Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Post-Polaris sober second thought

Two days after the Polaris gala, Helen Spitzer and I are sober, well-slept and somewhat more coherent than yesterday. Today, we get down to weightier issues than just our musical crushes.

HS: Yesterday we didn’t really get to talking about what this win says about the prize itself. In the last year there was sustained hand-wringing about the shortlist being so “safe,” and then outside of our community of critics and musicians and music lovers, a public perception that Polaris is the “indie prize.”

MB: This was the first year since the inaugural prize that the choice of winner doubles as a political statement. Hopefully that’s not at all part of the discussions in the jury room, which is where you were that first year. But Final Fantasy was a brilliant way to introduce the awards: a relatively obscure, boundary-breaking artist on a micro-indie label topping a diverse shortlist of mainstream and oddball nominees.

HS: Jury deliberations are under a publication ban, but I can say this: there was a groundswell of support for Final Fantasy in the jury room Year One, and his champions came from the unlikeliest places. It’s easy to forget, when you read weeklies or blogs and get used to a particular critic’s beat, that hardcore music lovers (I’m not referring to the genre here) have catholic tastes, and those tastes will typically be far wider-ranging than what they’re paid to write about. And agreed that politics doesn’t belong in the jury room: Jury headmistress Liisa Ladouceur takes great pains to remind people of that.

MB: But we were outside it this year, so I feel free to comment on what this year’s winner means politically. First off, to all the people who think Polaris is some kind of safe, milquetoast award: shut the fuck up. Say what you will about the first three winners, but I don’t think any of them are “safe” or remotely mainstream. The names Final Fantasy, Patrick Watson and Caribou are guaranteed to draw blank expressions at your next family reunion, or in a random straw poll at the shopping mall.

But for the self-righteous contrarians of our ilk, they couldn’t have asked for a better winner than Fucked Up. And not just because of the juvenile reason that the band’s name still raises eyebrows, but because even a show like CBC’s Q won’t play more than 30 seconds of their music; if I’m not mistaken, CBC Radio 3 has only one of their songs on its playlist. Needless to say, they’re nowhere near commercial radio. This is a band that the CanCon mafia—you know, the patronizing kind that insist art has to play to some imaginary archetypical listener in small-town Saskatchewan (which underestimates small-town dwellers everywhere)—is absolutely terrified of. And so on that level, Fucked Up’s win will gain the respect of Polaris’s crankiest critics.

HS: An aside: last night I was with a small-town Saskatchewan geek who has the adventurous tastes we’ve been describing and probably should be at the CBC. And they’d never hire her. (Or they might, and promptly beat her into submission). Your rant brings a tender smile to my face, Mr. Barclay, because we are tasked with the impossible: to justify to our people that there are all kinds of machinations and late-night sweating over ballots to produce a list eventually branded as “safe”— and simultaneously convince the broader public that anything they haven’t heard on the radio before isn’t automatically indie rock.

MB: Which brings us to the other side. Fucked Up’s win will not help the broader ghettoization of Polaris as an indie rock prize. Indie rock fans may be all in a flutter about what a breakthrough this is for hardcore punk, but the other 95% of the population will see Fucked Up as just another subset of indie rock. Fucked Up’s win—apart from the so-called “controversial” nature of it in a five-minute news cycle—will be largely akin to that obscure MC on Big Dada Records that just won the Mercury Prize in the UK, whose name I already don’t remember. So after the congratulatory back-patting is over about what a bold choice Fucked Up was, I fear that the win will largely be forgotten by the larger populace.

HS: Quick! We must revel in the moment before it subsides! In all seriousness, what you say is so very true (great heaving sigh) and it would normally make me wonder why I bother. But I’m an eternal optimist: I know that Polaris will endure because it was born at the right moment, and it was born of the right stuff.

