Let It Rock
Rock & Roll Books Spring 2000
Weird Like Us: My Bohemian Americaby Ann Powers
Simon & Schuster, 288 pp., $23
What sets "bohemians" apart from everybody else is, apparently, a distaste for mainstream respectability (house, car, spouse), very often accompanied by some combination of fringe sex, drugs, or music. Ann Powers, rock/pop critic for The New York Times and self-conscious reveler in the bohemian stereotype, offers with Weird Like Us a sketchy, inconsistent memoir-cum-cultural studies textbook about her beloved demographic, "alternative America."
Without exactly defining it, Powers declares the term "bohemia" resurrected as a catch-all category for various cliques like "slacker, riot grrrl, hip-hop nation, ecotopia, recombinant techno-revolution ..." Even people who steal from work, collect toys, or shop at thrift stores count. We're all troublemakers, Powers says, and therefore all against the "normal people" with kids and real jobs, whom she compares at one point to the brainless body-snatchers of sci-fi fame. In an era when tattoos are the norm, this anti-mainstream fervor dates the book instantly.
A better strategy, one Powers starts to employ and then quickly drops, is an attempt at separating the soul of bohemia from its costume, the tourists from the hardcore members of the club. It seems like a good organizing principle, but instead Powers gets a little uneasy. The main reason is that, as she repeatedly mentions, she now has a husband, a mortgage, and a legitimate job. "To be honest, I find my relative sobriety rather discouraging," she says apologetically. "I would smoke pot regularly if I could, but my bizarrely low tolerance for it makes a toke more irritating than relaxing."
In fact, Powers is on the defensive throughout regarding her hip credentials, and this leads her to repeatedly justify her path. She even mounts a chapter-long defense of selling out, which she explains as: moving to "Upper Bohemia, where the underground's innovations and insights are translated to the larger public." Regarding young people who claim to like their mainstream jobs, she writes, "That's cool; they're scared. No theorist of slack ever said this lifestyle was for the timid middle. It's always been a bohemian thing." Clearly the real fear here is Powers' agony over losing her street cred.
In all her talk about drugs, sex, communal living, and dumpster-diving, Powers seems giddy with her own presumed naughtiness. She is a warrior fighting an old enemy, "the Man," and in the absolute worst way, her weapon of choice is the bluntest of instruments: journalistic rhetoric, lots of quotes, vague pronouncements. The nudge-nudge-wink-wink gist of her conclusion, that in our hearts we all want to be bohemians struggling at the fringes of society and waiting for our chance to sell out and bring our message of counterculture to society's inner sanctum, is typical of the tone of the book, which champions soft-core revolution for the sheer sociological impact of it.
Unlike the manifestos of truer, funnier rebel-writers like Lisa Crystal Carver (Rollerderby, Dancing Queen); unlike more provocative memoirs from the fringe (the beatnik reflections of Diane DiPrima and Diane Johnson come to mind), Powers also provides no window into the appeal of the subcultures she touts. In Weird Like Us, the sex workers aren't sexy; the druggies have no dark, glamourous tinge; the musicians calmly list their influences into the tape recorder. All such characters Powers puts into the service of a dry counterculture ideal, remaining seemingly oblivious to the fact that drugs, sex, and rock music are a lot more compelling in practice than in theory.