Twee Began as an Unabashedly Radical Subculture

Love it or hate it, twee is back. It’s the subject of innumerable think pieces, but the subculture’s radical roots in feminism, punk, and the fight against Margaret Thatcher often go unnoticed.

Sarah Records band the Field Mice, photographed in 1991. (Richard Bella / Sarah Records)

In the first weeks of 2022, there has been a flurry of nostalgic interest in “twee” fashion, a style most commentators link to the Zooey Deschanel era of the early 2010s: quirky outfits, pastel colors, ukulele music. The style has been loved, loathed, and debated endlessly, 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 legacy, tied to punk, opposition to Thatcherism, and a fledgling attempt at carving out a socialist music culture. In an era when British music is again becoming increasingly radical and seeing its radicalism exploited and commercialized, the history of DIY pop in Britain offers a unique case study in what building a socialist music movement can look like.

“Twee” — originally a pejorative, now embraced by some — was first applied to the jangly guitar pop bands of the 1980s 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 indie label Sarah. These bands shared some of the nostalgic, almost cloying aesthetics associated with the modern conception of twee: bright colors, whimsical lyrics, a feminine, 1960s-inspired sense of style.

What set labels like Sarah apart was how they translated this image into political practice. Sarah weren’t the first arrivals to Britain’s burgeoning indie pop scene: when they were founded in 1987, Glasgow-based Postcard had already pioneered the sound with groups like Orange Juice and Josef K, and Creation was picking up heavyweights like the Pastels and a pre-Screamdelica Primal Scream.

But where other labels were largely apolitical, Sarah put socialist values at the forefront of its work. “We took our inspiration more from punk, from Crass or Chumbawamba, than from the scene we were part of,” Clare Wadd, who cofounded Sarah at the age of nineteen alongside Matt Haynes, tells us. Haynes adds: “This was the era of Margaret Thatcher — the miners’ strike, Falklands War, Brixton riots, all these were recent history. How could you not be political?”

As a result, many of Sarah’s best-known artists also espoused left-wing views in their music. One group, the Orchids, penned an early anti–poll tax anthem in “Defy the Law.” Blueboy — one of the foremost queer acts of the era — wrote “Clearer” in opposition to Section 28 (“Let me be free this time / my time, it is getting clearer day by day”); Heavenly’s “Atta Girl” EP is a fierce rebuke to sexual abuse and victim blaming.

Even more important than the explicitly political lyrics penned by Sarah 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 by being dreary,” Haynes tells us. For the DIY pop bands of the ’80s, the act of embracing excitement and beauty in the face of political despair was its own kind of rebellion.

Beyond the sound itself, Wadd and Haynes also sought to build a way of making and sharing music that existed outside of capitalist modes of production. “We were never trying to run a business,” Wadd says. “We were trying to make brilliant music available to as many people as possible.” One of Sarah’s most famous gestures was refusing to release 12” records, which they saw as exploiting customers in contrast to the more affordable 7”. As Wadd explains, “We knew the people buying our records for the most part didn’t have money, so we wanted to make sure each record was really special and that they weren’t conned into buying the same song several times over.”

This critical view of the industry extended to calling out other indie labels. Wadd wrote a number of impassioned letters to magazines, like this one to NME in 1992, decrying labels which bought into Thatcherism by turning pop music into a product: “The independent sector destroyed itself by aping the majors. It had no guts, imagination, common-sense or political conscience.” When it came time to promote their own records, lists of autumn releases were accompanied by calls for “socialism, feminism, revolutions.”

To understand why Sarah’s stances were so radical, it’s also important to know how often they were dismissed, even within their own community — particularly because the label was co-run by a woman. Wadd speaks of “people assuming I was a receptionist when I answered the phone,” “having to ring up our French distributors and demand they never again use a picture of a topless woman to advertise upcoming releases,” and “music journalists being disparaging because the label had a female name and a woman co-running it.”

These attitudes, too, met Sarah’s opposition. In another of Wadd’s letters, this time to Melody Maker, she mocked their “writing for men by men,” saying “your treatment of women reinforces the status quo of a woman’s role being largely decorative.” “The whole scene was deeply sexist, and that sexism was deeply entrenched,” Wadd adds.

Sarah burned bright, but it also burned fast — and in 1995, after just 100 releases, the label closed. For Wadd and Haynes, it was more important to leave an artistically pure body of work than to be swallowed up by the encroaching commercialism of the music industry.

The music, however, continued. Bands like Belle and Sebastian and Camera Obscura found increasing mainstream success, and down the line the indie pop of the past became another staple in a nostalgia-fueled millennial culture. Belle and Sebastian’s songs were eventually used on the soundtrack of the film Juno, which, along with 500 Days of Summer, became a cornerstone of the style’s renaissance during the 2010s.

However, that revival mainly reflected the co-option of aesthetics in the service of commercialism. Gone were the incendiary letters to the musical establishment about exploitation and sexism: this was a mass-market version of twee, depoliticized and defanged.

The underground indie pop spaces that endured, too, were often tainted by the same exclusion against which Sarah had once struggled. Instead of pursuing leftist politics, much of the scene rested on the laurels of its predecessors, fostering a political complacency in which bigotry or misogyny could go unchallenged.

“One of the problems with lionizing a scene is that it can stop self-reflection and internal critique,” 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 DIY pop scenes largely confined to whisper networks and forum discussions, some would say twee is overdue for the kind of post-#MeToo reckoning that’s touched other parts of the indie music world. Accountability, many feel, is essential: as Gill says, “The people affected need to be able to feel safe enough to bring things up without fear of abuse.”

Gill set up Decolonise Fest along with a group of other DIY musicians and organizers, partly in response to bigotry they faced from their respective scenes. “All of us had similar experiences of racism,” Gill says, “and we found there was a real hostility and reluctance to address it.” Now, it’s just one example of the groups working to bring politics back to indie pop; others include Los Campesinos! funding Labour canvassers in 2019 and Rachel Aggs’s workshops on decolonizing the guitar.

Much of the content of Clare Wadd’s letters from the early 1990s remains relevant today — not least her observation in her letter to the NME that, in music, “independent used to mean an attitude.” As twee fashion makes a comeback in the mainstream, then, a once radical subculture has the chance to recover the legacy of its forebears — and make a DIY socialist pop movement fit for this century’s struggles.