Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture
by Kaya Oakes
Published 2009 by Holt Paperbacks

Oakes's book is a concise history of the Indie Culture of the United States of America. What is Indie Culture? It's zines. It's First Friday Gallery Nights. It's punk rock, spoken word, and Riot Grrl. It's books and magazines that get published outside the purview of the monolithic publishing entities. It's underground comix and outlaw handicrafts fairs. It's poetry, music, fiction, journalism, regional music scenes, and even cinema. It's a lot of different things. It's a mindset, a philosophy, a scene, it's kind of political. It's also been co-opted by corporations, big box chain stores, and Hollywood. It's a lot of things. It's contentious as hell. It gets a bad rep. Who wants to cop to being a hipster these days? Because, yes, it's hipsters, too.

Indie is endangered from within and without. It's also adaptable. Indie's a survivor. Indie will endure.

At least, all of the above is the impression that Oakes gives in her highly readable book. Oakes is an unabashed supporter of the Indie/DIY ethos, so don't read her book looking for a pro-big business, pro-corporate conservative Republican agenda. But Oakes takes a broad perspective, and is by no means uncritical. Even for someone such as myself who has little personal interest in most of the bands she discusses, and cannot claim to be an avid reader of zines, or a collector of handicrafts, I found her book worthwhile reading. For me, the stories behind these cultural products are fascinating, and suggest alternatives to the usual glut of corporately funded and distributed mass media. But more than this, Oakes's book is an invitation to the reader to create their own culture, and not just be a passive consumer.

Oakes's book opens with a description of a gallery night in Oakland, California. She describes the tension inherent in Indie as a practical cultural endeavor: the proprietors of a gallery love being the center of a cultural event, however they are not a large venue. They're a cozy little gallery, and the increasingly popular gallery night events have drawn more people than their building can reasonably contain. With larger crowds come more crime, vandalism, and obnoxious people who could give a shit about an art scene, and are just looking for another way to get wasted. McDonald's and Wal-Mart are designed to serve millions a day, not a gallery owned by two people.

Oakes sets up the conflicted nature of Indie: people go to Indie for something personal, idiosyncratic, and handmade. They're seeking cultural products created/authored by individuals, or small groups of individuals working in close collaboration. But when Indie products, venues, and cultures become successful the word gets out. Indie gets co-opted by corporations and becomes mass culture. More people want in, and not everybody shares the same version of Indie in their minds. The cultural producers are faced with customers and participants who may not share their perspective on Indie and DIY. For some, an Indie product or experience is just another purchase, just another experience, alongside a Hollywood movie in their Netflix queue, the latest Metallica album, a mass market paperback by Dan Brown or Michael Crichton, or the latest episode of Nip/Tuck, Two and a Half Men, or American Idol. It's a situation that is bound to create unintentional conflict and resentment. The producers of culture become resentful of the consumers, and vice versa. There is no easy solution. People will always seek novel products and experiences, whether it's from a tiny, intimate art gallery, or the cabinet of PS3 games in the electronics section of Wal-Mart. It becomes, as with everything in American commerce, a matter of survival, adaptation, mutation, and evolution.

Oakes's book goes on to give brief histories of various Indie scenes: the avant guard literary scene of Frank O'Hara in 1960s New York, punk rock and Maximumrocknroll, zines and underground comix, feminism and Riot Grrl, the mainstreaming of Indie rock and Indie fashion, outlaw handicrafts festivals, and the shrinking world of independent book publishing. Oakes also addresses the co-opting of Indie by organizations like Urban Outfitters who have R-and-D teams devoted to reverse engineering Indie fashions and thrift store chic and selling it back to budding young hipsters at big box prices. There's also the none-too-hip right wing sympathies of Urban Outfitters' CEO, who has supported homophobic politicians such as Rick Santorum, and made use of sweat shop labor to manufacture their clothing lines. A lot of petty battles are fought over issues of authenticity, but sometimes authenticity counts for a lot more than hipster fashion cred.

Throughout, Oakes explores why exactly it is that artists of all kinds have decided to create on their own terms. In part, it's a question of freedom and autonomy. Certain kinds of cultural expression production do not fit into corporate agendas, schedules, and methods of manufacture. Certain kinds of political perspectives have also been traditionally eighty-sixed from the mainstream. There's also the hurdle of cultural gatekeepers and having the right connections. Many would-be cultural producers get cut out because they grew up in the wrong place, didn't go to the right school, or don't fit in with a given cultural scene. For some, there's no choice but to knuckle down and create their own scene, as was the case with Riot Grrl. Why join somebody else's club if you're not welcome in the first place? In particular, women artists and performers have struggled to achieve equality in male-dominated music scenes.

Oakes's book offers a readable primer on Indie culture as she describes it backed up by substantive readings and interviews. There are some areas she doesn't go into: rap, hip-hop, jazz, blues, and video games to name a few, but she does not claim to have attempted to write an encyclopedic take on Indie. Rather, she has taken a very focused perspective reflective of her own expertise and interests. She also makes a compelling case for the overall ethic of Indie/DIY. This ethic could be applied to most any project beyond rock'n'roll and handicrafts. The tensions and challenges within Indie culture are also astutely described and analyzed, and these challenges should also be kept in mind when deciding to do things the Indie way.

Unhappy being a consumer? Try being a producer for a change. You might have some fun. Anyways, you can always go back to being a consumer if it doesn't work out . . . the consumer crowd has always welcomed me back . . .

Author Kaya Oakes's website:
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