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

Wednesday, Jun 3 2009

As we all know, it's hard to be really into something and then see it go corporate. It's even harder when Not Going Corporate actually is the thing we're really into. And it's harder still to read about how hard it is to see Not Going Corporate go corporate. See?

A case in point is Kitchen Sink magazine co-founder and UC Berkeley writing instructor Kaya Oakes' new book, Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture. It's a noble effort to elucidate what she sums up as "the Urban Outfitters conundrum," whereby "the more overexposed indie music, comics, publications, and design get, the more that those art forms can be co-opted by the mainstream and its masters."

Charting the course of this sprawling, self-cannibalizing subculture of stuff white people like seems dauntingly futile, but Oakes doesn't let it get her down. If Whole Foods comes across as "eco-friendly purveyor of organic goods" on one page and abominable threatener of artists on another, well, that's just how life is nowadays. "Welcome to the new irony," as she would say.

Oakes traces her indie ideal of creative community to the mid-20th-century cultural shift that produced poet Frank O'Hara and the New York School (although arguably Dada had the DIY thing going on decades before that, and with a better sense of humor), then teases out its recent legacy, with an emphasis on mutually reinforcing music and literary scenes, particularly the Bay Area's.

But just as it's a challenge to distinguish between the cooperative and the corporate, so it is to distinguish between correlation and coincidence. It's not entirely clear whether Slanted and Enchanted (the book, not the Pavement album) is intended as a rebuke to the proliferation of prefab hipsterdom, redress of irritating Newsweek trend pieces about it, or reprimand to Oakes' students, who in the first chapter dare not to know "how Fall Out Boy builds on the tradition of early emo bands like Rites of Spring" (it is safe to assume there will be no discussion of Stravinsky) and in the last "are showing signs of weariness about the topic."

Yet Oakes, bless her heart, tirelessly roves on. At Oakland's Art Murmur and Fort Mason's Renegade Craft Fair, among other hubs of indie activity (and inevitable scenester tedium), she shows a keen eye for the snapshot-worthy detail. But to what end? In a satirical novel, lines like this could be devastating: "As I'm standing taking notes near a table selling knit neck warmers, a young female vendor interrupts me to ask what I'm doing. She says she's concerned that I might be from a corporation and that I might be stealing ideas from crafters." But in an earnest nonfiction report, they're deadening.

Arranged, essentially, as a long article without a sharp angle, the book has an unfortunate way of hemming in its author. Oakes also writes poetry, but her powers of distillation aren't on display here. Instead, it reads as if there was a mandate from her editor to redouble exposition and gather quotes for substantiation. Some lively personalities emerge, like Small Press Distribution deputy director Laura Moriarty, or Minutemen founder Mike Watt, or even, occasionally, the author herself, but eventually they just fade back into the din. The inherently anecdotal approach is too easy to tune out. It's as though Oakes has let herself be guided by disembodied voices; so much dutiful reporterese has set her own voice apart unflatteringly.

Oakes doesn't dwell on the fact that some people start bands just to get laid, or put out zines because they're too lazy to write to professional standards, so her survey seems a little rosy. It's prone to name-dropping, too, but at least perceptive enough to notice that the same proneness to name-dropping is favored by Pitchfork scribblers and faded old poets alike. Too bad, then, that the book doesn't have an index.

Too bad also that it's a conventional nonfiction book. She should have done it as a poem, some Ginsbergian howl, or a DIY manifesto for post-indie living — to be wheat-pasted all across Urban Outfitters' walls, and her students' foreheads.

About The Author

Jonathan Kiefer

SF Weekly movie critic Jonathan Kiefer is on Twitter: @kieferama and of course @sfweeklyfilm.


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