Artists of the Year
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
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.
Quinton Skinner is a novelist and the theater critic at City Pages.
Ant (Anthony Davis)
By Peter S. Scholtes
The best scene in Walk the Line, the scene that kids will remember when they're finding their own voices as adults, is the one where Johnny Cash auditions at Sun Studios with a shaky rendition of a gospel tune, "I Was There When It Happened," and producer Sam Phillips turns him down mid-song. That stuff doesn't sell, Phillips says. People want something honest, something felt. If you got hit by a truck and you only had time to sing one song before you died, what would it be? Played dry as ice by Dallas Roberts, this is a Sam Phillips we've never seen before, a subdued, unsmiling mercenary instead of the inspirational whirlwind of old interview footage and Peter Guralnick books. He signals his approval only with a glint in his eyes, once Joaquin Phoenix's Cash, looking a little like an alien breathing oxygen for the first time, saves the audition by leading his trio through an impromptu performance of "Folsom Prison Blues."
Who knows whether Minneapolis hip-hop producer Ant has the same effect on rappers he works with--one of whom, Brother Ali, covers Cash's "A Boy Named Sue." Who knows whether everyone walked into Sun Studios a country boy and walked out a bad motherfucker. (The anecdote is at least half apocryphal: Cash didn't play "Folsom," but Phillips supposedly told him, "Go home and sin, and then come back with a song I can sell.'') All we really have is the evidence of our ears, and the evidence of the liner notes. This year, for Ant, these included his own cool DJ mix CD, Melodies and Memories 85-89, and production credits on three great albums in collaboration with rappers: Murs and Slug on Felt 2: A Tribute to Lisa Bonet; Slug under the name Atmosphere on You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having; and I Self Devine on Self Destruction--all issued by the local label Rhymesayers. The latter two are exactly what Sam Phillips demanded: Self's "Can't Say Nothing Wrong" is a tribute to something realer than Lisa Bonet, a love song for women struggling with their own youth and kids, and shit jobs and groceries on the bus. Atmosphere's "Pour Me Another" is a tribute to addiction and the ultimate funky wallow. (It meets the oncoming truck with a smile.)
For one track, Ant provided ancient reggae and gurgling wah-wah guitar. For the other, a descending piano line. But if the role of producer is mysterious, the role of hip-hop impresario is doubly so. Working with other people's lyrics, assembling other people's long-ago-recorded music, Ant's art is ultimately harder to pin down than his live DJing (he stepped out of the studio this year to tour as a DJ with Atmosphere for the first time since they formed a decade ago). I don't know why "Smart Went Crazy" makes me feel like my smarts are going crazy, its disembodied guitar squeal meeting a sampled "Yeah!" over and over like a face to a slap, before ending in a harmonica shuffle that could be straight off an old Sun side. All I know is that I want to go home and sin.
Peter S. Scholtes is a staff writer at City Pages.
Noah Bremer and Jon Ferguson with the Live Action Set
By Caroline Palmer
Making theater about life during wartime presents a delicate balancing act for director and performer alike. Dwelling too long on death and destruction leads to a shell-shocked audience, but excessive levity seems inappropriate, disrespectful. This summer Live Action Set teamed up with performer Noah Bremer and director Jon Ferguson to create Please Don't Blow Up Mr. Boban, an original work about a café in the middle of a battle zone. Performed at the Soap Factory during the Fringe Festival (with a second run at the Loring Playhouse this fall), the show captured the extremes of humanity one would expect to encounter in such a situation: It asked tough questions and featured moments of haunting terror, but it also offered moments of sweet humor and exceptional grace.
Performed in the round, with many of the actors assuming multiple roles, the show was about Mr. Boban, a café owner portrayed by the immensely likable and physically elastic Bremer, who effortlessly inserted clowning into his performance. His antic interactions at the beginning of the show with the equally winning Robert Haarmon provided a poignant contrast to the darker moments to come. I was too stunned at the end of this show to clap immediately. The sadness of the final scene was overwhelming, and it took a moment to recover--and then jump to my feet. Ultimately this was a performance about how life can be affirmed, even celebrated, in the midst of adversity. Many who have survived such experiences have done so by relying on their wit and clinging to their humanity, even in the smallest ways. Please Don't Blow Up Mr. Boban beautifully illustrated this potential while at the same time realistically portraying the horror and absurdity of war.
Caroline Palmer is a Minneapolis attorney and regular contributor to City Pages.
By Karl Raschke
There's an image that's been stuck in my head since I first saw it last May. It's a little painting called Asian Girl by Ryan Sweere. It's part of a series of pictures he's been making since 2002 of people riding the bus. The paintings all share a hazy quality that replicates the glazed-over, don't-talk-to-me look that's so common in close public quarters. For the series, Sweere has situated himself within the crowd so viewers get images from unconventional angles--the backs of heads, feet jutting out into the aisle. The emphasis is on body language.
In Asian Girl we see the subject in profile. She's sitting in the sideways seats at the front of an MTC bus holding the pole in front of her with her arms and legs extended, leaning way back. The lines are soft. The colors are muted blues and greens except for her warm skin tones and the orange and tan of a rectangular panel that blocks our view of the bus driver's seat. She's alone in the frame and seems lost in a slow reverie.
