It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Amidst award shows like the Grammies, Canada’s Polaris Awards seemed to be something different. As Internet over-abundance has made some feel big media has grown yet more powerful, Polaris seemed oozing with indie cred. Metric, Purity Ring, and Metz played the award ceremonies. Tegan and Sara, Zaki Ibrahim, and A Tribe Called Red got shortlisted. There’s even a cute infographic explaining how the selection process works, and it seems legitimate. (One potentially-bad sign: cloned, hipster-like characters in the image, vintage eyewear present, people of color entirely absent. But designers will be designers.)
Past selections have been laudable, too: Feist (2012), Arcade Fire (2011), Karkwa (2010), Fucked Up (2009), Caribou (2008), Patrick Watson (2007) and Final Fantasy (Owen Pallett) (2006).
Faced the question of why music couldn’t shortlist artists the way the Pulitzer, Man Booker, and Orange prizes do, ever-thoughtful American radio network NPR praised Polaris as a music award show that actually mattered and its ten “wildly eclectic albums.”
The Good Listener: Forget The Grammys — Which Music Awards Matter?
And then Godspeed You! Black Emperor wins the award – well afield of the mainstream. It seems that’d seal the deal. The Polaris is a Grammy for people who actually care about music.
Well, maybe. There’s just one catch: Godspeed You! Black Emperor questions whether the award show should have happened at all.
Oops – better change the plot on this one.
The band is humble and grateful, but they also issued a scathing critique of Polaris and their home and native land of Canada.
3 quick bullet-points that almost anybody could agree on maybe=
-holding a gala during a time of austerity and normalized decline is a weird thing to do.
-organizing a gala just so musicians can compete against each other for a novelty-sized cheque doesn’t serve the cause of righteous music at all.
-asking the toyota motor company to help cover the tab for that gala, during a summer where the melting northern ice caps are live-streaming on the internet, IS FUCKING INSANE, and comes across as tone-deaf to the current horrifying malaise.
On the last point, they may be a bit hard on Toyota. As car companies go, Toyota (here via their Scion brand) have had a mixed record, but not an entirely negative record. The Daily Beast wrote in 2007 how volunteer-run environmental megagroup Sierra Club’s Dan Becker went from championing the company (for Prius) to attacking it (for policies that opposed climate change reforms). Under public pressure, Toyota finally distanced itself from some of those policies, though it still is a member of the climate change-denying US Chamber of Commerce. (Disclosure: I worked with the Sierra Club when the Prius thing was happening, and even met Dan on occasion. I’ve also pitched Scion. I make no claim for my own independence.)
But generally, it seems the adventurous band have a point.
It’s worth reading their whole statement, as there are a number of lines of critique:
A FEW WORDS REGARDING THIS POLARIS PRIZE THING [Constellation Records]
And they’re not just complaining: they have a proposal.
maybe the next celebration should happen in a cruddier hall, without the corporate banners and culture overlords. and maybe a party thusly is long overdue- it would be truly nice to enjoy that hang, somewhere sometime where the point wasn’t just lazy money patting itself on the back.
They’re taking their prize money to give prisoners in Quebec musical instruments, and suggest more government funding for lesser-known artists in more venues.
And perhaps, ultimately, there’s a message here. The Internet and the rise of “indie” (perhaps alongside the accompanying rise of “EDM” in dance music) has often rewarded sameness, not the utopian variety it once promised. The aforementioned NPR could perhaps be part of the critique: the network’s music selections are high quality and help amateur listeners navigate the online sea of possibilities, but have none of the experimental edge of the independent radio stations. (You know, the “what sounds is that cat making in the percussion room” feeling of music. Seriously – I miss some of that.) And those affiliate stations have weakened profoundly, many only repurposing centralized radio.
Award shows may, indeed, not be the way to make things better, culturally speaking. (I’m not clear on whether Godspeed feel that cultural spending is somehow a waste for a government in austerity – I’d hope that’s not what they’re arguing.)
More parties in cruddy halls sound nice.
And in a weird way, Godspeed may have made an event out of a non-event, by Kanye West-ing-Taylor-Swift-ing … themselves. (For the record: Taylor Swift is hanging out with Tegan and Sara, as the trying-ever-so-hard Polaris blog was keen to tell us.)
Maybe what we need is not an alternative to the big awards after all. Maybe we need things that don’t even invite the comparison – even as parody.
The band deserves it. Not the prize – they deserve the chance to say what they want about the position of music in their country. And Constellation is putting out some wonderful music. Queue it up, and make your own party:
For my part, I’m heading to Reeperbahn Festival – Hamburg, Germany’s “don’t compare it South by Southwest” music fest – for a couple days. I’ll let you know what happens. If it goes awry, I can always blame Canada.
Update: Note that a Calgary Herald editorial asks a relevant question: if GY!BE felt that way, why didn’t they bail when first nominated, rather than … now? Of course, possible answers include: if they’d said something before now, no one would have listened; they might not have expected to win, and winning gives them added responsibility. (And they didn’t refuse the award, either – they were effectively grateful for the award and recognition, but thought the money could be used elsewhere, and weren’t grateful for the sponsor, which seems fair.)