The politics of the Polaris Music Prize

0 Posted by - September 23, 2010 - Editorial, Features, Policy, Sound

Did anyone catch the Polaris Music Prize award show on MuchMusic, Canada’s music television station? No? Of course you didn’t. Because despite the fact that was hosted by some of MuchMusic’s personalities, it was relegated to a live feed on the channel’s website.

Granted, the show will be aired on the main MuchMusic channel on Saturday, but its placement and rerun status suggests that it’s an afterthought. I guess they couldn’t find any space in a packed Monday night schedule of three Gossip Girl re-runs; two Degrassi episodes; a show called Pants On, Pants Off; and the painful Video On Trial. Groan.

Conrad Black once said of Canada:

The destructive fixation of the envious English-Canadian mind requires that the highest, happiest most agile flyers be laid low. [It is] a sadistic desire corroded by soul-destroying envy, to intimidate all those who might aspire to anything the slightest exceptional.

No doubt Black had himself in mind when he rolled that one out, but it’s an interesting thought, certainly when it comes to Canadian art, which is usually only truly celebrated at home once it has attained some level of prominence abroad. And usually once it’s made some money. It makes us ask what Canadians deem worth celebrating, and what ends up gaining prominence on the national scene. Not to mention why.

A handful of experts and members of the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences pick the winners of the Juno Awards, Canada’s main music prize, but the more technical or unpopular awards are often left out of the main broadcast. That live show has increasingly catered to a broader audience, resulting in an endless stream of generic, predictable winners, and a television ceremony featuring a parade of U.S. artists. That’s been partly driven by the fact that nobody ever watched the live broadcast of the show until CTVglobemedia bought the rights to the telecast and made it, well, corporate. And guess who happens to also owns MuchMusic? CTVglobemedia.

The Polaris Prize (based on the UK’s Mercury Prize) also aims to celebrate albums based on artistic merit and is judged by a panel of music experts and critics. The prize itself, however, is $20,000, which suggests that the winners and nominees include artists that need a bit of financial support.

That’s the thing about art: it always comes down to money. That is, that as much as any artist is dedicated to their craft, they also need to get paid somewhere, somehow. That relationship between art and money is an uneasy one, because it carries with it an inherent bitterness. It’s what eventually leads to artists labeling other artists as sell-outs. The thing is that there’s nothing wrong with making money from art — we should all be able to do it — but the question becomes whether we celebrate the money or the art.

Back to mediocrity for a second — that destructive fixation of the envious Canadian mind that forces our high fliers to lie low. Like any industrialized society with a thriving cultural scene, Canada has always struggled with what it deems to be artistically relevant: popular art or marginalized art? In some ways, we celebrate both. After all, we like to think that there’s room for everyone in this country. And we have galas that end up somewhere in between celebrating what’s both generally popular and what’s critically considered to be very good, even if it is somewhat marginalized — like in the case of the Polaris Prize.

But here we hit an uncomfortable bump. And again, it comes down to money.

The problem arises when the art that sells well begins to take precedence over the rest of it. That’s not just relevant in the case of say, the Junos versus the Polaris Prize, but that dichotomy might hint that it’s an issue.

In this example, CTVglobemedia, the parent company to MuchMusic, decided that art that makes money was actually more important than art that might not make as much. Instead of making the Polaris Prize award show, which featured a mix of familiar and new Canadian artists, a live, marquee event, the network decided to air programs that no doubt demanded higher advertising dollars — a show like Gossip Girl, for instance, which aired at least twice during the Polaris Prize gala.

That’s an issue for Canadian artists in general. By marginalizing the Polaris Prize show, CTVglobemedia has done two things. And, surprise, they’re both political and they’re both related.

See, the other issue about art is that when someone is looking to make some social divisions, it’s an easy target. The Polaris Prize is no different, as it features independent bands that aren’t regularly presented on Canadian airwaves, but occupy the fringes, like on CBC’s Radio 3, a channel available online or on satellite radio. Both the Polaris Prize and the bands it celebrates are unknown to many Canadians, and because it’s art, what’s unknown is often labeled as snobby or elite.

The word elite, as it happens, is a political one, and not just because Conservative House leader John Baird recently uttered it when he referred to the leaders of the NDP and Liberal parties. It’s a political word because it divides us into classes. It wedges us apart, so to speak, into those that know and those that don’t — into snobs and Everyone Else.

Not too long ago, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a surprise visit to the National Arts Centre in Ottawa and played the piano, accompanied by Yo Yo Ma on cello. The reaction was surprise and also concession that, with the gesture, he had eased tensions with a demographic that he’d previously insulted when he’d dismissed galas as playgrounds for — you guessed it — “elites”. The Polaris Prize, and indeed much of the Canadian music scene, still fall into the territory of those who know: the snobs. We shouldn’t be able to make that distinction, let alone ever allow it become political fodder, reduced to nothing more than a wedge issue used to cater to a partisan base. That goes for either side of the spectrum.

The second issue is again about money. Specifically, it’s about funding. It’s difficult enough for artists in Canada to raise money for their projects, but harder still if the general idea of a Canadian artist is one that’s been seen walking the red carpet at the Junos or MuchMusic Video Awards (a celebration strictly of pop music and tween marketing culture) — that is, someone who is already successful. Why, one might wonder, do they need more money? Secondly, for those who malign the likes of Nickelback or Justin Bieber on artistic merit, the question becomes again one about celebrating the mediocre. The thinking for some is that if their arts funding is only promoting artists that are broad and derivative, then why bother at all? It also makes cuts in funding to the arts seem like a problem that only affects the very few, the fringe elements of society or those with enough money already. So, y’know, no big deal.

So, unfortunately, by not presenting the Polaris Prize award show on an equal footing to say, the Juno Awards or the MMVAs, MuchMusic has only helped to push it further to the sidelines of Canadian cultural knowledge. Here we have a distinctly un-mediocre group of critically acclaimed, internationally recognized, cutting edge Canadian artists being celebrated in Toronto for their achievements, and like the technical Juno Awards that are handed out before the main event, nobody saw it. The people who know about it now are the same people who knew about it yesterday.

There are plenty of artists in need of exposure and funding that never get a chance to be seen or heard. Here was a chance a Canadian broadcaster to change that, and it dropped the ball. Its condensed presentation of the show on Saturday night is an afterthought; for all intents and purposes, a rerun. MuchMusic hasn’t helped make any of the artists featured in the show any more popular, just solidified their audience via a medium through which they were already known. In fact, it’s helped to make them even more unknown, and unfortunately made that $20,000 perhaps all the more necessary.

(Originally published on Yesterday’s Weirdness.)

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