Friday, May 02, 2008

Twee Handclaps

I was surprised and disappointed to read the phrase “twee handclaps” on indiemp3 recently. Surprised because there is nothing intrinsically twee about handclaps; disappointed because I thought indiemp3 might avoid the pejorative use of twee.

To be clear why “twee” is offensive, we have to go back to the mid-80s, when the traditional rock press started to describe the nascent indiepop scene as “twee”. This epithet ignored the fact that indiepop was the true inheritor of punk’s revolutionary zeal. The problem the mainstream press had with indiepop was that, more than any other popular musical subculture, it challenged and questioned rock’s hidebound hierarchy.

Indiepop took an oppositional stance to rock: women were asexual rather than sex objects; men were more likely to sing about failure (My Favourite Dress by The Wedding Present, for example) than triumph, or the excitement of falling in love (Sunny Sundae Smile by My Bloody Valentine, for example) than brag about conquests.

This stance was described by Edwyn Collins (surely the Godfather Of Indie) in an interview last week. Describing early Orange Juice gigs, he said: “People would shout, ‘Poofs! Poofs!’ and I took that as a seal of approval.”

I was talking to Greg Webster about this subject last weekend. Greg, like many people who made indiepop in the mid-80s, is completely bewildered that “twee” has been adopted as a badge of honour by contemporary bands and fans. Twee, like limp-wristed, was always used by rock fans and hacks as a slight against indiepop: the implication was that because indiepop wasn’t brash and vulgar and clichéd then it must be impotent and homosexual and worthless.

The spirit of the indiepop movement, Greg remembered, could be found in people like The Legend wearing flares and an anorak at The Living Room club in the early 80s, encapsulating Dexys’ war cry of “if you’re so anti-fashion, why not wear flares instead of dressing down all the time”. This same spirit is captured by Stuart Murdoch when he sings
I could dance all night like I'm a soul boy
But I know I'd rather drag myself across the dance floor
I feel like dancing on my own
Where no one knows me, and where I
Can cause offence just by the way I look

Twee came to be used by some indiepop fans as a positive description of their tastes following the establishment of the tweenet mailing list in 1994. According to the site’s founders:
It was used a lot in Britain in the late 80s, often derogatorily. It's used with irony here.

The irony didn’t work, though. What I understood was an attempt to replicate hip hop’s reclaiming of a racial slur, calling the indiepop mailing list “tweenet” sought to reclaim a term that insulted indiepop fans and bands.

While tongues may have been in cheeks at the naming of tweenet, it wasn’t an entirely inappropriate gesture: indiepop had been by that time slated and insulted for a decade as being twee because, as a non-traditional rock form, it was seen as a danger. The way rockists sought to suppress this danger was to emasculate it, to suggest it was homosexual and inconsequential and weak, when it was that very deliberate weakness that was its power.

However, what failed for hip hop also failed for indiepop. Twee is a hostile and unacceptable term to indiepop fans. I appreciate that there are fans of something that is deliberately twee for twee’s sake – rather than the reversion to childhood or campness that was indiepop’s original political statement – and these people (I won’t name bands or fans) can, quite simply, fuck off. I don’t wanna be friends with you.

Perhaps I should point out that I am no supporter of The Pipettes, who were slated for having “twee handclaps”. They do have 2 or 3 great pop songs, and they’re an incredibly entertaining live proposition, but I wouldn’t want to listen to their album at home (I made that mistake once and realised I’d wasted some money there).

Handclaps are a staple of gospel music and are one of the musical forms co-opted by the creators of rock’n’roll. Particularly popular in soul music, that very secularisation of gospel which reveres sex as the deity, handclaps are more than a rhythm instrument: they are part of the shared experience of pop music.

There’s nothing twee about Marvin Gaye’s I’ll Be Doggone ("Well, every woman should try to be/Whatever her man wants her to be") or those two glorious hymns to WANKING, The Undertones’ Teenage Kicks and Hefner’s Hello Kitten. It’s no coincidence that The Cure used handclaps regularly during their great pop phase (Close To Me and Let’s Go To Bed, for example); there can be no twee inference in The Who’s nihilistic My Generation or The Stooges’ feral 1969.

