Canadian music is boring

Living in the age of enforced mediocrity

THE POLARIZING PRIZE

It’s that time of the year again: With the announcement of the Polaris Prize’s shortlist, Canadian music fans are debating which album should, could or will win the nation’s top musical honour. It’s a fine conversation; in it, we examine Canadian music writ large, where genres combat (will a hip-hop album finally win the Polaris?), regions collide (will an album not from Toronto or Montreal take the mantle?) and generations jostle for cultural supremacy (why was Ron Sexsmith on the Polaris ballot last year?).

Problem is, the Polaris dialogue and its outcome is never satisfying. Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, which won the prize last year, pleased everyone partially, but no one fully. It was, in effect, a boring pick: It was an album from a known quantity — their debut, Funeral, was already widely heralded as one of the best Canadian albums of all time — from a buzzy, big city, which balanced both indie-rock cred with big-business feasibility. This was a band, lest we forget, that eventually won a Grammy for The Suburbs. And helped score a children’s film.

Nonetheless, the Polaris inevitably leads to examining the zeitgeist. As Canada’s top musical achievement, it’s a prize that should represent excellence, creativity and, ultimately, the most influential voices in Canadian music. But the outcome has rarely been that. At its best, the prize has been awarded for overtly political reasons. In 2010, Karkwa’s victory raised the question: “Was this album selected because it was French?” Fucked Up and Caribou, both top-tier acts in their own right, could be construed as its token punk and electronic winners. At its worst, the Polaris Prize has been nothing but predictable indie rock choices. And that doesn’t begin, or end, with the Arcade Fire — Patrick Watson and Final Fantasy were previous winners.

None of these picks were any more satisfying than The Suburbs. Without discrediting their music, Fucked Up, Karkwa and Caribou may have won for public relations reasons, chosen by jurors to showcase Can-music’s diversity, while the other selections were straight-up predictable. Why’s that so unsatisfying? Because one prize can’t capture national consensus in a time when music’s becoming more personal, more regional and, simultaneously, more globalized. Quite simply, it can’t capture the national zeitgeist when there is no national zeitgeist.

That’s fine. But nonetheless, the Canadian music discussion, six years after the Polaris’s inception, still swirls around the same bands. Just look at this year’s short list: sure, there’s the inclusion of hip-hop experimenters Drake and Cadence Weapon, increasingly famous avant-garde princess Grimes, true weirdos Yamantaka//Sonic Titan, haunted soul songstress Cold Specks and proven DIY commodity Fucked Up — who, despite their previous win and current status hovering around the Canadian mainstream, released their most ambitious album and hardcore punk’s first true rock opera. But the majority of the list reads like a CBC Radio playlist: Kathleen Edwards, Feist, Handsome Furs, Japandroids. It’s a list that’s sure to start a whole bunch of arguments, but both the dialogue and the music itself are getting mighty stale.

COLLECTIVE SOUL

The rise of Canadian indie rock was, in essence, the act of playing catch-up to our southern neighbours. While they spent the ’90s perfecting the loud-quiet-loud dynamics in guitar-based anthems, most of us were still stuck in the goofy alt-rock bubble. Then, at the turn of the millennium, we figured it out.

American indie rock was popularized by terse trios and quartets, but Canadians upped the ante by embracing the collective. The West Coast had The New Pornographers, who pushed out AM radio pop via an ensemble of collaborators. While they slowly built a following on college radio, it was Toronto collective Broken Social Scene that really signaled the arrival of Canadian indie rock with their explosive 2002 effort You Forgot It In People.

Built on hazy production, a complicated rhythm section and harmonies on harmonies on harmonies, the album was a breath of fresh air for its era, offering a Grateful Dead take on indie rock with a more relatable MO than the loboto cult rock of The Polyphonic Spree. And with BSS’s arrival came myriad sister projects, from the breakthrough success of Feist to the rootsy yawn-fest of Apostle of Hustle.

BSS and The New Pornos were the Great Canadian Hopes, featured on the covers of international magazines and suggesting that maybe, just maybe, our national grant systems and enforced airplay were doing something good. Then, the nation’s “holy shit” moment happened with the arrival of Arcade Fire’s previously mentioned Funeral. The rest is history.

And we mean that literally: history. While these collectives and their hit-or-miss side-projects still dominate the national music soundscape, they’ve hardly done anything to push the culture forward (or backwards, or anywhere) in the last decade.

