News & Politics

Bohemian Rhapsody

By looking at rock and pop music within the context of the larger culture, Ann Powers brings feminist insights to musicians and events that other magazines gloss over with big numbers and flashy hyperbole. Recently, Andi Zeisler met up with Ann to chat in a cafe about her new book, Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America -- in which Powers turns her attention to alternative culture and its influence on her own life.
Ann Powers was an editor at the Village Voice when she and fellow journalist Evelyn McDonnell published Rock She Wrote in 1995. It was the first anthology of music writing by women, and revealed a side of women's experience as creators, critics, and chroniclers of music that, until then, had been given very little consideration. Since then, Powers has continued to write about music from a much-needed feminist perspective, and is currently the New York Times' regular pop-music critic. By looking at rock and pop music within the context of the larger culture, Powers brings insight to musicians and events that other magazines gloss over with big numbers and flashy hyperbole -- her look at the recent resurgence of rock misogyny and how it converged with the events at Woodstock 99, for example, was the most thoughtful and nuanced consideration of the subject in any major publication.

With her new book, Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America, Powers turns her attention to alternative culture and its influence on her own life. Offering up an engaging, witty valentine to the improvised life and an equally impassioned rebuttal to the idea of the bohemian as a bongo-beating caricature (think Pia Zadora in Hairspray, listening to Odetta and ironing her hair), Weird Like Us is equal parts memoir and manifesto. Powers takes us through her San Francisco post-adolescence -- a dumpster-diving, working-in-a-record-store, living-with-seven-roommates bohemian rhapsody -- and into adulthood, discovering it's possible to face maturity with both ideals and Buzzcocks records firmly in hand. She visited old friends, housemates, and co-workers from her years in San Francisco, checking in to see how their own idealism has weathered the years. The resulting accounts -- of people turning personal passions into passionate careers; forging new definitions of love, sex, and marriage; and redefining previous generations' ideas of idealism and success -- round out her own story.

Bitch met up with Ann to chat in a cafe in Manhattan's West Village, where Leonard Cohen alternated with French electronica on the sound system and people nursed cranium-sized bowls of latte and smoked cigarettes that were probably hand-rolled. Does it get any more boho than that?

AZ: Weird Like Us is an autobiography that's kind of in the service of defining a larger concept. I'm interested in why you decided to approach it that way.

AP: The original idea of the book came from a column I used to write for the SF Weekly -- it started out as a listings column, but I made it into an arts/music/culture column. It was very personal, and I often wrote things about things that happened in my personal life that I felt connected with the larger issues. It was very exciting because I felt truly in touch with a community at that time; I really felt like I was chronicling a world. And when it came time for me to think about [writing a] book, that was the world I wanted to talk about. I knew it was vital and happening, but I felt it was very underrepresented in the mainstream media -- I mean, it's represented in things like the trend of the moment, but not in terms of the values or the private life of bohemia.

When I worked at the Village Voice, I became aware that here's a long tradition, now less common -- in fact, now not really happening in the Voice at all -- of personal essays that would combine reporting, autobiography, and analysis. It's a real New Journalistic, counterculture style of approaching things, and I wanted to do that.

AZ: I liked the idea of you going back years later on a sort of "Where are they now, my bohemian friends?" mission.

AP: [Laughs.] That was pretty intense, on a personal level ... I mean, gathering together people who I hadn't seen, some of them, or heard from, for 15 years. It was really interesting, and a good corrective, too. Like in the work chapter, when I talk about the whole Planet Records part of my life ... I mean, I went into it feeling very positive about what had happened [at that job], having almost a nostalgic view. But it was good to talk to some of my coworkers, who had a more negative take on the experience. I would have just written a paean to it, and wouldn't have talked about the fact that maybe we sabotaged ourselves a little bit by not organizing in a labor union. I needed the other points of view to check my own.

AZ: Do you feel that the version of bohemia that you came of age in, that was happening at that time, is still relevant today?

AP: That's interesting. I think that there's a stereotype about young people today, and in fact anyone under 35: "Oh, they're all careerists, and they're not interested in living alternative lives, they just want to make money." But in fact some of those people are also the same people who were involved in the WTO protests, a lot of them are leading the animal-rights and environmental movements, and the youthful end of queer politics. And they're doing it under the radar. These people aren't the picture we're being offered by either the mainstream media or the -- I won't say the alternative, underground media, but let's say the hipster media, you know? The hipster media wants us to think that everybody just wants to have silicone implants and a cell phone and be all dot-com. But there's a real hunger right now for figuring out what the point of it is, the yearning that goes beyond the material. That's why everybody's doing yoga, that's why everybody's getting their aura read and getting aromatherapied. All that kind of new-age stuff is all about that, and I think that's something -- not the new-age stuff specifically, but the hunger -- that's going to lead people toward a different assessment of their lives. I think there's a very strong element of a counterculture that's going to resurface within the next few years, and I do think [bohemia] is still relevant.