Nothing twee about handclaps at all, then. Oh, I get it. They’re twee if done by people who are limp-wristed…


Tom said...

It has to be said that I didn't write that! As censorship isn't one of my strong points I let it stand....

Tom said...

I forgot to add that I wrote an article on this very subject for the latest Iconclastic Cardies fanzine. I will post it once it sells out.

Fire Escape said...

I look forward to reading your article (although, surely, Iconoclastic Cardies will never sell out...).

Trev Oddbox said...

Top post! Although as one of the indie-mp3 crew - I'd agree with Tom about letting it stand as it wasn't written by us. :-)

The Article in Iconoclastic Cardies tackles a similar issue from a slightly different angle. One of Tom's best 'long' pieces I think.

I am forevering rallying against the incessant use of the word twee to describe music I like.

Fire Escape said...

Where can your non-twee indiepop fan buy a copy of Iconoclastic Cardies?

Trev Oddbox said...

I'm not sure. I thought it was only available at gigs. Try messaging Pete from Horowitz -

As he was the chap who put it all together!


Tom said...

I have e-mailed you mate.

Next time you Mr Webster ask him if he wants to play for us. He never responds to my space messages! or maybe that's a hint LOL....

Anonymous said...

An excellent blog, FireEscape. While I'm sure indieMP3's "twee handclaps" reference was dispensed with little forethought and even less maliciousness, I'm glad it kickstarted your thought process.

I've been writing about music for over 15 years, and I can tell you it's a lonely occupation trying to act as a serious champion (often in mainstream publications) of music that is perceived by many to be weak, limp-wristed, gay (not in the homosexual sense, but in the playground insult/"South Park" sense) and, indeed, twee. It's always a pleasure to talk to artists -- whether it's Gregory Webster or Sean O'Hagan or Donovan or Sondre Lerche -- about the false assumption that music that sounds gentle and benevolent is tantamount to a lacking of guts or failure of will. I've long been of the opinion that it's actually far more rebellious to make, for lack of a better adjective, "pretty" music than confrontational noise. In my experience, playing Razorcuts or The High Llamas
(two random examples) to an unsympathetic listener draws a far more indignant or violent reaction than if I were to play, say, Sonic Youth's most avant feedback experiments.

I'm curious, though, about your couple of inferences that indiepop was perceived or derided as "homosexual." I can't comment as to whether this was the case (I live in Canada and was in my mid-teens when C86, etc., was happening) but did people actually assume this music to be the work of gay men (Edwyn's anecdote notwithstanding)? Being a gay man myself, I find that pretty hilarious. Most indiepop, with a few exceptions, could not have been more explicit that its romantic concerns were directed toward girls. (Funnily enough, I initially assumed Stuart Murdoch to be an exception. Guess it was all those mentions of "boys.") Yes, it was intensely romantic music as opposed to sexual, and so I can understand why certain faculties would consider its creators to be wimps. But gay?? How many more lyrics about dresses, long hair, and girls' names did people need to know they were off base?
Vancouver, Canada

Fire Escape said...

Hello Michael. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. The language of the rock press was of insinuation. When confronted by a music culture that reacted against rock's traditional codes, writers in what was regarded as a liberal, pc forum couldn't directly belittle indiepop as "homosexual" but resorted to coded taunts such as "limp-wristed" (and this was, as you point out, the work of playground bullies).
Anyone considered to be not conforming to (when, actually, the correct phrase would be "rebelling against") rock's tired template was implicated to be, by the very nature of not following rock's uber-masculine pathways, engaged in non-standard sexual practices. What is true of the playground is true of rock's playground: act outside of rock's confined, accepted terms then you must be gay.
Of course, this juvenile thought process is held up as much by fans as it is by the rock press. Remember Julian Cope getting bottles of piss thrown at him and being jeered by the crowd at Castle Donnington for being "queer"? Cope was supporting Queen, and that braying mass was there to see Freddie Mercury, who couldn't possibly be gay because he was in a rock band. What has come to be an accepted part of rock's tradition from Little Richard onwards is not accepted when paired with sensitive indiepop. If it's rock'n'roll, then any homosexual or camp overtures are part of rock's pantomime; if it's indiepop, it's implicated as being gay.
So, no, there was never the branding of indiepop as homosexual, but there was - and still is - the insinuation that this very rebellious music must be in some way gay because it is in every way non-conformist.

