Twee started out as a decidedly radical subculture
During the first weeks of 2022, there was a wave of nostalgic interest in twee mode, a style that most commentators associate with the Zooey Deschanel era of the early 2010s: quirky outfits, pastel colors, ukulele music. The style has been loved, hated and endlessly debated, but its public perception is that of a frivolous microtrend devoid of any larger history.
However, twee – particularly in Britain – has a much longer and more complex political heritage, linked to punk, opposition to Thatcherism and a nascent attempt to carve out a socialist musical culture. At a time when British music is becoming increasingly radical again and seeing its radicalism exploited and commercialized, the history of DIY pop in Britain offers a unique case study of what building a movement can look like. socialist music.
“Twee” – originally a pejorative, now embraced by some – was first applied to jangly 1980s pop guitar bands like Shop Assistants or Talulah Gosh, many of whom appeared on the New musical express‘s (NME) C86 cassette compilation or were signed to Bristol-based independent label Sarah. These bands shared some of the nostalgic, almost sickening aesthetic associated with modern twee design: bright colors, whimsical lyrics, a feminine style inspired by the 1960s.
What sets labels like Sarah apart is how they translate that image into political practice. Sarah wasn’t the first to arrive on Britain’s burgeoning indie pop scene: when they were founded in 1987, Glasgow-based Postcard had already pioneered the sound with bands like Orange Juice and Josef K, and Creation brought together heavyweights like the Pastels and a pre-screamdelica primal cry.
But where other labels were largely apolitical, Sarah put socialist values at the forefront of her work. “We were more inspired by punk, Crass or Chumbawamba, than the scene we were part of,” says Clare Wadd, who co-founded Sarah at the age of nineteen alongside Matt Haynes. we. Haynes adds: “It was the days of Margaret Thatcher – the miners’ strike, the Falklands war, the Brixton riots, all of that was recent history. How could you not be political?
As a result, many of Sarah’s best-known artists also embraced leftist views in their music. One group, the Orchids, wrote one of the first anti-poll tax anthems in “defy the law.” Blueboy – one of the biggest queer bands of the time – wrote “Clearerin opposition to article 28 (“Let me be free this time / my time, it clears up day by day”); Heavenly”atta girl“EP is a fierce rebuke to sexual abuse and victim blaming.
Even more important than the explicitly political lyrics written by Sarah’s bands was an underlying philosophy that pop music, in its celebration of communal joy, could itself be political. “You’re never going to start a revolution being dull,” Haynes tells us. For 80s DIY pop bands, the act of embracing excitement and beauty in the face of political desperation was its own kind of rebellion.
Beyond the sound itself, Wadd and Haynes also sought to construct a way of making and sharing music that existed outside capitalist modes of production. “We never tried to run a business,” Wadd says. “We were trying to make brilliant music accessible to as many people as possible.” One of Sarah’s most famous gestures was refusing to release 12-inch discs, which they saw as exploiting customers in contrast to the more affordable 7-inch. As Wadd explains, “We knew that most people who bought our records didn’t have the money, so we wanted to make sure that each record was really special and that they weren’t tricked into buying the same one. song many times.”
This critical view of the industry extended to calling on other independent labels. Wadd wrote a number of passionate letters to magazines, such as this one at NME in 1992, criticizing the labels which adhered to Thatcherism by making pop music a product: “The independent sector destroyed itself by aping the majors. He had no guts, no imagination, no common sense, no political awareness. When it came time to promote their own records, lists of fall outings were accompanied by calls for “socialism, feminism, revolutions”.
To understand why Sarah’s positions were so radical, it is also important to know how often they were rejected, even within their own community, especially because the label was co-run by a woman. Wadd talks about “people thinking I was a receptionist when I answered the phone”, “having to call our French distributors and demand that they never again use a picture of a topless woman to advertise releases at come” and “music journalists being put down because the label had a female name and a woman co-run it.
These attitudes also met with opposition from Sarah. In another of Wadd’s letters, this time at melody maker, she mocked their “writing for men by men”, saying that “your treatment of women reinforces the status quo that a woman’s role is largely decorative”. “The whole scene was deeply sexist, and that sexism was deeply rooted,” adds Wadd.
Sarah burned bright, but it also burned fast – and in 1995, after just 100 releases, the label closed. For Wadd and Haynes, leaving a work artistically pure was more important than being swallowed up by the pervasive commercialism of the music industry.
The music, however, continued. Bands like Belle and Sebastian and Camera Obscura enjoyed growing mainstream success, and ultimately, indie pop from the past became another staple in a millennial culture fueled by nostalgia. Belle and Sebastian’s songs were eventually used on the film’s soundtrack Juno, with who 500 days of summer, became a cornerstone of the style’s revival during the 2010s.
However, this revival mainly reflects the co-option of aesthetics in the service of commercialism. Gone were the inflammatory letters to the music establishment about exploitation and sexism: this was a mainstream version of the twee, depoliticized and stripped down.
The indie pop underground spaces that have also endured have often been tainted by the same exclusion that Sarah once struggled with. Instead of pursuing leftist politics, much of the scene rested on the laurels of his predecessors, fostering a political complacency in which bigotry or misogyny could go unchallenged.
“One of the problems with promoting a scene is that it can shut down self-reflection and internal criticism,” Sandy Gill, one of the founders of DIY music festival Decolonise Fest, tells me. With the revival seeing the experiences of women, queer people, and people of color in the DIY pop scenes largely confined to whisper networks and forum discussions, some would say the twee is late for the post-genre reckoning genre. #MeToo that has touched other parts of the indie music world. Accountability, many say, is key: as Gill puts it, “those involved need to be able to feel safe enough to approach things without fear of abuse.”
Gill created Decolonise Fest with a group of other DIY musicians and organizers, partly in response to the bigotry they faced from their respective scenes. “We’ve all had similar experiences of racism,” says Gill, “and found there was real hostility and reluctance to deal with it.” Now, that’s just one example of bands working to bring politics back to indie pop; others include Los Campesinos! funding Solicitors in 2019 and workshops by Rachel Aggs on the decolonization of the guitar.
Much of the content of Clare Wadd’s letters from the early 1990s remains relevant today – notably her observation in her letter to the NME that in music, “independent meant an attitude”. As twee fashion returns to the mainstream, a once-radical subculture has the chance to reclaim the legacy of its ancestors — and create a DIY socialist pop movement fit for the struggles of this century.