When Feist swept the 2008 Juno Awards, graduating from 2005’s “new artist” and “alternative” ghettos to album of the year winner for the global hit The Reminder, it sent a warm shudder through our home and native land. To those of us who have traditionally viewed the Junos as an overblown exercise in vulgarity prompted by the worst impulse of the recording industry—namely, the dubious celebration of sales—it felt like a revolutionary blow against bad taste. In more vivid and immediate terms, it was a strict blow against Feist’s fellow nominee Céline Dion, who was shut out of her natural stomping ground by the anti-Céline herself: a punk-bred critical darling from Western Canada with style, flair, and the world’s hippest TV commercial.
It might have been an otherwise unremarkable case of out with the old, in with the new, if it hadn’t been for the evident quality of the new. By any measure, Feist offers a more nuanced, sensitive, and satisfying musical experience than standard-bearing Juno magnets like Bryan Adams, Shania Twain, Céline, and even 2007’s champ, Nelly Furtado. Somehow, an accord had been reached between the historically antagonistic positions held by Zulu Records–shaped music snobs and, say, their moms. How did this happen?
Dion has never been anybody’s critical darling, and certainly not when the towering Québécois monolith of tyrannical super-emotions enjoyed a five-Juno sweep precisely 10 years ago. Back then, we lived in a Canada of Mike Bullard, Our Lady Peace, and the perpetual reminder of the Great White North as a dependable source of grotesque, mega-successful adult-pop phenomena distinguished by a persistent quality of almost transcendental boredom.
Bryan Adams’s tortuously titled “Everything I Do (I Do It for You)”—which, incredibly, helped land gold statuettes for the North Van–raised AOR juggernaut for two years running, in 1992 and ’93—is only part of a ’90s legacy that saw the awards show diplomatically splitting its main categories between small-scale CanCon lottery winners like the Headstones, Junkhouse, and Rainbow Butt Monkeys, and the pandemic tedium of global headaches like Alanis Morissette.
In all cases, as presented by the establishment, Canadian music seemed to be in a tragically advanced stage of the blight it developed in the ’80s, when, according to Mondo Canuck authors Geoff Pevere and Greig Dymond, “indistinctiveness wasn’t just the point, it was the selling point.” Idiosyncratic underground voices like cub, Thrush Hermit, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor didn’t get a look-in. Hip-hop was consigned to a niche category.
Then a new century arrived, and something happened. To be specific, Broken Social Scene and the New Pornographers happened. So did Arcade Fire, Metric, Kardinal Offishall, the Dears, Frog Eyes, Black Mountain, Buck 65, K-OS, Death From Above 1979, Caribou, Wolf Parade, Final Fantasy, Cadence Weapon, Crystal Castles, Fucked Up, articles in the New York Times anointing Montreal with ground-zero hipster status, NME compilations pimping The Sound of the New Canadian Scene, and the advent of the Polaris Music Prize in 2006. It all added up to a general sense at home and abroad that we were no longer “America’s retarded cousin from up north”, this description coming courtesy of Jason Pettigrew, editor of the influential, Cleveland-based American glossy Alternative Press.
“First off,” Pettigrew argues in a telephone interview, “Canada owes the world a big apology, obviously, for Nickelback, the Tragically Hip, and another one that never really got out of the box, but got into my universe—the Tea Party. What the hell was that? Dropouts from the Jim Morrison finishing school, or something?”
With that off his chest (and fair enough), Pettigrew goes on to gush about Shout Out Out Out Out, You Say Party! We Say Die!, and Holy Fuck—“and Tokyo Police Club, that’s one of yours, right?”—while generally blowing kisses to an “inspired” music culture that “creates shock waves of excitement which inspire everybody else”. He respectfully acknowledges the impact of what he calls the “Broken Social Scene mafia”, even if he’s not a fan, and claims, “I would rather hang out with You Say Party! than be 20 blocks from where Tapes ’n Tapes are playing.”
Which is to say, we’ve come a long way from Pettigrew’s earliest days at Alternative Press, when the reviews editor had a box labelled “Total Shit” with a Barenaked Ladies demo sitting ignominiously on top. Toronto-based music critic Carl Wilson puts it slightly more thoughtfully.
“What I think 10 years ago was genuinely an outsider perspective in the music world is a little closer to what is an establishment thing at this point,” he says, talking to the Straight from Hogtown. “There’s definitely some kind of social shift going on.”
