The year-end retrospective, as ubiquitous around this time as holiday tinsel—and often just as useful. When we define our lives by the filters we selectively apply to countless streams of storytelling and news gathering, does a collective past even exist? We see what we want to see, believe what we want to believe and tune out the rest in the name of self-care. All around us, the threads of the social fabric are fraying, the discourse is drowning in noise and shouting, the collective contract is abandoned for individual mandate. In a manifest state of relentless entropy, looking backward provides little comfort and less resolution.
For better or worse, my job requires I narrow my viewfinder to a single lens: culture in Seattle. The music and art and lifestyle of this place, sequestered and self-sustaining in its far continental corner. Rather than spurring a personally defining list of top-ten albums or songs or whatever, the end of the year compels me to look closer at how we’ve come together, literally. To examine from the inside out this Seattle bubble that we share. Doing so reminds me that, despite its faults and falsehoods, the bubble remains a decent place to live.
Seen through this particular filter, the year officially began with—pardon the horn-tooting—City Arts’ fifth-annual Future List Party, held at Washington Hall on Jan. 27. The event honored the 10 Seattle artists and visionaries from whom we expected big things this year and generally reveled in the city’s thriving creative community. Hundreds of colorful, stylish humans were there to dance and drink and uninhibitedly love on each other. It was a terrific party, warm and inclusive and energizing. And that’s all it would’ve been, until a wave of ruddy faces arrived on the scene at around 9 p.m., motley and proud, fresh from rallying at SeaTac. This was the day that the newly appointed 45th president attempted his first ban of travelers from a handful of Muslim-majority countries, and Seattleites had descended on the airport by the thousands to announce their opposition and welcome all comers. Dozens of them rode light rail from the protest to the party: Now this was something momentous. The overlap of art and activism, resistance and celebration, was perhaps never more visible in all its diversity, fire and joy—exactly what I want my city to look like.
I witnessed the same progressive vision on display at, of all places, Upstream, the IRL aggregator of localized musical content produced by the world’s 22nd-richest man’s private company. This is how we know Seattle has entered a new age: The young, eclectic DJ collective, Night Shift, was given the unfinished 18th floor of the saintly Smith Tower, where they deployed a debauched dance party that felt less like a scheduled appearance than a renegade rave. It was unprecedented in its benevolent collision of types and fashions and age groups, and dangerously fun. All weekend long, in fact, the city’s newest music festival attracted the city’s newest residents to hear 300 of its newest musical acts, evincing in public the multi-culti dream of those “IN THIS HOUSE WE BELIEVE” yard signs. In terms of inclusion, Upstream set a high bar for itself to beat in 2018.
It also demonstrated that even our most elaborate, big-budgeted spectacles need a line-item for equity. In Upstream’s case, equity was solicited from dozens of “guest curators” and co-presenters at the festival, progressive upstarts like TUF, Kremwerk and Possi Life and alongside mainstays like Sub Pop and the Tractor Tavern. Macklemore, currently Seattle’s biggest musical export, did something similar in his two-night, sold-out, year-closing run at Key Arena. The Dec. 22 show I attended attracted 13,000 fans, middle-schoolers and college kids and hipsters and parents with toddlers, and included pyrotechnics, confetti cannons, a stage-wide Jumbotron, and at one point, the Mack himself dangling over the audience from the rafters while dressed as Willy Wonka. Just as crucially, Macklemore also cleared the way for his openers and features and dancers and musicians. At the end of the night, he brought dozens of Seattle artists on stage, from the Massive Monkees to Andrew Joslyn and the Passenger String Quartet, each of whom he introduced by name. And I tell you this: Watching Mary Lambert sing “Same Love” felt like a homegrown connection to the right side of history.
For every Upstream there was an ACED—aka Artist Coalition for Equitable Development—a grassroots, unified front of musicians and activists formed in response to Paul Allen’s stated intent of invigorating Seattle’s music economy, hopefully before his ongoing real-estate development prices it out of the city. ACED barely registered with Vulcan’s upper management but the group soldiered on, snowballing in numbers, continuing the fight because they’re right and they know it, adjusting their tactics till they sat at a table in Municipal Tower alongside Seattle developers and arts organizations. And for every Macklemore there was a Nikkita Oliver, the once (and future?) mayoral candidate who spent part of her Christmas Day singing, rapping and reciting poetry over Luna God beats to a roomful of hungry and houseless folks at the Mount Baker Artist Lofts. “Justice is what love looks like in public,” she sang. “Love’s the solution. Love is a thing we do.” As she stood at the mic, the room practically glowed with attention.
In between the outright activism, there were smaller incidents of righteous artistry. Perfume Genius and Industrial Revelation both put on unforgettable performances at the Neptune this year. The former was a lone wolf in a satin suit, radiating interior fortitude and vulnerability, channeling the glam-rock gods; the latter was Seattle’s greatest live band interpolating the music of Iceland’s greatest composer, Bjork, in a daredevil jazz-rock pastiche that was impeccably executed. There was Dude York, who carried the torch for arch rock ‘n’ roll, American-style, with their album Sincerely and several earnest, infectious live shows around the city. There was Shabazz Palaces, helping us envision a funkier, more far-out future via their double-album release. There were the young folx of Seattle’s experimental hip-hop scene—people like Guayaba, DoNormaal and Raven Matthews, Goodsteph, Stas THEE Boss, Taylar Elizza Beth—who comprise what could be the deepest and most diverse pool of talent and ambition this city has ever seen. They performed tirelessly this year at every kind of venue, extending themselves and their music deep into the city, expanding our understanding of ourselves. They’re having fun and saying something at the same time. The bubble is growing at their insistence.
And yet Nikkita Oliver didn’t win, Charleena Lyles is still dead and POC on my social media channels lament their lack of safety in Seattle. Right now the bubble doesn’t include everyone. Rather than insulate, it must incubate. We have more to give. I look back at this year and recognize that at the core of Seattle’s love for music is a love for people and at the core of its struggle for wokeness is a genuine desire to wake the fuck up. Seattle artists are leading by example, showing us our own potential. Onward into 2018.