The artistic validity of Can-indie’s illuminati isn’t the central question here. The Suburbs is beloved by many, and that’s not the point. It’s great that you love The Suburbs. Some people still love new U2 albums as well, and that’s okay too. But when you start winning Grammys for your music, it’s not a sign that the long-running award ceremony and universal symbol for irrelevance has finally hipped to your sound.

If nothing else, it’s a sign that these artists have remained stagnant. And who can blame them? At first it was the hip record store employees passing around Broken Social Scene CDs. Then it trickled down the chain through the playlists of hip teachers, youth pastors and now would-be cool parents, wearing Feist shirts to Feist shows.

And no, we’re not simply deriding personality archetypes. But what sounded so fresh in 2005 hasn’t needed to change, because it’s finding a new audience all the time. Just ask Adele or Coldplay: as soon as you’re discovered by the people who buy CDs at Starbucks, you’re set for life.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with any of these bands’ respective aesthetics, but one downside of this stick-to-the-formula attitude has been the rise of myriad copycats: the lesser songwriters piggybacking on their forebears, churning out lukewarm pop songs with little or no innovation. Aside from the fact that they hail from different corners of the nation, who can actually tell the difference between Hey Rosetta and Hey Ocean? We Are the City and City and Colour? Young Galaxy and Young Liars? Woodpigeon and The Wooden Sky? Wintersleep and Winter Gloves? Mother Mother and I Mother Earth? Library Voices and an actual trip to the library?

Yes, we’re being facetious, but the point is that the rise of Cancon indie has developed into an industry that’s all reward and little-to-no risk. Sure, there are golden pockets of pseudo-successful, forward-thinking musicians experiencing some crossover success — look no further than the Constellation Records roster, Purity Ring or Yamantaka//Sonic Titan, among others — but there are endlessly talented musicians who are being largely ignored. Most of the country is still feasting on Feist and gorging on Hannah Georgas.

The problem isn’t just within our borders, either. Hipster homepage Pitchfork, which boasts insane daily traffic and is widely considered to be the benchmark of independent music coverage, posts five reviews of new music every day. At any given time, the supposedly scientific numerical ratings are almost always hovering around seven out of ten. In other words, everyone’s releasing music, and all of it is pretty okay.

With that in mind, how do you navigate this daunting world of infinite new music when all of it’s numbingly decent and none of it’s hard to get your hands on? We’re reaching the point communications theorist Neil Postman prophetically called “the information glut”: When listeners are being barraged with endless information, we start to lose our ability to discern what’s good (and more importantly, what’s bad). In essence, it renders all information meaningless.

So, the general feeling seems to be that we should avoid brave new musical worlds and stick to what we know: the choral vocals, the string section, the interchangeable Springsteen/Beach Boys/Grateful Dead referencing, the dance beat at the bridge, that fucking neverending glockenspiel.


ENFORCING MEDIOCRITY

We hear what you’re saying: What we’ve described above is a formula, and every genre, era, and musician owns a formula. Fair point. But formula becomes boring when it’s codified (see what Most Serene Republic has done, or more aptly, hasn’t done, with BSS’s signature sound), and even worse still, Canada actually has a mechanism that protects, and arguably enforces, its least inspirational bands.

We’re talking about the CRTC’s Canadian Content regulations. In a nutshell, here’s what it is: In order to be considered “Canadian,” music must earn MAPL certification (as in, possess music that was written, recorded or performed by a Canadian). And radio stations and webcasters, by law, must play at least 25 per cent Canadian, or MAPL certified, music between peak hours — that is, between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.

This was developed in 1971, when the Canadian music industry needed to, but couldn’t, compete with the distribution, quality and financial muscle of the U.S. It’s understandable why it exists. But in 2012, with the impending death of the major label, the era of the self-made artist and cheap-to-free distribution, the logistical side of the music industry has levelled. We’re on a more equal playing field than ever, for better or for worse.

Yet still, Canadian music is forcibly being supported on the airwaves — not for its quality, or artistic merit, but simply for its MAPL-certified Canadian-ness. Has it helped independent Canadian musicians? Yes and no. Pop-punk pissants like Hedley and Simple Plan dominate mainstream radio; Can-indie, the descendents of The New Pornographers, BSS, dominate community radio airwaves. Cancon regulations might support Canadian music in a roundabout way, but it hardly supports new, fresh or fascinating ideas in Canadian music. It is, in a sense, enforcing mediocre musical tastes, not challenging them.

There’s the argument that we still need cultural protectionism to compete with our American neighbours. It’s valid in many ways, considering our small population size and equally small music industry. But the question remains — is Canadian-style protectionism really rewarding those who need or deserve it? Does Arcade Fire really need it? What about Hedley?

