THE IDEA OF a bohemia that exists untethered from the mainstream is a myth that continues to fuel the imaginations of those who would rather drop out than sell out. But at a time when advertising agencies appropriate underground signifiers more quickly than the underground itself can assimilate them, what exactly does bohemia mean? According to New York Times rock critic Ann Powers, bohemia can still be a viable option for the stubbornly contrarian and penury-minded alike, but the idea of a demimonde existing separate from capitalist-consumerist culture has become an elusive daydream.
For this analysis of self-selected social exile, Powers decided to engage in some intimate cultural anthropology. And so she interviewed her past and present friends and co-workers to create a rich and vibrant mosaic of cultural dissent. An atypical product of a typical suburban Seattle upbringing, Powers strayed early on from the conventional career-and-family track that awaited her out of high school. A "Catholic kid gone haywire," Powers longed to flee her Levittown-like existence into a "floating world where artists and other weirdoes make their own rules, turning their lives in the city's twilight into one long experiment."
Powers found her lost paradise in the San Francisco of the late Eighties, where the kind of sexual and political freedoms she had dreamed of as a young new-wave-besotted bookworm thrived. There, she ensconced herself in a low-rent flat with some like-minded roomies and proceeded to write poetry and record reviews, live simply, and love freely. Weird Like Us delves into Powers's shadow world of bohemia, mapping the ways in which notions of sex, family, drugs, music, thrift-store junk, and marriage were subverted and twisted into unusual shapes.
Each chapter of the book provides a vivid diorama of alternative culture. In "The Long (Sexual) Revolution," Powers shows how, contrary to the theoretical handwringing of social critics like Andrea Dworkin, radical reinterpretations of pornography, prostitution, and sadomasochism have empowered gay and lesbian tribes and unmoored heterosexual sex from the stigma of deviance. In "The Cultured Proletariat," Powers writes about how she found her true métier as a clerk for an independent record store, and how her co-workers' musical fanaticism and mild subversion of management helped them to stake out identities and gain some measure of self-determination.
What Powers's radical coalition was striving for, and continues to cultivate, is some genuinely felt connection with their true selves, which they believed could exist only in a nurturing community that wasn't defined by outside social influences. The vexing irony, of course, is that there is no escape from "the outside," as Powers herself learned when she and many of her friends eventually acquiesced and entered, kicking and screaming, the grown-up workplace.
The trick, she writes, is to negotiate the two realms like a trickster/tightrope walker, "to risk being misunderstood by the mainstream, and to share our views with those perceived enemies who we expect will undermine us. Instead of despairing, let's see what we can accomplish." With Weird Like Us, Powers has certainly done her part.