(Northern Exposure is a feature where Mark incessantly rambles about music from his home country of Canada.)
I read an article recently about the state of Canadian music. The title was “Canadian Music Is Boring”. The title is kind of a sweeping generalization that was obviously meant to piss some people off, which I think it did. I’d encourage you to read it since I’ll be referring to it throughout this article. I hope that you’ll get as fired up about it as I did.
When I first read through this article I agreed with most of it, but as I read it over again a few times, I started to find it annoying. I do agree with that fact that people seem to be very content with mediocrity in music, but many of the arguments in the article are senseless. Is Arcade Fire really that safe? Just because they’re popular, does that make mean they’re remaining stagnant? Just because they won a Grammy award does that devalue them as a band? The answer to all of those questions is a resounding no! I actually think that Arcade Fire are one of the few immensely popular Canadian bands that are willing to push what is possible in terms of music. Funeral was a breakthrough, and they’ve showed progression ever since then. If somebody thinks that Arcade Fire stuck to the same formula for each of their three studio albums, then they’re entitled to that opinion, even though that opinion is wrong.
That being said, there are a bevy of “safe” bands in Canada who are immensely popular. Has Our Lady Peace really done anything to push music ahead since the 90’s? Is Metric changing the Canadian music landscape with their music right now? Again, I’d say the answer to both questions is a resounding no. Yet, both of these bands are HUGE in Canada, and the question that beckons is... why?
Personally, I think the answer is a simple one: In general people don’t care about the music they listen to. I hear so many people who talk about how much they care about music and how much it means to them, but a lot of people don’t seem to want to make the music they listen to their own.Most people are completely content in listening to whatever they hear, which for most people happens to be whatever gets played on the radio.
So people like what they hear on the radio and then the radio plays what people like, it seems like kind of a vicious circle to me.
I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with that. Some people just aren’t completely obsessive over music, they have other passions in life, which is great. I’m pretty sure that if everybody else in the world was obsessed with music they way I am then they would drive me crazy and I’d turn to obsessively collecting My Little Pony figurines instead of music.
So really, saying that Canadian music is stagnant is a big fat lie. Just because what the majority of music that people listen to is stagnant, doesn’t mean all of the music is.. There are too many bands to list that are doing interesting things with music than one person could ever keep track of, you just need to have the passion to find them.
This article also goes on to say that the choice of every winner of the Polaris Prize has been in some way predictable, safe, or political ; which is bullshit. I’m sorry, but if you want to be safe then you don’t pick a band named Fucked Up to win. If you want to be predictable then you don’t give the award to a guy with a violin and a loop pedal. The pick of Karkwa wasn’t political, Les Chemins De Verre was a great album. Not to mention that calling Patrick Watson “indie rock” is one of the more incredibly dumbed down statements that I’ve ever read. I’ve loved every single Polaris Prize winning album thus far. I love them for a reason, I think they’re great albums, and they won because enough other people thought they were great albums too. Although it has it’s flaws in biases in the selection process, I think the Polaris Prize does a great job of picking a great winner year after year. Even this year when I thought the longlist was very underwhelming, I thought they did a great job of trimming off the excess fat in the selection of the shortlist (Which is something that I’ll talk about in a few weeks).
With that being said, if you take a look at longlists and shortlists of the past, The Polaris Prize does look a bit like an old boys club. Past winners like Fucked Up, Patrick Watson and Owen Pallett along with favourites like Metric and Joel Plaskett are going to be talked about for the Polaris Prize whenever an album of theirs is eligible. I’m not saying that future nominations from any of these artists won’t be deserved, but I don’t think they should exactly be shoo-ins all the time either.
I think that seeing a lot of the same names over and over again is a bit of a sign people in Canada are pleased with what they have It speaks to the stagnant culture that the article in question was discussing. It’s simply inevitable that more popular artists are going to be on the Polaris Prize lists. If it’s a popular album then more jurors are going to listen to it, and consequently more jurors are going to like it. There is definitely a group of names that you could bet your life on to make the Polaris Prize longlist for the next decade and as long as you looked after your health you’d be living in ten years time.
So, who is to blame for this? Why is there an group of artists in Canada that (even among circles like the Polaris Prize) we treat like gods who can do no wrong? I think goes back to something I said earlier: people are just happy listening to what they they know. I know many people in Canada love listening to CBC Radio 3, which does tend to lean heavily on popular acts like Joel Plaskett, Metric, Dan Mangan and Said The Whale. Don’t get me wrong, Radio 3 is a great way to discover music, but they do seem to play favourites a lot of the time (Both figuratively and literally). I’m guilty of this too, I have a group of bands that I love. I try to find new music all the time, but I’ll always end up coming back to a handful of bands that I know I love, and who in my opinion can do no wrong.
So are curators like CBC Radio 3 and various other blogs completely at fault? Perhaps a bit, but I don’t think what they do is particularly a bad thing. There is too much music out there for it not to be curated in some fashion. There so many different blogs that have been so helpful to me discovering new music over the years that I would lose track if I tried to count them all. It’s just important to recognize that there is so much more music out there to listen to than you or any other blog knows about. Despite what it may seem like, music curators like Pitchfork don’t know everything about music.
I do think that in this age of internet and blogs that a lot of people lack the skill of being honestly critical of music. It’s not really the fault of listeners either, it’s just really, really tough to be able to truly form your own opinion when you have a hundred other different opinions being thrown at you already. So I think it’s important to be your own curator sometimes. Don’t trust your usual sources for finding music all the time. So visit some new blogs, find some weird labels or go to a local show to go to. Just go find something new and try to make your own opinion of whether or not you think it’s boring.
Now, to finally answer the question at hand: Is Canadian music boring? I think the best answer I can give is this: Canadian music will be boring if you decide to make it boring for yourself.
(Just a note, I won't being doing this feature for the next couple of week, but I'll be back soon enough!)