Artists of the Year

Hurricanes, war, avian flu, locust plagues, that annoying song you couldn't get out of your head. It wasn't the greatest of all possible years. Nor was it halfway decent. But to prove that it wasn't all bad, we asked 29 writers to rave about the ar

This past year, my son, who's four and a half, started to reveal a reasonable comprehension of song lyrics and an interest in singing along with them. This was problematic in a couple of ways. First, I'm just not terribly impressed with his command of pitch (put simply: it sucks), to say nothing of his phrasing, which rarely evinces a thorough grasp of the song's emotional complexity. Second, his increased sophistication has forced me to stop playing my more profane hip-hop and rock records around the house, at least while

he's awake. For now, I'm not so much protecting him as I am protecting myself. If, for instance, he were to say to one of his teachers, "Hey bitch! Wait'll you see my dick," the chorus from the Ying Yang Twins' brilliant and nasty single "Wait," the teacher would probably call us down for an emergency parent-teacher conference--never the best setting to discuss matters penile.

Now, when my kid is a teenager, he can listen to whatever the ball-sucking fuck he wants. I grew up during the PMRC hubbub and, later, the rise of gangsta rap. My parents, religious and not otherwise especially lenient, didn't restrict my listening or compel me to hide my N.W.A. or Guns N' Roses records, and for that I'm grateful. I have moral or political problems with a lot of my favorite music and books and movies, etc. One can spend a lifetime wrestling with that sort of ambivalence--that play is anti-Semitic, and yet it is also a great work of literature; that song has fucked-up ideas about women, and yet it has an amazing beat. Or one can reject the really problematic works. Given the choice, I go with ambivalence. Easier to say when you're not a Jewish woman, I suppose.

My ambivalence about the Ying Yang Twins' sexism or Sarah Silverman's comedic riffs on racism (see p. 21) stems partly from regular old private guilt, and partly from--I'm sheepish about even writing the following pompous, wheezing phrase--public concern. You're familiar with the standard line espoused at various times by Tipper Gore, Bill Clinton, Joe Lieberman, Bill Cosby, and John Ashcroft: All these movies and TV shows and rap albums and video games with their confounded sex and violence and profanity and degradation and other naughty stuff have a negative influence on society, especially on impressionable young people. This, I think, is true.

You might say that artists aren't obligated to be politically or morally correct. (I agree.) And they're just reflecting the crazy shit that's already out there. (I agree.) And at any rate that art shouldn't be censored. (I agree.) And that except for the head cases who would have problems anyway, kids can distinguish between fantasy and reality. (I sort of agree.) Besides, you might go on, what's worse, an untrustworthy, war-mongering government or a CD with swear words on it? (The first one.)

And yet all of those totally reasonable arguments dodge the core of the conservative argument. Let's say, for instance, that all those crunk hits in which the narrator comes on like a drill sergeant at a strip club--let's say these hits haven't had some sort of retrograde effect on gender relations. Let's also say that hyper-violent video games and movies haven't made some players more nonchalant about real-life killing. Let's further contend that loaded epithets dropped in song lyrics or comedy routines don't actually threaten or hurt people. Well, if all that is true, then all this art and pop-culture stuff is inert and doesn't mean anything. Which is to say the Philistines have won. If art doesn't have a negative influence on society, then neither does it have a positive influence on society. But of course it does--not because some of it sends messages of peace and love and understanding, but because some of it is good, and good art inspires people. It challenges and moves and enriches; it helps us form our identities and helps us get laid. Art, as the saying goes, is the stuff that makes life more interesting than art.

What follows is our annual Artists of the Year issue. As always, it's a collective argument that artists--some of them rich and famous; some of them locals who work regular jobs during the day--do matter. (In keeping with tradition, we begin with the folks around the corner and then head further afield.) Which isn't to say that I'm letting my kid watch Sarah Silverman tell ironic ethnic jokes. Not just yet, I mean. --Dylan Hicks


Off-Leash Area
By Quinton Skinner
There are moments when I consider conventional narrative theater to be, in fact, less faithful to reality than abstract works (perhaps because movies and television, ostensibly more synthetic forms, often offer more convincing simulacrums of the real). In the same way that dreams have their own ineffable logic, so does abstract theater depict the rough-and-tumble workings of the mind, both waking and otherwise. Off-Leash Area, composed of Jennifer Ilse and Paul Herwig, stepped vigorously into the realm of the unconscious in 2005, with three shows that combined an entirely distinctive visual aesthetic with assured movement and a spooky willingness to shine a spotlight on the realms where monsters threaten to disturb our cozy quotidian reality. In the spring they presented Psst! , based on the work of a Norwegian graphic novelist simply called Jason. This critic chafed at its length (ingrate), but it evocatively captured Jason's world, in which a proletarian protagonist (in a fantastic papier-mâché mask) battled numbing postindustrial life while fighting off dark forces to win his (deceased) lady love. Later in the year Off-Leash returned to its fallback theater space--their "2.5-car" garage--to produce a pair of original works that hauntingly drifted into the realms of madness. Ilse's choreography was crucial to Maggie's Brain, a show about a young woman beset with schizophrenia. It combined full-cast tableaus in which a girl's family painfully, tragically, saw a beloved daughter fading away before their eyes, with solo dance stretches in which Ilse depicted the horror, sadness, and fleeting inspiration of mental illness. Herwig starred in the follow-up, A Cupboard Full of Hate, in which he played a man who locked himself into his squalid room in order to better embrace his misanthropic madness. The set quite literally crawled with creepiness (unseen hands moved props to flip Herwig's wig), and Herwig's Franglais delivery gave us a character unable to embrace what transcendent beauty this mortal realm offers to us in our luckier moments. All three works managed a moving, almost uncanny tone that smartly depicted the bittersweet longing that tinges experience when we wake up on certain mornings, with a forgotten name on our tongue and a sensation that there is something to be done, if we could only remember what it was.

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