The anonymity of the subjects in this series and the pictures' generic titles (Blind Woman, Man in Athletic Shoes) belie Sweere's close attention to the posture and gestures that make each of his subjects unique. The paintings ask a simple but important question: When does the person sitting next to you on the bus change from faceless and anonymous to individual and human? Does it take a Hurricane Katrina-sized tragedy to flip that switch and make you empathize, or can something smaller do it?
Karl Raschke is a Minneapolis photographer and musician.
By Rod Smith
Anyone who insists that literary fiction is somehow more worthy than its genre-based counterparts needs to be neutered and put in a home. Even at its most middling, the latter is fast, fun, full of ideas, and perfectly receptive to any displays of brilliance--technical or otherwise--that don't impede the story. Exhibit A: Anansi Boys. Neil Gaiman's first book for the voting-age set since 2001's award-hogging American Gods happyslaps narrative Newtonian mechanics every bit as soundly as Finnegan's Wake, and with a lot more laughs. Manners, errors, horrors, critters--the novel is a comedy of all the above and more--including (but not limited to) romance and limes.
While in Florida for his estranged father's funeral, Londoner Charles "Fat Charlie" Nancy--a nebbishy bookkeeper with modest expectations and a virgin fiancée--learns that said paternal embarrassment generator and intransigent lech was West African trickster/spider god Anansi incarnate. As the revelation sets Nancy's life to unraveling, Gaiman folds fantasy, horror, and myth into a Hollywood-grade mélange of mistaken identity and conflicting agendas with a chemist's precision.
More importantly, the writer treats plot, places, and people as permeable entities, peppering the action with traditional Anansi tales while letting character traits seep among his inventions like nitrous oxide. Rooms shrink and grow. The dead dance among the living. While Nancy's first trip to the divine realm (the end of the world or its beginning, depending on how you look at it) requires a whole lot of hoodoo on the part of four Caribbean dowagers, the barrier between worlds later becomes as impenetrable as a bead curtain. Despite Gaiman's claims regarding its lightness, Anansi Boys stands as a delectable show of force--hilarious, heartwarming, harrowing, and profound--sometimes all at once.
Rod Smith is a Minneapolis writer and a frequent contributor to City Pages.
By Georgia Brown
Jonathan Nossiter's Mondovino raised the hackles of not a few people. The hyper camera made them seasick. Zoom, zoom, over the shoulder, under the desk, off to sniff some doggie's behind. Frisky, merry, nosy--a lens with the curiosity of a puppy. And not deferential, no--not respectful at all. Realize, there are very important personages in the mondo of vino--real aristocrats like the Antinoris and Frescobaldis, appointed ones like the family Mondavi or king of wine critics Robert Parker. There are reputations to burnish (or at least to protect), faces to flatter.
Nossiter is not in awe. Some accuse him of tricking his hosts--those who bestow precious time, trusting the flattery (e.g., heavy editing) that has always followed in the past. So, yes, in this sense they were tricked. For who was to expect a real reporter? Who knew, for that matter, that there were real reporters left in the world? ("You really get a better picture of people being themselves instead of trying to act like they're themselves."--A. Warhol.)
Besides being fearless, Nossiter is a true democrat--in the way that Dickens or Balzac were democrats on the page. He treats the wealthy and powerful as if they are on a par with laborers in the vines. He seems convinced that all of us, high and low, are mere characters--frail, foible-plagued players, foolish and dignified in turn, inhabiting for our brief moments the vast human comedy.
Skipping nimbly between France, California, Italy, and South America (Nossiter himself speaks all the languages), Mondovino rolls out in a series of glorious vignettes (French word that comes from vine) that I wish could go on and on. If the movie undercuts pretense, mystification, posturing, its heart is in what it loves. What it loves, of course, is wine--which it presents as a beverage that even poor people drink. It loves the earth that gives us wine, and wants desperately to preserve the earth's wonderful variety. It loves earthy people, some of whom actually work on their own land and grow the grapes that have grown on that land in the past. (And the earthy people, wouldn't you know, are far more gifted at expression than the people from the palazzos.) Finally, the movie loves dogs, giving over a subplot (call it Mondocane) to celebrate dogs high and low, pedigreed and mutt. Although the prizes go to the mutts.
Georgia Brown, former film reviewer for the Village Voice, lives in Italy and sees few movies.
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 of Can'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 it did 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 at Spin.
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.
Nowadays, jury-rigged pop stars coo plastic endearments to fans while seeking 24-hour coverage, and rap stars feign hardness but have custard centers. Whitney really and truly does not give a fuck. In one episode, Bobby says that he became a singer because he loves people and wants them to love him. "My wife ain't the same," he laughs. Her gift might be tethered to a lot of dark and dysfunctional poles, but it ain't attached to a need for your emotional validation. In Whitney's view, you put down your money, you get the CD or the movie, and that's the end of the transaction. If you run up on her when she's naked in a spa, asking for the autographs you just received to also be dated so your friends will know when you got them, you pretty much deserve the "Bitch, please" face.
So set aside the relentless misrepresentation of what unfolded onscreen, how, for instance, countless articles and bloggers tsk-tsked Whitney for telling how Bobby gave her an impromptu enema--doodie bubble, y'all--when in truth, it was Bobby who told the story while a clearly embarrassed Whitney waved her arms to shut him up. Consider instead that at the core of the show--a combative, fucked-up relationship in the standard, sneering judgment--is in fact a depiction of genuine affection. Bobby and Whitney are that 'hood couple who will fight in the street, kicking each other's asses up and down the block, pulling knives and cracking bottles to improvise shanks, and then turn around and cut the shit out of anyone who threatens or harms their man/woman. After Bobby tells the doodie bubble tale, Whitney mockingly growls, "Now, that's black love." Naw, it's just love. I cannot wait for the DVD extras.
