Friday, January 11, 2008

If (a) Twee Fails....

My brother's blog alerted me to some controversy regarding Juno's status as a legitimately "indie" film. While considering matters cinematic is outside my ken, I will echo others who claim that the search for "authenticity" in indie cinema is a fool's errand and that allegations that Juno is derivative are overstated (and poorly formulated, even if true: don't we turn to indie cinema for "more of what we know we like" in the first place?). Anyways, Juno occupies a completely different affective universe than Napoleon Dynamite, with its refusal to attend to anything but the surfaces of suburban anomie, and Ghost World, which purports to celebrate the eccentricity and intelligence of teen girls but ultimately reverts to the misanthropy (and misogyny) of the source text (Dan Clowes's Eightball comic book). Juno, owing I think entirely to Diablo Cody's script, is genuinely celebratory of the genius of teen girls and their creative responses to the hell of adolescence. In this light, it has more in common with Weetzie Bat and Heathers and Buffy and Veronica Mars than latter-day arthouse movies.

The main problem I had with Juno was the music. The film is anchored by songs by Kimya Dawson, of the group the Moldy Peaches. Dawson's songs are cloying, faux-naive, smug, and cutesy. The generic term for this style of song is "twee," which is wielded as a badge or pride or term of opprobrium by lovers and haters, respectively. Although I never pursued "twee" music as a music purchaser with much focus or intensity, I have always liked it as an aesthetic orientation: radical in its own way, a forceful challenge to the masculinist ickiness of so much indie rock. I would certainly include one "twee" single, Thee Headcoatees' "My Boyfriend's Learning Karate" among my favorite rock songs ever. The wikipedia entry on "twee" is fascinating: it suggests that while "twee" represented a challenge to rock sexism in 1980s Britain, it was also one side of an aesthetic war in the rock press between partisans of "black " (Public Enemy and other militant hip-hop artists) and "white" ("twee" bands featured on NME's C86 compilation) music. And it would seem that "twee" is aggressively white... until we recall that its "rebellious sentimentality" is open to all sorts of unforeseen appropriations and scrambling of racial logics, as in the case Chicano toughs in present-day California who worship "twee" godfather Morrisey.

The problem with Juno is that it is overrun with "bad" "twee." Its badness resides in two aesthetic features that have always lurked as the potential ruin of "twee": sonic banality and lyrical self-absorption. "Bad" "twee" has recently taken over commercial music. That horrible Feist song, that horrible i-phone song, that horrible Regina Spektor person... on TV commercials, every hack composer has brought out the glockenspiesl and ukuleles. Nearly every ad now has a banjo playing a grating two note melody and a couple of seconds later, a predictable repeating countermelody joins in. It is not surprising that these tunes favor music's most anodyne form, the round (to quote MA, "I don't care if summer is a-fucking coming in!") .

On top of the melodic banality, the lyrics of Dawson's songs are terrible. They lack in ambiguity, surprise, or local detail. They seem at once self-indulgent and aloof. They require an investment in the singer's psychology that vitiates the wonder that pop songs ought to deliver. It is no surprise that Dawson has worked with Third Eye Blind and a guy from The Spin Doctors, or was part of something called the "anti-folk " movement. What the fuck? How can you be anti-"folk"? Ironically, the worst part of "folk," as I imagine the anti-folkers imagine it, is distilled and refined in the music of Dawson: the narcissism, the faux-populism in the disdain for technique and sophistication (as against the particularity and pleasure in musical performance characteristic of almost all vernacular musical traditions), the crappy harmonizing, the love of the wince-worthy lyric followed by the knowing stare and nod at the audience...

Between the success of Juno and the evidence of recent TV-viewing, "bad" "twee" is only growing in power. Let's kill it.

I would add that the cleverness in the Juno songs' lyrics is a one-shot deal. After seeing the trailer seven times, that ditty that Juno and the Bleeker sing at the end of the movie is too familiar and we can't appreciate its charms very well. But I did like much of the music in the film--esp Belle and Sebastian and Mott the Hoople. And the soundtrack is going to be like Garden State's, and you won't be able to kill twee any time soon.
Hooray, the Sad Billionaire returns to blogging!

Dawson's music drives me nuts too though I did enjoy the movie. The Austinist had a great comment about the Juno soundtrack the other day that I can't seem to find now that essentially said the Garden State-like craze over the soundtrack is surprising since it so slavishly follows the template for a soundtrack. There's Kimya Dawson's pseudo-themed music along with a couple "heartwarming classics" (The Kinks, Belle & Sebastan, etc.).

Actually, it's probably the predictability that is precisely why the thing IS such a sensation.

Thanks for vindicating me on Feist, Spektor, and everything else that drives me up the wall right now.
Mike and nhennies-- hello! Thanks for your always astute comments, and the insights on Juno's soundtrack as a hot topic... I didn't know. Is it selling well? Do albums even "sell" anymore? Or do "street team" "viral marketers" just drive around on segways pasting mp3s on unsuspecting pedestrians' heads?

What, by the way, is the consensus on the Garden State soundtrack? The film was literally the worst thing ever, we can all agree, but is the soundtrack a cultural signifier of some sort? Is it the K-Tel indie rock sampler? Why do I always want to punch Zach Braff? And then punch him again. Do you know that apparently he and his stockbroker buddies sat around making lists of all the famous "hotties" he would be able to bed after Garden State came out?

Oh, I agree on the very good use of songs not by K Dawson in the movie, esp. the B and S. It was hard for me to imagine Jason Bateman touring with the Melvins, though.
Juno is Amazon's #2 in music today. Radiohead is #1 with an album they made available *for free* to whoever wanted it a few months ago, so I'm not sure what kind of numbers they're moving these days. But it must mean something. I almost never buy soundtrack CDs but people really love them, I think precisely for their K-Tel musical smorg appeal.
I work at a B&N near an arthouse theater where Juno is playing and you can time when the movie lets out by the people coming straight to our music department asking for the soundtrack. The same thing happened with Once.

I'm going to take it the opportunity to make a "if you liked Juno, you'll love these albums" display and sell some records by bands I think are twee.
yay! good to see you back!

i loved the movie, but was also bothered by the soundtrack. i was especially upset that one particularly annoying song was played TWICE in the film. or was it three times? anyway, as far as twee, i admit i enjoy plenty of music that falls in that genre, or could be classified as such, but the majority of it makes me want to stick a fork in my eye. or at the very least drink malt liquor and listen to Slayer.
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