Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture

It’s difficult for me to read Kaya Oakes’ engaging and well-researched new book, Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture without thinking about my interest in how the term “indie” has been deployed for the last two decades in the world of film.  If “independent film” refers to any movie produced outside of the studio system–in other words, if we apply a strictly economic model that focuses on ownership–then a number of films that don’t look very “indie,”arguably including many of George Lucas’s Star Wars films, seem to qualify.  At the same time, desktop distribution tools allow anyone to become a filmmaker who could (potentially) share her films with millions of interested viewers, suggesting that “independent film” could become so expansive a category that it risks losing all meaning.  Finally, a number of films, such as Juno and Little Miss Sunshine, seem to embody an “independent spirit” even while featuring recognizable actors and a healthy budget.  Although Oakes rarely discusses the category problems of independent film because her focus is on other media, namely music, publishing, and craft culture, her book provides an accessible, thoughtful analysis of how the concepts and practices of indie culture have circulated through a variety of media over the last two decades.

As Gina Meyers at Bookslut observes, Oakes makes clear from the outset that Slanted and Enchanted is a personal book and that her case studies are informed by her personal background as a participant as a producer of indie culture. She has published books with independent presses and worked as an editor for the independently-produced Kitchen Sink magazine.  Similarly, as noted in Rob Tennant’s review, her connections to the punk scene in Berkeley and the riot grrl scene at Evergreen State, thanks to a brief stay in Olympia, Washington, allow her unique access to some “indie” subcultures, while leaving others outside of her range of analysis.  This participant-observer approach allows Oakes to draw from her own experience, as well as to conduct interviews with a number of other indie artists, all of whom are actively involved in theorizing, and in some cases reinventing, their corner of indie culture.  Other subjects she addresses–including the DC hardcore scene, the Beat poets, and the contemporary crafting scene–are all offered as markers of a consistent, flourishing indie culture that may change shapes over the years but remains committed to a spirit of independent production.  In some places, this approach risks reducing “indie” to an empty concept, something that seems outside of history, leaving me looking, in places, for a slightly more specific understanding of how indie functions as an oppositional culture and why she chooses some of the historical antecedents, such as the Beats.

At the same time, Oakes is attentive to the ways in which some of the traditional economic definitions of independence–where “independence” marks both separation from and opposition to major media conglomerates–no longer holds.  When Oakes asks her students what indie signifies, their immediate response is “skinny pants,” a fashion signifier that might be found at almost any local mall and one that is central to places such as Urban Outfitters and American Apparel.  When we learn that the CEO of Urban Outfitters is a “staunch Republican” who has even donated money to Rick Santorum, it’s easy to become cynical about the current branding of indie.  Complement these skinny pants with a pair of Chuck Taylors, now produced by a company that is owned by Nike, and indie, like many subcultures before it, seems to have been completely co-opted, in a process documented as early as the late 1970s by Dick Hebdige.

But Oakes, in my reading, is careful to go beyond such easy oppositions, even when noting how they operate in mass culture.  Throughout the book, Oakes is attentive to the tension between indie as a philosophy (one that is now being reinscribed into a wider DIY culture) and indie as both a genre and marketing ploy. That being said, such an approach risks taking us in the direction of ferreting out “authentic” and “inauthetntic” versions of indie, a problematic distinction, to be sure, especially when we enter into the diverse distribution practices that mark contemporary film culture, especially when artists such as Steven Soderbergh seem to circulate between multiple formats, genres, and distribution practices.

Further, Oakes is attentive to the ways in which new distribution technologies have altered how we think about independent productions.  Noting that MySpace has completely altered the way that bands market themselves, even while Bit Torrent complicates the way music is distributed, Oakes, implicitly criticizing Chris Anderson’s concept of the long tail, expresses concern that “as indie music multiplies and changes, niche audiences abound, many of which are too small to make an impact” (205).  Although these new tools allow access to a virtually infinite range of content, it’s more difficult to reach a wider audience, leading to a situation in which “indie is simultaneously reaching a stage of oversaturation and corporatization” (207), hence some of the major challenges facing indie bands, filmmakers, and others.

Although Tennant complains in his review that Oakes avoids theorizing the new internet DIY cultures in significant detail, I think that Oakes’ book is a significant contribution to the literature on indie culture, especially in its detailed histories of the subcultures in which she was a participant.  If anything, I would have liked a little more synthesis and analysis in places, as well as a little more self-reflection on such loaded terms as “authenticity” and “community,” which are often taken for granted.   Slanted and Enchanted is a quick read but one that offers a thoughtful glimpse at how indie and DIY cultures retain such power and why they remain necessary as a challenge to the artistic and cultural status quo.

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