WHERE ARE THE CRITICS?

Making matters worse is the fact that, as a nation, we’re so polite about everything. Let’s forget the other publications and their lack of teeth when it comes to record reviews — the argument is just as valid within the pages of Fast Forward Weekly. Every time we step out of our posi-only comfort zone and actually say something negative, doing our job as cultural critics, we get the same response: “I think it should be your job to promote the Canadian music scene, not to tear it down.” “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” “Go back to your stretched earlobes, skinny jeans and Che Guevera manpurse.” (Yes, perhaps the biggest misconception of us is that we dress like Faith No More-loving bike couriers from the mid-’90s.)

The reality should be plain and simple: if you want strict, opinion-less promotion, buy an ad. We live in an era of, among many other things, musical overload, and if we’re not going to tell you that some sad blues dad from Peterborough or the next Torontonian hype probably isn’t worth your time, then you might miss out on something important.

When everything is “good,” everything basically sucks. No one breaks the rules, no one pushes the envelope, no one even tries. The Canadian critics, working hand in hand with other facets of the national music industry, have become the equivalent of over-encouraging parents. Everything Canada produces runs the gamut from good to great. “We’re proud of you just for trying. Also we cleaned your room for you and made you some punch.”

We’re a nation on auto pilot. Last month, National Post writer Ben Kaplan drew the ire of countless feminists when he wrote an article describing Metric’s Emily Haines as “a smart sex symbol,” describing the giddiness he feels when he talks to her and the pleasure he derives from hugging her.

Sure, it was a little creepy. Borderline pervy, even. But there’s a bigger problem at hand. Why are we still talking about Metric, a band who’s been churning out inoffensive, dance-heavy pop for 15 years, in 2012? Why was this band, that wins awards, top charts and sells a shit-ton of records to hip thirtysomethings and vanilla college students alike, on the cover of multiple Canadian print media magazines? Especially at the same time as a future Cancon classic like the viciously affecting White Lung record Sorry was hitting the same media inboxes?

It’s telling that Kaplan barely even addressed Metric’s music. Because everyone who wants to know anything about Metric already knows.

That’s not to fault anyone — particularly our hard-working peers who fight the good fight in print media — for playing it safe in these tumultuous financial times. But when old media refuses to take risks on new ideas, they’re only putting themselves at risk. You see, there’s this thing called the Internet....

SO WHAT THEN?

Across North America, there are radio stations that bill themselves as stalwarts of “new rock.” How do they define those playlists? Usually it’s the collected works of Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots and Our Lady Peace (gotta have that Cancon).

It’s an illusion of newness, allowing listeners to feel like they’re still on the cutting edge without ever facing the daunting world of samplers, field recordings or Serato. In many ways, Cancon has gone down a similar path. By thoughtlessly embracing the same acts and their doppelgangers for the last decade and a bit, we’ve effectively hit the snooze button through an entire generation.

Before these seemingly invincible Can-indie heroes launched their careers, they couldn’t have existed without more experimental precursors. There would be no New Pornographers without the once groundbreaking pop and punk releases of early Mint Records. There would be no Arcade Fire without the grand symphonic statements of the Constellation Records roster.

Granted, there might not ever be another Arcade Fire or a New Pornographers or even another Tragically Hip. Our tastes are simply too fragmented and personalized to arrive at another consensus band. But if there’s one thing we can learn from these acts, it’s that taking risks and embracing new ideas offers great rewards. We just need to stop pretending that those old ideas are new, and take a look at what’s actually happening around us.

It’s not as daunting as it seems. There are endless channels, some traditional (as in, taking chances on opening bands), some non-traditional, like trawling Bandcamp for regional sounds, strange sounds or simply seeking bands that exist outside of established networks. And it’s already happening: Sites such as Weird Canada, for example, are built with a discovery-first ethos which places a premium on the local, the bizarre and the innovative. It’s by no means perfect — Weird Canada hardly offers criticism — but it’s an approach that’s unearthed next-gen oddities, such as Grimes, Braids and Sean Nicholas Savage, who’ve made a large-scale cultural impact. And it’s no stretch to believe that Arbutus, Divorce or Deranged Records may very well occupy the void left by Mint or Arts & Crafts.

And that’s the point of this editorial: We don’t actually believe that all Canadian music is boring, but as a country we’re addicted to mediocrity, to nepotism, to a stagnating Can-rock fraternity. In order to embrace the talent that’s abundant on our own soil, we need to shift the Canadian music paradigm away from consensus, away from nepotism, and away from some streamlined idea of “quality” — a term that’s highly subjective. As a nation, we have a grant system — however lacking in funding — a broadcast protection system and yes, coast-to-coast talent at our disposal.