Ernest Hardy's Blood Beats, a collection of interviews, essays, and reviews from the last 10 years, will be published by Red Bone Press in April of 2006.
By Stephen Burt
Poetry should startle, puzzle, worship, provoke, inquire, pray, denounce, think, propose, complain, and console, but it's not often you find one poet whose work can do all of those things. When you do, it's likely to be some towering giant of the Canonical Past. But there is one among us who has done all these things with words. Donald Revell started out in the 1980s as the gloomiest of all cosmopolitan Gusses, giving gunmetal-gray life to citified angst. Theory and practice succumbed to one another's weary frailties in his intricate sentences: "In the needle's eye,/or selling what you own at the strait gate,/who will know how to kiss you and just when/to pull the hair at your neck and say your name?" From such a spectacularly sad, effective distaste, halfway between late Wallace Stevens and late Hüsker Dü, Revell retreated into puzzles, hermetic codes, strenuous would-be magical spells: "The soul is a nest./The soul catches the wind/between numerals." The short, hard stanzas of his mid-'90s odes suggest computer programs written by Emily Dickinson, or alchemical charms suspended in ice.
Yet Revell has recently written some of the warmest, happiest, clearest good poems of 21st-century America: "The work of poetry is trust...I find my eyes find/Numberless good things." Revell has virtually become his own opposite. His newest lines reflect a happy second marriage, enthusiastic fatherhood, serious faith, and the wide-open warmth of the Southwest, where he now lives: "anything short of Heaven as I get older/Is Hell, smoke settled in a hollow, and the hollow/Myself in the deserts I truly love." The new poems, collected along with all the best of the old in Revell's 2005 career-spanning volume, Pennyweight Windows: New & Selected Poems (Alice James Books), remind me of James Wright, of music by the Postal Service and Low, of the most beautiful diary in the world: Its desert-burnished gems await you now.
Stephen Burt chairs the English department at Macalester College; his new book of poems, Parallel Play, comes out on Greywolf Press in February 2006.
By Rob Nelson
Jenni Olson's experimental documentary sets itself the challenge--modest yet monumental--of persuading us to live. The funny thing--not so funny, really--is that The Joy of Life is drenched in sadness and suffused with thoughts of death, including the sense of how easily it comes to us when we call.
The film comprises two distinct but complementary halves whose voice-over narration is wedded to long, stationary shots of a hauntingly vacant San Francisco. In the first, we hear a lonely woman confessing her lust for companionship, her insecurities intensified as one girlfriend after another loses interest and leaves. In the second, we hear the same woman, seemingly drawn into a dangerous liaison with the city itself, discussing the contested politics of the Golden Gate Bridge, its low railings apparently designed to dramatize our potentially lethal desire for grandeur. (At least 1,300 people--including a dear friend of Olson's--have killed themselves by jumping from the bridge. The film has helped compel the Golden Gate's board of directors to reconsider modifying the architecture for safety.)
Like the most famous of San Francisco films, Olson's vertiginous provocation is about two kinds of falling--falling in love and falling to ruin--and the dizzying connections between them. It's also a treasure trove of paradoxes: For one thing, The Joy of Life takes its name from an old cigarette ad seen gleaming from the side of a building that looks about to collapse; for another, it seeks community in part by making one of the most densely populated of U.S. cities appear desolate, out of time. Olson has estimated that 30 percent of her film's images contain elements that no longer exist--a figure that's certain to rise in accordance with the fate of any film (or any thing).
Lovingly shot in the half-dead format of 16mm (and transferred, ambivalently, to high-def video), The Joy of Life gently reflects on the dual function of cinema: to preserve the past while foretelling the present's imminent demise. Like a master hypnotist, Olson (a native of Minnesota) coaxes us into slowing our frenzied pace, into meditating at the sight of tree branches and telephone wires or a bridge over water--nature and culture staring each other down, daring one another to survive. This is a small, simple film with the rare ability to alter one's brain chemistry, to enhance one's perceptions of the world. Or so it can under the right circumstances, i.e., projected on a big screen in a darkened room for a gathering of strangers--another joy of life that feels at grave risk of falling away.
Rob Nelson is film editor at City Pages.
By Britt Robson
My ego wanted to make an unconventional choice for Artist of the Year. Someone like Ministry's Alain Jourgensen, whose Rantology has become my go-to anti-Bush colonic when torture and wiretapping suffuse the news. Or 87-year-old Bebo Valdes, whose Bebo de Cuba may be the most sublime swath of Afro-Cuban music I've ever heard.
But 2005 belongs to Kanye West, and not just because he was perhaps the only artist with enough stones and eminence to call out the president on national network television. "George Bush doesn't care about black people," was, in the aftermath of Katrina, both patently obvious and something that needed to be said.
But almost everyone forgets that a few sentences earlier, West had indicted his own hypocrisy when it came to caring for Katrina's victims. It gets in the way of the pervasive critical thumbnail view that West is laden with hubris. Deep into its own midlife crisis, the September Spin essentially called him an uppity nigga in a hilariously conflicted review (graded B+!) of Late Registration, the disc I played and enjoyed the most in 2005. Even the rave reviews couldn't bring themselves to say that Late was every bit as good as last year's spectacular College Dropout. But history will.
