Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Powers Trip

By Lee Gardner

MARCH 6, 2000: 

Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America by Ann Powers (Simon and Schuster), $23, 287 pages

The "us" in the title of Ann Powers new book is, well, us -- the young (or at least youthful) urbanites most likely to read or work for an alternative weekly newspaper. Despite her current high-powered gig as a music critic at The New York Times, Powers is one of this ostensible us; she wrote for alt weeklies for many years and came of age in the same deliberately marginal culture of indie music, undemanding jobs, thrift-store shopping and extended personal discovery shared by many of us.

But it is equally important to note the "my" in the book's subtitle. In discussing the social history of our generation's ongoing rise from slackerdom to maturity, Powers draws so heavily on her own life that, by its end, the book feels only tangentially about "us" at all. Powers' book offers a portrait of a new strain of bohemia -- one not tied to a particular locale and not confined to the struggling artists, writers and musicians who traditionally define bohemian life. In fact, the author views struggle itself as the essential quality of contemporary bohemia. In her version, our infamous ambivalence, avoidance of traditional roles and values, and general sustained-adolescence quality are, in fact, an ongoing decision-making process about what kind of adults we want to be.

Powers bases her analysis of this new bohemia on her own history as a high-school misfit in pre-boomtown Seattle who fled to Misfit Central, San Francisco. She revisits her and her friends' youthful adventures in group-house living, sex, drugs, work and shopping. Along the way she makes several interesting points about redefinitions of family, sexual values and work, and she makes for a lively tourguide throughout. But basing the bulk of her assumptions on lives lived in the most enduringly, zealously bohemian city in America limits the scope in a perverse way. Anyone who's ever clerked at a record store or shirked a family holiday to be with friends will recognize elements, yet Powers' example can hardly be considered the mean. Likewise, she dwells on a bohemia peopled predominantly by white, middle-class kids, but barely questions the social factors which determine who enters this willed underclass.

The personal extrapolation continues through the final chapter, as Powers wrestles with such bourgie institutions as her mainstream job, homeownership and marriage. Her handwringing derails the book's discourse; "Weird Like Us" suddenly seems like 287 pages of personal rationalization for her "sell-out" at a threshold that many of our generation will cross, if they haven't already, with nary a backward glance. Ultimately, she assumes an awful lot about "us."

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