Escape From Portlandia

by on July 17, 2012

Essays Issue 3 Nonfiction

To wit: my dad’s notionally square job doing marketing for the Oregon Zoo also involved booking and managing its world music summer concert series, which was a siren song for progressive parents and their multicultural, tie-dyed broods .My neighbors across the street—a graphic designer and a gem dealer—turned their garage into a shrine to surf and rockabilly music. One of my high school substitute teachers spent his weekends giving guided tours of the “mystery hole” he’d built in his backyard. When I grew older, my parents confided in me that certain Portland businesses, since become institutions and community benefactors, had been launched with laundered Eugene drug money.

These were the adults I looked up to as a kid. There was a common theme to their stories: namely, fleeing somewhere else and landing in permissive Portland. It was a city where runaways and weirdos finally grew into themselves and found a way to reconcile waving their freak flags with acknowledging real-world exigencies. It was a city, in other words, at odds with the “Portlandia” promulgated by the TV show of the same name—a construct that only exists within certain generational and geographical boundaries.

The sea change represented by this putative “Portlandia” can be traced back to the 90s and yet another wave of refugees. But for these asylum-seekers, Portland wasn’t the backdrop for their identities; it became the very fabric of their new selves.

Roughly 20 years ago, the city welcomed an influx of young people who—contrary to Gen X slacker stereotypes—actually wanted jobs. This was back when Portland could provide them. Oregon’s generous tax breaks for businesses had seeded the Silicon Forest, which sprouted a wide array of tech factories and campuses in Portland’s western suburbs. The creative industry also thrived: artists and designers flocked to Portland, where Wieden+Kennedy was quickly becoming one of the most successful independent ad agencies in the world due in large part to local client Nike.

And then, Portland’s prospects fell into a 15-year slide thanks to the dot-com bust—which deleted thousands of jobs—and the 2008 recession, which flattened a housing market that had been supercharged by the 90s population influx. But despite increasingly bleak job prospects, Gen Xers kept washing up on the banks of the Willamette River. Perhaps the city’s new advertising industry had done its job too well: the 90s made Portland into Seattle 2.0, and newcomers kept arriving to wrap themselves in its aura of coolness. Reality couldn’t harsh Portland’s buzz, so surreality set in.

Portlandia does a good job of capturing the fundamental bipolarity of a city that’s essentially in decline but still attracting busloads of young Americans in the prime of their economic productivity. The show’s sketches contain characters such as foodies who spend years interrogating the life stories of the animals they eat; feminist bookstore owners who are precluded from turning a profit by their meddlesome self-righteousness; and a mayor character who spends more time Tweeting and seeking affirmation than governing. The show’s sketches take place in commercial spaces—coffee shops and high-concept boutiques—that are less about earning income and more about peddling certain ideas of cool. Certainly, this “Portlandia” exists in Portland—specifically, in southeast or north Portland, where traditionally working-class and African
American neighborhoods are in varying states of gentrification. But believing it’s the whole story means buying into a certain generation’s sales pitch.


Portlandia co-creator Brownstein, guitarist for Wild Flag and formerly of Sleater-Kinney, is one of the Gen X transplants who found Portland in the 90s. The show is highly influenced by that generation’s perspective: the premiere’s first sketch is a musical number announcing that “the dream of the 90s is alive in Portland.” Most of the people in that sketch are thirty- or early fortysomethings, and it’s mostly this generation’s experiences that are explored in Portlandia.

Brownstein and Armisen get a lot right when it comes to skewering their peer group; Portlandia is nothing if not self-aware, and the show is generally successful as a sendup of a generation that defined itself through its cultural appetites. The satire is sharpest when it reveals how its characters, in championing the unappreciated and fringe as cool, unintentionally dilute the appeal of their chosen objects.

The “Cat Nap” episode, for example, bitingly lays bare the way Gen X culture cannibalizes itself. An indie-rock duo, unable to gain an audience in an overcrowded market, adds a cat to the lineup and makes it big. Soon, the band gets abducted by a psycho fan dead set on keeping them from going mainstream. The group rebrands, taking on their kidnapper and making an additional gimmick out of their captivity; an ecstatic Pitchfork editor decides the band is the apotheosis of music and shuts down the site, declaring its mission accomplished. It’s good parody of popular culture today, of how what’s construed as indie music is actually produced and consumed in an increasingly cynical, cyclical, and deranged way. But it could just as easily have been set in Williamsburg or Silver Lake. In Portland, this kind of culture is part of a much broader and weirder tapestry.

Many of the show’s characters would be more at home in a slightly edgier place. While bicycle activism is a vibrant movement in Portland, there’s a stridency to the “Bike rights!” character riding Portlandia’s streets that cuts against the city’s passive-aggressive disposition. Many of the show’s sketches revolve around psychotic competitions of connoisseurship that find characters battling to establish their credentials, like the two who try to find a periodical or article the other hasn’t read. And while that drive to establish one’s cultural superiority may be a hallmark of the different types of identity explored by the show, it’s an aggressiveness that, in my experience, is generally muted in Portland, where even the most rabid consumers of culture are usually pretty genial and low-key about it. To me, Portland’s interstitially weird—it’s a place where a 24-Hour Church of Elvis is sandwiched by drab office buildings. It doesn’t earnestly trumpet its quirks.

Or at least it didn’t before the Gen Xers arrived. The Portlandia sketches that resonate the most for me usually involve the Peter and Nance characters. Armisen and Brownstein play a middle-aged couple that feels increasingly out of place in “Portlandia.” They occasionally try on younger identities and stage brief forays into the hipster happenings around them, joining an urban farming commune in one episode and buying motorcycles in another. Once hip, now square, these fading flaneurs expose a poignant truth about Portland: it’s a palimpsest of different generations that were all, in their day, a little non-conformist, a little edgy. Peter and Nance have been effaced by Armisen and Brownstein’s generation; their pathos echoes that of the real aging Portlanders who’ve been relegated to the margins of “Portlandia” in favor of a younger generation that has exploited the city’s culture for their own cachet.

In this sense, Portlandia is—possibly unintentionally—an amazing simulacrum of Portland. But it’s not read that way very broadly, and the show’s name endorses a certain way of thinking about the city. “Portlandia” is a metonym for a breeding ground for Kombucha-swilling, fedora-wearing narcissists. And now, that metonym has become so embedded in our national culture that even some normally intelligent publications have started treating living in Portland—a city that’s weird around the edges but essentially rational—as the DSM definition for “hipster.”


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