We just need to redefine how we utilize those infrastructures so as to avoid cultural staleness. After all, innovative music doesn’t only exist in a select few backyards; it’s coming out of countless small town garages, dingy practice spaces and cluttered bedrooms across the country.

 


Comments: 21

DDRRLL wrote:

I think you're being too polite and understating the severity of the can-con "The percentage was increased to 30% in the 1980s, and to 35% effective January 3, 1999. However, most new commercial radio stations licensed since 1999 have been licensed at 40% Canadian content" Even my favorite and one of Canada's all time best selling artists BRYAN ADAMS detests can-con even though he probably made/makes a shit-ton of moneys off of it. "I told them all to shove it up their arses, that Can-Con shouldn't exist, they were just sponging off of other artists and the government should stay the fuck out of music."

good article. Thanks

on Jul 19th, 2012 at 3:29am Report Abuse

hamburgerdeluxe wrote:

I don't think you're talking about anything at all. There's a lot of vapid, airy comments here. Basically, you're shitting on the major indies that have made it and citing them as boring and unrewarding. The argument reeks of literal hipster superiority, that "Joe's Garage" band is better or more interesting than say listening to Top 10 Cancon. Well, "Joe's Garage" band sucks. That's why they never made it and no one listens to them.

The point which you should strengthen, that which everyone feels, is that no one has the time to look for the "new" so they go and get the familiar and get on with their shitty lives.

Metric, because I'm fan, your comments plays with my fur a bit because thru blood, sweat and tears (and talent) they went from marginal EP to superstardom (Twilight and Howard Shore). They are the textbook case of independent success. Pissing on that (as a musician for me) is DUMB.
BTW, if you pay attention to the inherited brilliance of Haines poetry/lyrics, nay understand what is being said you'd probably hang yourself with some rope at the sheer depressive state we live in. And then figure out that Haines is telling you not to.

Someone should listen to more Venetian Snares. :D :D

on Jul 19th, 2012 at 9:46am Report Abuse

Peter Hemminger wrote:

Hamburgerdeluxe: Everyone should listen to more Venetian Snares. But saying that "Joe's Garage Band" didn't make it because they sucked is like saying that every band that is successful is good. Or that Venetian Snares isn't bigger because he sucks, rather than because he makes abrasive and challenging electronic music that isn't concerned with broad appeal.

Josiah/Mark: A couple thoughts. First off, nothing in CanCon says that you have to play bland Canadian music, even though that does tend to be the consequence. The trouble is, most commercial radio is going to play the safest music they can, which means blandness regardless of what country it comes from.

As for the Polaris, I don't think it's particularly fair to criticize their safe choices as predictable, and their more unexpected choices as "token." Yes, it's a crime that last year was the first time a Constellation release was shortlisted, and I'd definitely argue against The Suburbs as album of the year, but you're basically saying that the award is at least interesting around 50% of the time, and then writing that off because of assumptions of motivation.(And given that Final Fantasy was just some guy making weird looped violin music on a pretty obscure label at the time, I wouldn't call it a very predictable choice at that time).

And lastly, I totally agree that critics shouldn't pull punches and say something's good when it isn't. But what about the fact that every negative review is taking up space that could be pointing people at something great? It's not about liking everything, and there are major releases that need to be talked about, for sure. But a site like Weird Canada is interesting because they post things they're excited about, and that they want other people to be excited about. It's an extension of asking why Metric's on so many covers -- why talk about the boring stuff at all, when there's so much good stuff out there?

on Jul 19th, 2012 at 10:43am Report Abuse

Josiah wrote:

Some very great points Peter. Thanks for commenting.

To be honest, I still haven't decided exactly how I feel about the Polaris, particularly in this context. I don't actually think it's possible for something like the Polaris to be satisfying to everyone, but I can still see its value. But for me, the article is less about the Polaris and more about a larger cultural problem.

As for the negative vs. positive reviews thing, you raise a valid point, but there's still a timidness that needs to be addressed... The fact that there are many, many people who share our opinion but this article is being treated like some bold, controversial statement is proof of that.

I think a reviews page needs both the good and the bad at all times — those two sides contextualize each other. If you're only writing about what's good all the time (like most of Pfork's reviews sitting at 7/10), everything becomes white noise.

