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.
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.
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.