Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America

by Ann Powers

Published by Simon & Schuster

287 pages, 2000


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Culture Cruise

Reviewed by Shannon O'Leary

 

In an effective bit of packaging, the large title type on the dust jacket of Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America is printed upside down. Not only is this a little joke on the reader -- who is constantly being duped into brief bouts of dyslexia -- but it also smartly symbolizes author Ann Powers' agenda between the covers, which is to flip the shallow rep of Generation X on its presumably empty head. (Plus, it shows how damn good these post-Boomers are with marketing gimmicks.)

Many of us had assumed that the Last of the Bohemians lost their voice sometime after Allen Ginsberg's Howl in the late 1950s, their minds at a Grateful Dead concert in the late 60s and their souls somewhere between disco, Vietnam and Watergate in the early 70s. In this, her first book (although she co-edited Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Pop, and Rap, 1995), Powers takes witty and wonderful aim at such conventional wisdom. The respected New York Times rock and pop-culture critic proposes that Gen X has produced a baby bohemian contingent that is alive and, well, working in America's record and video stores, among other places. Although it might seem unlikely that a generation reared in a David Lynchian world of Scooby Doo, divorce, mood rings and Charles Manson could merit the sobriquet of bohemian -- which, let's face it, has decidedly sophisticated (19th-century Paris) and intellectual (London's Bloomsbury Group ) connotations -- for Powers, it simply means leading an unconventional, nonconformist life. Besides, it sounds better than that overused adjective "alternative," and fits nicely with the new bohemia's other catchy aliases: "slacker, genderfucker, riot grrrl, hip-hop nation, ecotopia, recombinant techno-revolution." Which, by the way, all make beatnik and hippie seem somewhat paunchy.

Though 1960s counterculturists may have broadly scrawled out fresh definitions for family, work, love, sex and politics, it was the Xers, argues Powers, who did the heavy, unglamorous lifting (no bra burning and flashy street demonstrations for these folks -- with the possible exception of last year's World Trade Organization brouhaha in Seattle). These "cultured proletariats," suggests Powers, who toil not in art college but in low-rung service jobs that don't provide identity (who'd be impressed by their titles?) but simply paychecks, have been reshaping nearly every aspect of American life. Juicing up her analysis is an engaging mix of first-person biography, and stories and interviews with friends (think Reality Bites and Empire Records meet The Big Chill) living the boho life.

"The average person may not see herself in the pierced and tattooed body and black leather pants of the stereotypical freak," admits Powers, "but she may be surprised to discover that this wild creature's reinventions of kinship, the work ethic, consumerism, and even desire -- matters that reveal the bohemian soul, not the costume -- intersect with her own quandaries and solutions." However, many 30-somethings will recognize their weird alter egos in Powers' text: Whether it's her own experimenting with acid as a near-senior at Seattle's Blanchet Catholic High School, her living and working with free-spirit types in San Francisco of the 1980s, or her stories of a matter-of-fact S&M couple, a never-say-grow-up gay man and a never-say-die struggling musician.

Powers gets weirder yet in the last chapter. After meticulously working to prove the integrity and legitimacy of her people, she abruptly calls for new bohemians to "sell out." Considering that the scathing indictment of Gen-Xers is that they more or less arrive in the world equipped with a For Sale sign, it's an eyebrow-raising move. Powers, of course, knows this. But she novelly views "selling out" (which, she admits having done with her first teenybopper purchase of an Osmond Brothers LP) as the key to bringing the "alternative" values of bohemia deeply into the mainstream. In short, the cool kids should infiltrate and accept the nerds so we can all get along. And since it's been co-opted by Wall Street and the media, being alternative ain't exactly what it used to be anyway. Writes Powers, "When the most popular male talk-show host in America is a Libertarian who wears assless pants and the biggest pop star is a deliberately single mom who has repeatedly taken on the Catholic church, living an alternative lifestyle seems more like a smart bit of self-promotion than a righteous venture."

Ironically, some of the strongest positions in this book may reflect the nature of this more mainstream-, mass-media-influenced bohemia that Powers pictures. "The more polemical aspects of the book came after I had written the stories," Powers admitted during a recent U.S. book tour. "My editor was like 'Well, what's the point? What's the new thing here?'" She adds with a deprecating laugh, "It's part of the structure now of analyzing culture that you have to have this thing you're saying that's huge."

It may not be huge, say, like Tom Brokaw's eulogistic tome to the people involved in World War II, The Greatest Generation, but Weird Like Us is the first book to treat the generation marked with an X like grownups. And even if you don't completely buy Powers' generational empowerment trip, at the very least, it makes for a diverting and thought-provoking culture cruise. | April 2000

 

Shannon O'Leary is managing editor of the Seattle-based magazine Washington Law & Politics.