[1 October 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
In the introduction to Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture Kaya Oakes asks the question this book aims to answer: “What does it mean to be indie?” Oakes is perhaps perfectly suited to discussing this topic. Not only did she co-found the Bay Area independent magazine Kitchen Sink and publish her first book, Telegraph with the independent press Pavement Saw, but she teaches courses at University of California, Berkeley that explore the history of indie in writing, publishing, music, and other art forms. Additionally, and most importantly, she comes from a decidedly “indie” background and is a prime example of many of the markers of the movement.
In fact, that’s one of the things that makes Slanted and Enchanted so compelling. Oakes isn’t just approaching the subject academically, she’s not just studying the sociological impact of an unfamiliar subculture; she’s telling her own story. Oakes grew up in the San Francisco area, going to punk shows at 924 Gilman and poetry readings at Cody’s Books in the late ‘80s. She briefly attended Evergreen State, in Olympia, Washington, as grunge and riot grrrl scenes were growing. In other words, she knows what she’s talking about. She deftly weaves her own experiences in with interviews and commentary from musicians, poets, and underground comic artists like Mike Watt, Mission of Burma’s Chris Conley and Roger Miller, Kathleen Hanna, David Berman, and Daniel Clowes (Eightball).
Beginning in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Oakes suggests that indie culture started with the artistic communities that sprung up around Frank O’Hara and the New York School, as well as the more bohemian Allen Ginsberg and the Beats. She traces the connection between the early self-publishing of these writers and poets and the ‘zines and comix of the ‘80s and ‘90s. She delves into the collective artistic consciousness of various regional scenes (though, because of her personal experiences, much of this is centered on San Francisco) and points to the collaborative community efforts of specific movements or groups (such as the Diggers in the ‘60s) and how they influenced later incarnations of the indie ethic. Naturally, the bulk of the book is devoted to independent music, and that’s probably the most interesting (and instantly accessible) aspect of Slanted and Enchanted, because it’s the most recognizable part of indie culture.
As mentioned, there are conversations with the musicians who were and are at the forefront of their respective scenes. Oakes’ interviews with Mike Watt in the chapter titled “Get in the Van,” are a fabulous testament to the adaptability of indie music and the freedom afforded by DIY. Watt has been touring, playing and doing it his way for more than 30 years. In the section called “We’re Gonna Have to Be the Band”, Calvin Johnson talks about living in Olympia, his band Beat Happening, KAOS radio, and a local ‘zine that came with comp tapes attached called Sub Pop. Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill), Corin Tucker (Sleater-Kinney), and others talk about the International Pop Underground Convention’s “Love Rock Revolution Girl Style Now” (aka “Girl Night”) gave rise to the Riot Grrrl explosion of the early ‘90s. This was overshadowed by the mainstream success of Nirvana and the corporate rush to Seattle and subsequent greed for grunge, and some have said that killed indie, but of course that isn’t true.
In later chapters, Oakes addresses the post-grunge, under-the-radar rebirth of indie music with bands like Pavement and the Silver Jews, and with labels like Drag City and Matador. She follows the trail from its mid-‘90s re-emergence, to its inevitable incorporation into mainstream culture, and finally to its current status as, well, a status symbol. The final chapter, “Branded: The Big Indie Crossover”, brings Oakes full circle as she poses the “What does it mean to be indie?” query to her students. Invariably, they name some bands like Death Cab for Cutie and Tegan and Sara, or cite the fashion and lifestyle trends associated with indie musicians. One student answered, “Indie’s really just hipsters in skinny jeans. That’s all it is anymore.” And right now, to society at large, that might appear to be true.
As its most visibly identifiable hallmarks move more and more into the mainstream (becoming a style, a uniform, a popular television show soundtrack, a reflexive cliché... ), one might suppose that indie culture is fast, and finally, disappearing in the similitude of our modern, media-driven society. But this isn’t the case at all, as Oakes points out. The popular conception of indie is undergoing assimilation, sure, but that doesn’t mean indie is dead. Just as indie evolved from the Beats to the Diggers and from a DIY punk ethos to the current corporate co-opting of the hipster aesthetic, it continues to change—often in reaction to itself—as it always has. For every indie band featured in a car commercial, there is an artistic community creating purely from passion, sharing scarce resources and inspiring other individuals. For every pair of skinny jeans sold at American Apparel, there is some kid operating outside the system, doing something different and inventing something new. And, as Oakes has postulated and so convincingly supported in Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture, “That is what it means to be indie.”