Think about it: Steve Jordan launched this thing at the very moment that everyone was proclaiming the Death of the Album. And not only has it proven—after four short years—that this is not the case, it has actually captured the imagination of the music-buying public in Canada and become something they care and argue passionately about. I think the fact that there was so much criticism about Polaris—from both directions that we’ve described—bodes very well for the prize. And this passion seeped into the whole event. Musician (and friend) Julie Penneranother optimist—was watching this thing on her computer Monday and she said it was very evident that we (the dirty Polaris underground) were taking over the MuchMusic/MTV party, and not the other way round.

MB: Perhaps. I don’t know what your evidence is, and I’m not clear at all how to gauge whether the Prize has “captured the imagination of the music-buying public in Canada.” I suspect it hasn’t—and I don’t think that’s the ultimate goal anyway.

HS: Right, I meant to say independent music-buying public.

MB: So while cynics start rolling their eyes at the phrase “it’s about the art and nothing else,” this is what I believe Polaris’s goal actually is. I do want to clarify something I said earlier about telling cynics to shut the fuck up. I was being only partially facetious, because I do want those people in this conversation. I want them involved and to champion their corners of the world. As a curious music fan, I want to know what excites them and why.

If we all pull up our stakes and go home—or, in the case of the Junos, create such a huge tent of sub-categories that it becomes entirely meaningless—then there will be no shared conversation. There are 1,001 reasons why narrowcasting of every stripe poisons the creative mind. And my stupid, naïve belief is that something like Polaris creates conversations around Canadian music culture that were in bad need of a central focus point five years ago.

HS: Your stupid, naïve beliefs are why we love you. This week actually affirms my resolve to argue more passionately in the coming year. And also to poke/provoke into action some incredibly astute but heretofore silent members of the jury who really should be piping up more on the Polaris listserv, which all jurors belong to.

Speaking of curious music fans, I’ve said this before elsewhere but I think that Del Cowie (longtime Canadian hip-hop writer) best exemplifies what jurors should aspire to: his ballot had Bell Orchestre, an instrumental “classical-rock” band AND D-Sisive AND Junior Boys AND K-os (who is as rock as he is hip hop) AND K’naan. Motherfucker went and spent the year really, really listening to everything that the other jurors uploaded.

David Dacks is another; our tastes don’t cross over much except in the realm of world music and weirdo jazz, and he goes way deeper than either of us, or anyone else we know. And yet he can talk to us about the Timber Timbre record we’re shitting ourselves over.

MB: And those two guys keep coming back to Polaris, even though they’re lucky if one “token” act from their ballots—or even their areas of interest—make the shortlist. The listserv has been very good in provoking year-long discussion, and the fact that all jurors have download access to albums championed by another juror means that obscure records with no promotional budget have a better shot at reaching critics across the country.

But it’s also prone to some sniping and endless brain farts, which I think turns a lot of people off and tunes them out of any potentially productive conversation. But whatever—that’s of no concern to any non-juror reading this, I suppose. You and I are just the navel-gazing liberal media elite sitting in our kitchen geeking out to the new album by The Clean.

HS: The intro of The Clean song playing right now is totally Payola$. I’m putting “Eyes of a Stranger” on next.

MB: Back to this year’s winner again, though. While I don’t at all support the music on Chemistry of Common Life—I wish I found it as dangerous, liberating and progressive as everyone keeps telling me it is, instead of muddy and monotonous—I do love what Fucked Up have done with their moment in the spotlight so far. This band has always been about creating and celebrating community, not just in Toronto but far and wide, and they’re the type of tide that lifts many boats. Projects like their marathon shows or their star-studded Christmas charity projects are awesome. They’ve used their media moment to highlight awareness of missing Aboriginal women in Canada, not a particularly glamorous subject that people want to be pondering in a media scrum at an awards ceremony.

