Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America
Reviewed by Micah Holmquist
Friday, June 2 2000, 9:18 PM
"It was the mid-1980s, Reagan's American morning. We felt like we were living in an alien nation, where robotic yuppies ate twelve-dollar plates of mashed potatoes at ersatz-retro diners and neck-scrubbing Christians fought artists in the streets. The air buzzed with words, speeding toward us like bullets: virtue, morality, values. According to everyone around us, we could lay no claim to those terms; we were expected to follow in the deep footsteps of the countercultural baby boomers or to stay in our corners, despairing at the failure of their revolution. We felt like we had to start at the beginning. And so, like children, we shut the door behind us, pulled out our gameboard, and played the game of life."
So says Ann Powers of the young bohemian community of San Francisco that she lived in roughly a decade and a half ago. The quote comes from Powers' new book Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America, which defends the bohemian lifestyle in the contemporary United States. Powers acknowledges that there is no strict definition of bohemia. However, by default she describes bohemians as those who live by values not usually associated with the mainstream of society. Powers also stresses repeatedly that one of the book's central points is that even those who tend to formally scorn that which rests outside the mainstream are now a bit intrigued by what they see there. As she says at the very end, "if you still think bohemians are crazy throwbacks to an ear when freedom seemed easier to grasp, look hard at yourself. You might find that in some corner of your wishful soul, you are weird like us."
Powers certainly makes it easy to see the attraction. The chapter on San Francisco in the mid eighties tells of people who were trying to build a real family and a real community. That is, they wanted to avoid the "habit of treating each other as we treat our families, assuming closeness instead of cultivating it." Powers acknowledges that she and her adopted relatives made mistakes and that the project did not go on indefinitely, but it is also clear from this chapter that, if only for a brief period, they created a community so full of love that few who understand it can scorn it. Equally interesting is the chapter on the "cultured proletariat;" people who earn usually meager wages but are able to do so by working in book, music, video stores and the like and thus keep close to their true loves. And it should go without saying that while the sexual and drug undergrounds that she describes repulse some, the pure hedonism of these subcultures is attractive and enthralls at least an equal number of people.
Powers is smart enough to not present bohemia without its complexities. One fascinating chapter in the book looks at Powers' tenure as an employee at Planet Records in San Francisco. Her coworkers at this record store were usually relatively well educated to be holding a job that barely paid above minimum wage. Nonetheless, they did so because they loved music. In order to make up for this situation, employee theft was rampant. At the time Powers both participated in this grafting and believed that it was a justifiable response to the situation but in Weird Like Us she draws on the work of L.R. Zeitler to wonder if management had in fact permitted employees to steal a certain amount of items to keep them content and less demanding of higher wages and union representation. After reading an article by Zeitler, Powers says "I wondered whether I'd been the one ripped off - whether, for all our prideful anarchistic behavior my mates and I had all been a bunch of suckers playing right into management hands." The book doesn't reach any decisive conclusion but it is clear that Powers isn't so convinced that she and her coworkers were really resisting the system.
If this section has a fault it is that the narrow focus of the book on bohemia seems to incorrectly imply that these contradictions are only experience by the cultured working class. To use an example from my own life, when I worked in an auto-factory, it was standard practice for the crew of people that I was in to leave at least a half an hour early each day. The foreman knew that this happened and presumably the higher ups knew as well. Management could have tried to discipline us and force us to stay longer but why would they want to? As it stood they had a bunch of employees who felt that they were sticking it to the man even if the conditions stayed as unsafe and unpleasant as ever. Many readers will probably have at least one similar story. The odd part about all of this is that Powers easily could have connected the issues faced by record store employees to those faced by larger numbers of workers. All it would take would be a comment along the lines of, "just as bohemians and the so-called mainstream share a great deal in the cultural sphere, they also share the same problems in world of work."
If the bohemian life is full of pitfalls so are attempts to leave the lifestyle. The final chapter is bluntly titled "Selling Out" and consists of stories of how bohemians manage to justify their acceptance of the trapping of more mainstream life. For Powers, this means justifying the fact that she is both a pop music critic for a well know establishment rag by the name of the New York Times and involved in a monogamous heterosexual relationship that has even been sanctioned by the state. The author's own argument is like that of most of the other people featured in that it basically boils down to a more comfortable and secure lifestyle is o.k. so long as you are not totally divorced from your previous loves. One problematic aspect of this chapter is that almost of all the "sell outs" featured have managed to secure high profile and lucrative gigs such as writing for the Times or salon.com. Surely there must be some bohemians of Powers' generation who also craved security and a steady income but who didn't have access to such niche positions. Many probably got straight jobs that are nowhere near as hip as journalism. Weird Like Us would be a much better book if Powers had focused on such people. Do they look back at their bohemian days as an attempt to build better families or a new culture? Or do they tend to see it as merely a youthful phase that they went through on the way to adulthood?
At least as frustrating for readers will be the fact that this chapter makes it clear that despite hearing about the many adventures of the author, that they don't really know Powers. In "Selling Out," we hear all about how commerce always trumps art. Even at publications like the Village Voice which purport to be about something bigger than the bottom line. This is fine, although not really surprising. But what Powers doesn't say is how she broke into journalism in the first place. This is not an autobiography, so perhaps the author doesn't need to talk about everything in her past but it sure seemed like one up till this chapter. This failure to tell a coherent narrative of her life means that the book fails to be a satisfying memoir with journalism sections added on. This might still work except that Powers never persuasively argues that bohemian mores are actually gaining in influence. The few anecdotal examples that she gives ke the increased popularity of cafes, the persistent appeal of hip hop and so-called alternative rock, the increased acceptance of sexualities that don't begin with the hetro prefix - doesn't seem impressive when compared to other periods in American history. In the 1950s, the popularity of rock and roll was skyrocketing as was sex outside of marriage while blatant racism was increasingly become unacceptable. These were at least as significant upheavals to "middle America" as any of the recent cultural shifts that Powers mentions.
That the upheavals of the 1950s did not nullify the base for bohemians as a separate culture could be interpreted to mean many things about society. It could mean that society is so constrictive that it will take the foreseeable future of humanity to erase these boundaries. Or it could suggest that the mainstream takes what it wants from subcultures and discards what it doesn't. It could also mean that bohemians continue to exist because they define themselves against the status quo; or it could imply that cultural spheres such as "bohemian" and "straight" are entirely distinct from one another and never relate. Any of these arguments could shed light on the relationship between alternative culture(s) and established social orders, but Weird Like Us unfortunately doesn't explore any of them.
Weird Like Us is available from Simon and Schuster.