AZ: In alternative culture in general these days, it seems that irreverence and irony have taken the place of politics in many ways, and irony used to market and advertise things is also pretty much inescapable. I think of bohemianism as a very earnest and romanticized way to live; it's all about really believing in it. So that seems like it would be at odds with all this irony.

AP: It's definitely a pet peeve of mine. I expect that this book will receive some snide reviews because of that; I expect it to be dismissed by a certain kind of hipster thinker. I'm an earnest person, I believe that my life has a purpose or whatever [laughs], and that's very unfashionable. I think it's easy to use irony to free yourself from responsibility or get out of thorny questions that you don't really want to confront. And I'm sure that at any given cocktail party on any given Saturday night, I've been guilty of doing that.

I do agree with the side of the Baffler argument that holds that hipsterism -- as opposed to bohemianism, to make the distinction -- can be turned to the service of consumerism almost exclusively. Personally, I feel like you can engage with the larger culture, but I know a lot of people who feel frustrated right now, who feel that their efforts are being pushed aside in favor of the flip, dismissive attitude -- sometimes a very crass one -- that's hipper. Eric Weisbard, my partner, made a point in an article he wrote in the Voice about Generation X, that its comedy has been its biggest product. You know, we're this amazing generation of comics -- Chris Rock, Janeane Garofalo, Jim Carrey, etc. -- and I think that's partly a reflection on our willingness to dismiss ourselves.

AZ: That's interesting.

AP: It is. Yet I also think that comedy's not going to get you through. It may make you popular at parties or make you the fashionable It person of the moment, but when you're alone ... I just can't believe that people can really be ironic at their core. And so I think that impulse to make meaning, if you will -- to figure out how we have a place in the world -- leads people away from that. I do believe that's happening -- I believe [mock-compassionate voice] even the hipster has that moment.

AZ: What effect do you think the rise of alternative culture, or maybe more specifically the mainstreaming of alternative culture, has had on feminism?

AP: That's a complicated question ... I used to be very much in the camp of, like, "Madonna is feminism, and that's all good." But I have to say that I am now somewhat discouraged by the fact that the political side of the feminist movement has waned. At the same time, I think that this is where the whole definition of "political" becomes very complicated. I think young women today are almost anarchistic in their approach to feminism -- middle-class young women especially. They're much more into alternative health, alternative birth-control methods, self-defense, all those kinds of movements. But I think the tendency to think that we can create our own systems of not only survival but how to thrive has another effect. First of all, it makes people less interested in joining a political movement, because they feel efficient on their own. And the other thing is, I think that there's a lot of strength among young women and girls today, and sometimes it makes them walk into situations that aren't good. Like Woodstock [99].

I go to so many shows, and that's a main arena where I see sexual politics displayed -- that's what rock 'n' roll is all about, on some level. And I see these young women, and they're all, you know -- when guys say "Show us your tits!" they show them. I think some of that came out of sex-positive politics and the feeling of, "We're confident in our bodies, and we love our bodies, and we're sexy!" But what those young women are not seeing is the larger context. It's very different [to do that] if you're at an orgy organized by Carol Queen in some loft space in San Francisco, where there's a certain consciousness that's shared. But if you're at an Insane Clown Posse concert, and the whole room is screaming "Show us your tits!" ... you know?

AZ: They're not going to know that you're actually making a feminist statement by doing it.

AP: And that's the problem So then it gets really thorny, because it becomes, like, "Well, do those women not have the right to have sexual pride?" Where I come down on that is that I hope that women who feel that they are enlightened, sexually, [who] are confident and strong and their lifestyles have led them to feel that -- I hope that they look beyond themselves and see who else is in the room with them. Sometimes literally. Think about the fact that, in a situation like Woodstock or even a smaller concert, if you participate in that -- men shouting "Show us your tits!" and you show them your tits -- you are putting the woman who doesn't want to do that in the same situation. That's the kind of thing I feel has been lost a little bit because people aren't connecting lifestyle to politics.