Here, we seem to be approaching the thorny issue of taste, so it’s a good thing we have Wilson on the line, since he’s the go-to guy on these matters after publishing an exquisite 2007 monograph on that very subject. Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste is Wilson’s oddly tender attempt to understand the appeal of Céline Dion, wherein he somehow manages to reach a truce with the queen bee of overkill and her fan base, debunk reflexive critical snobbery, defend sentimentality and schmaltz, and yet still come on like an angst-ridden brainiac. (Wilson appeared on The Colbert Report in early March, so it’s not just our musicians who are making waves—it’s also our music critics!)
If one views the death match between Dion and Feist in this year’s “fan favourite” Juno category as “symbolic”, as Wilson does, it’s because there’s possibly more to it than a simple expression of generational friction.
“I felt like it was something that was in the air,” Wilson says about the impetus behind A Journey to the End of Taste. “There’s something in the nature that we’re all experiencing culture right now, this sort of fractured version of culture that makes it a natural question to ask.”
What Wilson is getting at here cuts to the heart of the music-industry paradigm—the dying model of omnipotent supplier and semi-passive consumer.
“I think it’s a sort of ”˜Internet in a postbroadcasting world’, where radio and TV are only two of the forces through which people are getting their information,” he offers, “and where you have lawyers and account executives reading Pitchfork, which I think is not at all uncommon.”
Pettigrew is even more blunt about it: “I guess the playing field’s levelled because nobody’s buying records anymore; they’re just downloading the living shit out of it. And it feels like aesthetics can finally triumph.”
Music is clearly facing its democratization as this storm-battered century gets under way. And not just in terms of the cheaper and more immediate means of production and distribution, thanks to your computer and Internet connection, but also in its appreciation. Freed from the influence of advertisers, bloggers are allowed to criticize from the heart. We also no longer rely on radio and TV to tell us what we like. Calling from Toronto, Polaris Prize executive director Steve Jordan explains, “MuchMusic doesn’t play many music videos anymore, because guess what? The kids a) stop watching, because b) their habit is to watch videos on YouTube. That’s where they go for music videos now.”
None of which explains what’s in the water, air, or Canadian experience that’s prompted such an explosion of talent—or why the rest of the world noticed. Stephen McGrath of Arts & Crafts Productions reported to the Straight that the band Broken Social Scene “just played in Singapore, and in South America, places where they don’t even have a record out, and a thousand people show up”.
Jordan confirms that we’ve come a long way since Dion was standing on the deck of the Titanic. “There’s no longer a general sense that we are the land of our million sellers,” he says. “Now we have everyone from Chad VanGaalen to Feist, to Ron Sexsmith, to Martha Wainwright—I mean, I could go on and on and on. But yeah, we’re definitely being seen as a force for good in music.”
Which brings us back to this weekend’s big wingding at GM Place—the great Canadian Juno Awards, where the forces of good will battle the forces of Nickelback, Hedley, and Simple Plan. Looking at the quality of some of the ballots, Melanie Berry, president of the Juno-organizing Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, isn’t blowing smoke when she tells the Straight, “People are more aware of all the other artists, and not just aware of the top sellers, because as we all know, sales have changed as a reflection of what the public know or listen to.”
CARAS is adapting to a dramatically changing landscape in the only way it can. For the first time, this year the artist and group of the year categories have been altered to allow for a voting component in the first round, with CARAS members nominating acts that previously were chosen based on the sole consideration of units shifted.
“[It’s] to downplay the sales a bit,” Berry says. “I think it’s very good. I think it’s what we were being asked for.”
And while the broadcast of the awards ceremony (taking place at GM Place on Sunday [March 29]) remains the Junos’ biggest tent with all the expected sub-Grammy gaffes (CTV boob Ben Mulroney to the late Jeff Healey, on the red carpet during the 2003 broadcast: “Who do you have your eye on this year, Jeff?” Healey’s response: “Did you really just say that?”)—CARAS deserves plaudits for getting it right in so-called niche categories like roots, rap, reggae, and aboriginal, and for catching up with the rest of us in the insurgent alternative division. In the latter, we find our own Black Mountain, the Stills, Chad VanGaalen, Plants and Animals, and, most incredibly of all, the awesomely challenging artcore mindfuckery of Fucked Up’s The Chemistry of Common Life.
“That was the furthest thing from our minds when we started this band,” Fucked Up’s hulking (and, quite frankly, terrifying) vocalist Damian Abraham (aka Pink Eyes) told the Straight, when asked about his Juno nod. “And I would say right up until I read that we had gotten the nomination, I still thought that it was an impossibility. To be honest, I still think it’s an impossibility.”
There must be some phrase that captures the utter transgressiveness of this nomination—some slogan or bit of jargon that elegantly communicates how bizarre, radical, unexpected, and contrary to all conventionally understood standards it is to see Fucked Up on that ballot. Oh, that’s right—it’s fucked up. In the very best way.