Top 20 Twee Icons

This is, admittedly, a subjective list. It's not based on any science or statistics. If you searched the most popular words used in my new history of Twee culture, Twee: The Gentle Revolution in Music, Books, Television, Fashion and Film [It Books, $16.99], I'm sure it would be "the," "and" or "Daffodil." And yet, after researching and chronicling the polarizing youth movement, here are the twenty icons (in order) that felt the most powerful and enduring.

Wes Anderson
Like Walt Disney before him, Anderson has used film and television (via whimsical advertising work) to build not only a signature style, but a sort of parallel universe; one millions of Twees dreamed of inhabiting as it seemed deeper, sadder and more colorful, somehow than the real world. Before his 1998 breakthrough Rushmore, big Indie film was still in post-Tarantino quip-and-shoot mode and idiosyncratic comedies were obliged to remain micro. When Twee was pejorative (and okay, for most it still is), Anderson ignored critics and pursued this vision with a kind of heroic stubbornness and attention to detail; resulting in a mid-career masterpiece, 2012's Moonrise Kingdom. Like "Brooklyn" or "Belle and Sebastian" (see below), his very name is a Twee signifier.

wes anderson

The Glass Family
A template for Anderson's Tenenbaum family, Franny, Zooey, the doomed Seymour, etc. are, as wielded by key Twee author J.D. Salinger, frozen in a kind of permanent gifted childhood. They were wiz kids turned physically appealing but psychically tortured adults, "freaks," as Zooey acknowledges. It's this neuroses-chic and their undaunted (well, not Seymour) search for any kind of authentic salvation that makes them bearable but oddly enviable. As with all of Salinger's characters, they feel less like lit heroes trapped in short stories and more like flesh and blood friends... friends we'd like to help (but they'd probably reject our support, let's face it).

Zooey Deschanel
She was once merely a charming, indie actress who was drawn to dour projects like Winter Passing, The Good Girls and All the Real Girls. Her turn opposite Will Ferrell in the Christmas classic Elf now seems portentous. Her breakthrough, 2009's inventive 500 Days of Summer, has its bleak moments, but became a smash anyway. It marked a real change in the way Hollywood saw both Deschanel and lead actresses at a time where Katherine Heigl and Deschanel's Good Girl co-star Jennifer Aniston seemed to have a lock on the big romantic comedy. As she aged, Deschanel, to the dismay of some feminists, seemed to become more girlish. Her public image did a kind of spiritual 180 turn. With the saturating promotion of her hit sitcom New Girl, the rise of her once pet band She and Him (with M. Ward), and a series of endorsement deals and media ventures (Hello Giggles), she's steadily became less of a mere individual but rather, like Anderson, a kind of by-word; in this case, for sunny power and positivity and curator-cool. She's now the Oprah of Twee.

zooey deschanel

Why do cats have so much favor with the twee? Why not puppies? Koalas? Little organ grinder monkeys in human suits? Writer Steven Daly, co-founder of Glaswegian cult heroes Orange Juice traces it back to the logo for his old label, Postcard Records (a drum playing cat). Dr. Seuss envisioned an anarchist stalker of a puss puss, Sylvia Plath sketched them, the young Bob Dylan pouted with one in his lap, and Deschanel infamously tweeted that she wished everyone looked like a kitten. Maybe cat companionship presents a chance to share your world with a real live moving (and pooping) Hello Kitty? Regardless, hands down the most twee beast in the animal kingdom is the Felis catus (with owls running a distant second and narwhals and unicorns gaining ground).


Purchase tickets to see him in concert these days at your own risk (he's notorious for suffering show-killing maladies) but there is still simply no greater defender of the bullied, or more articulate a poet who can connect with the teenage head, chronicle innocence lost and deal out counter blows with drone-strike precision via his lyrics, his interviews and most recently a deft memoir. He also, quite frequently, rocks. One half of England's finest post-60s songwriting team, the Smiths, the band he co-founded with guitarist Johnny Marr (see The Jangle below) are still turning down offers to reunite some quarter century after they abruptly dissolved. If such a concert ever took place (do not hold your breath), it would be attended by people who were not even born when the Queen was first pronounced dead in 1986.

Esther Greenwood
The first person narrator/protagonist of poet Sylvia Plath's essential New York novel The Bell Jar is a sort of counterpart to Salinger's Holden Caulfield of The Catcher in the Rye. She is the smartest and saddest person in the room, or so she believes; making her both saint, imaginary friend and cautionary tale to every sensitive, open-hearted, diary-keeping, beautiful social malcontent. Such perceived singularity pushes Greenwood to the edge of a full breakdown before she fights her way back to the light; something Plath, sadly, could not do. She committed suicide in the winter of 1963 at 30.

bell jar

The Mason Jar
Both practical and beautiful, this thick glass jar with the metal and rubber lid harkens back to the mid 19th century and has become a symbol for hands on preserving and pickling. Showcased in Portlandia's now-legendary "We Can Pickle That" sketch.

mason jar

Cardigan sweaters
These button-front sweaters began as military gear (they're named after James Thomas Brudenell, the 7th Earl of Cardigan and a British Army officer) and are now a kind of uniform in the Twee wardrobe. In the 80s, Preppies favored the crisp, new Lacostes, but in the early 90s, Kurt Cobain popularized the used, inexpensive, often threadbare variety beloved by Twees and available in any decent thrift store.