AZ: Something I've noticed, and I'm sure you've noticed, is the fact that within different subcultures certain gender-role patterns always float to the surface. Even in the most supposedly enlightened sphere, those lines are there. People talk about "alternative," but when things like that don't change, it just comes down to the clothes and the music.

AP: Right. And that's one of the reasons I deliberately talk so much about queer politics and queer in my book, and not just about indie-rock culture. Admittedly, the book represents a fairly white, middle-class milieu. Gender-wise and sexuality-wise, though, I feel like the vanguard is lesbians and gay men -- queer women in San Francisco especially, because their identity just confronts all those things you're talking about.

I do realize how incredibly groundbreaking the Beats were in the repressive '50s. But the problem with the Beats is that women were very much relegated to the role of wife, support, sex partner. When the woman would try to change the terms of that deal, she became just another confining mother figure. Same thing with a lot of the '60s counterculture. And that's why it's so important that this world that I'm describing, the world that we're living in, is a feminist bohemia. Because that's different than any other era. Even in the '20s or the teens, when there was a lot of talk of women's rights, it's never been as much so as now, that consciousness.

If you look at the indie world, with Riot Grrl, all these girls deciding that being relegated to holding their boyfriend's coat while he looked for records in the record store was not a role that was working for them ... That was the historical movement from a '70s-style feminism to a return to bohemian values, to a sort of mixed-gender scene. And I think that pattern just keeps repeating -- right now it might feel like it's retreated a little, but I think it's going to burst forth again. I hope so.

AZ: My feeling is not that it's retreated, but that some women who originally started out strong -- Courtney Love is an obvious example -- have ultimately fallen into traps of equating convention with power, sort of pushing the idea that as long as you're selling sex, you can be strong, but otherwise you're just a ranting bitch.

AP: Well, that's one problem with looking to our entertainment, uh, heroes for our values. I mean, the world of mass-mediated entertainment -- and I participate in that world all the time -- is a world of surface values. It just is. And Courtney's such a complicated character, we could talk for hours just about her ... but I almost think she's the exception and not the rule in some ways.

AZ: Right, but the women who just play music and don't make a big statement about it also aren't the ones who are getting play in the mass media, so we're not getting a balanced picture.

AP: Well, it's really interesting -- recently I was writing about these records, one by Tara Key and Rick Rizzo, and then one by Sue Garner and Rick Brown. Sue Garner and Rick Brown are married, Rick Rizzo is married to Janet Beveridge Bean from Freakwater, there's Georgia and Ira from Yo La Tengo ... I realized that's there's this whole community of musicians working together, often married and with families, and the women are often the leaders. It's like a little microcosm of artistic equality. But yeah, those people are never going to be on the cover of Rolling Stone.

AZ: Because men and women working together and not having any conflicts is not a story.

AP: But to me it is, and that's why I'm trying to tell those stories.

AZ: I saw a lot of parallels between your book and Pagan Kennedy's Martha Stewart parody, Pagan Kennedy's Living, which focused a lot on alternative lifestyles and family structures. And it made me think it's possible that women are more likely to feel that they have to justify or contextualize their bohemianism, whereas we're used to men who simply do it and write about it.

AP: I'll tell you, I didn't know about that one book of Pagan's until I was well into writing this book, and somebody gave it to me one day, and I was like "Oh my god!" But yeah, I think that there is that outlaw role that men can just walk into, and it's a more attractive one.

I was at the Northwest Book Fair this year, and there were these two panels: One was these women writers, women working with young girls and writing children's books and doing websites. And during the same time slot there was this, like, incredibly macho panel -- Jerry Stahl, who wrote Permanent Midnight, Chuck Palahniuk, who wrote Fight Club, and some other male writers. The women were all talking about creating a community -- contextualizing, but in a very earnest, constructive way. And the men were just like, "my balls" this, "my balls" that. I swear to god! They were all enjoying being assholes and insulting each other. To me, that was just like the perfect representation of this age-old dichotomy where men want to be very singular, very much [manly voice] my own mountain goat, and the women are trying to create a circle. I think what you're saying is true, and not only because of this cultural context where there is a Kerouac role for men and it's unclear what the role would be for women. It's also because of the practicalities of a woman's life, especially if a woman is heterosexual, and also if the woman decides to have a family. Women, more than men, are still confronted with the issue of balancing family with lifestyle, and I think that maybe makes them more interested in figuring out the logistics of an alternative life than men are.

