Twee Cannot Be Divorced From Its Radical Heritage

Amelia Fletcher reflects on the roots of TikTok's latest craze...

Trends come and trends go but twee lasts forever.

Associated with the shambling yet melodic groups who burst forth in the aftermath of post-punk's implosion, acts such as The Pastels, Talulah Gosh, Blueboy, The Vaselines, or The Field Mice (amongst many, many more) built their own community, and forged their own distinct sense of style.

Initially, the term 'twee' was meant as an insult – it was pejorative, forever associated with the 'under-achievers' tag.

Fast forward a few decades, and it's clear just how misguided those music press tropes were. Twee is back, with a host of style magazines hailing the TikTok enabled return of what Vogue – yes, Vogue – defines as "oversized collars, printed A-line dresses, Mary Jane flats, colourful tights, and layered cardigans…"

Mashable are in on the act, too, while Rolling Stone groans: "We Are Simply Dreading the Return of Twee on TikTok…"

Yet twee – or the indie pop community – has never truly went away. Amelia Fletcher has been a core component of this community since the 80s, leading Talulah Gosh and then Heavenly to cult acclaim and no small degree of influence.

Together with Rob Pursey they started Skep Wax Records only last year, while their latest endeavour is a multi-artist project which re-unites many of the original musicians from the storied Sarah Records stable.

Two alldayers are planned – in Bristol (The Thunderbolt) and in London (The Amersham Arms) on April 23rd and 24th respectively – while her current bands The Catenary Wires and Swansea Sound both released new albums in 2021.

As if that wasn't enough, Amelia also picked up an OBE (for her day job, not indie pop, unfortunately) in the 2014 honours list, and then added a CBE in 2020 – under-achievers, eh?

Clash dropped Amelia Fletcher a line to catch up on her recent projects, and noted the return of twee as an aesthetic on TikTok.

Here, she muses on its return, and wonders aloud if the social media driven 'revival' of sorts has divorced twee from its radical origins…

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“Mum, you’re on TikTok!” was the first I heard of the twee revival. In the teenage world of today, this seems to be roughly equivalent to appearing on Top Of The Pops. So I finally dip my toe into TikTok’s frothy waters and sign up. Are youngsters really gushing over my old bands – Talulah Gosh and Heavenly – and the other likeminded bands that I loved?

Of course, for the most part, they aren’t. There is genuine excitement about ‘twee’ style, with young TikTokers keen to show off their girlie outfits and hairgrips. But the music accompanying their artful selfies tends to be of newer bands like Belle and Sebastian and She & Him, rather than the 1980s and early 1990s bands I would naturally think of as ‘twee’.

But then I see the video in which a young woman explains – coherently and accurately – where ‘twee’ actually comes from, citing Talulah Gosh, Beat Happening, Tiger Trap and others. And I notice it has been viewed 446k times. That is a lot, even on TikTok.

The term ‘twee’ was of course originally thrown down as an insult, by (mostly) male journalists more excited about rock and roll machismo than sensitive indie pop. At the time, we all hated the word. Fans of the music even wore ‘twee as fuck’ badges and t-shirts in response. But ‘twee’ somehow stuck as a genre, and even became something cool to align yourself to. I can now even use the term now without gritting my teeth.

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And actually the term is a good one, because it reflects what we were trying to do. The original twee movement was both feminist and anti-corporate. Our choice of anoraks and stripy t-shirts, pinafore dresses and hairgrips, was not designed to be childish. We wore them precisely because this was not what was expected of us as young people in rock music.

By the mid-1980s, sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll were no longer rebellious. They were mainstream. The music scene expected its bands – and especially any girls in them – to be sexy, angry or at least cool. Not dressed in outfits more suitable for either pre-teens or pensioners. Also, we were skint, and so drawn to cheap sources of clothing, scouring charity shops and kids clothes departments for our style. (In the UK, kids clothes are not taxed).

Mostly, we wanted to be different, like every new generation should. Why should girls be at the front in photos, or treated any differently at all? Why shouldn’t we make the music we want, in the way we want, without listening to label bosses telling us how to make it more ‘saleable’. We called our band Heavenly – and our label called itself Sarah – specifically because they were the least macho names we could think of.

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We didn’t especially want to act like popstars. It would have been nice, but only if it happened on our own terms. ‘Selling out’ was the worst thing we could do. We saw ourselves as part of a community who – alongside fanzine writers and audience members – all loved the same music. We loved the ‘DIY’ sound because it felt egalitarian and accessible – like music that anyone could make if they just had some interesting ideas and a passion.

At the time, hardly anyone outside the scene understood all of this. We got used to being maligned, occasionally sending out ballistic missives to particularly misogynistic music journalists, but mostly sticking within our scene. Meanwhile, the scene grew internationally, and inspired later generations of bands, who in turn inspired the ‘twee fashion’ everyone is talking now.

So, with perhaps a bit of wishful thinking, I have decided to take the twee revival at face value. If a new generation grows to love these old bands as much I do, that would be great. But it would be even better if they drew inspiration from the original ethos of ‘twee’, which was about so much more than simply finding the perfect plaid skirt.

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