Thanks again for commenting!

on Jul 19th, 2012 at 11:09am Report Abuse

Colin Stange wrote:

I see where you're coming from, but your points wind up attacking pop-culture at large, not Canadian music. Every facet of culture is subject to the same "boring is popular, interesting is niche" arrangement.

So, your complaint that we lack a cultural zeitgeist is curious. A centralized body like Polaris exists to establish precisely that, and it does. In the last 6 years, it's held some amazing artists on a national pedestal and revealed them to thousands of Canadians. This helps us crystalize national identity, even if it's less risque. Is your issue that we "don't have a cultural zeitgeist" or simply that you don't like it?

Now don't get me wrong, I'm with you. It's more vanilla than I'd like. But wishing that "everyone could just love these edgy bands as much as me", seems to miss the point. We identify with challenging music because we have unique tastes (and because the music is better), but as long as the public is being pushed to broaden their views on Canadian music, I think we're moving in the right direction.

on Jul 19th, 2012 at 11:43am Report Abuse

Mark_Teo wrote:

@Josiah and Peter: Regarding the negative and positive reviews, I agree that Peter raises a strong point. I understand that focusing on things you're excited for, as Weird Canada does, is a constructive endeavour, but what we're talking about is a critical endeavour. It's one of the reasons I like Weird Canada. Yet criticism isn't only publicity—it's also, well, criticism. In order to define yourself with particular tastes, sensibilities, or modes of thoughts, it's insufficient to only print what's good. You've got to draw the line in the sand and print what's bad, too. It's true, though, that I've often fluctuated on the issue—this is really only the way I feel right now.

@Colin Thanks for the comment! And regarding the zeitgeist, I agree that it's an attempt to crystallize national identity—and that it's put a spotlight on specific bands (some of whom, like Fucked Up, did excellent things with Polaris cheque).

So, to clarify, it's not that I / we don't like the bands considered part of the Canadian zeitgeist—Josiah has his tastes, I have mine, so it'd be unfair to speak for the both of us. It's more of an argument it's becoming increasingly impossible to nail down a band that's fully representative of Canada. It's a noble effort, to be certain, and it's an interesting cultural exercise with potentially positive results. But could you argue that any of the bands awarded really represent a moment, or in the Polaris' case, a year in music? Do we even want to crystallize the Canadian zeitgeist in a time when many listeners are making music-listening decisions that are hyper-local and hyper-personal?

I remember speaking to Eamon McGrath about it before he released Young Canadians—a fact I only mention because he's a guy who set out to nail down the zeitgeist with his album, Young Canadians (which I really like). But he didn't capture anything—and admitted that he erred on the side of vagueness on that album, because it's incredibly difficult to paint Canada's diversity in broad brushstrokes. It's what I'm getting at: We're a huge, diverse country musically, and it's wonderful. On the flipside, though, it's impossible to nail down defining traits that speak to us, as a nation (hence why we lack a cultural zeitgeist). The Polaris is a valiant attempt to capture something universal, but it, like Eamon McGrath, doesn't succeed.

Way off-topic, though. As Josiah said, this isn't a story fully about the Polaris. I'm just stoked on the conversation.

on Jul 19th, 2012 at 12:10pm Report Abuse

Peter Hemminger wrote:

Criticism's definitely important, and if there's a major release coming out, it's good to offer an honest assessment. But it also has to be critical and not just negative.
Something like Jeremy's review of Satanic Blood Spraying this week, for example, to me isn't really useful (sorry to single you out, Jeremy). Josiah's Bestial Holocaust review is at least clearly a joke (and I laughed), but a review that basically reads "this sounds like metal, and I don't like it" doesn't give any more insight than you'd get just by looking at the cover art and tracklisting. To me, that's way less interesting and valuable than having Jeremy talk about an album that he thinks is amazing.
Again, I totally agree -- critics should not be afraid to say that something is boring, or poorly executed, or derivative, or any other thought-out criticism. And there are lots of people in the music press who are pretty content to keep plugging the same inoffensive East Coast pop-rock like it's something they haven't heard a thousand times. But if you think going negative is an important part of criticism, then you need to give criticism and not just snark.

on Jul 19th, 2012 at 12:44pm Report Abuse

Peter Hemminger wrote:

To say the same thing but faster: If the goal is "to shift the Canadian music paradigm away from consensus, away from nepotism, and away from some streamlined idea of “quality", you get there faster by pointing them in the right direction than by making fun of them for going the wrong way.

on Jul 19th, 2012 at 12:48pm Report Abuse

KennaBurima wrote:

@Josiah. I love what you do. You're a fearless writer.

