Twee: High-Risk, High-Reward
by Alexandra Molotkow
“Twee,” in the pejorative sense, means something that substitutes decoration for substance. But it can also refer to something that makes an effort to be sweet and adorbs in addition to whatever else it is, or that communicates something through sweetness and adorability.
Which is to say: it’s high-risk, high-reward. I have zero patience for white kids goofing on ukeleles, or self-conscious weirdos who maintain eye contact for too long as a private experiment to see if they can beam their thoughts into yours. And I hate it when singers put on phony voices to sound more “interesting” than they are (fsodfhisodif), and every year, for decades, hundreds upon hundreds of new rock bands sound exactly like Talking Heads except the singer has a concussion and the lettering on the album cover was written in the dude’s wrong hand.
Twee is, more often than not, just a way to muddle up something that’s otherwise completely mundane and uninteresting. Because if you learn one thing in art school it’s that if you don’t have an idea, obfuscate! You can coast for years on obscurity, as long as you’re pretty or mean enough to convince people they’re missing something. It can carry you through your 20s and even beyond, if you date younger.
I totally get why people hate twee. Most of the time, I hate it too. As Katrina Onstad wrote in a profile on Miranda July:
Twee fascinations with childhood innocence can mask an unwillingness to tackle life’s darker quandaries. Who wouldn’t be annoyed by a guy who, say, finds a cracked milk bottle, makes a film about it, then silk screens it on a T-shirt and names his band Milk Bottle? The stakes are low. The results are soon forgotten.
The stakes are low because there’s no intention. In this case, “cute” is a lazy tactic that reveals a mutant sense of entitlement and self-regard — your genius runs so deep that even your least considered ideas are precious. Because “cute” is such an easy bluff, twee is cloying and disposable more often than not. And it triggers an instinctive wariness in those who regard it, of being suckered into a feeling that’s not genuine to the work. There’s nothing wrong with a cold, empty aesthetic (take Scarface) but the pretense of “poignant” is unbearable.
That said, some things are cute for a reason. And I love cute, when it earns itself, or just is. If twee is done well and with emotional honesty, it can be as beautiful as it means to be, because sometimes a thing that is painstakingly designed to be pleasant is, in fact, pleasant.
Some of my favorite things are twee. I love Belle and Sebastian. I love the Free Design. I even like the Ladybug Transistor, and the movie Submarine. Oh, and I LOVE Miranda July. I totally love Miranda July. I even liked the movie with the talking cat, and even the part of the movie where the guy talks to the moon about his relationship woes, and by the end I even liked the talking cat itself. Why? Because it worked! Everything made sense relative to everything else. (You and Me and Everyone We Know was a little much.)
Sometimes twee is just the medium. For example, Joanna Newsom, who announced a new album today! I would call her a genius. I would also call her difficult. She is “muscularly adorable,” and it takes some kind of muscle, I guess, to get up there with a harp in a peasant dress and sing like Karen Dalton. I’m not saying you should ever do that, or that it’s not a little bit painful to hold her eye as she leaps through snowy Manhattan, or suffer the twinkle of glockenspiel. I’m just saying that Joanna Newsom knows what the fuck she’s doing, and I believe she could not do it any other way.