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Birdseye: Portlandia and the Dream of the Nineties

Taylor A.Comment

I remember the Nineties. I remember more specifically ordering cassette tapes from Kill Rock Stars and trying to find baby doll dresses in thrift stores (which at my young age, was next to impossible.) Pacific Northwest countercultures have always held a particular fascination for me, prompting a series of events in my life potentially leading up to my retirement in the Northwest. Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein started the show Portlandia as a one-off series of skits called Thunderant. I doubt very highly that they anticipated the series taking off as much as it did; even I was skeptical at first at their take of my fair city. But I finally sat down to watch it. In many ways, it is a fitting statement on Stumptown culture. For me, anyway, it serves as a good example of the chemistry between two very different performers and their version of a mystical city that emphasizes the eccentricities of our culture at best. Brownstein, formerly of indie rock star band Sleater-Kinney, was one of my idols (and one of my boyfriend’s major crushes) during the Nineties. Armisen is a comedic genius who is often underrated. If you have ever seen his impersonations of various famous people (which are so numerous that the list is daunting), you will know what I am talking about. The pairing is unusual, and added to the subject matter, it greatly peaked my interest. Although, as with all things, I was still cautious about the show because of all the good and bad press it received. 

While Armisen and Brownstein’s Portlandia has garnered much lauded criticism from the inhabitants of Portland itself, I think it is important to recognize that the film version of “Portland” has as much and as little to do with the city itself as we assign to it. The same stereotypes can be attributed to many cities, not just Portland, and it seems fitting to say that their show is not necessarily capitalizing on hipster culture in a negative way; After all, if we can’t laugh at ourselves, we have very little humor to begin with. Brownstein and Armisen could both easily be called hipsters in their heyday, so in great comedic depth they are plunging into territory that

is both self-effacing and controversial.

The juxtaposition between a realistic examination of the 

limits of counterculture and our own comparative sociological interpretations of such are something semi-consciously brought to life within the show. The show is as much a statement on interpersonal relations as statement on the subterfuge of our society. The importance of establishing a dominant set of parameters for the dichotomy between trend vs. hype is clearly demonstrated in the remarkable characters they portray

onscreen. The folks that are inflamed by this can be compiled into at least three categories: 1) People who feel the city of Portland is being unjustly accused of being flagrantly ridiculous, 2) People who don’t feel it is “cool” to like a show that makes fun of what is “cool” (As one of Armisen’s characters proclaims, “That is SO OVER!”), 3) People who either don’t get the humor or just don’t care for the show. 

The fact that many of the local celebrities have taken part in this suggests that it may simply be a bit too high-brow for people who don’t see the joke. The joke is on all types of people, and should be taken with a grain of salt. I recently read a column where someone refused to watch the show after seeing the skit about polygamy and was offended that they likened this to Portland. I am a staunch supporter of PDX culture, but I saw the joke. When you look at Portlandia as being Portland and not being Portland in the same sense, it is much easier to see that they are not trying to defame the very fabric of the city, but simply make a commentary about extremes in our general current culture. It could be Anywhere, USA. Portland is just weird and quirky enough to where all of these things can apply to it, although on various levels of extremity.

The social dynamic of this is something I find very intriguing, for it beings up the eternal queries into what is hip and who we are as a culture. The social integrity is such a commentary on our values, our extremes, and what we feel circumambulates in our psyches to the sense of belonging to a collective group or isolating ourselves from it while uniformly adopting a culture. This social commentary seems to be a catalyst for examining ourselves and how we are viewed dimensionally and intuitively. The characters Armisen and Brownstein portray could fit the demographic of many people in our social strata, and I think they pull off these varying roles remarkably well. Are they simply that good of actors, or could we all possibly fit any of these stereotypes when fanaticism becomes central to our realities?

The backlash also may be due to the growing population in Stumptown proper. In the last decade, the population has nearly quadrupled. With the urban growth boundary still being maintained, property prices, taxes, and other necessities have skyrocketed. The more people move to the city where “hipsters go to retire,” the more evident the counterculture will be struggling to maintain itself and not become oversaturated with trendy countercultures that stand to suck the life out of the Portland aesthetic. Actors, musicians, artisans, and other celebrities seem more and more to be dissolving into the social fabric there as they near retirement, causing fledgling performers to seek their own entitlement on the west coast. Portland has become a transient city even moreso over the years, which can create both good and bad results. People that once loved Portland are moving further and further into the suburbs to escape from people who balk against what it was initially designed as, and jobs will continue to be scarce as the population grows within such set parameters. Five years ago, all my friends wanted to move to Portland. Five years later, half of my friends are moving back east. The more Portland grows and loses the enriching energy that made it so unique, the more I wonder if even the citizens that once proclaimed the city to being Eden will eventually say, “Portland is SO OVER.”

But to be fair, if you can land a few good jobs or a decent place to live, Portland is an amazing experience because of all it has to offer. The amount of creative energy in such a city far surpasses anything superficial that may exist within its borders. Portlandia may capture some of the more extreme aspects of western counterculture, but in hindsight I think it also has portrayed the energy of the city in a way that makes it more relatable to the masses. It has become a city of mythic proportions; while still maintaining the broad appeal of having a small-town vibe in some respects. In a city where one can generally walk or bike from one end to the other (respectively), while still within reach of the mountainous deserts and the coast, it still maintains its charming communal appeal.

Concisely, Portlandia stands as a work-in-progress—a testament to popular countercultures and stereotypes that both playfully idolizes and gently criticizes the culture that my generation sprang up from. It rejects the artistic conscience and establishes a more broad interpretation of our inclusion and subconscious drives in society. It is a clever interpretation of who we are, what is real, and all that is ridiculous. But, mainly, it is about how we relate to one another, and relate to the characters in the show itself. Season Two is gearing up, and I, for one, look forward to what Armisen, Brownstein, and their directors and writers bring to the table. 

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