Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Godspeed vs. Polaris: We all win

I have never understood why anyone would not want to have cake and also be able to eat it. Is that so wrong?

Godspeed You Black Emperor won the Polaris Prize on Monday night, which comes with a $30,000 cheque. They refused to perform. They refused to participate in the split 7” series featuring all the nominees. They did not attend the gala. The morning after, they issued a communiqué. Read it now. It’s become the most-discussed and inflammatory Polaris win since an album called He Poos Clouds, on a tiny worker’s co-op of a record label, nabbed the inaugural award in 2006. Godspeed is the first winner in Polaris history to openly question the entire point of the award itself.

The winning album opens with a drone and doesn’t witness a chord change until about seven minutes into the 20-minute track. It is music that is inherently outside the mainstream, mysterious and at times aurally offensive even to those who claim to champion alternative culture. It has nothing to do with eight of the other nine nominees; with label mate Colin Stetson, of course, there are more parallels to be drawn. But even Stetson is two degrees of separation from Kanye West, and has played on the previous two Polaris-winning albums (The Suburbs, Metals). Godspeed are, by nature, outsiders who don’t try to endear themselves to anyone.

So who among us was surprised by what they said?

I was. Pleasantly surprised—especially considering the vitriol they used to unleash on unlikely targets such as Exclaim! magazine (the subject of their last communiqué, which seems to have mysteriously disappeared from the Internet). UPDATE: Here's the link from a time when Godspeed actually were dicks. I dare you to try to read the whole thing.

Contrary to what a lot of chatter claims, Godspeed did not refuse the award. They did not turn down the money. They did not spit on the media of this country, or the people who go out of their way to champion marginal culture in a media culture that attempts to render it invisible on a daily basis. They did send two people to represent them—if not necessarily speak for them—to the gala. They did not boycott the Polaris Prize.

In their own words, they are “grateful.” And “humbled.”

And then they have a few more things to say. With a lot of rather cutting self-deprecation acting as a tonic for their righteousness. (Contrary to popular opinion, this band is not without a sense of humour. They did invite Weird Al Yankovic to play when they curated All Tomorrow’s Parties, after all.)

They’re clearly uncomfortable with the idea of awards and competition in the arts. Surely that’s not a controversial position, is it? Even I, as someone who fully embraces the idea of arts awards as a means of generating mass interest in art that all too easily slips through the cracks—and that goes for indie films that get nominated for Oscars as well as small-press publishers who get on the Giller list—recognize that the idea of “winners” and “losers” is patently ridiculous. Polaris, like any other prize, is a parlour game where predicting the results is a silly and ultimately meaningless sub-intellectual exercise. As I’ve argued before, the winner is little more than a MacGuffin, a sideshow.

Don’t like the winner? There sure were some great records on that shortlist you can propose as an alternative. Don’t like the shortlist? There sure were some even better records on the long list you can continue to champion. Don’t like the long list? There’s still plenty to talk about. Let’s all keep talking. Because if we shut up about the music we love, there’s a good chance it will no longer exist.

Rather than shutting up and smiling and shaking hands, Godspeed chose to stay in the game and speak up. In their own way, without a giant novelty cheque.

Are there contradictions between their statement and their behaviour? Of course. Complaining about a glitzy venue is a bit rich, when one member of the band owns two of Montreal’s best venues for smaller acts: does he forgo repairs in order to retain their cruddiness? And as juror Carla Gillis pointed out on Twitter, “Holding the gala in an elegant, great-sounding venue shows respect for Canadian musicians, who play cruddy halls nightly.”

Speaking of cruddy halls, yes, Godspeed are opening stadium shows for Nine Inch Nails this year, playing venues named after banks and telecom companies, so their distaste for Polaris’s car company sponsorship is a bit rich. And arguably, they could have protested earlier and dropped out; no less than Alice Munro has removed herself from the Giller process in the past. But they didn’t: they were smart enough to know that if even one Tegan and Sara fan was curious enough to check them out and discover new worlds, then the engagement—minimal though it was, on their part—was worth it.

But cries of “hypocrisy” are cheap and self-serving—not to mention belittling to anyone who dares to ask questions. As my friend Geoff Berner put it today, “It seems like any time any lefty makes any statement in the public square, it's always accused of ‘hypocrisy.’ Environmentalists who ride cars to demos are hypocrites. Musicians who participate in a flawed music biz are hypocrites when they point out flaws. Basically, it seems, the choice is, either go along with everything, or stay out of the public square completely. Otherwise, you're a hypocrite. Either be a cheerleader, or be silent. Great.” You know who else is hypocritical? Rich Christians. And music critics who get all their music for free and then complain about not getting on guest lists.

The essential website Weird Canada tweeted on Monday night: "It takes a lot of conviction to do the things that Godspeed does. It's easy to write it off or trivialize what they do. [So] don't." 

Even the naysayers cannot deny the power of Godspeed’s intention to donate the prize money to a program providing instruments for prisoners. A charity like MusicCounts, which does the same for schoolchildren, is an easy sell. I’m not going to knock it. But no one wants to think about the many ways in which we fail to rehabilitate the lowest of the low in our society, the ways in which we continue to make a bad problem worse, the ways in which the current Canadian government is adopting the knee-jerk ideology of the prison-industrial complex that even the U.S. admits no longer works—and that’s an issue that gets far less play in the media than, say, reforming marijuana laws.

Now, I wished I liked Godspeed’s record more than I do. I wished it sounded like 2013 rather than 1999. I wished Zaki Ibrahim or A Tribe Called Red or Colin Stetson could have ignited entirely different conversations than the one we’re having right now, one in which a bewildered music industry succeeds only in proving Godspeed’s points by overreacting with crybaby complaints of our own. We protest too much about the pickle we’ve stuffed up our own butt. In feeling somehow threatened, we expose our weaknesses.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Mile End, Godspeed is going to continue doing what they’ve always done, on their own terms, and giving back to the local community to which they first pledged allegiance. And I’m sure their cake tastes very, very good.

Also: Former Polaris Prize staffer Liisa Ladouceur beat me to making many of these same points today, and perhaps did it better. Please read her piece here.

And fellow juror Dave Morris, a friend with whom I frequently disagree on almost everything musical, makes more excellent points here


Paul K Lawton said...


Paul K Lawton said...


Mike Olsen said...

I completely agree with everything here. Especially about the fact that in order to make a left wing public statement about something, you have to be somehow perfect.

Thought provoking discourse is what matters. Im not such a godspeed fan either but I appreciate they do what they do. really. And they don't have to be perfect to be relevant.

boogerstonec said...

Heck. Ya.