disney and J.D. Salinger. You wrote that they are the great bodies of water that “feed all twee streams, rivers, estuaries, and ponds.”
They saw the ultimate darkness in this case being World War I and World War II. Disney, I think, was an ambulance driver in World War I and obviously witnessed World War II from America, but he was making films to rally the troops and was very much steeped in what was going on overseas. And he lost business to theaters over there. So these are people who were affected by what we used to call in junior high “man’s inhumanity toward man” [laughs] as one of those great literary themes? Well, Salinger almost broke, he had a nervous breakdown, but instead literally typed by the side of the road while in service, and battled the darkness with creativity. Disney emerged with Mickey Mouse and Salinger emerged with Holden Caulfield and the Glass family, and there’s something triumphant and heroic about that. These are people who are scarred but they still have hope, they’re still searching, and Disney went beyond searching and actually created a universe where he wouldn’t have to search — where everything he idealized would be, and would always be 1950s America for better or worse.
So yeah, these are the people who sort of wrote the blueprint for a generation, let’s say Lena Dunham’s generation, who only know as adults a world post-9/11. Are they going to hide in their virtual bomb shelters, or are they going to make expressive, personal art, or are they going to crumble? And these are people who are clearly neurotic. And I don’t mean to confuse the character she plays on TV, but I read pieces about her where she was talking very frankly about her own neuroses, and she’s one of the few voices who I would put in league and draw a line to someone like Disney or Hal Ashby or Ray Davies, or Jonathan Richman or some of the people I write about in the book. There are plenty of others for sure, but I am too old to know who they are, and I don’t live in Brooklyn.
You write that what makes the rise of Nirvana both twee culture’s greatest triumph and biggest tragedy is Cobain’s inability to accept that he was really never meant to remain indie.
I do talk about K Records, and Olympia, Kill Rock Stars and that whole aesthetic and how self-conscious Kurt was. We don’t think of him like that. We think of him as this screaming rock god who liberated the world from hair metal and then left us, you know, when really he at heart was just a talented singer-songwriter and just like a cool-looking band leader, rock star. It’s a shame that he didn’t live long enough to see the Internet because it would have been a huge unmistakable signal to him how ridiculous all of it was. If he just spent one minute reading the comments on a Nirvana fan page, he would have been like, ‘Oh I get it, none of this matters, and it’s a shame.’ I started being a rock journalist in 1997, and I kept thinking if I [had just been] old enough to have been a rock journalist in 1994 ...I have this hubristic thing I will talk about when I get drunk about how if I could have interviewed Kurt, I would have got him straight, because I know what it’s like to be a junkie and I also know what it’s like to be a poseur and to try to prove to people that I am something so that they’ll like me. I could have talked to him and I could have saved him. I have this recurring dream where I’m interviewing Kurt Cobain and then he doesn’t end up dying, and I mean no disrespect to Courtney or the band or his daughter or anything by saying but, I feel like a lot of people who did interview him, I’m not going to name names, I’m not going to say David Fricke or Michael Azerrad gave him a wide berth and just let him get away with a lot of bullshit.
You compare novelist and publishing entrepreneur Dave Eggers with Jack White — how so?
I tried to draw parallels when I could — like Charlie Brown and James Dean, or Jack White and Dave Eggers, just because I wanted to provoke people to think about all this swirling stuff in a different way and maybe understand it in context, I don’t know. Am I saying Dave Eggers and Jack White are super related in anyway? No, but they produce in the same way and they’re among the few who have tethered to a post-war pre-digital means of production, which is cool and which is very twee.
I found out recently that you wrote the first national cover story on the Strokes. I saw them play a prime-time Saturday night set at the Governors Ball last month. It was fun, with all of these NYC kids super psyched. What’s your take on them these days?
The Strokes? I think that they are a band that are aging very strangely, they’re almost a nostalgia band these days. They put out albums and I think they just got old really fast putting out albums that I don’t think a lot of people are interested in, and then they tour, they headline festivals and they play stuff from the first two albums and maybe one or two things from the new record, and that’s something you do 30 years into your career, not 10. But I don’t want to slag them, they’re nice guys. I haven’t talked to Julian [Casablancas] or Albert [Hammond Jr.] or any of them in a while, but I hear that they’re happy and healthy and that makes me happy because when I was on the road with them, it was not the case. They were a bunch of intoxified young men, as was I. I heard that that show was good and I heard that people were really digging it...
I saw them at the Madison Square Garden, that was the last time I saw them, at the Garden. It felt like an oldie show. It felt like a revival. But then culture moves so fast, it’s hard to explain an oldie in 2005?... like LCD Soundsystem was probably pretty smart for breaking up, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have stayed interesting, the White Stripes were probably smart in breaking up. I mean, the Strokes sort of broke but didn’t break up, but they’re definitely not the band they were.
At the conclusion of Twee
, Spitz lays out a compendium of books, movies and TV shows that are an essential part of the twee aesthetic — for instance, naming They Might Be Giants and The Smiths as the archetypal twee bands of the ’80s. He insists that most of his choices in the book weren’t necessarily of his own design, but evolved out of deep research. But TMBG instead of, say, R.E.M.? That wasn’t a little bit personal?
“I kind of did it to be a little coy, but I really believe it,” Spitz admitted. “They’re a great band. They don’t apologize for their sensibility.”
We agreed that Cameron Crowe’s Fast Times at Ridgemont Hig
h changed the game for teen comedies upon its release in 1982. The film was a big influence on the John Hughes comedies that followed, which (with the exception of Sixteen Candles
) followed the same pattern as Fast Times, in which the quirky, sometimes cerebral guy gets the girl instead of the hunk.
“I think that twee cinema really starts there,” he says.
You may not agree with all of his choices. But Twee
is a compelling analysis of American pop culture in the summer of 2014.