Michael Buckner | Frazer Harrison, Getty Images Now this is a collaboration that…
- Posted on Sep 20th 2010 10:00AM by Carl Wilson
An hour later, the hardcore art-punk band's lead bellower would be planting a slobbery one on the lips of emcee Grant Lawrence and clenching in his hirsute paw an oversized cheque for $20,000.
Tonight (Sept. 20) a Polaris jury will, for the fifth time, anoint the year's "best" Canadian album at ceremonies in Toronto. The prize has taken its place with Britain's Mercury (awarded last week to dry-ice-hot synthrockers the XX), the Choice in Ireland, the Australian Music Prize, the Shortlist Prize in the US (possibly defunct) and France's Prix Constantin as alternatives to their countries' more industry-dominated gong shows, such as the Junos, Grammys or Brits.
The big-name awards tend to measure success at least partially by sales, and take their cues from a voting professional Academy or panels of industry insiders. A few go the People's Choice route and reward the kinds of celebs who'd be crowned prom queen. But this younger batch of prizes lets members of the media (plus, sometimes, a Beck or Wayne Coyne, for glamour's sake) bestow the honours.
They claim their picks are based "solely on artistic merit, without regard to genre or record sales," as the Polaris guidelines put it. This, of course, is bulls---. Why is it, then, that most of the chosen end up being roughly what's labelled (despite the increasing semantic irrelevance of the word) "indie"? It's because critics, while we may not be beholden to commerce, still have our own vested interests as a class.
The Polaris Short List this year is the Besnard Lakes, Owen Pallett, Broken Social Scene, Radio Radio, Caribou, the Sadies, Karkwa, Shad, Dan Mangan and Tegan and Sara. (I was a member of the 200-plus-person Polaris voting pool, but I'm not on the 11-person Grand Jury, which decides the big kahuna backstage during Monday's gala, though two other Spinner contributors are.)
Normal people usually respond, "Who are they? Where's Justin Bieber?" Hip music fans shrug, "Yawn! Where the hell's Crystal Castles?" The annual whine goes that the Mercury and Polaris lists are too obscure or too predictable; judges are cooler-than-thou elitists or boring old rock dinosaurs. Not to mention too white, too male, too big city, too market-corrupted or too politically correct.
And this is all true. But while perhaps not entirely the breath of fresh air they purport to be, critics' prizes carry a beerier, smokier reek of live-music clubs instead of air-conditioned offices.
Critics are a kind of clan, and clubs are their tribal fires. Those who vote in the Polaris, by definition somewhat accomplished but not yet burnt out, are usually in their mid-20s to mid-40s -- if more were 25 than 35, Crystal Castles would have a better shot. It's a patriarchy (or a bro'triarchy), though gender diversity's improving. Since writing is its central ritual, the tribe favours those with some "higher" education and an introspective bent. And its largest branches are based in big central cities.
These qualities are closer to those of indie bands than to musicians in other genres. Or as David Lee Roth once put it, "Rock critics like Elvis Costello because they all look like Elvis Costello."
The shapes of the prizes are set by these dynamics: The Polaris and Mercury are for albums, not artists or songs, which puts singles-oriented genres like hip-hop, dance and R&B at a disadvantage. While beat-based music may dominate pop today, only a small portion of Polaris voters are specialists in it. When hip-hop is nominated, it's something (like Shad) that's accessible to non-hip-hop heads, with melodic and lyrical qualities, not to mention social values, not too radically removed from most critics' staple listening.
There are other structural quirks. The Mercury relies entirely on a small appointed panel so its choices can swing more wildly. The Polaris, with its politely inclusive Canadian method of choosing a shortlist -- if you're remotely legit as a critic, you can get a vote -- almost automatically eliminates outlying oddballs. It's left to the final grand jury to nudge it away from the lowest common denominator so that the winner's not always (if ever!) the best-promoted choice, such as Broken Social Scene or Feist (who did win the 2007 Shortlist Prize, since in a US context she seems somehow less pedestrian).
The Polaris guidelines ingenuously aspire to a context-free ideal, like a blind tasting, a Pepsi Challenge. If they could magically remove all prior knowledge of the artists from voters' heads, you sense they would. They implore you not to consider if a record is over-exposed or under-exposed, the bands' intriguing trousers or irritating haircuts, what they said in an interview last month, or anything other than the album itself.
But the earbone's connected to the brainbone, and the mind doesn't work that way. When expert panels are asked to sample wines without any information about their origins, even connoisseurs have an amazing amount of difficulty telling a Pinot Noir from a Shiraz, much less a $200 wine from a $25 one. We experience stimuli associatively. Our judgments are born in context and can't really be taken out of it.
Critics' prize are chosen by people who tell stories about cultural phenomena for a living. We know we have to keep things interesting. So inevitably the prize's meta-narrative plays a crucial part.
F---ed Up won the Polaris last year on their merits but also because it made a statement (after Final Fantasy, Patrick Watson and Caribou took the first three) that Polaris wasn't only for cerebral soundscape artists. If Shad wins now -- after losing in 2008 and K'naan losing last year -- it will counter the charge that rappers only get token nods. And before long a major-label, big-name artist (probably not Justin Bieber) just may win to overcome that kneejerk "indie" reflex.
Voters probably don't steer that way consciously. Instead, their nerves vibrate in sympathy with the prize's own will to power, correcting for excesses and maintaining credibility. It's a survival instinct. With the crisis in media and easy access to music and recommendations online, the Mercury, Polaris, et al, allow critics to affirm their own existence and professional worth. No wonder, after surprise Mercury winner Speech Debelle (aka Speech Debacle) failed to win public approval, this year's jury ran straight into the arms of consensus pick, the XX.
So if these critics' picks are somehow compromised, messy and partial, why pay attention to the likes of the Polaris or Mercury at all? Well, first, you're not going to find any more objective opinions anywhere else. And whomever the prize goes to, some band gets to repair their van or pay off their student loans on a sponsor's dime, and other musicians get extra incentive to innovate and impress on terms beyond what the kids, the suits or da club demand.
Love the winners or hate them, we all get to spend September hollering about our tastes -- and even reconsidering what they say about us. Or about those a--holes over there. Or at least about Damian Abraham's ass.
Carl Wilson is the author of 'Let's Talk About Love': A Journey to the End of Taste, an extraordinary entry in the 33 1/3 book series that uses Celine Dion as a starting point to delve into the reasons why we love -- and hate -- certain music.