What Does Genius Sound Like?
The Stranger Genius Awards Recognize Music—at Last
At last year's Stranger Genius Awards party, after the awards were presented for Visual Art, Theater, Film, Literature, and Organization, there was music. Bands performed shunted to one corner of the Moore Theatre's stage and DJs played in the basement bar, while the official Geniuses mingled, mostly in the lobby. These musical artists—acts like brainy indie-pop band Throw Me the Statue, goofy hiphop collagists Mash Hall, and young "chillwave" duo U.S.F., as well as DJ outfits Emerald City Soul Club and Trouble Dicso—weren't being honored, they were working; they were closer to the evening's caterers than the year's Geniuses. Like every other year, music was at the Genius Awards, but it was pushed to the periphery.
And so it's been with the awards themselves. Last year, Charles Mudede presented the Film Genius Award to Zia Mohajerjasbi (younger brother of Blue Scholars DJ/producer Sabzi), who was honored largely for his music videos. Mudede wrote in that week's issue: "More than anyone else, his images have captured the new energies of Seattle's emerging hiphop scene." Brendan Kiley presented the Organization Genius Award to the Pacific Northwest Ballet, praising the company for staging "a fierce 15-minute solo by Marco Goecke set to C.P.E. Bach and [punk rock band] the Cramps." Lindy West pointed out that Theater Geniuses the Cody Rivers Show took their name from "a satirical country-music character they used frequently in early performances."
In years past, winners have included visual artist Wynne Greenwood of experimental video rock band Tracy + the Plastics, and theater-makers Implied Violence, whose work has frequently incorporated local musicians such as the Dead Science alongside recordings by the Wu-Tang Clan.
So where was the Music Genius?
It's been something we've debated at The Stranger for years. The main argument against having a Stranger Genius Award for Music has been that we already give enough attention to music. It's true that The Stranger devotes more space to music than to any other single arts section in the paper—we're as much a music paper as a gay paper or a Seattle paper.
And in years past, we've given back to the Seattle music scene via the now-defunct Big Shot competition, a battle of the bands driven by reader votes with prizes that included money, gear, recording time, and passage to SXSW. But Big Shot ended years ago and nothing has replaced it.
It's not like musicians don't need the money as much as other artists do. Anyone who thinks musicians are all swimming in piles of money, Uncle Scrooge–like, just isn't paying attention. The music industry is in shambles, its primary means of making money (selling physical recordings of musical performances) gutted by the advent of easy file-sharing technology. (Has visual art suffered so specific an economic meltdown? Has theater?) Even when the music business was at its most robust, not every musician was buying mansions. For every artist making money, many more struggle to make ends meet, and that's as true for musicians as for artists in any other field. The no-strings-attached $5,000 prize of a Genius Award could buy a band a van and enough gas to tour the United States.
So this year, we're thrilled to announce the first annual Stranger Genius Award for Music. That's got a nice ring to it, doesn't it? But what will genius sound like, exactly?
Well, what's most promising for the new category is just how much ground it could potentially cover. It could go to outré hiphop act Shabazz Palaces, for his expert and adventurous destabilizations of that genre's forms and norms. It could go to Throw Me the Statue songwriter Scott Reitherman, for his uncanny way around a wordy, brainy but utterly catchy pop tune. It could go to Decibel Festival founder Sean Horton, for his massively successful efforts to put Seattle on the international map not just as a rock town but as a hotbed of world-class electronic music. It could go to Jherek Bischoff, for his work with the Dead Science and other bands and for his more avant-garde compositional work. It could go to the Portable Shrines collective, for its work in facilitating an underground of new psychedelic happenings in Seattle's music scene. It could go to THEESatisfaction, for their Star Wars rebel (without a "pause") rap and R&B. It could go to Foscil and Truckasauras, for the linked crews' serious electro-acoustic jazz improvisations and their more popular and impish electronic party music. Or to countless others.
And we're open to suggestions. The first year of the Stranger Genius Awards, we invited the public to send us their ideas about who they thought deserved to be honored with the cash prize and the profile and the party. After all, there is no application process for the Genius Awards—the last thing we want artists to be doing is filling out paperwork—and we wanted to make sure there wasn't anyone we weren't thinking of. Sure enough, there was someone we weren't thinking of—Chris Jeffries, a theater artist and, of course, musician. Readers recommended him, and he totally deserved a Genius Award, so he won one.
So now we put it to you: Who do Stranger readers think should be honored with the first Genius Award for Music? And more importantly, why? Music, as much or more than any other art form, incites incredibly passionate debate. It's personal. Everybody has an opinion, and everybody has a favorite musician or band they think deserves greater recognition or material success. We want to hear your arguments for who deserves this award and what makes their work great—make your case in the online comments for this story.
Seattle is overflowing with musical genius. The only hard part will be narrowing the nominees down.