At every turn, they’ve acted like ambassadors, representing their community, their political beliefs, and when they travel abroad, a side of their nation’s culture that most people here don’t even see. (See their great morning-after interview on Q here.) They’re not angry bun-throwers crashing some cultural cocktail party. They’re interested in raising the level of discourse as much as the rest of us. All of this makes me want to love this band, but I’m not going to lie about disliking their album any less than I did last week.

HS: Because they’re punk rock! They used their moment in the sun to show the rest of the country what punk is outside of the mall. You’ve mentioned raising the level of discourse and it makes me think of two things. One is that the lifers in this business have much to teach the quick-to-the-keyboard newbies (I’m delighted, for example, that one of our Canadian music crit heroes Mary Dickie was on the jury this year. And Nicholas Jennings).

The second thing I’m thinking a lot about is the state of music criticism. Never has there been a time when so many people aspire to such an ignoble profession, and never have there been so few paying gigs. Who was telling me that there is one full-time newspaper music journo left? (This about the larger newspaper/culture-writing problem: there’s only full-time book critic in this country, Geoff Pevere). When I looked around that room Monday night I couldn’t help thinking how few writers have paying jobs writing about music anymore.

MB: The irony of this is that you’re writing on a blog right now. Why pay someone when they’re going to do it anyway for free, and an aggregator can just make a link? Call Rupert Murdoch and kvetch. But speaking of links, I would like to shout-out Frank Yang of Chromewaves (and grand jury member last year) who I thought had the best morning-after coverage—and amazing pictures. I also love Connie Tsang's much-reproduced one of Pink Eyes and Grant Lawrence making out while Sarah Taylor appears to be either scandalized or serenading them.

HS: There’s a “video killed the radio star” style pop song to be written on the subject of blogs killing dead-trees. And I disagree with you about the "doin'-it-for-free" part: it's just one symptom of a larger sickness. The blame for the death of print lies squarely at the feet of newspaper owners culling the very things people look to them for (investigative reporting, foreign correspondence, seasoned columnists) in favour of running old news and celebrity coverage. Maybe the Payola$ could write this song I have in mind. Didn’t I hear you in heavy discussion with another critic about the perilous existence of the Vancouver dailies?

MB: The Payola$ are back together, by the way. Myself and Stuart Derdeyn of the Vancouver Province, who was on the grand jury, launched an ill-advised conversation in a scotch-filled room at four in the morning (three hours before his flight home) about how if CanWest folded tomorrow (which has been likely for the last six months) there would be no daily paper in Vancouver anymore, coz they own both the Province and the Sun.

But then as now, that’s a whole other conversation. And speaking of other conversations about Canada, democratic processes, and the future of media, I’m sure I’ll see many of our readers at the Maclean’s-sponsored debate tonight between Ed Broadbent, John Ralston Saul, Andrew Coyne and Paul Wells. Right? Right? We’re going, and not because anyone at my day job put a gun to my head.

HS: I am atwitter with excitement at the prospect of talking Canadian democracy (voter indifference! mindless partisanship!) and I use that world in the old-school sense. It’s at 7PM! Tonight! At St. Lawrence Centre, 27 Front Street—a mere whisper away from C’est What! Come talk Canadian rock and roll and democracy afterwards.


frank said...

you guys are adorable and inspiring. thank you for caring so damn much.

Kelly said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
stuart said...

wow, "self-righteous contrarians" should "shut the fuck up", no wonder smaller labels feel they have no place at the Polaris, if their critiques are thought of that way. If you as person who has historically been really supportive of such efforts believes that, than we really have no chance to be taken seriously in such realm.

I think it is time for me to write a blog response, reflecting on the polaris prize and music industry, from the persepective of a self-righteous contrarian.

mmmbarclay said...

First of all, I love you.
Secondly, I didn't say that anybody who has any issue with the Polaris Prize in general should shut the fuck up. I said that anyone who things that the whole thing is rigged in favour of "safe" music--based on the four winners so far--is misled.
I would love to debate you. We can have an email exchange if you like, and I will happily print it.