Oh, and Tom, I'll email Greg about your request. He always rises to the bait if the words "hot, single indie chicks" are added to the mix. QED.

The Boy and the Cloud said...

nice post fireescape!

what i don't understand is the fixation with 'twee' and not not other labels like 'indiepop'... or indeed 'pop' for that matter. people will always have different definitions of labels. i'm sure whoever called it 'twee handclaps' didn't mean the same thing you would (not) have meant.

as other people of my generation, i at first used tweepop or indiepop merely an identifier or guide. if something was called tweepop, let's say Tiger Trap, there was a good chance i would like it. (who doesn't like Tiger Trap?)

i now refrain from using such labels, as they are so easily misunderstood. we need more enlightening writings like this one. (although tom's article was simply the same rant he's been doing since he started indie-mp3!)

my theory on why 'twee' is used more readily than 'indiepop', is that if you say you listen to indie you would come across as a hopeless bore, just like the music filed and promoted as indie by majors and 'indie majors' is hoplessly bland. it is surely only a matter of time util twee will be as much of a cliché and there will be twee Razorlights, Fratellis, Bloc Partys etc.

the only successful case of approriation of a term first used against the music must be punk. i don't know what the situation in the uk is, but there was a recent article on 'tweepunk' on the Digfi website:

Tom said...

Actually re-reading this thread means that my article is not similar to what Fire Escape is saying. Still enjoy the fanzine I am sending you anyway!

Trouble is Kris is that I have to keep on ranting because no one is paying attention. :o) Now where is that A Witness album?

Fnarf said...

Maybe I can shed some light on the subject, seeing as how I'm the fellow who wrote the description of the indiepop list for tweenet (it's NOT the "tweenet list", it's the "indiepop list", and predates by some years).

You're spot on with your hip hop analogue; I remember when Julian Lawton (one of the other indiepop list founders) proposed "Fear of a Twee Planet" as a slogan. Much laughter ensued. But the point was exactly as you describe.

Whether that's where "twee" was first claimed as a badge of inverted honor I don't know. Probably not. I remember originally "twee" meant cutie-pie stuff, like Confetti and Fat Tulips, not to mention Talulah Gosh. It wasn't ever really supposed to be synonymous with indiepop.

As far as "gay" goes, there wasn't anything remotely homosexual about twee, OR indiepop. The original idea, inasmuch as I grasp it, was "unmacho", or the opposite of whatever machismo is. Punk, by the time Orange Juice came along, was hopelessly taken over by bonehead thugs and cretins determined to beat the shit out of each other as often as possible; and even the "serious" post-punk stuff of the era was often masculine and scholarly and deadly serious -- think Joy Division, Gang of Four, etc. A group like Orange Juice was truly revolutionary for being funny, clever, sly, self-deprecating, cute but unstupid. "Tomorrow I'll buy myself a dress" doesn't have anything to do with homosexuality or even cross-dressing -- just a big F-U to the macho boot boys.

When "twee" started to get used disparagingly in the UK music press, music was again starting to succumb to testosterone poisoning. Grunge was coming on, and nothing could be dumber or more manly than that. I very much remember feeling at the time that "punk" or "alternative" were worlds not meant for me -- not because I'm gay (I'm not) but because I'm not a violent moron.

You know the kind of gigs I mean -- the kind where girls and wimpy boys are afraid to go near the front, because they'll get kicked. In the US, at least, it's a kind of a frat-boy thing -- punk as fuck, but about as "alternative" as a Ronald Reagan campaign rally.

Anyways, you know all this, I'm sure. But somehow the tag stuck. I remember at the first "Tweefest", 1995 in New York, Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields (who headlined) was visibly horrified by the name and apparent demeanor of this little fest he found himself at. I guess it's one thing to say "I'm twee because I'm a wimpy guy who has found this great band that people don't like because they're not tough" and another to say "I'll adopt this whole soft persona because I like this band called twee". We were trying to be the former, but looked like the latter, I guess.