Hubristic compared to whom: Jay-Z? Ludacris? Nelson Mandela? His few battle rhymes on Late are spit with the vigor of LL Cool J on Prozac, and most of the allusions to his recent success are delivered with a "pinch me I'm dreamin'" vibe. So his "arrogance" must be his willingness to get dirty wading into messy issues of race and class. "Gold Digger" is gleefully misogynistic and then gleefully isn't. "Diamonds from Sierra Leone" is both a PC scold and a bling-tastic rave-up. "Crack Music" jumbles a paranoid conspiracy theory, a downward spiral of racial self-hatred, commercial sellouts, and political redemption. "Roses" contrasts the successful AIDS treatments that iconic baller Magic Johnson can afford with West's poor grandmother dying in a hospital bed because "she was just a secretary who worked for the church for 35 years." And at the end of the skit-series "Broke Phi Broke," Kanye's kicked out of the frat for owning a new pair of shoes.
With an assist from co-producer Jon Brion, the music on Late Registration is more gloriously complex than the lyrics, opening up fresh facets on each new listen, like a Rubik's Disco Ball. West scours the crates for seamlessly simpatico Gil Scott-Heron, Etta James, and Curtis Mayfield samples; invites Nas, Jay-Z, Maroon 5's Adam Levine, and a dozen other notables to the party; and enlists a full complement of strings and brass.
Next year the critics will be saying that his new platter can't top the last two. I suggest he call it Extra Credit.
Britt Robson is a senior editor at City Pages.
By Greil Marcus
A banner headline in the San Francisco Chronicle, January 14, 2001:
ASHCROFT: "I'LL ALLOW BLACK ABORTIONS"
Bush's Attorney General Nominee Meets Halfway
Nominee's openness to compromise shows that Bush's promise of a new era of bipartisanship is heartfelt.
Don Asmussen is not a political cartoonist; he's the Chronicle's twice-weekly comic-strip artist, and in 2005, in the strip now called Bad Reporter--you can find it archived at sfgate.com--all the stops came out. There were times when you could feel him going through a period where nothing connected, when his outrage was blocked, when his favorite--i.e., most loathed--'70s bands stopped playing in his head, and then it all came back in a rush, for weeks on end. As with "The Bottom of the Seventh Seal," where the Angel of Death and/or Retirement comes for Barry Bonds. Bonds's trainer tells the slugger to challenge the Scythe-man to chess; losing to Bonds's superpowered right arm, the Angel subpoenas both Bonds and God. "God almighty," says a government lawyer, "did you use the clear to help you during your triumphs over evil?" "I'm not here to talk about the past," the Big Man says. "Make sure my son is in the picture," says Bonds, at God's right, his arm around his cute kid. "Mine, too," says God, holding up a three-foot Jesus on a stick.
Nobody ever smiles in an Asmussen strip; everyone is keeping a straight face in the presence of absolute absurdity. As a few weeks ago, with this shock headline: "KANSAS VOTES 4-1 TO ALLOW INTELLIGENT DESIGN." But it's the group, not the state, and somehow that's infinitely, or perhaps the word is transcendently, worse, or creepier, or simply more: "1970s Rock Band Now Says We're All More Than Just 'Dust in the Wind.'" "Scientists Warn Against Calling 1970s Rock Anthems 'Science,'" reads a follow-up story. "Only Foreigner's 'Cold as Ice' Holds Up." (They were an infinitely, or transcendently, better band.)
Asmussen fills his strips with caricatures, photos, collages--the panels are busy, they move fast, and when they work they are so close to the front page you can forget what you're looking at. When he hits dead air, it's painful, because when he scores it's like a bomb going off in your head.
Maybe because he's working in a daily newspaper, Asmussen's work translates effortlessly. What he puts on the page is no different from Lawrence Wilkerson, chief of staff for Colin Powell when Powell was secretary of state, calling Dick Cheney "a moron, an idiot, or a nefarious bastard" in a November interview with the Associated Press--or stating the next day, in an interview with the Guardian in London, that Cheney may himself be guilty of terrorism for affirming the right to torture. You read this, in black and white, on newsprint, or on your computer screen. Has this man lost his mind? you say, not because you necessarily think anything Wilkerson is saying is crazy, but because you know it's crazy to think that any such words work in mainstream media discourse as anything other than evidence of dementia. With Asmussen, fooling around on the back page of the entertainment section, you just supply the smile he doesn't permit the faces in his strip, and go about your business, confident that all's right with the world, that it's other people who are nuts.
Greil Marcus's The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice will be published next fall by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
By Keith Harris
Mustachioed, bug-eyed, and slavering, Gogol Bordello frontman Eugene Hutz revels in a Gypsy stereotype that hasn't haunted American pop culture since the heyday of classic Universal horror flicks. To paranoid nativists, of course, them swarthy types all look alike, and even with the volume set on a neighborly three or four, the frenzied Balkan rock of Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike would keep Lou Dobbs awake till dawn. "I am a foreigner/And I'm walking through your streets," Hutz declares with playful menace, casually spotlighting the sketchy side of the neo-liberal dream, where porous borders and unchartable immigrant undesirables are the price "we" pay for the easy transfer of capital.
