The People Issue: The B Side

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The Reader's People Issue can be seen, in a certain generous light, as an act of resistance against the tyranny of celebrity. The rise of social media was supposed to wreak spectacular democratic havoc on popular culture, but by and large the people we talk about are still people whose most interesting feature is that they're famous, and can thus function as a common reference point in almost any conversation. If we're lucky, we get an outlier who, like Kanye West or Miley Cyrus, responds to the pressure of our attention by doing or saying provocative, confounding, and occasionally brilliant things. But in no case is this any way to run a civilization.

The five subjects on the B Side this year aren't famous by any reasonable definition of the word, but every one of them has accomplished extraordinary things. Their stories demonstrate that the often unexamined lives of ordinary civilians—lives like ours—are at least as viable a source of inspiration as those of outsize celebrities. They bustle with fascinating detail and engrossing drama, with uncertainties confronted and calamities endured—and they exist on a human scale, in a world we can recognize.

Piano teacher and musical-comedy savant Abraham Levitan learned Cheap Trick's "The Flame" by ear when he was 12 and once serenaded Barbara Bush in a New Haven bar. Cellist and composer Tomeka Reid, not so long ago the "supershy door girl" at the HotHouse, quit a teaching job at the University of Chicago Lab School to pursue improvised music. Mica Alaniz of the Red Bull Music Academy, who books underground electronic acts, calls herself an "ex-spectator." Footwork producer Nate Boylan, a member of DJ Rashad's Teklife collective, has a master's degree in biochemistry and teaches high school science; his four-year-old daughter has already figured out how to put together a beat on his MPC. Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, whose Nigerian immigrant father earned two PhDs in the States, studies electrical engineering at UIC and makes music with at least eight bands: "I can't play just one type of thing," he says. "It's so boring."

The Reader has spared no effort to dress up these interviews, especially online, where many have audio and video components. Some part of your brain may rebel at the sight of regular folks given the sort of lavish media treatment usually reserved for public figures we've collectively agreed are important. "Who are these people?" you may ask yourself. "Am I supposed to know them?"

Kindly resist that thinking—after all, they're you. Or they could be. Just wait till next year.

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