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

Georgia Brown, former film reviewer for the Village Voice, lives in Italy and sees few movies.

 

Martha Cooper
By Jeff Chang
In 2005, hip-hop feminists protested reactionary hip-hop media, organized a historic academic conference at the University of Chicago, published a record number of scholarly works, and, best of all, unleashed the unforgettable "B-Girl Be" Celebration at Intermedia Arts. So let's give it up for the forgotten mothers of hip hop--for Cindy Campbell, without whom DJ Kool Herc would have had no parties to play; for Lady Pink, who put it on the train for future waves of female aerosol artists; and for Martha Cooper, the photographer through whose eyes many of us not born in the Bronx saw hip hop for the first time.

Born in 1943, Cooper started shooting not long after she started walking. Precocious and adventurous, she graduated from Grinnell College at age 19 and enlisted in the Peace Corps, then traveled across Asia and Europe on a motorcycle, like Che across South America. One picture tells the story: There she is in Cambodia, circa 1964, wearing a sensible white blouse and dark skirt, beaming a ready-for-the-world grin next to a bloody red graffito that reads, "U.S. Go Home!"

By the late '70s, she was in the Bronx and Brooklyn capturing the neighborhood youth movement that would become known as hip hop. Those eye-burning photos were collected in Hip-Hop Files: Photographs 1979-1984, published late last year. Another classic photo shows Pink and fellow spray-can star Mare sitting in the heavily tagged bathroom of the High School of Art & Design, looking restless, possessed, and cherubic.

This year, Cooper and writer Nika Kramer set off around the world to document women and girl breakdancers, moving from Rotterdam to Honolulu to Los Angeles, and culminating their journey with the B-Girl Be event. We can now see what they saw in their book We B*Girlz. The pictures may prove as influential on today's teenage girls as Cooper's early '80s photos were to us. Most of Cooper and Kramer's subjects are smiling as they rock. And why shouldn't they? The world is theirs.

Jeff Chang is the author ofCan't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (St. Martin's Press, 2005). He lives in Berkeley, California.

 

Jonathan Safran Foer
By Melissa Maerz
There's a visualization game psychologists advise for patients who are afraid to fly: Do not try to tell yourself, "This plane will not crash." Ask yourself, "What if it doesn't?"

Imagination isn't just a vehicle for fear--it's sometimes the only escape from it. Which is why, when his father dies in the World Trade Center on September 11, Oskar Schell, the nine-year-old hero of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, doesn't search for an explanation. Instead, he invents more questions: What if New York was outfitted with extra-long ambulances so that as soon as you got into one, you'd already be at the hospital? What if, instead of flying in an airplane, you could wear a birdseed suit and pigeons could carry you to your destination? What if there was a skyscraper that could retract below the ground like an elevator to protect it from passing planes? There's a deeper fear hidden in those words, too. Not What if we could have done something to prevent September 11 from happening? but What if, because itdid happen, we can no longer create open-ended What ifs?

How ironic, then, that Foer's own passionate question mark of a book was panned in the New York Times for broaching the Tragedy That Dare Not Speak Its Name without offering any answers. For proposing that the very process of creating fiction--which all of us, authors, daydreamers, and hypochondriacs, go through--might itself be the best way of coping. Contemplating Oskar's precociousness in a different article, Times scribe Deborah Solomon wrote, "Some dreams are so romantic that they're destined to failure." I suppose that's Foer's problem, too. He's written a gorgeous mess of ideas, filled with the kinds of things only a 28-year-old wunderkind posing as a 9-year-old protagonist can convey: too-great ambitions, semi-naive insights, doomed brainstorming sessions. And something that, like Foer's novel, is beautiful precisely because it's often unrealistic: hope.

Melissa Maerz is associate editor atSpin.

 

Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown
By Ernest Hardy
Never doubt the rewards of backdoor entry. When Bravo first signed Bobby Brown, crack-mouth and all, to do a reality series, 100 percent of the people who took notice scratched their heads and went WTF? The dethroned "kang of R&B" had long ago devolved into a cultural curio, a tepid punch line to jokes told by the witless and the tardy. But his tabloid-magnet wife--fallen Queen of Pop, the amateur-hour paragon before Mariah claimed that spot, was the real coup. The resulting show earned the duo a Tackiest Couple nod from a scandal rag, while viewers and critics deemed the show a hypnotic car crash. Bobby emerged as a loveable, beleaguered husband and father, while Whitney played the role of spoiled, narcissistic bitch to the hilt. And yet Whitney--erratic, jumpy, and other terms that for legal reasons I cannot use--is the one I love.

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