AZ: Something that you said in the book that I thought was really illuminating was that -- you were talking about yourself in high school, and how you were sort of this new wave girl, but you looked up to the punk guy like he was more worthy. And there's a quote: "Throughout the history of mainstream encroachment on bohemian scenes, the emergence of female interest in a form, be it jazz, Beat poetry, countercultural rock, hip-hop, or electronica, often signs, to insiders, that subculture's corruption."

AP: I think that's really true, and has been historically true in the arts: Shakespeare was serious, but Jane Austen was frivolous, and so on. Jazz is still a world that women haven't penetrated that much as musicians, and what's the music in America that's the most serious? It's jazz.

AZ: When I read that, it made me think of what happened at Woodstock last year -- the idea that women have a certain place, and when they do something that's considered trespassing, if they get hurt or hassled it's deserved because they shouldn't have been there with the boys, they should have been listening to Sarah McLachlan.

In the female ghetto, yeah. Elysa Gardner had a piece in Billboard about the artists who came out in the Lilith wave, how a lot of them have had their second records receive a lot of backlash. Paula Cole is the most notable example -- it's amazing the vitriol that's leveled at her. And the whole armpit-hair thing, that was just so -- that would never happen to a guy. Do people say that kind of shit to [Limp Bizkit frontman] Fred Durst? He's got hair hanging out all over his body!

At the same time, there's more women in popular music at the top of the charts this year than ever before. And in all different genres. I think those women made it possible for this to happen.

But then, look at what happened once alternative music became a big cultural thing: A lot of hipsters turned to electronic music, which is a very boy-oriented field. It was like [snotty hipster-boy voice] "Oh we're done with that now. We'll let the girls have it -- we're more interested in this." And I like electronic music, and there are some great women involved in it. But it's really boy. I was at a Fatboy Slim show -- and I know Fatboy Slim is like the ultimate frat music now, Fratboy Slim, but it really was a show-us-your-tits kind of night. What happened to the so-called futurism, the progressivism of the scene? It seems like the same old thing to me.

AZ: I read an interview with [musician] Bob Log III, and he was talking about something he supposedly pioneered called tit clapping, where he encourages women to clap their tits during his shows, and had women do it in the recording studio on his new record. And he said something ridiculous like, "When was the last time something brand new happened in music? I better stick with it."

AP: Oh yeah, that's so original. Can we just say that Lisa Suckdog did this before any guy ever thought of it? But that kind of thing is one of the reasons why I wanted to write about the aspect of alternative culture that's about day-to-day life, rather than the spectacle of the artist as transgressor. Because many, many accounts of bohemia throughout the ages have been like, "Oh, look at this crazy poet on the corner, screaming," you know, or the punk rocker who gets the girls to clap their tits together, or whatever. To me, that's not where change is happening. It's almost -- I don't want to say it's boring, because sometimes it can be interesting, but it's ... it's time-honored, you know, it's the old side of it. To me, change is more in the decision you make of how to form a family, how to have your work life work, how to be an adult. And I think when you really have to confront that side of your life, things like easy displays of sexism are going to be much harder to explain away. And that's where consciousness is really changing. I hope. Maybe not for Bob Log.

AZ: When did you start seeing the series of choices you made in your life as a coherent whole, as something that formed a larger picture for you?

AP: I think that I always was very interested in the idea of counterculture. But in my early 20s when I first moved to San Francisco, I remember very vividly going to Haight Street and just being grossed out by the hippies. So I think that I didn't think of myself as a countercultural person in that way, but I certainly always looked at rock 'n' roll and punk and indie as something beyond just the music.

Also, in the '80s and early '90s when all these attacks on the arts and the NEA happened, it politicized a lot of people who I think before just thought of themselves as living an arty lifestyle. The other thing that was happening at the same time was ACT-UP and Queer Nation, and even though I'm a heterosexual women, I really identified with that movement and still do -- the queer identity felt like it encompassed much more than who you were having sex with. Those things combined with the primary ingredient -- when I was in college I took my first women's studies class, and that showed me a whole history of women seeing the most personal choices in their lives as very political. And I'm still very inspired by those early women, whether it's Shulamith Firestone, or the Redstockings, or Robin Morgan. So I had that in my head as I was moving through these different milieus and contexts.

AZ: The whole style of Rock She Wrote was such a change from most rock criticism, which reflects a very male point of view. There are a lot more female rock critics these days writing for major magazines and newspapers and I was wondering how, as one of them, you've seen that realm change.

