We all know now what Neil Young thinks of the oil sands. We probably guessed what his opinions were before he even announced the Honor the Treaties tour, which just played sold-out shows in Toronto, Winnipeg, Regina and Calgary. This is a man whose songwriting has often dipped into the political. This is a man who, as he reminded us this month, put out an album all about his biofuel car (Fork in the Road—arguably one of only three Young albums in the last 20 years worth listening to more than once).
What everyone seems to forget is that Neil Young was not the only person on the Honor the Treaties tour. Diana Krall was his opening act. Diana Krall could easily fill any of the tour’s venues on her own. Diana Krall has sold more copies of her albums in the last 20 years than Neil Young has of his newer material in the same time frame. Diana Krall has never been known to utter a political opinion in public. And if Neil Young’s music sounds like a rustic shack and lumberjack shirts, Diana Krall’s oeuvre is all luxury condos and evening gowns. Neil Young is not risking anything by taking the stance he does. His audience would expect nothing less. Krall’s audience probably all have RSPs tied up in the resource sector. So who’s the real rebel here?
Krall and Young make an odd couple (even more odd than Krall and her husband, Elvis Costello). Perhaps it’s not unusual that he’s receiving the brunt of the attention and scorn; he’s the one convening press conferences, not Krall. He’s also spent three more decades in the public eye as Krall has, making him an icon.
But what does Krall think of the oil sands? Why did she go on this tour? Neil didn’t need her to fill seats; she didn’t need the exposure by hitching on to his fringe jacket. Maybe Krall consciously chose to let her appearance speak for itself, lending quiet, tacit support at a moment when she wouldn’t be in the spotlight herself.
Or maybe nobody bothered to ask her. Do we not care? Is it because she’s a woman? Is it because she plays inoffensive music? Is it because, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, she’s never rocked a boat in her life?
As someone who can’t stand to listen to more than four bars of Krall’s music, I find her role here even more fascinating than Young’s. Why now? What pushed to her to take a stand on the most divisive political issue in Canada today? What does she have to gain? Her husband built his career, in part, on being a thorn in Margaret Thatcher’s side, from his position on the pop charts. Is Krall having a late-in-life political awakening?
People listen to Neil Young when he speaks, but people can also kind of guess what Neil Young’s going to say. He wields enough influence that the federal government and the oil industry took direct shots back at him, in an effort to dampen his message. Yet Young did more to energize actual debate about the oil sands than anyone since Ezra Levant. Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy chose to issue his own statement of full support for Young’s actions. Sarah Harmer, Dan Mangan and The Tragically Hip’s Gordon Downie signed a letter of support put out by the Athabasca Chipewyan (as did Joseph Boyden and Michael Ondaatje). They are the only musicians of that stature to do so.
What would happen if others waded into the debate? Not the Justin Biebers of the world, who would be all too easy for Stephen Harper to dismiss (or endorse, for that matter). Artists who already take political stands would likewise be written off. What about notably non-political (and adult) superstars? (I wouldn’t count on Nickelback.) Maybe most musicians in 2014 are too busy trying to scrape together any dollar possible in a declining industry to risk alienating a potential audience member. Maybe they don’t feel as thick-skinned as Neil Young does. Maybe they feel they need Andrew Nikiforuk or David Suzuki whispering in their ear before they dare speak out in public.
In which case, Krall’s mere presence on the Honor the Treaties tour speaks volumes. Introducing a jazz-era chestnut called Let It Rain at the Calgary show, Krall said, “This song’s all about love, so I’ll just shut up and sing.” Maybe we’ve been conditioned to think so little of our musicians’ contribution to culture that that’s all we expect her to do.