Well, if you want to get all Oxford Dictionary about it, twee means: excessively and affectedly dainty, cute, and quaint. It's defined as pejorative, but like 'emo' or 'shoegaze,' for this musical movement what started out as slander became a badge of honor.
The seeds of twee were first sown with England's post-punk movement of the late-'70s/early-'80s. Rough Trade bands like The Raincoats, Television Personalities, and Young Marble Giants stripped away the masculine posturing of punk-rock, and, then, along came the Postcard label, whose witty, well-read pop-bands Orange Juice and Aztec Camera influenced a generation.
These few records kicked off a pop-cultural shift. Bookish, shy, dweeby kids with no ambitions to become pop-stars saw how underground music could exist far from the aggressive, hyper-sexualized, still-misogynous mainstream.
When The Smiths score their first Top 10 UK single in 1984, with "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now," it's a sure sign things are changing. Far from the charts, there's an underground scene of teenaged fanzine authors, mix-tape makers, and 7" collectors who, inspired by the DIY ethos, eventually pick up instruments. They can't play so well, but it doesn't matter.
They call themselves things like BMX Bandits and The Pastels, and often seem like they're attempting to harken back to a state of child-like innocence. In 1986, the NME releases the iconic C86 cassette, which celebrates England's insular community of clumsy, fey, out-of-time pop-bands, enshrining the budding twee movement for a generation.
Sarah Records begins in a back-lane in Bristol in 1987, and their bands effectively blueprint the twee identity. The Field Mice sing "I'm not brave/I'm not special/I'm not any of those things" on their first 45, and Another Sunny Day release the single "I'm in Love with a Girl Who Doesn't Know I Exist." Along with Heavenly, these 'Sarah bands' mint twee as its own movement, having grown distinct from indie-pop.
How It Sounds:
Where other genre-names can be vaguely amorphous, changing shape to fit the meaning of whoever's using it, it's pretty easy to spot a twee band. In short: trebly, tinny, and jangly; and not always entirely competent.
Twee is, at essence, a rebellion against the traditional hyper-masculinity of rock'n'roll, so there's obviously no: rage, guitar solos, screaming vocals, or pounding attack. Groove is also a rarity.
Twee bands have a high, bright sound that shies away from bold sonics and bass tones. Guitarists tend to all play like Johnny Marr of The Smiths: with little to no distortion, definitely no power chords, and light, ringing sound. Drums have cardboard-box-ish qualities, if they're not being played by tinny drum-machines, and are always in simple time. Keyboards are never frowned upon. And vocals tend towards fey and ineffectual; and, often, feature an interplay between boy and girl.
The sound of the music is never really misconstrued, but its content can be. Though twee bands play perilously upbeat songs favoring happy-sounding major chords, this is almost always in contrast with lyrics of much melancholy.
Twee kids themselves can be misconceived. Favoring an aesthetic steeped in the sticky, sugary innocence of childhood —ditching rock's clichés of 'sexiness' for a trussed-up sexlessness— a stereotype of twee kids as bed-wetting virgins took hold. But, in fact, London's twee scenesters of the '80s were anything but virgins. In an article on the impact of C86 on its 20th anniversary, post-punk historian Simon Reynolds wrote: "contrary to [their] puritanical image, these cuties were actually at it like knives."
Where the Name Came From:
No one has ever stepped forward with definitive evidence and/or a speculative claim on minting the name as genre, so your guess is as good as mine.
More interesting is the fact that, in the early days, the term in London was 'cutie'. There were cutie bands, and their fans were cuties; so named because of the, well, twee dress-up affectations that came with the music: boys in short pants, girls in frocks and knee socks, etc.
The legendary English radio DJ John Peel called them 'shambling' bands, showing less of a concern with the image/outfits, and more interest in coining a term to convey the qualities of the music. Which, made by barely-skilled kids in rudimentary studios, often seemed like it was only vaguely hanging together; as messy as pillow hair in the morning.
These days, twee has taken over, and staked out a specific place in the pop-cultural landscape. It's the name, even if it's beginnings have a hazy start-date.
When it Broke:
Though plenty of indie-pop bands who've been retroactively recognized as forerunners of the twee revolution achieved significant commercial success —Aztec Camera, the Go-Betweens, and, most of all, The Smiths— none of them were twee bands in their day.
The first band to truly deliver twee to the masses was Belle and Sebastian, whose frontman Stuart Murdoch actually protested against being called 'twee.' Their first widely-released LP, If You're Feeling Sinister, inspired a rabid cult following upon its release; the kind of devoted, obsessive audience that once spoke in Morrissey lyrics and traded Smiths trivia.
If early Belle and Sebastian outings still wore the 'stigma' of being twee, by the time they'd gone hi-fi with 2003's Dear Catastrophe Waitress, B&S were no longer entirely twee, and twee itself was no limit to a wide audience.
The Pastels, Up for a Bit with the Pastels (1987)
The Field Mice, Snowball (1989)
Tiger Trap, Tiger Trap (1993)
Belle and Sebastian, If You're Feeling Sinister (1996)
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (2009)
Incredibly healthy! Over the past quarter-century, twee has grown from a bubbling underground scene into a fully-fledged industry. The twee.net website has an ever-growing list of bands who're acolytes to the genre.
Of particular importance in the growth of twee has been the explosion of indie bands from Sweden. Though a relatively tiny nation in size and population, Sweden seems to lead the world in number of bands who sound like the Field Mice.