I too would like to echo your sentiments on Cancon mediocrity. I truly believe the art form is stagnating as a whole because we are as a culture are celebrating lazy artists who are consciously attempting to capture a "Canadian zeitgeist" and/or as you say "piggyback on their forebears" of songwriting/performing success.

As you know yourself, it's a terrifying endeavor to put pen to paper or fingers to keys and get up on a stage and express that which is truly yours, but the moment you do otherwise; the moment you taint your intent by using art as a vehicle to success, in my opinion you are off the artistic bankroll and should get off the fucking stage.

I think what you state here could be lamented in many art forms at present. And not to be a total douche, it's a representation of how fucked our system is. The lure of the Almighty dollar is a strong one, and I for one, am certainly not immune.

But I will agree with you that I wonder about the path our apparent zeitgeist is taking and what it says about what we consider "good" (successful) and what we consider "bad" (not). And when I say "wonder" I mean "worry".

Keep it up Josiah. If there's any remedy for any of this, it's honesty and the balls to stand behind it.

on Jul 19th, 2012 at 1:32pm Report Abuse

banjoman74 wrote:

My thoughts. Where is the incentive for the artist to create music and the opportunities to craft his/her skills? The reality is that venues that support musicians are drying up, being replaced with canned music or, if there is live music, it's an "open stage" with no compensation for artists. There are bars that even require bands to pay for soundmen and the opportunity to play (with very little reward compared to risk), and there seem to be less people going to shows. There is less of a reason to produce a full-fledged album as the ability to download music for free is rampant, and who buys an album anymore? The smaller festivals are drying up as the focus of grants and sponsorship go to the large festivals that focus on big-name international acts. And the smaller festivals that do survive pay little to nothing.

You want to change the Canadian music scene? You have to have communities that support local music. It should not only be buy local, but also listen local. More venues playing and paying for live music. Festivals that play and pay Canadian artists on par with US artists. And people have to start wanting to go see live music again.

on Jul 19th, 2012 at 2:18pm Report Abuse

RKHeliplex wrote:

I feel like Calgary has become one of Canada's hottest cities for music venues in the last few years. There are more live venues here in Calgary than in EDM & VAN combined. And there are more always venues popping up or reinventing themselves (Blues Can, Wine-Ohs, the nearly open Festival Hall and National Music Center).

A working band can actually find gigs that pay fairly well in this town every weekend if they want to. Weekdays too.

SLED was amazing -- I was proud of our city. Stampede has all kinds of opportunities. Small festivals are actually available if you look for them (most recently Frog Fest and Soul Fest Twin Butte come to mind).

Some of our friends in Toronto have a heck of a time in that over saturated, barely paying market. That's a tough town to be a musician...

Live shows are where the bread is and there are some very great, very hard working acts in Calgary. The Dudes/Dojo Workhorse/High Kicks, ChronGoblin, Double Fuzz, No River, Bitterweed Draw, Mad Cowboys, Miesha & the Spanks, Pinetarts, and Zoo Lion are the ones that immediately come to mind when I try to think of whose elevating the scene.

One of Calgary's big challenges is that we are a city of a million 9-5ers and we've got to try and get more people out to shows. It feels like the downtown crowd gets it but we could definitely increase the draw from the suburbs.

As for prizes, polaris and etc, they sure are nice for the mantle I guess. And it's interesting to see who the music industry and press folks choose as their #1s. But whatever, really.

And as for the incentive to create music: Straight up it's rewarding if you enjoy performing or playing. If someone consciously decides to be in the music business for the money, especially indie music, then they should give up before they start and head to the oil patch. Musicians don't retire...

Rock and roll,

-Ryan Kelly
www.WePunchCows.com

on Jul 19th, 2012 at 4:52pm Report Abuse

AFish wrote:

Nice to see this topic being raised, although I suppose I'm finding it a bit hard to grasp what the main thrust of the argument is. Are you suggesting that the more popular a song/album/band is, the more mediocre it tends to be? That the listening public is generally lazy and unadventurous? These aren't new phenomena, nor are they particularly Canadian. But I would definitely agree that there's so much out there that is a safe, lukewarm rehash of a proven formula, and yet somehow immensely popular.

But then, the flipside to this is that there is also a glut of new music that seems to be getting attention merely for its novelty, as though "new-sounding" is a viable substitute for quality. This is all fundamentally subjective, of course, but perhaps the speed at which some music goes from hot-buzzed to forgotten is a symptom of this tendency. The Suburbs might not have been earth-shattering, but I'd suggest that it at least has staying power past the initial clamour.