Looking now at what uses to which "twee" has been put I can see that probably Meritt was right and we were wrong. Some of those "twee" mannerisms don't age very well, do they? I mean, come on, I'm pushing fifty, I can't be carrying around a Kerroppi wallet anymore, can I? It's embarrassing. And some of the twee stuff I see is equally embarrassing.

but you know, most twee isn't all that twee when you get down to it. Tullycraft ("Fuck me, I'm Twee", which is not autobiographical) is a pretty hard-rockin' outfit. But they still manage to not only not embody Studly Rock Dude mannerisms, but they do know what they are, and make fun of them.

I think that's the idea, really; unmacho versus ANTI-macho. Indiepop isn't about being CLUELESSLY wimpy; it's about being KNOWINGLY so. We (and when I say "we" I of course mean "other folks who actually do things") know all about those rock guitar poses, and smash-the-amps hijinks, and we make fun of them,
and mock them.

The bad kind of "twee" -- the Hello Kitty hair barrettes and lisping marshmallow songs about holding hands and stuff -- does mystify me a bit -- and it's definitely not what the word was intended to mean at first.

And, you know, to me "twee" such as it exists is very much a subset of "indiepop". Razorcuts (whom I revere) are gods of indiepop but not remotely twee -- they're too angry, and too cutting, for that. Thank goodness for that!

Sorry for going on so long about this. It's what I do....

Steve T., indiepop list owner

Fnarf said...

PS -- it would never occur to me to actually use "twee" as a descriptor, except as a kind of shorthand, like any other genre tag. The word I use is "indiepop" -- one word. DEFINITELY not "indie" which has always meant something very, very different, formerly "indie rock", which I pretty much hate.

But when you're talking to other people, arguing about what is what is less productive than just figuring out what THEY mean. As the boy in the cloud says, I can usually tell if it's called "twee something or other" there will be stuff in there I like.

Fire Escape said...

Thanks, Steve, for your perceptive comments. Perhaps I'm taking too hardline a stance, but if it's called "twee something or other" I know that it's either being called that by someone who's missing the point or being made by people who haven't got a clue. At least, it puts me on guard immediately.
With reference to your idea of twee originally meaning "cutie-pie stuff", there's a world of difference between Talulah Gosh and the Fat Tulips. The former had songs like Break Your Face and the wonderfully anti-rock indiepop of I Can't Get No Satisfaction (Thank God), which is a part of indiepop's intelligent anti-macho swiping. The Fat Tulips took the punk/shambling notion of not being able to play to new depths of decrepitude. They were a diluted version of Talulah Gosh, lacking the spirit of adventure displayed by their heroes in favour of a watered-down tribute (debut single Where's Clare Grogan Now? was a direct link to Talulah Gosh, who were named after Clare Grogan's nickname or alter ego, 'Talulah Gosh'; not to mention the single 'Amelia'). I found the Fat Tulips' cartoons of a schoolgirl Amelia particularly nauseating; were the sexual exploitation of children as well-publicised a crime in 1990 as it is today, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the Fat Tulips had attracted the attentions of the police. I'm not saying they were paedophiles (they weren't), but I am saying they were very, very misguided and almost completely oblivious to the ideals and aspirations of indiepop.
It's bands like The Fat Tulips who aspired to be twee - when twee was just a spectacular (misoygnist and rockist) misreading of indiepop's rebellion - who were among the first bands and fans to misinterpret indiepop.
Twee was being used as an insult long before grunge's birth; it was only three years between Talulah Gosh's 1986 debut and The Fat Tulips' 1989 debut for some bands and fans to misappropriate indiepop, to understand it through the skewed, rockist lens of the music press and think of twee as an aspiration not an insult.
Gimme gimme indiepop: indierock is just rock that shifts fewer units; twee is just indiepop without the punk, zeal and brains.

Fnarf said...

Yeah, fair enough, though I still like a peppy Fat Tulips song occasionally. But it almost becomes a comedy act at some point, which I can see doesn't do much for you!

For me, a little endearing incompetence is OK. My favorite song of all time is The Men of Westenesse's "The Coldest Water", which isn't twee but quite incompetent, and quite perfect for it -- any more competence would have driven the life out of it, and forced the tumbling-over-themselves song parts to spread out properly and become more boring, and they would have sung in tune, and without the voice cracking, which would have dried it out even further; and they certainly wouldn't have let the momentum of the tune carry them into the hare-brained but spectacular chorus from "Angel of the Morning" at the close, because their song was over but they weren't fuckin' finished yet -- which is what takes it over the edge of the abyss and into the pure space that all pop songs ultimately come from.