Plenty of off-white cosmopolitans are floating similar boats: Sri Lankan art-rad Maya Arulpragasam (M.I.A.) tweaks images of third-world insurgency, Algerian rai dervish Rachid Taha invokes fears of skeevy Eurotrash lasciviousness. But Hutz integrates these twin strands of postcolonial pop into a rollicking vision of dark-skinned loudmouths who penetrate Western cities and Western daughters alike, and he parties harder than either. When it comes to cross-cultural mix-and-match, after all, Gypsies were proto-pomo long before anyone in the Third World or the Bronx, and Gogol Bordello anchors an NYC immigrant scene intent on unraveling the seams of Middle Eastern and Balkan culture already stitched into hip hop and jazz.
There's a melancholy undertow to this blare of accordions and violins, reflecting an awareness that, as Hutz puts it, "Nobody learn no nothin' from no history." But there's a breakneck drive, too, a two-step thrash of fierce determination that threatens to collapse into drunken anarchy. Eugene Hutz claims the future in the name of all mongrels and mutts for whom racial, cultural, and national purity haven't been an option in generations. Then he grabs your girlfriend's ass.
Keith Harris is a Philadelphia-based writer and a frequent contributor to City Pages.
By David Ng
"You disturb me to the point of insanity. There. I am insane now." --Mike Meyers as Dieter, SNL's East German film critic
Director Michael Haneke was never a guest on Dieter's show "Sprockets." Yet the Austrian mega-auteur, best known for such unsmiling Euro-cinema award magnets as The Piano Teacher and Time of the Wolf, would've been a dream interviewee. Like Dieter, Haneke is pale, perpetually black-clad, and arguably "pretentious." His fashionably bleak films typically catalogue the slow, bloody unraveling of a bourgeois family. In his latest movie, Caché (Hidden), a literary journalist (Daniel Auteuil) receives anonymous surveillance tapes detailing his daily life. The videocassettes gradually expose a childhood memory that threatens to bring his domestic semi-existence to a brutal end. To which Dieter might enthuse: "Your agony is beautiful!"
Haneke's movies are so recognizably chilly that they constantly flirt with self-parody, which may be where they derive much of their destabilizing power. Is he joking? If so, who's the joke on--his pathetic characters? Or us? An über-Hanekian masterpiece, Caché bundles the director's usual elements (a sterile E.U. megalopolis, cloudy weather, actors in a bad mood) together with salient obsessions from his past films: Code Unknown's simmering racial hostilities, Funny Games' comic sadism, and Benny's Video's media-induced aggressions. The result is both grim and maliciously humorous.
Though it opens in most of the U.S. this January, Caché debuted in France three weeks before the country's November riots, serving as a prescient warning of the Western world's colonial sins coming home to roost. The reverse-snob detractors who snicker at Haneke's grave worldview are finding themselves oddly speechless in the face of such horrific real-life corroboration. "Did you mean for me to scream?" Mike Meyer's Dieter was fond of asking his guests. Haneke would probably say no, and then slice his host's jugular in one swift stroke.
David Ng is a New York-based writer and a frequent contributor to City Pages.
By Nate Patrin
If professional wrestling is a vulgar art, it's also one of the most difficult professions in entertainment. It requires that rare combination of iron-man athleticism and rock-star charisma, plus a Buddhistic tolerance for pain. You have to be willing to get tossed around like a rag doll and wake up with seriously aching joints every morning. You have to pull off a nonstop in-ring performance in one take, usually with a fair deal of improvisation. Oh, and sometimes you have to bleed copiously out of your forehead.
Eddie Guerrero, who died in a Minneapolis hotel room in November of 2005, mastered all those things. He was especially strong during the last four years of his life, after kicking the addiction to the painkillers, drugs, and alcohol that would eventually enact their toll on his heart. Guerrero was one of the WWE's biggest stars, a charismatic veteran who emphasized his Latino background and his wrestling family history. His spectacular high-flying techniques followed the model of his father, Gory Guerrero, who worked alongside Mexican icon El Santo in the '50s and '60s and brought the agile, acrobatic lucha libre style to an international audience.
And nobody worked both sides of wrestling's hero/villain divide better. As a fan favorite, Guerrero could get thousands of kids in Little Rock to cheer the phrase "Viva la Raza," boo his Latino-mocking enemies (like John Bradshaw Layfield, a caricature of a Texas neocon millionaire) and applaud his clever underhandedness. Often he would get his opponents disqualified by slamming a steel chair against the mat while the ref wasn't looking, ditch the chair, drop to the canvas, and make it look like he'd been clocked one.
And when he was a detestable asshole, it transcended the gonna-kick-your-ass platitudes of pro wrestling cliché and skewed closer to Robert Mitchum: During his feud with longtime friend and rival Rey Mysterio, he'd send manic, furious threats to Rey's children to "take away your daddy" one week; the next week he'd simply stand in the ring, staring with pure hatred at Mysterio's purloined mask--silent, seething, for minutes on end--before simply dropping it to the ground and grinding it under his foot like a spent cigarette.
You could say that Guerrero was wrestling's Bruce Lee: a man who mastered and revolutionized his art, spread its cultural heritage, and then left us too soon. And there wasn't a damn thing fake about him.
Nate Patrin is a St. Paul writer and a frequent contributor to City Pages.
