August 2009

Gina Myers

nonfiction

Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture by Kaya Oakes

At the outset of Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture, Kaya Oakes puts forth the question: What does it mean to be indie? Over 200 pages later, she seems to have arrived at an answer. She deftly concludes, "That is what it means to be indie." In the pages in between, Oakes explores various incarnations of indie culture in literature, music, comics, zines, and crafts from the 1950s through today in an incredibly readable history. And while indie culture has the ability to constantly change and redefine itself, Oakes is able to identify qualities that have remained consistent: D.I.Y., creative control, community, collaboration. Oakes writes: "Independence means rebellion, risk, tenacity, innovation, and resistance to convention. It is rooted in the past and reimagines the past, but it is always ahead of its time. It will always value collaboration and networking, the sharing of resources, no matter how scarce, and the one-of-a-kind contribution of each individual."

From the beginning Oakes makes two things clear. First, this is a personal history. She is writing about a culture she is a part of, having been an editor of the independent magazine Kitchen Sink and publishing her first book of poems, Telegraph, with Pavement Saw, an independent press. Second, she establishes the need for this sort of examination right now, claiming indie culture is in a state of crisis. As indie music and fashion have been co-opted by the mainstream, the term indie becomes problematic. However, this isn't the first time indie culture has been co-opted and it certainly won't be the last.

Looking at the history, there are various times when the culture ebbs and flows, when it seemingly disappears for awhile only to reemerge years later in a totally different form. Oakes easily weaves in and out of various histories and draws parallels between the New York School poets publishing themselves with mimeo machines in the '60s, the rise of punk zines in the '80s and riot grrrl zines in the '90s, and the blogs, chapbooks, and small press publishers supporting the independent writers of today. She shows how punk bands like Black Flag charted the course for D.I.Y. tours that later bands would follow, and how after the explosion of indie culture in the '90s, indie managed to re-emerge yet again. In fact, indie culture never disappears. Oakes notes, "Even if it is reduced to a cliché, someone watching that cliché will already be thinking about and planning ways in which that cliché can be reimagined."

Because indie culture is so vast and varied and can be very regional, there are sure to be critics who will cite what is left out. However, Slanted and Enchanted is not meant to be a comprehensive guide. It serves more as an overview, perhaps an introduction to those not well versed in the scene. That is not to say the book does not provide anything new to those who do identify as indie. The book is not simply an oddball history; it also offers a commentary and critique of a culture. Additionally, since Oakes covers a wide area of subjects, there is likely to be something new to informed readers, whether it is the Diggers, a radical theater company from the 1960s, or the underground comix movement, or Michelle Ott's Postcard Machine at the Renegade Art Fair in San Francisco in 2008.

There is a certain nostalgia factor to the book, too. Not that Oakes writes nostalgically about the past -- she doesn't -- more that when reading about various bands or movements, I found myself thinking about my own discovery of those things. Reading about the Gilman scene had me singing Operation Ivy songs for days, and when I got to the chapter on riot grrrl, it seemed like a good time to re-visit my Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Huggy Bear albums. A soundtrack could easily come with this book.

Slanted and Enchanted is well-researched and contains a number of interesting interviews. Oakes argues that in a time where Chuck Taylors, skinny jeans, and American Apparel tees have flooded the mainstream, and Adbusters declares hipsters to be "the dead end of western civilization," indie culture will continue whether or not it continues to call itself indie: "The word 'indie' may have lost much of its luster, but as America struggles through a painful time economically, culturally, and socially, the idea of creative independence remains crucial. As popular culture turns again and again to mass production and passive acceptance of the status quo, art that evolves outside of corporate America can and does make a difference in the way people think. That is what indie was once all about and what it will continue to be in the future… To make something on your own, regardless of its potential to bring in money, lends the end product an inherent sense of value that would be absent if it were a copy of a copy of a copy." Oakes makes her argument clear. Slanted and Enchanted shows how what once was has re-emerged and redefined itself time and time again. It is not a lament of the past, nor does it declare the end of indie culture. It is a reaffirmation of the culture and a promise that there is more to come.

 

Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture by Kaya Oakes
Holt Paperbacks
ISBN: 0805088520
235 pages

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