Artists of the Year

Makers who mattered in 1995

IAN BROWN

by Sarah Vowell

I'm irritated, believe me, that the best program on American public radio is the Canadian production "Sunday Morning." You'd think that red-blooded broadcasters from the land of Mark Twain and Muddy Waters would have a better grasp of agony and ecstasy than our squeaky-clean neighbors to the north. But all year long, on the same affiliates that otherwise serve up NPR's cold fish, the CBC program delivered potent versions of actual real life, from biblical wrath and suicidal guilt to brainy political analysis and the giddy pleasures of pop.

The program's host, Ian Brown, is artist of the year not because he maneuvered passionately through an international landscape of mystery novelists and wheat farmers and Led Zeppelin recordings, though he did just that. His ability to point out the window at the way things are makes him a good journalist--but it's his power to look inside his heart and call forth those unfashionable things called ideals that makes him a compelling artist.

An Anglo born and raised in Montreal, Brown's editorial on the eve of the Quebec referendum lurched back and forth between the personal (pee-wee hockey) and the world-historical (the French Revolution), turning into a swirling, desperate plea for the bilingual solidarity of his childhood, calling it "a decent, moral dream."

In this, the year when public discourse seemed hell-bent on replacing ideals only with the meanest sort of pathological goals, I drank coffee on Sunday mornings and let Citizen Brown remind me in a voice which wavered from glee to dread that there was still something to shoot for--something like the concept of Nation.

Sarah Vowell is a Chicago-based writer and a frequent contributor to City Pages.

PJ HARVEY

by Ivan Kreilkamp

In a year of trivial pleasures and annoyances alike, just about the only pop artist producing what felt to me like work of major significance was PJ Harvey. I can't think of a recent year with a more obvious choice for best album: To Bring You My Love (Island) has enough depth, richness and power to overwhelm any competition. I saw her give a disappointingly brief and subdued performance two years ago; this year
she vamped in stiletto heels with a topknot ponytail swaying from side to side in front of a pleated velvet curtain, hypnotizing an audience who weren't sure if she was the snake-charmer or the snake.

From the title track through "C'Mon Billy" to "Send His Love to Me," To Bring You My Lovebears witness to an emotional state born of intense longing and deprivation that most modern pop music won't touch with a 10-foot pole. Harvey's decision not to play guitar on this album is a significant loss, but she's turned her voice into an instrument of equal power and versatility: witness the guttural snarls of "Long Snake Moan"; the melancholy, brooding "Teclo"; the urgent pleading of "Send His Love to Me." Suffused in the blues sound of guitar and Hammond organ and in imagery of blood, water, birth, desire, To Bring You My Loveis a gospel album in honor of some forgotten diety.

Ivan Kreilkamp is a writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

TODD HAYNES

by Rob Nelson

I FIRST HEARD of Todd Haynes about four years ago, when he was cast as "The Queer and Dangerous Artist" for a network morning-show segment about the NEA dilemma. Paired onscreen with some pro-censorship/anti-NEA blowhard, and patronized by a host catering to the phobias of middle America, Haynes played against type by speaking gently and intelligently about Poison, his NEA-financed, Jean Genet-inspired meditation on stigma, struggle, cruelty, and difference. Who was the monstrous Other here? The blowhard ranted predictably about how taxpaying Americans shouldn't be funding movies that feature gay sex, no matter how artsy-fartsy the context; the filmmaker argued in favor of his voice by remaining as modest and calm as his film was audacious, angry, and "offensive."

This year, Haynes addressed the masses again with Safe. And again he fucked with expectations by treating the gravest of subjects--disease, depression, environmental decay--with a bitter tonic of formal restraint. Generically, Safe was a disease-of-the-week soaper crossed with a women's picture, yet by subverting both forms, it proved resistant to ad-copy raves and word-of-mouth pigeonholing: a sure sign of greatness, and the commercial kiss of death. Sure enough, when the film came out in mid-summer, the art-house crowd who flocked to formulaic drivel like The Usual Suspects stayed away in droves. There was no catharsis in Haynes's film. The heroine, Carol White (Julianne Moore), was a timid bourgeois homemaker who, diagnosed with environmental illness, seemed incapable of confronting the true sources of her condition: patriarchy and capitalism. And her climactic "victory" was even darker than death. Carol's eventual safe haven at a chemical-free retreat center resembled nothing so much as a bomb shelter, a place to disengage from the world while reciting uselessly comforting New Age clichés.

When I talked to Haynes around the time of Safe's release, he said that he placed his own hope for Carol in the middle of the film, when she's slumped in bed, staring at the symbols of her privilege and oppression, and wondering aloud, "Where am I?" No other filmmaker this year dared to pose such a vital, disruptive, or potentially empowering question. Indeed, we ought to wonder where we are at a time when expressions of pain are made to seem unnatural; when optimism-based methods of healing threaten to make us even sicker; when conditioned laziness has supplanted political energy; when placating "art" diverts attention from acting up; and when the supposed freedom of technology ends up relegating us to various plastic bubbles. By making a movie in which wasted lives are symptoms of a much larger disease, Todd Haynes singlehandedly cured the American cinema in 1995.

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