Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture

Rob Tennant


Slanted and Enchanted: the Evolution of Indie Culture
Kaya Oakes
Henry Holt
235 p., $14.00
June 9, 2009

In Kaya Oakes’s new book, Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture, she seeks to answer the same question she regularly poses to UC Berkeley undergrads in her course on the history and future of independent music: What is Indie? She should know. While not presented as memoir, Oakes’ focus and interviews nonetheless hew closely to her personal history as laid out in the preface and the meat of the text is a nostalgic wandering through the indie landscape of the past few decades.

Oakes grew up in the East Bay, so she spotlights Berkeley punk from the early 80’s. She spent a year at Evergreen State, so the city of Olympia’s contemporaneous national export of the Riot Grrrl movement takes center stage. She published ‘zines in her teens and a full-fledged magazine, Kitchen Sink, later on and so the freedom of the former and the scrappy under-doggedness of the latter are heavily romanticized. All of which is fine.

The book is informative and fun. A quick read without being insubstantial. Oakes’ status as a participant-observer add insight to all of the scene-setting and scene-hopping without making them inaccessible. The people and movements that she encounters encompass a wide variety of disciplines and genres. Placed together in the context of the book they represent a wide-ranging and loosely knit community of like-minded individuals bushwhacking their parallel trails.

Oakes offers a compelling answer to her initial question. According to Oakes, ‘indie’ boils down to method rather than content; means more than ends. This is a refreshing insight on a subject often reduced to pure aesthetic and posture. Instead of the oft-referenced signifiers of skinny jeans and shaggy hair,  Do-It-Yourself, or DIY,  is the watchword of Slanted. Self-recording, self-promoting, self-van-driving bands are Indie. Self-publishing writers are Indie, better still if they personally physically bind their own books. Comics without super-heroes are Indie. Crafting is Indie. ‘Zines are definitely Indie.

Before the Internet, there were ‘Zines, states one of Oakes’ recurring themes. Filled with band reviews and profiles and the inside scoop on venues across the country, an entire subculture was stapled and transmitted by post. Before e-mail, folks wrote to each other, she repeats. And it was good. This sense of nostalgia seems perfectly at home when the book comes off as indirect memoir, but is jarringly at odds with Oakes’ attempts to reconcile what was then with what now is.

One gets the impression that someone in the publication process wanted more. “Yes, but what does this mean now?” a shadowy figures seems to have asked. As a result, a perfectly good history and analysis of 80’s and 90’s indie culture is sandwiched between opening and closing chapters that grope for relevancy and end up undermining and contradicting the main body and each other.

Oakes is unwilling or unable to draw a direct evolutionary line between snail-mailed mixtapes and post-Napster filesharing. She does not acknowledge blogs as the children of her cherished ‘zines.  She dismisses MySpace as a venue for music promotion and distribution basically because she’s overwhelmed by it. She expresses this by saying there is too little time and too many bands of dubious quality, but this stands in stark contrast to her stated affinity for earlier bands possessing what she admits to be more heart and drive than talent. Because of this, her critique comes off as disingenuous and perhaps masking some deeper bias: a prevaricated elitism.  She simultaneously lauds and laments the role self-publishing plays for writers, but largely ignores the internet in general and blogging in particular as a tool for writers to get their words out.

This is where I get frustrated with Slanted. When faced with the current technological climate and the social upheaval that it accompanies and creates, she throws up her hands and crams several chapters worth of potential material into a closing onslaught of non-sequiturs instead of digging in and coming up with anything like a conclusion.  A parade of under-explored observations and unanswered questions serve to tease more than illuminate. Major recent social forces are each given about the same attention as that devoted to a single booth at a San Francisco craft fair in an earlier chapter. Not that it didn’t sound like an interesting booth, it just makes for a remarkable disparity.

Ultimately, the book comes off as an engaging history of compelling subcultural forces with the outline for its own sequel included at the end. If these more contemporary issues were either expanded upon, or left out entirely, the book would feel whole, but as it stands it seems unfinished. I hope the ideas touched on at the end of Slanted and Enchanted do make their way into a broader work. That’s a book I’d like to read.

Get a copy of Slanted and Enchanted here.