Wednesday, September 16, 2015

I'm a Polaris juror, and Canadaland sucks

Attn: tiny Canadian music media bubble.
In response to Johnnie Regalado’s Canadaland piece:

I enjoyed Johnnie Regalado’s contributions to the Polaris Music Prize jury. He, like me, championed the Native North America comp. He introduced me to a weird blues guy from Victoria called Iceberg Ferg. He suggested some things that I checked out but that did not float my boat. He frequently chimed in to discuss new music—discussions that comprise 95% of what happens on the private message board used by Polaris jurors. I’m sad to see him go.

I’m also sad to see the way he went, complaining that he was consistently marginalized and bullied by, in his words, “high-profile,” “influential” “big egos,” and claimed that represented the bulk of his experience with Polaris. Maybe I’m one of those people. Some people I consider close friends most certainly are. (Full disclosure: the CBC host Regalado singles out as being particularly hostile has been a close friend of mine for more than 15 years. Boys’ club!)

Is the Polaris jury “a hostile, boys’ club atmosphere,” as Regalado claims? Obviously I’m not the person to judge that. Women I love and respect tell me that is, regrettably, the case. Other women I love and respect tell me that it’s absolutely not the case. The latter doesn’t negate the former. Yes, the jury is dominated by men; sadly, that is true of the lowly profession of rock critic. The math is indisputable. And yes, I’ve seen well-intentioned men in the group “pile on” a woman who claimed that nobody listens to her—and all those men wanted to hear more of what she had to say. (A well-intentioned pile-on is still a pile-on, gents. Full disclosure: I was one of those men.) I also know that the organizers always try to achieve gender parity in the actual jury room that decides the winner.

Is the Polaris jury a hostile space? It’s an online jury of almost 200 people who are there to have a spirited discussion about music. If you’ve ever been in a room of music nerds debating whether or not, say, Drake or Arcade Fire or Colin Stetson are musical geniuses or totally talentless clowns, then you’ll know that people will voice strong opinions—especially people whose job it is to have strong opinions. Sometimes many people who disagree with you will stand up and tell you that you’re wrong and have terrible taste. Is that hostile? We’re talking about music here, not the Middle East. It’s really not that important. We should be able to laugh about this at the end—not take all our toys home and cry to Canadaland. (Full disclosure: My family and I have attended birthday parties for Jesse Brown’s children, among other social occasions. Boys’ club!)

Regalado accuses jurors of being “genre cops” because people who didn’t like B.A. Johnston were particularly virulent about it. Should that be surprising? Johnston has a clear shtick; it’s only natural that will provoke a divisive response. Any random, harmless, solo folk singer with an acoustic guitar would not provoke that kind of reaction. That’s not genre, that’s a question of taste. If I don’t like Drake it’s not because I don’t like hip-hop. If I don’t like Tobias Jesso Jr. it’s not because I don’t like sappy singer-songwriters. For whatever reason—especially for someone who claims to represent “marginalized music communities”—Regalado spends a lot of time defending a white guy from Hamilton who appeals mostly to university students. (Full disclosure: I once attended a wedding with B.A. Johnston. Nice guy! I’m completely agnostic about his music, and found the whole “controversy” highly amusing.)

I think Regalado would have a much better point to make if he were arguing that metal, jazz, classical, or breakcore records—or artists who sing in neither English nor French—had zero chance of being recognized by Polaris, and that hip-hop still suffers, all these many years later, of being marginalized by a country of rock critics raised on Blue Rodeo. (Full disclosure: I love Blue Rodeo.) That is a conversation we should all definitely be having. And we do, we Polaris jurors, among ourselves and in public forums as well.

Then we get to Viet Cong, the Calgary band whose debut is shortlisted for this year’s prize. Like Regalado, I too find the band’s name offensive, for many of the same reasons he does. (It helps that I don’t like their music.) Unlike Regalado, I’m well aware that other people disagree with me/us. And it’s not like Regalado was the only Viet Cong dissenter; many jurors took issue with the band’s name, so he was neither alone nor ignored.

Something like the Polaris jury’s private message board is exactly the kind of place to have those discussions, to engage with others. Not to lecture them, which would mean you say your piece and then expect everyone to agree. Engaging means that someone responds, and then the conversation continues. How else will you ever change minds? Once it starts to get asinine—which might be after the first response, maybe the 10th—just walk away. Your point’s been made. Maybe your opponent wasn’t convinced, but maybe someone else reading the thread was. Doesn’t this happen every day on Facebook and Twitter? Does this have to be explained to someone under 40? (Full disclosure: I have no idea how old Regalado is.)

I’m glad there is a discussion about Viet Cong happening before the Polaris gala next Monday. Mostly, I’m glad that this excellent piece ran in Exclaim!—a magazine, by the way, edited by the Polaris jury foreperson Regalado takes issue with.

I don’t think the Polaris prize is perfect, far from it. And the behaviour of many jurors on the private group occasionally irks me as well, including jurors I like personally—but mostly I just ignore it, because it’s easy to ignore. I’m sorry that Regalado only saw hostility. I’ve learned a lot from my fellow jurors, even the ones I don’t like personally. I see passionate people who have elevated obscure or difficult records to national and international prominence. I’ve seen valuable conversations develop when someone like Tagaq or Godspeed or Fucked Up or Final Fantasy take home the prize. And even though I take issue with Regalado’s points,  and his breach of privacy, hopefully some valuable conversations will emerge from this as well—in the tiny, tiny world where any of this pretends to matter.

(Full disclosure: I am and will continue to be a Canadaland patron.)

UPDATE: Proving the earnestness of Canada's music and media industries, many people don't seem to understand that the headline of this article is sarcastic, in direct reference to the headline on the Canadaland piece. Because I have to explain sarcasm, no wonder these problems boiled to the surface in the first place.)


Anonymous said...

If the thoughts of Polaris jurors are "really not that important" then why get so upset about the email leaks? Maybe it's because (just maybe!) the "easy to ignore" environment actually *is* hostile - and jurors know it.

Certainly a few of the emails excerpted in the Canadaland report appear to go beyond the usual standards of critical sark/ill-humour and seem very juvenile indeed - threatening, even.

From your position as a pretty-big-deal juror, it might be easy for you to ignore that threatening atmosphere (and there's nothing wrong with that) but just as you admit you're maybe "not the person to judge" the lack of female voices, maybe you're also not the person to judge the hostility issue either? Because your advice pretty much amounts to "man up", which isn't super useful or friendly.

Anonymous said...

The bigger the egos the more defensive and hurt they get. Why is it that rock critics can never take criticism?