Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A wistful walk through the precious world of twee pop

Illustration for article titled A wistful walk through the precious world of twee pop

Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing gateways@theonion.com.


Geek obsession: Twee pop

Why it’s daunting: The difference between “twee” and “indie pop” is slight but polarizing. Both styles of music transcended genre, became a tape-trading lifestyle, and have similar influences, drawing from the Ramones’ minimalist three-chord structures as much as The Jesus And Mary Chain’s salty pop harmonies. Everyone varies slightly on origins, but it’s indisputable that countless movements have emerged as a consequence of twee—from cuddlecore to the founding of beloved indie rock acts like Wye Oak and Mac DeMarco.

Twee itself began as a vast collection of sounds, gathering the threads where luminaries left off, and carving out divergent avenues in their wake. The Smiths’ pained lyricism, Orange Juice’s post-punk riffs, The Vaselines’ wit and The Pastels’ lovely harmonies are all name-checked in shaping the charming aesthetic. NME’s formative C86 compilation cassette and various indie labels, including Sarah and Slumberland, were also formative mediums for the genre’s development.

In terms of music history, twee is not unlike mainstream pop music in that it’s primarily concerned with love. But the focus on love differs in that it’s unrequited—and who hasn’t been lovesick over someone who never glances in their direction? Twee doesn’t as much capitalize on sadness, but sheds the mask of constant happiness that our society demands of us. The music of bands like Tullycraft honor tears as badges of pride, a response to what moves a listener, a love-swept person, and a human. The bands approach the subject of sex in angular ways, creating a more active listening experience instead of accepting pop music’s tradition for blatant sexualization.

Much like the term emo, “twee” has historically been pointed as an insult—as in “twee as fuck.” But twee boys and girls have taken back the term, embracing the simple melodies, girl-group nostalgia, and songs about crying alone and coping with crushes. “We’ve had a Maximum Rock ’n’ Roll scene with old-school punk stuff,” said Tullycraft singer Sean Tollefson in an interview with The Daily Collegian. “Maybe it’s a reaction to that. It was like how rockin’ can we be. It could be ‘how cute can we be.’ Cuteness can still be punk but in a different way.” The machismo of the punk community was deconstructed through twee, which similarly encouraged zine culture, DIY booking and an enormous tape-trading subculture. Twee consciously created a space where girls would not only be safe, but could also flourish creatively. As a community, twee has been refreshingly open-minded. Twee taught kids that it’s okay to be shy and to welcome hand-drawn kittens, cardigans, and openly geeking out about precocious pop music with no shame or irony attached.

Possible gateway: Tiger Trap’s Tiger Trap

Why: Sharp and sweet, Tiger Trap’s rich harmonies, led by singers and guitarists Rose Melberg and Angela Loy, evolved into some of the most resonant duos of the twee genre. While the girls hummed adorable phrases such as “we go just like puzzle pieces,” the Sacramento band wasn’t afraid to stomp around noisily too, especially on tracks like “Eight Wheels.” The four-piece group gained a reputation for developing their own singular strain of punk, with sharp instrumentals coexisting alongside lyrics about infatuation and heart-stinging crushes. The group is also loosely linked to the riot grrrl movement—after all, its first release was a split with Bratmobile—and K Records, the brainchild of Beat Happening’s Calvin Johnson. The record isn’t saccharine, but it’s enough to spike your interest in pursuing twee in one of two prevalent directions: the slightly thrashier side, or the unadulterated and purely pop side.

Next steps: Belle And Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister, Slumberland Records’ Why Popstars Can’t Dance or Television Personalities’ …And Don’t The Kids Just Love It


If you’re into twee, it means you at least have an appreciation for the poignant. Wry lyrics shine on Belle And Sebastian’s stunning If You’re Feeling Sinister, approaching lovestruck sensibilities with just the slightest bit of tongue-in-cheek humor. This record is a great entry point into the less ramshackle side of twee, with gender-bent harmonies, bittersweet folk strums, and intimate whispers from frontman Stuart Murdoch.

Slumberland Records is still the home to contemporary movements in jangly guitar pop, but the Berkeley, California-based label became one of the pivotal curators of burgeoning twee bands. In October 1994, Slumberland released the seminal Why Popstars Can’t Dance compilation. The compilation is an accessible, solid collection of songs that also demonstrate just how twee molded into so many varying shapes and forms. Stereolab’s throbbing hums are here, right next to the fuzzy shoegazing tendencies of Lorelai. Linda Smith provides homegrown numbers next to the love-buzzed Glo-Worm, and lo-fi bedroom stunners Honeybunch (before Claudia Gonson joined The Magnetic Fields) make an appearance as well.


Although released in 1981, Television Personalities’ debut …And Don’t the Kids Just Love It is a brilliant work exemplifying twee’s successful duality of shy lyrics and jangly guitars. It pairs Daniel Treacy’s moody words with playful, slightly scuzzy guitars, a direct response to punk’s instrumental aggression. The centerpiece is “I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives,” featuring bird sounds folded into the darling song.

Where not to start: Beat Happening. The trio evolved as a response to ’80s hardcore, melding caustic rhythms and sweet melodies into a revolutionary style of pop. As the mastermind behind K Records, Calvin Johnson helped Olympia emerge as a pop paradise. Johnson’s guttural vocals behind the crackling pop rhythms can understandably be jarring—but if you’re into juxtaposition, it’s a treat.