Last Exit to Boho


Bohemia has always occupied a shadow landscape. Despite its edge of poverty and isolation, it has long appealed as a place where the rejects reject the society that rejected them to create a more legitimate culture of their own. Since the 1960s, however, you can find bohemia at any boutique or record store, another product to be bought and sold. “The counterculture made lifestyle experiments mass phenomena,” writes Ann Powers in Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America, “and forty years later there are Bob Dylan seminars at universities and New Age health spas at the mall.”

Weird Like Us aspires to investigate the uneasy relationship between bohemia and mass-market culture, with the purpose of redefining it in terms of substance rather than style. It’s no small task Powers has set for herself, since in a social landscape where “an investment banker could be a foreign film buff who donated to Greenpeace” while Iggy Pop sells Nike sneakers, the very idea of bohemia “now seems worse than quaint; it seems decrepit . . . a gimmick trotted out occasionally on Broadway or in Vogue fashion spreads.” Yet even as she labels bohemia “disgustingly dead,” Powers contends that “the loss of clear markers around bohemia actually creates an opportunity that only cowards could refuse, because the same barriers have been loosed around conventional society.” This suggests that the intersection of the counterculture and the mainstream may be as much about infiltration as co-optation. “What is the worth of work?” Powers asks. “What are the parameters of sensual pleasure, of love itself? It is the historical prerogative of bohemians to confront these questions with clear eyes and lots of discussion. And as conventions continue to self-destruct, the bohemian choice to live differently suddenly becomes essential for everyone.”

If such a statement sounds like proselytizing, Powers makes no bones about that. Pop music critic for The New York Times and a former Voice senior editor, she not only proclaims her own bohemian status, but seeks out its reflection in both public and private life. At times, this leads Powers to confuse bohemia with the broader counterculture, especially when it comes to groups like ACT-UP, PETA, or Rock for Choice, whose activism she regards as central to the cause. Bohemia is, after all, inherently apolitical, its hallmark the interior journey, a turning away from the larger world. Yet with Weird Like Us, Powers argues for an expanded definition, taking her cue from “bohemia’s first precept: being radical often just means making it up as you go along.” She draws on a variety of unlikely subjects, from a former San Francisco roommate who turned a thrift-shop job into a career as a vintage clothing magnate, to the coowner of a Seattle cybercafé, who must balance the realities of business with his idea of café as public space. That, Powers tells us, is contemporary bohemia, where alternative lifestyles encompass everything from political organizing to so-called hip capitalism, and the key is not so much what we do but how we think about our lives.

Although Powers repeatedly turns to the idea of bohemia as a matter of personal engagement, as the book unfolds, her writing feels increasingly impersonal, as if she were more a sociologist than a participant in the movement she describes. Partly, this has to do with her decision to eschew linear narrative for a series of self-contained chapters, each dealing with a single facet of bohemian life. But equally problematic is that Weird Like Us, like much of contemporary bohemia, is never quite sure what it wants to be. On the one hand, it relies on elements of memoir; Powers uses her experience living in a group house in San Francisco to add texture to a discussion of bohemian domesticity, and the story of her marriage as a lesson in reinventing tradition. Much of this material is affecting—particularly her account of what it means to be a misfit, finding community among other outsiders—yet Powers backs away from it too quickly, diluting her story with an array of journalistic set pieces where she interviews friends and fellow travelers to illustrate some larger point. The inclusion of other perspectives may be fine in theory, but their lack of integration with Powers’s personal material gives Weird Like Us a didactic, distanced quality, which is the antithesis of the bohemia Powers means to invoke.

Nowhere is this more true than in regard to questions Powers raises about family and work—essential issues to anyone trying to function outside the mainstream. But Powers doesn’t always tie her anecdotal information into a cohesive thesis of bohemia as a whole. At times, the book reads more like a catalog than cultural criticism, and even discussing her own life, Powers too often settles for easy answers—or no answers at all. “Myself, I’d grown tired of frustrated free love and settled into a long, mono- gamous relationship,” she admits in a chapter on sexuality, yet never reveals the details of this decision, nor what monogamy provided that was missing from her life. Better is her ambivalence about success: “Selling out sneaks up on you. Or you on it. You’re inching along, taking one logical step after another at work or in your relationships, and suddenly you find yourself all decked out in the trappings of the mainstream.” Here too, however, she fails to go far enough, identifying selling out as part of a complex dialectic, while never fully establishing the corollary of meaningful work. It’s an unfortunate lapse, because if bohemia has a basic ethos, it is the rejection of the Puritan ideal of work as struggle in favor of a sense of work as heightened play. Although Powers can write persuasively about professional fulfillment, she never quite transcends a certain antiwork rhetoric, focusing more on worker scams and office sabotage than the truly revolutionary notion that, for many bohemians, entrepreneurship is “the best way to survive the strictures of the work world.”

In the end, Powers gives short shrift to the most important question facing the denizens of bohemia: how to make the transition from rebellious youth to engaged adulthood. To her credit, she understands this: “At a certain point,” she notes, “you’re not playing around with the future anymore; you’re in the thick of things, and what you choose will probably last.” The key is to think for yourself, which means your “everyday choices must be constantly reassessed and renewed.” Such a notion seems especially relevant in a culture that has adopted the trappings, if not the substance, of bohemia, but it remains only partially developed in Weird Like Us.