Jean Seberg
She began in the mid 50s as a Midwestern ingénue, discovered by director Otto Preminger during a highly publicized casting call to portray Joan of Arc. The film was panned and unsatisfied by Hollywood, she moved to Paris to work with the iconoclastic Jean Luc Godard. The Nouvelle Vague caper Breathless introduced a feisty Twee heroine with a radically short hairstyle that would forever come to symbolize independence and freedom and never really go out of style. Seberg herself was disturbed and believed she was being persecuted for her political beliefs. She was discovered dead in her parked car, having overdosed on pills in August of 1979 at just 40.

If You're Feeling Sinister
Belle and Sebastian's hushed and wry second album and masterpiece was issued in the autumn of 1996, during the height of loud and flamboyant culture boom known as "Cool Britannia." While Oasis and Elastica have burned out and Blur and Pulp become essentially nostalgia acts, the "new cult" that Belle founder Stuart Murdoch invented in his bedroom is as strong as ever.

belle and sebastian

The suitcase or briefcase turntable
Twees tend to form attachments with their books, movies and records. In some cases, they anthropomorphize them and feel as if they are actual friends. In others, it just feels better to have them around if you must leave the house (like Suzy in Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom). There are many vintage brands available on eBay or you can spring for a new, dust-free Crosley portable model.

record player

The Jangle
The player of the jangle is a Twee icon in itself; usually a scrawny sort with a fringe of bangs and a gigantic Rickenbacker or Gretsch guitar that seems to rest uneasily on his or her ribs. Most trace the sound to the chiming folk rock of The Byrds and Moby Grape. In the 80s bands who were, once punk gave way, finally permitted to admit they liked "hippie" bands who were not the Who invented an entire subgenre based around the chords. Occasional revivals of the pleasing, yet oddly sad sound (see "Pains" of "Being Pure of Heart") still arise. The Jangle is forever.

Chris Eigeman
Although his background is shockingly rustic (he grew up on a ranch) Eigeman has personified the urbane and tortured hero for over a quarter beginning with his turn in Whit Stillman's 1990 classic Metropolitan, the first in a "trilogy" (which also included 1994's Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco, 1998). He's also worked steadily with Noah Baumbach, and appeared on both Gilmore Girls (as Lorelei's harried suitor Jason "Digger" Stiles) and in the pilot episode of Girls.

Charlie Brown
Quick question: who is the greatest Post War existentialist youth icon? Camus? James Dean? How about the beagle-owning, football-whiffing malcontent created by Charles M. Schulz? In the land of Peanuts, adults are muffled or utterly absent, and the children are obsessed (with music, security, money, religion, little red haired girls), sophisticated, and thoroughly unimpressed with the world they are forced to inhabit; chief among them, the can't-win blockhead who spoke to and still speaks to millions of aghast Twees. Good grief!

Dave Eggers
One of the biggest literary successes of the 00s following the release of his memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and the expansion of his publishing house McSweeney's, Eggers filtered out much of the old modes of classic writer-ly behavior (boozing, fighting) but held on to the Post War era's way of actually publishing (printing in a local factory and preserving the book as covetable object in an increasingly digital age), activism and independence. Subsequent releases were unpredictable and eclectic. He also wrote an entire novel based on Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are.

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Neutral Milk Hotel's second album, was released on Merge Records in the winter of 1998 and is now considered one of the decade's landmark recordings. Sonically, it's wistful folk, anodyne hymns, and punk rock that somehow sounds like the Wall of Sound and a school band practice at once, both complex and primitive. Lyrically it's famous for its woozy allusions to tragic diarist and Twee saint Anne Frank. The nightmarish Old Timey seaside cover and the entire Elephant 6 collective that spawned the band (lead by the enigmatic Jeff Mangum) are icons now as well. They've yet to release another album but Mangum and the revived band tour packed venues where gentle people sing along at the top of their lungs.

neutral milk hotel

Ira Glass
Before Glass, radio show hosts were obliged to sound like Ted Knight. Glass was fidgety and nasal and authentic. As host of the This American Life (which Glass co-founded out of Chicago's W-BEZ in the mid 90s), he and his collaborators brought a college radio sensibility to the news magazine form. As the show expanded towards national syndication, it never seemed further away and millions of Twees united in appreciation and fascination for its themes, personalities, dark humor and searching soul.

ira glass

This is not to say that every bird qualifies; the penguin, the condor, the flamingo for example are not so twee (although the 1966 ballad "Pretty Flamingo" by Manfred Mann is twee, again, see The Jangle). I'm talking about the diminutive, colorful and especially rare birds one quietly and patiently spies on, Peterson guide in one hand and binoculars in the other. We mustn't forget, of course, the painted or paper variety of winged friends that "Bryce Shivers" and "Lisa Eversman" adorn and transform various plain items with in another immortal Portlandia sketch: "Put A Bird On It."

The Ukulele
The fizzy, plucky tones of this miniature Hawaiian guitar instantly creates a soothing placidity that perfectly accompanies simple, perfect, child-like melodies. Cliff Edwards, who voiced, as Jiminy Cricket, the most twee song of all time "When You Wish Upon A Star," performed as "Ukulele Ike." Steve Martin plays one during a seaside courting scene in 1980's The Jerk, while duet-ing with Bernadette Peters on the second most twee song of all time ("Tonight, You belong To Me"). Deschanel is, of course, fond of them as was the late George Harrison.


Jack Kerouac might have worn khakis but Buddy Holly, Woody Allen, Elvis Costello, Morrissey, Rivers Cuomo, Enid Coleslaw (the heroine of Daniel Clowes' Ghost World) wore these basic black "nerd specs." They were once a means to an end (corrected vision, covered by the British National Health Service and a no frills purchase in America). They are now a fashion statement that instantly telegraphs: "I have a killer bookshelf," whether the wearer actually owns the collected works of Dahl, Blume, Sendak, Vowell and Safran Foer or not.