Some people find that sort of thing -- or, say, the problems with tuning and timing that Orange Juice occasionally had -- horrible beyond belief. Those people would rather listen to someone like Eric Clapton execute flawless but bloodless licks until eternity closes in on them. Not me.

A little ridiculousness is OK. Essential, even. For me, there has to be a certain element of "my god, you've certainly got some getting up there and doing THAT". That was kind of the thing about Orange Juice, those chants of "poof, poof" were proof that what they were doing was in fact much more punk than any amount of frat-boy aggro rebellion, "Smash The State"-isms, Kurt Cobain taking heroin and smashing his guitar (bo-ring! or Marilyn Manson copping blood-on-the Bible tricks from one of Alice Cooper's librettos.

In that sense Fat Tulips being a little, er, pedophilic was trying to get the same effect. Not very well. But there's plenty of room in my History of Pop for groups that Weren't Very Good, Really, Now That You Mention It. And, you know, a peppy tune makes up for a lot of flaws. Some records are just records, not lifestyle guides!

I think what really made my mind up on this was my adventures in the land of sixties Sunshine Pop, which is CHOCK FULL of retarded simpletons who make The Fat Tulips look like geniuses. I mean, really -- even solid groups like The Hollies doing "Pegasus, the Flying Horse". You have to laugh. But the tunes are awfully good fun. Good fun is important.

Having fun is in fact a transgressive act in the modern world of dour indieism. I think you Brits are a little better off than we Americans are, because we don't really have a tradition of irony. We tend to like our bands to be deadly earnest about what they do. I think you're right about Talulah Gosh -- but compare them to an American Riot Grrrl act. T. Gosh could play the cutie-pie card, with a wink; American bands don't (mostly) wink.

There's a thread of seriousness in indiepop, which is good, but there are threads of humor as well. And nothing, NOTHING, pissed off the grim-faced punks back in the day like laughter. I can enjoy it both ways.

ally. said...

in my day i claimed pretty much everyone i adored as punk and i'm sticking to it. at least everyone seems to've forgotten cutie.

you've inspired clapping week round mine too

Fire Escape said...

Endearing incompetence is fine by me, too: James Kirk stopping during the ‘difficult’ guitar breaks at Orange Juice gigs, pointing frustratingly at his amp and waving his fist at the sound engineer (nothing was wrong with the equipment: Kirk just couldn’t play the solos live and thought it easier to blame the sound engineer than himself); or Dan Treacy’s stumbling around every right chord and bum note, while singing in that strangely beautiful pubescent whine.

I don’t want perfection, because perfect pop is only perfect because of its imperfections. This notion of the flawed beauty is an old one (the mole on Cindy Crawford’s face being a famous one of recent times). In pop music, those flaws show you heart and individuality rather than over-produced conformity.

I’ll have to disagree with you about the Fat Tulips, though. I mean, I’m happy to accept that they might have made some good songs after 1990 (they didn’t before; at no time in the past 18 years have I thought I could spare a few more minutes of my life listening to them). I don’t think their unsavoury cartoons were trying to get the same effect as, say, Orange Juice’s glorious punk shambles. As someone wiser than me once said: “I’d listen to your records but your logic’s far too lame.”

Don’t get me wrong, Steve, I’m not saying that every record has to adhere to a recommended indiepop lifestyle guide. I am saying, though, that no records should adhere to a twee lifestyle guide.

My experience of 60s soft pop doesn’t bear out your interpretation of simpletons. I would suggest that a high intake of “elephant candy” added to the lyrical fun and games of that period.

But, yes, an enormous amount of good pop was made then. Just as it’s being made now. I’m not pretending that every new pop record I buy is a classic. I am quite certain, though, that every new pop record I buy feels like a classic for at least a week. What percentage of those records are classics and will be compiled a la soft pop in 20 years’ time, perhaps we can talk about when the dust has settled and EMI (oh, fuck it, I'll accept a deal with Revola) has given us the cash to reissue Great Dumb Pop Volumes 1-10.