By Jim Walsh
Much was made about how the media took "the gloves off" in the wake of Katrina, but this emergency quintuple heart bypass surgery survivor and first-time father never had 'em on. As early as 2000, he was calling George W. Bush "a colossal boob" and doing Daily Show-like send-ups of news clips accompanied by cracks like "If they don't hook this guy up to a polygraph soon, something is wrong." To boot, he laughs at his own bad jokes, and goes out into the audience and gets a kick out of "real" folks as much as whoever's sitting next to him.
This was the year that Warhol's "cult of celebrity" reached a new zenith, wherein everyone and their blogging/recording/publishing cousin created a See What I Did miasma in which we all beg for time, attention, links, ratings, and feedback, but Letterman doesn't give a fuck if you change the channel or go to bed--a refreshing combination of Mark E. Smith with his back to the audience and Studs Terkel with his mic at the ready. Witness Thanksgiving night, and the Top Ten List of "Things I, Dave, Am Thankful for This Year": "1. CBS keeps paying me, even though I gave up trying in 1997." That, ladies and gentlemen, is called freedom, the kind of don't-give-a-shititude that's irresistible to watch, and the kind that can bring down presidential poll numbers, if not presidents.
Jim Walsh is a staff writer at City Pages and author of the Walsh Files blog at www.walshfiles.com.
By Chuck Terhark
Craig Finn has a way of singing about life the way you want to remember living it. "When we hit the Twin Cities, I didn't know that much about it/I knew Mary Tyler Moore and I knew Profane Existence/I was keyed up," shouts the onetime Twin Cities indie rocker on Separation Sunday, the Hold Steady's 2005-defining sophomore album. I'm not sure how keyed up I was when I came to the Twin Cities from Fargo in 1998, but I was certainly as unfamiliar with it as Finn's protagonist was in that song. I knew Dillinger Four. I'd read Profane Existence. And I knew Lifter Puller, Finn's old band.
I also knew I hated them.
It was Finn's voice. That geek-chic bark. It hit my ears the way hard liquor hit my throat, and at 18 I had no tolerance for it. I was too busy holding my nose against Finn's nasal bravado to give his words a chance. The release of Separation Sunday in 2005 marked the first time I--and the rest of the world--gave in to the voice, loved it even, and finally started hearing Finn. Once I did, I swam in his addictive narratives until my foggy head was full of false memories of a Minneapolis teenhood I never had: riding packed downtown buses, hanging out at City Center, getting high by the Mississippi, tracking the rocky path from adolescent sex to adult salvation. The pseudo-sermons on Separation Sunday are complicated, compelling, and utterly convincing.
The lesson that rattled me most came in the months following the album's release, during which The New Yorker profiled Finn, Lost name-checked the Hold Steady, and critics from here to Japan plopped Separation Sunday on their year-end best-albums lists. Finn's favorite characters may be Minneapolis and St. Paul, but you don't have to be from the frozen northlands to hear yourself in his lyrics. When he sighs, "And the carpet at the Thunderbird has a burn for every cowboy that got fenced in," you don't have to have walked over those cigarette marks or bellied up alongside those hard, broken men to know that he's painting a scene of change, loss, and abandoned hopes. That's a story the whole world knows.
In the end, it's the story Finn isn't telling that really inspires this Midwestern boy. The one about real achievement, artistic resolve, victory over that which fences us in; in other words, his own. It'll make a great album. I can't wait to hear it.
Chuck Terhark is a Minneapolis writer and musician and a frequent contributor to City Pages.
By Jon Caramanica
I knew you were bright. But sly? Nope. Nothing in Election or About Schmidt prepared me for the sleight of film you pulled off in Sideways, casting your then-wife Sandra Oh as the movie's id.
See, you tipped your hand. Made her an object of desire because deep down you knew your grip was tenuous. Had her kick the stuffing out of Thomas Haden Church, hoping she'd get so lost in the moment that she wouldn't realize you were selling her down the river.
Because you were letting her go, right? On the red carpet for the Oscars this past February, you acted like she wasn't right next to you. The respectful, icy distance between you--it was stank.
How does the adage go, "Hate what you can't conquer"?
And now she's luminous. As Dr. Cristina Yang on the rookie medical dramedy Grey's Anatomy, Oh is a sparkplug. A dork. A temptress. The show's not named for her, but it should be. Ellen Pompeo's a punching bag. Katherine Heigl's a pageant-y blank. Even resident cad Dr. Karev sees it: "Yang's hot!" Not the first hot nerd on TV, but certainly the most vigorous in her overachieving, the least preoccupied with presentation. In other words, the most certain. She owns it.
Sure, she's getting her emotional comeuppance at the hands of the alarmingly even-keeled Dr. Burke, but she's melting nicely. It's a long way from the forcible quirkiness of Arli$$. A long way from Canada and ballet dancing.
And a long way from you. It hurts, I know, watching her hit her stride while you puzzle your way out of Nebraska. Sideways was about your fundamental inability to evolve, wasn't it? Your fretful clinging to critical remove while the world threatened cataclysmic climate change.
And so there she is, scampering barefoot across the screen, revealed. Hate to say it, man, but she's with us now.
Jon Caramanica writes about music and television for the New York Times, Spin, and the Village Voice.
David Mitchell and Robert Webb
By Lindsey Thomas
One of my biggest fears is that the future will bring a pill or potion or evolutionary advancement that will allow other people to hear my thoughts. Then everyone will know about my stupid internal ramblings, like my other biggest fear: that one day I'll be taking a shower and the wood secretly rotting beneath my bathroom floor will give way, dropping me naked and, if I'm lucky, dead, into the retail store below my apartment.