On another note, it's worth remembering that before CanCon, the radio stations simply didn't play Canadian music at all unless it was popular in the U.S. (check out "Canuck Rock" by Ryan Edwardson for a close look at this). Commercial radio is by its nature prone to taking the path of least resistance to grow its audience, and in (English) Canada, that meant waiting to see what became a hit elsewhere first. I don't see how this would change now, even with the internet etc., if the CanCon rules were removed. But then I suppose the discussion would move to whether or not we need to officially support a "mainstream" Canadian music industry in Canada at all.

Good article, and thanks for being honest!

Arran Fisher

on Jul 19th, 2012 at 5:33pm Report Abuse

jdblechinger wrote:

Very interesting read, and I am enjoying the discussion that has followed here.

Sweet Library Voices burn too, lol. Feel like I've been waiting for someone to make that joke as succinctly as you have.

(Not sure how much I'm gonna be on topic here, but...)

I can really only speak from my personal experience:
Being around the age of 20 personally, I think I was just a bit too young to fully "experience" those oughts Can-indie bands that you discuss, namely Arcade Fire, New Pornos, Stars, BSS. I have enjoyed all of them quite a bit, as, for me, they served as kind of seminal "gateway" bands into thinking about non-mainstream music in Canada. They kind of feel like those cooler older siblings that left the house right when you were entering high-school or something.

That being said, I do feel like I've come of age in the era of these bands' less interesting/more derivative spawn - i.e. most of what tends to make Polaris long-list (The Wooden Sky, Hey Rosetta, Bruce Peninsula, etc). This is also why your series of jokes there really hit home. Growing up, the seminal oughts bands mentioned above had already graduated to larger venues by the time I was show-going age, leaving my city to feast on a relentless stream of Wooden Skys, Yukon Blondes, The Stillses, Zeuses, and the various ill-conceived local (Library Voices) attempts at these archetypes.

To be honest though, this conversation would matter more to me in a world without the internet. The internet caters to every curiosity, every niche. Instead of worrying about national zeitgeist, you can find some cool outsider gems on a blog, or find some solitary soul who religiously documents amazing library music. As an aside, I think it's interesting that Grimes, poster-girl for the (buzzworthy/bloggable) "post-internet" conversation, is now dropped into the running for this national award. Grimes openly supports piracy, resists genre designations, and has admitted that she has no use for physical media. If the award were awarded for timeliness, or some kind of internet zeitgeist, I think it would go to Grimes.

I appreciate the Polaris; I think its mandate is interesting and important. But, at the same time, I recognize that it can't be the internet, and it can't, ever, approximate the depth and breadth of the internet. The Polaris is interesting now, I think, because it's thrown into sharp relief (by the internet) as being a (somewhat valiant) attempt by our cultural arbiters to somehow showcase fringe elements of our culture. The award can never do this as well as (certain places on) the internet, but I accept it, and appreciate that it precipitates conversations like the one going on.

on Jul 19th, 2012 at 7:43pm Report Abuse

mgb wrote:

@jdblechinger

Do you think discussions of what it means to be Canadian, in terms of either music or in a more general sense are relevent within the internet age?

If Polaris is being defined by some as trying to capture some sort of zeitgeist, that may or may not exist anymore, does that you make you question the relevency of the award?

I'm asking you this stuff because you seem to have a much different position on this stuff than some of the other people posting here (frankly, you're younger and don't seem to view some of these concepts and bands as exhaulted).

on Jul 19th, 2012 at 9:51pm Report Abuse

Aaron.S wrote:

Thanks for the great article and thank you for not writing vanilla reviews all of the time. You did bring up some great points about CANCON and it's relevance. I feel that we do need it to keep our Canadianess but I can do without the Tragically Hip's and the Guess Who's greatest hits I'll of the time. Actually I oils do without them completely. If you think the radio is boring now obviously you never had to live through the 90's. I will gladly take BSS, Feist, and Arcade Fire over the Treble Charger, Big Wreck and Our Lady Peace.

on Jul 19th, 2012 at 10:58pm Report Abuse

jdblechinger wrote:

@mgb

Thanks for your interest!

I think discussions of what it means to be Canadian [i]are[/i] important. I'm not entirely sure how important discussions of what it means to be Canadian regarding our music are.

I think what complicates things a bit is that the music of the "golden age of CanCon" - Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young, Anne Murray, Ian & Sylvia - is treasured by the baby boomers, and gives us this strange sense that there has to be this "Canadian-ness" to our music. Arguably, maybe this is the problematic legacy of that kind of cultural protectionism - it bred its own cultural signifiers, but, in doing so, it myopically oversimplified the music of our country. The specific (awesome) traits of a lot of those seminal singer-songwriters from that generation are generalized into a "Canadian soul" - it's rustic, largely acoustic, confessional folk.

