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We Want Some Too: Underground Desire and the Re-invention of Mass Culture

by Hal Niedzviecki

With contemporary culture in the hands of a dwindling number of media oligopolies, who’s to speak on the quixotic, overlooked, and largely misunderstood battle to create alternative voices? That would be underground culture maven Hal Niedzviecki, a founder of the magazine Broken Pencil, a field guide to Canadian zines.

If successful, We Want Some Too, which seeks to make underground culture intelligible to the masses, would render that culture no longer underground. But Niedzviecki answers that apparent paradox by arguing that mass culture needs to incorporate voices from the margins. He argues fervently that the role God, country, and family once played in our lives has been replaced by mass culture of all stripes: sitcoms, rock music, blockbuster movies, supermarket tabloids, and so on. Mass culture shapes our minds and becomes the lens through which we see the world and ourselves.

But while Niedzviecki passionately champions efforts to rise above mass culture’s homogeneity, he argues that the underground works within the same cultural context. Whether they play anarchic jazz-punk, publish zines on Evel Knievel, or open museums devoted to their favourite Charlie’s Angel, Niedzviecki’s subjects assert their alternative visions by plundering, appropriating, and re-inventing the products of mass culture. In other words, those who feel betrayed and drowned out by mass culture have little recourse but to find validation within it. What Niedzviecki takes to be a positive, pro-active position – obsessive participation in mass culture – comes across more as an abject capitulation.

Niedzviecki fingers marketing for the squelching of individual expressiveness, not pop culture itself, but he doesn’t fully engage the increasing inseparability of the two. His other villains are pundits who drone on about how mass culture has debased and corrupted our society. The irony of these diatribes against the punditocracy is that Niedzviecki has become a one-stop pundit himself‚ speed-dialled whenever editors or producers need a soundbite on zines or underground culture.

Still, I’m glad We Want Some Too exists, to give the curious a footing around the ever-shifting ground of underground culture. Niedzviecki’s reasoning may be flawed, but his knowledge is beyond question and his passion quite contagious – which may be as important as airtight theorizing.