AP: There was a window that opened in the early 90s -- I'm the first to admit that the "women in rock" thing did benefit me and a lot of other women writers of my age. At the same time, I always qualify that by complaining, "If I have to write another women-in-rock article ... "

One thing Evelyn and I noticed when we were editing the book is that a lot of women stopped writing about music around the age of 35 or 36. They turned to other things -- they had families, they became editors, etc. If you look at the eminences grises of rock critics, they're overwhelmingly male. I once had a female former rock critic, who shall remain nameless, actually say to me, "Well, I just grew up." To me, popular music is one of the main avenues of communication in our culture, it's one of the major ways that the values and views of our society are aired. Especially in terms of gender politics. So I feel it's an important thing for people to be looking at this stuff and trying to figure out what's going on. And it's really important to have women joining in that conversation, because all those easy myths of rock 'n' roll, the boys-club stuff, is habitually resurfacing all the time. I hope that women can find a way to step to the next level -- of being the ones who are writing the books, being the ones who are always invoked the way Greil Marcus is always invoked, or Bob Christgau -- the rock critics who are considered intellectuals and authorities.

AZ: At the end of Weird Like Us, you talk about your wedding and about marriage in general. Chronologically it made sense, but the wedding-as-happy-ending is also a very traditional way to end a book. I kind of questioned why I inherently saw it as logical -- like, was it logical because it implies some sort of resolution?

AP: That's funny, you're the second woman who's said something about that. [Filmmaker] Sarah Jacobson brought up the same point. Well, the segment on getting married was actually added after the first draft of the book was completed, and part of the reason I put it in was just my obsessive need to be honest. I wanted to represent myself as I am, and that's how I am now -- I'm married. But I also included it because I wanted the selling-out chapter to not be only about selling out in the commercial sense. The whole issue of how your domestic life becomes more conventional is often something that makes people feel like sellouts, and like they're no longer allowed to call themselves alternative.

I do believe you can remake institutions from the inside, slowly, and that's what we're trying to do. I don't have any illusions that two people are going to change what heterosexuality means, but I do think that the ritual we created did at least make a roomful of people think about what it means to be married. And maybe that's all you can ask from one night. When it comes down to it, I married one guy. But I wanted to do it in a context where I could see if I could do anything to the institution. And I think I made a tiny dent, scratched about a thumbnail's worth of plaster off it [laughs]. And I also hope that, just on the level of sheer fun, I can help somebody see that you don't have to, like, wear the horrible white dress and worry about the food and do all those cliches, and you can make a space where radical queers from San Francisco and conservative Catholics from the heartland of Wisconsin can be in the same room, dancing the hora together. I think that one of the legacies of the counterculture, for our generation, is that we look at the '60s and we say, "Well, they tried to levitate the White House and they didn't do it, so we shouldn't entertain serious ambitions to change the culture." I think that's made it so we can't even see how we are changing culture.

AZ: Do you find that your sense of community, in the bohemian sense that you first experienced it in, has changed or evolved over the years?

AP: Yeah, definitely. One of the things about living in New York and being a quote-unquote media professional is that you spend an awful lot of time living in this weird media bubble. I feel like it sometimes obscures the sense of community that we might otherwise feel. But at the same time, I live in a neighborhood in Brooklyn where a number of my friends now live, in various kinds of group houses and arrangements. We're all in our 30s now, confronting different issues -- children, long-term relationships, home ownership, all these things that we never thought we would. And I see the same kind of conscientiousness and attempts to make the world around us a healthy place that we had -- even more so now in some ways, as we're less prone to do hallucinogenic drugs. I'm seeing people figure out how to grow up and not just make [bohemianism] a phase in their lives or part of their crazy youth, but a life in itself.

There will always be people who want to continue, to play out the choices they made in their youth, and for whatever reason -- whether it's their sexual identity, whether it's their race, whether it's their personal predilections, whether it's their commitments -- will find themselves not fitting in with whatever the dominant stereotype is. And I think that's an unsung story in this country right now. We're living in this rather strange moment when you have a huge variety of lifestyles on display, but also this sort of mood of conservatism and of material greed. Like I've said before in this conversation, the panorama is blocked and we're only seeing one image of an American right now, and it's so much more than that. My book is a chronicle of one slice of that. So I hope that's something that people are interested enough in to buy the book [laughs].

AZ: Those bohemians, always trying to sell their books.

AP: Yeah, because I just want to make money! Please -- if I wanted to make money, I wouldn't have written this book. I would have written, like, the biography of Fred Durst.