Now, we find ourselves going through a crisis of musical identity (exacerbated by the internet) trying to define this soul in the 21st century. However, I only think it's a crisis if we fail to recognize that the characteristics of that generalized "Canadian soul" were part of their own very specific historical moment that was no more, no less Canadian than our own.

As to the relevancy of the Polaris:
It's relevant to me because I've followed it from its inception, and I've been interested to trace it's evolution, to watch it attempt to satisfy, all at once, so many different, and particular, subcultures.

on Jul 19th, 2012 at 11:12pm Report Abuse

martypants wrote:

Some very good point. As "boring" as the current state of Canadian indie may be, I think we can all agree on the fact that at least no one care about bands like I Mother Earth and the Watchmen anymore. Thing are vastly improved now.

on Jul 20th, 2012 at 8:22am Report Abuse

Meta4 wrote:

Sorry guys, but hamburgerdeluxe has it right, this is some of the most middling trollop I have ever seen passed off as a cover story. Leaving the validity of the central thesis aside, every time you try to assert a point to back it up, you instantly provide a proviso that neuters it. "Without discrediting their music..." "That's fine. But none the less...." There are examples of this in pretty much every paragraph. You try to blame CANCON for the situtuation and yet agree that the argument for it's existence is still "valid in many ways...."

All you've achieved with this article, is to have deftly hoisted yourselves on your own petards. In your attempt to challenge what you perceive as the "play it safe" status quo, you've managed to deliver one of the most glaring examples of playing it safe this reader has ever had the misfortune of reading through.

on Jul 20th, 2012 at 11:19am Report Abuse

dw33b wrote:

Polaris (as well as other awards like Break Out West/WCMA, CMBIA, CFMA, CCMA, CIMA, Juno Awards, and more) are all alike in the way they share a dirty secret:

One must have worked with a professional recognized studio in order for it to be considered as a legitimate submission.

An album I personally worked on shortlisted on occasion (for about a month) two years ago, was removed (and we were given notification by email) once the album was discovered to be recorded or engineered at home (mixing, mastering, and hiring a national publicist is where all the real money was spent).

As for the problem with Can-Con, well it's obvious from an artist's point of view. Remember that you need to hire a Radio Promoter (sometimes costing $40'000 - $100'000) just to make it on major airwaves. A publicist working through University/ College radio, and the CBC will only take you so far.

on Jul 23rd, 2012 at 4:04pm Report Abuse

Peter Hemminger wrote:

dw33b, the Polaris's official rules definitely don't require that. Jury members can nominate any album that was officially released during the award-year (June through May, I think, but I could be wrong), and "officially released" just means sold somewhere, either through a website, at shows, or at major retailers. And last year, they expanded that to allow free releases, like the shortlisted Weeknd album.
I'm really curious about the email you received. I'm not on the jury anymore, but I was two years ago and I don't remember an album disappearing from the shortlist (or the longlist, for that matter), especially not because it was home-recorded. And I know quite a few jury members who'd be pretty angry if they heard about that.

on Jul 23rd, 2012 at 4:53pm Report Abuse

gobacktotheworld wrote:

I wrote a lengthy blog response to this article:

http://gobacktotheworld.tumblr.com/post/27793638591/response-to-canadian-music-is-boring

About some of the things that have come up in discussion so far...

1) "How Canadian should Canadian music be?" Well, why do we have to work at being Canadian? I say, let's just do what we do, and then come back afterward to see what that was. "Trying to be Canadian" means, in essence, creating a kind of conscious iconography, right, and this iconography will never include all of the things we want to write music about.

2) "Cancon". Cancon arguments have gone on forever... I don't think anything will be gained by removing Cancon requirements. And, really, is the argument that what is played on the radio has a direct result on our listening tastes? I think the only people who rely exclusively on the radio for music are top-40iers.

3)@AFish - I agree that discussions of 'sound' are pretty much besides the point. To take some examples from the Polaris longlist, YAMANTAKE // SONIC TITAN don't have a 'sound' much different from Mares of Thrace or Shooting Guns, and yet their songs are incalculably more sophisticated.

That's it for now I guess... as much as I think this article is a little boneheaded, I hardly think it's trollop, as Hamburgerdeluxe and Meta4 would have it. These are genuinely important questions.

on Jul 23rd, 2012 at 6:10pm Report Abuse


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