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…