The questions about who or what is and is not twee started quickly a few years ago when I began writing my upcoming book, Twee. A band, say Blur, would play on my iPod and someone I was hanging with would ask, “Are they twee?” Sometimes I had a ready answer, often I did not, and occasionally my reply would kick off a lengthy debate with my companion about why or why not something or someone was twee. Blur, for the record, have their twee moments but I think they are ultimately not twee even when they were aspiring to be the Kinks (who were inarguably twee in the vein of other movement touchstones and slam dunks like Seuss, Plath, Capote, Dean, Sendak, Blume, Morrissey, Murdoch, Anderson and Deschanel among others). See that’s both the magic and the mad dilemma of codifying a relatively new youth movement. It’s much easier to say that something is Punk or something is Hip Hop, isn’t it? Or is it? What if someone or something is secretly so?
I found in my research there were several artists who fit the Twee mold once I established it; although few would ever consider them as such. While you could make an argument for just about anybody (maybe not David Lee Roth, see this space next week for the Anti Twee list). Meanwhile, here are a few “Secretly Twee” figures.
Why We Don’t Associate Him With Twee: He was so painfully confessional in his stand up and his book Pryor Convictions, we know that he drank too much, smoked too much (cocaine), and once shot a car: “It seemed fair to kill my car to me, right, ‘cause my wife was going to leave my ass. I say, “Not in this motherfucker you ain’t.”
Why He Is Secretly Twee: Although his best known character is an old man named “Mudbone,” much of Pryor’s stand up is obsessed with his childhood, especially his time growing up in an Illinois whorehouse. His family and the mystery and absurdity of sex are included in these bits (“He came and went at the same time,” he joked about his father who died in the act of er… love). The coldness and selfishness of show business made him palpably sad as did, obviously, the racial divides of his prime era in the late 60s through the early 80s. He also effortlessly punctured the façade of the “macho man.” (“When you don’t use sensitivity when you’re having sex or share some of your soul, nothing’s gonna happen.”)
Plus he once read a killer version of the ABC’s on Sesame Street
Why We Don’t Associate Him With Twee: Especially while leading his erstwhile band Crazy Horse he’s played along with some of the heaviest, crashing-est, not giving a fucking-est rock and roll ever created: see the great 1997 Jim Jarmusch documentary Year of the Horse for evidence:
He’s also cultivated a somewhat easily irritated image and a military grade bullshit detector, which has given him the occasional air of a tough nut.
Why He Is Secretly Twee: Unlike many of his 60s and 70s peers (Zeppelin, The Stones, Aerosmith), he has not cut the tether to his early childhood, which often produces songs that are as gentle and vulnerable as anything by Twee heroes like Nick Drake or Belle and Sebastian. See “Sugar Mountain” or “I Am A Child.”
Plus he plays with toy trains. Okay, okay, as Tony Soprano reminds his sister Janice, “He owns Lionel!”
Sir Alfred Hitchcock
Why We Don’t Associate Him With Twee: His career began in the silent age with a film about Jack the Ripper (The Lodger), his most famous film is about a man who lives with his dead mother and dispatches visitors to the family hotel while wearing her clothes and wig, and in his later years. He had his misogynistic tendencies according to Hollywood lore (especially when it came to icy blondes). He once compared actors to cattle. He cut a sinister (yet very droll) public image in his later, somewhat self-parodic period. Also, you wouldn’t want to put one of his birds on anything.
Why He Is Secretly Twee: Twee if about nothing if it’s not about the preservation of virtuousness and purity. Nearly every one of Hitchcock’s films concern a threat against innocence, particularly an innocent hero or heroine getting in way over their hear and having to fight their way back to the light or die trying (mostly die, or nearly die trying). In Hitchcock/Truffaut, a book- length series of interviews the master did with… the other master ( the French one, a huge fan) he allows: “We always have the theme of innocent man who is constantly in danger although he isn’t guilty.” Plus… you know, he hung out with Truffaut (Mr. 400 Blows).
Why We Don’t Associate Her With Twee: There’s always been something about Didion that’s been (while surely open minded and shit sharp) a bit emotionally pinched. One of the most famous lines in her blockbuster The Year of Magical Thinking quotes a hospital staffer referring to her as a “pretty cool customer.”
Why She is Secretly Twee: At the risk of blurring a writer or artists work with their image, there are half a dozen photos of Didion which place her image alongside that of the pre-radical Jane Fonda, and (Play It As It Lays star) Tuesday Weld)
and very few others as American versions of European Nouvelle Vague stars (and she didn’t even have to marry Roger Vadim to achieve this).
Also, as a master American author and reporter, she is sort of the camera eye skeptic on the 60s/very early 70s dream, even as she embodies everything that is fetish-izable about the most Twee-worshipped of twee decades. She wants to understand a chaotic world and cannot conceal this child like urge under spare and often flinty language. Plus, according to my pal Rob Sheffield, “Play It As It Lays is dripping with morbid hippie twee. It has the most twee opening lines of any novel of the twentieth century. Play It As It Lays is to Go Ask Alice what Zooey Deschanel is to Amber Heard.” Thank you, @robsheff.
Why We Don’t Associate Him With Twee: Quite simply, he’s too cool. Twee is, among many other things, about the rejection of cool or the creation of something new and exciting while fumbling with it, and Bowie, even when he was a freakin’ mime, had reserves of cool… cool to burn… cool to spare. He probably tipped his postman with his excess cool every Christmas (before heading over to Bing’s) That’s not to say the young dude wasn’t complex (I wrote a very large book on him a few years back, believe me, he’s complex).
Bowie’s always been more of the guy the guy (or gal) in the bedroom fantasizes about becoming (see Morrissey and every band who released a great album or John Peel approved single between 1978 and 1984) than the guy in the bedroom alone.
Why He Is Secretly Twee: At the very height of his initial popularity, he recorded an album’s worth of 60s-worshipping hits by the Kinks, the Easybeats, Them and the Merseybeats (see below)
He even posed with Twee icon Twiggy on the sleeve. Like his hero Little Richard, he almost single-handedly forces our reconsideration of rock’s alpha male posturing nearly as powerfully as the Riot grrrl movement.
He is the once and perhaps future Goblin King.
And, er… there’s also this:
* If you have your own suggestions and additions to the Secretly Twee Artist or Public Figure list feel free to share them in the comments section here or via @marcspitz on Twitter.