David Mitchell and Robert Webb's characters on Peep Show are living my nightmare. The British comedy follows two mismatched roommates and offers viewers a look, or "peep" if you will, at the inner workings of their heads, complete with silly anxieties and faulty logic. Mark, an awkward office drone played by Mitchell, attempts to flirt with a co-worker, which never fails to end in excruciating embarrassment. Webb's Jeremy, a marginally smoother but unambitious musician, pities his inept buddy. His sense of superiority isn't quite justified, though--his own crush has offered up nothing more than some trouble with her ex-husband and an introduction to a dish soap-selling pyramid scheme.
Like The Office, the show revels in uncomfortable comedy, but Peep Show has a lower cringe factor, maybe because no one's quite as disgusted with Mark and Jeremy as they are with themselves. Example: Mark scolds a man for using the elevator to travel only one floor. When the man exits with a limp, Mark thinks, Oh. They should make people like that wear stickers or something. They have them for their cars--oh, good idea, Adolph! It's a sitcom staple to follow the disastrous results of an ill-conceived idea, but rarely have the errant thinkers been so neurotically, self-loathingly human. Even when entertaining thoughts too offensive for even the most secure diary, these guys are sympathetic--their paranoia and self-doubt are extreme (this is comedy, after all), but we recognize it. For those of us who frequently find ourselves thinking, What the hell is wrong with me?, Mitchell and Webb's creations aren't just hilarious, they're reassuring.
Lindsey Thomas is associate arts editor at City Pages.
By Rex Sorgatz
The Huffington Post should completely suck.
On paper (or more likely, in Powerpoint, at www.huffingtonpost.com), it looks like a grab bag of banal ideas: bold-font limousine liberals meet Drudge's link-o-mania meets the can-you-hear-me-now? echo chamber of the blogosphere. Following a humdrum launch in May, the website should have disappeared faster than Sean Penn's paddleboat in a N'awlins suckhole.
And yet, mysteriously, like most inexplicable internet phenomena, Arianna Huffington--the site's Greek-goddesslike proprietress, who was once a Gingrich denizen but had since reinvented herself as a liberal Californian gubernatorial candidate--seems to have created a success story, almost against our collective will. Sometime in the middle of summer, right around the time your mom signed up for a MySpace account, one of the 300-plus celebs at the Huffington Post penned something akin to breaking news: Nora Ephron revealed that she knew who Deep Throat was all along. Sure, so did my high school civics teacher, but Ephron was at least once married to Bob Woodward. This was exactly the kind of icky-yet-juicy gossip we want to see out of a collision of Very Big Media and Very Smarmy Hollywood. By late summer, more substantial hits flowed from the site, among them the first report that Karl Rove was the source of the Valerie Plame leak.
From the start, and to this day, it's easy to make cracks about a website that stacks commentary from Cindy Sheehan next to Gwyneth Paltrow, Julia Louis-Dreyfus next to Walter Cronkite, Deepak Chopra next to Norman Mailer. And Huffington's record as "an intellectual lap dancer" (as Vanity Fair recently wrote) often causes a cynical brow to tilt skyward. But when it comes down to it, the Huffington Post is exactly the kind of celebrity clusterfuck we always wanted: a big wet dream where NYC media, L.A. entertainment, and D.C. politics all got together for a little nuzzling.
Can you hear it now?
Rex Sorgatz is the creator of MNspeak.com and the interactive director at Internet Broadcasting Systems.
By Matthew Wilder
"Style...detached from content...a fatal attraction to cuteness." Those last whispered words from Gwen Stefani's "Harajuku Girls" pretty much sum up the ingredients of my unhealthy preoccupation with the Queen of the Tragic Kingdom. That, and her gobsmacking cheerleader-meets-chola look in the "Hollaback Girl" video. And the fact that her hugely popular Love Angel Music Baby is at least two-thirds of an iconic pop masterpiece along the lines of Thriller or Like a Virgin (and yet she still gets shittier reviews than no-talent mall rats like Kelly Osborne and Ashlee Simpson). Recently Spin asked Stefani to name her favorite albums of the last two decades, but she slyly demurred, shrugging, "I like hits." Yes, she does, and like that knucklehead from the Dandy Warhols said in the movie DIG!, when she sneezes, hits come out.
Gwen doesn't live in our world; she lives in a place she calls "super-kawai"--a hybrid Japanese-English phrase that literally means "ultra-cute" and suggests a worldview derived from living close to Disneyland. I think it drives some people crazy that Gwen Stefani has a beautiful husband, a pile of money, and four Harajuku Girls capering around her like capuchins onstage and off, yet there is absolutely not one iota of guilt in her music. She is always damned as a symbol of "unexamined privilege," even though her persona is warm, funny, and generous (unlike many of those teen divas favored by rock critics). What rankles certain music snobs about Gwen is that there is nothing remotely "subversive" about her. Her persona, her songs, her L.A.M.B. clothes are designed to hit the pleasure center in the middle of the reptile brain, like a handjob, a butterscotch sundae, or the Peanuts theme. Don't ask Gwen to be "empowering." Take her example and just say, Yes, more, please.
Matthew Wilder is a Los Angeles-based writer and director and a frequent contributor to City Pages.
