As a suburban Bay Area teenager, I was introduced to the idea of "independents" by my brother, who was an early follower of DIY music zines like Tape Op and the now infamous Maximum Rock and Roll diatribe against major labels penned by musician and producer Steve Albini. After leaving the Bay Area for Portland in the early 1990s, I made friends who, under the rubric of independent, founded presses, print shops and record labels, some of which I still consider the best examples of their kind.
All of this is to say that I was prepared to love Kaya Oakes' book, Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture -- but in reality, it just whetted my appetite for something meatier.
What I wanted from Slanted and Enchanted, and what I did not get, was a compelling narrative about the history of the independent movement that would include an honest look at the tensions inherent in its demographics (maybe I arrived at indie culture too late, but in my experience it's typically a white, middle-class phenomenon).
On the first point, Slanted and Enchanted at least lives up to its subtitle, suggesting a plausible lineage for the movement -- from Frank O'Hara and the New York School through the Diggers and onward. For newcomers, Oakes provides context by continually reminding the reader that "independent" is more than a fashion statement, but a philosophy with disciples in many creative genres, not just music. Slanted and Enchanted makes good on this sentiment by looking at music, publishing, comics and crafting, as well as including snippets of interviews with indie heroes from a variety of disciplines, including Kathleen Hanna, Dan Clowes, Shoshana Berger, and Mike Watt.
Yet while the history is there, the writing falls flat. The only time I felt absolutely engaged with the text was during a section on independent publishing in the 21st century, in which Oakes describes the ripple effect that the failure of one component of an independent publisher's support network can have (in this case, a small press distributor went out of business, leaving most of its customers unpaid and financially precarious). Oakes' own magazine, the Bay Area's Kitchen Sink went under during this period, and it's obvious that she still feels passionate about the situation. For most of the book, however, her writing struggles to find a consistent voice, fluctuating between narrative non-fiction, newspaper journalism, and the academic essay.
As for demographics, Oakes talks about women -- in the form of riot grrrls -- finding their voices within the milieu, but for the most part she leaves indie's lack of racial and economic diversity untouched. This is unfortunate. This exclusivity -- whether intentional or not -- is arguably one of the reasons for the movement's current ossification into fashion-plate status.