By Douglas Wolk
Explaining his brilliant but insanely difficult series The Invisibles a few years ago, the comics writer Grant Morrison called it his "attempt to explain what had happened to me after I'd been abducted by aliens in Katmandu in 1994," and noted further that he had gone to Katmandu specifically so that he could be abducted by aliens. Morrison is one weird guy: He's fascinated by what he calls "pop magick," the intersection of mysticism and popular culture, and he's explored the more arcane corners of his interest in unhinged comics like Doom Patrol and The Filth. Before this year, though, he was best known for much more straightforward superhero comics, notably a spell on New X-Men that was straight-up wide-screen action. In 2005, he figured out how to write great mainstream comics with the conceptual complexity, hermetic metaphysics, and metafictional pyrotechnics of his experimental work--stuff that you could read for a quick thrill or spend days sinking your brain into. First there was WE3, drawn by his frequent collaborator Frank Quitely, a rip-roaring adventure story about the difference between animal and human perceptions. In November, Morrison and Quitely launched All-Star Superman, their Platonic ideal of what Superman comics should be: crammed with science-fictional invention, much larger than life, and a total blast. Best of all, though, is Morrison's ongoing Seven Soldiers of Victory project, a set of seven concurrently running miniseries that collectively form a single huge story; it's already spawned a few websites on which fans are unpacking the allegorical resonance of nearly every character and object and incident. It also involves pirates riding the secret subway lines under New York City and Frankenstein fighting demons on Mars with a steam-powered flintlock. There are plenty of "dark," "mature" mainstream comics right now, but none deeper--or more fun--than Morrison's.
Douglas Wolk lives in Portland, Oregon, and writes about pop music and comic books for Blender, The Believer, Slate, Salon, and the New York Times.
By Michaelangelo Matos
The emotional force of my response to John Peel's death two Octobers ago was as big a surprise to me as the news itself. I knew Peel primarily through interviews and the FabricLive 07 mix-CD he compiled in 2002; I'd never heard his shows on BBC Radio 1. But the loss I felt was real. Everything about him said "fellow traveler"--a man who loved music broadly and dearly, struggled valiantly to keep up with it all, and had figured out how to make it a life's work.
There were lots of Peel touchstones this year: his autobiography, Margrave of the Marshes; the narrowly focused two-CD John Peel: A Tribute, which ignores the impossible breadth of his passions to concentrate on rock; the Fall's exhaustive, exhausting six-CD Complete Peel Sessions. But he's my artist of the year for more serendipitous reasons. In 1993, a 30-minute show he did for U.S. college radio titled Peel Out in the States lasted two dozen episodes. This summer, I found a pair of CDs containing two programs apiece in a used bin. Friends and eBay have since netted others, and I've played them more than anything else this year.
Much of the music on these shows isn't great. (Put your hands together for "Enough Is Enough," the collaboration between Chumbawamba and Credit to the Nation!) But it doesn't matter, because Peel is clearly having a blast cramming as much Afropop (Wawali Nonane et Génération Soukouss Enzene), four-track drone-hiss (Flying Saucer Attack), vintage piano boogie (Camille Howard), techno (Westbam), and indie rock (lots of it) into a half-hour as he could, tying it all together with dry, sardonic asides. In so doing, he made music seem like what it is--the greatest damn thing in the world.
Michaelangelo Matos is music editor at Seattle Weekly, the author of Sign 'O' the Times (Continuum, 2004), and a frequent contributor to City Pages.
By Molly Priesmeyer
Viewing Bush's second-term "mandate" as a sign that many Americans want entertainment in sync with both Billy Renquist and Billy Graham, the creative powers that be quickly responded by turning 2005 into the second coming of Christ. Jesus made appearances on the cover of Newsweek in March (religious news-weekly cover stories have gone from frequent to very frequent), as a theme in NBC's Revelations in April, and in the Left Behind series that sat atop the best-seller lists for the first half of the year. It seems apropos, then, that the Prince of Peace comes up in comic Sarah Silverman's subversive standup doc, Jesus Is Magic, as some Birkenstock-wearing dude who quite possibly made the Statue of Liberty disappear in the '80s. In a Copperfieldian move, she notes, Jesus did walk on water after all.
Sure, I could've chosen one of this year's artists who made me cry my guts out or whose performances or pieces made my heart break into tiny shards that left my insides bleeding. But what this past year needed most was an unabashedly honest artist, someone unafraid to offend everyone in her wake, someone like the self-proclaimed JAP Silverman. The 35-year-old New Hampshire-bred comedian is equal parts Lenny Bruce wearing a sunny disposition and an enormous cartoon smile of piano-key teeth, and a Maxim cover girl with a mouth and mind dirtier than most of the magazine's readers'. Her smart jokes might be of the conventional one-two-punch variety, but they serve as reminders of and assaults on American stupidity and racism while forcing audiences to confront what "appropriate" means.
Every comedian portrays a character, and Silverman's is selfish, sex-crazed, dim, crass, cocksure, incongruously shiny, and a devout button-pusher. In other words, she's the quintessential clueless American. But she's also unnerving and hilarious, maybe unnervingly hilarious. To wit, from Jesus Is Magic: "If black people were in Nazi Germany during World War II, the Holocaust would have never happened. Or, not to Jews." Audiences are forced to ponder if they're laughing at her jokes because they're spot-on ironic or because they're so true it hurts. And though Silverman might be preaching to a choir of lefty nerds panting over her beauty, she's not afraid to hold up a mirror that e
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