In a rare (e-mail) interview last year, the reformed Godspeed You! Black Emperor was asked by a Guardian writer if the music press took the band too seriously. “Probably,” was the group’s reply.
On Monday evening, the jurors of the Polaris Music Prize took the Montreal post-rock instrumentalists seriously enough to pick their epic-drone album ’Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! as the album of the year. The response from Godspeed, who did not attend the gala at Toronto’s swank Carlu, was fuming. In an online screed, the reclusive Montreal collective railed against the concept of art-based competition in general, and the gala spirit and commerciality of the Polaris organization specifically.
While thankful for the recognition – “it feels nice to be acknowledged by the Troubled Motherland when we so often feel orphaned here” – Godspeed holds the awarders of “this Polaris Prize thing” in contempt. The audacious protest contains three points which they assume “almost anybody could agree on maybe.”
The band believes that “holding a gala during a time of austerity and normalized decline is a weird thing to do.”
The band believes that “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.”
The band believes that “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 [highly unreasonable], and comes across as tone-deaf to the current horrifying malaise.”
It’s hard to know how serious to take this. Godspeed could have refused the award, but did not. Godspeed could have shown up at the gala and protested in person, but did not. And if they had shown up, they’d have witnessed a celebration of Canadian music, not a competition. (Granted, the gala, which gets richer and more grandiose by the year, often seems to be a Polaris celebration of Polaris itself. But such self-congratulatory behaviour is a symptom of award shows.)
As for the decision of the Montreal miserablists to donate their $30,000 in winnings toward the purchase of musical instruments for Quebec prisoners, the gesture is probably commendable, but also confusing. Godspeed despairs of what it sees as Canada’s sorry state. Does a trombone for a tax-evader really help the cause?
It’s doubtful that the band’s ill manners will affect its rebellious reputation and stern DIY ethic. As the American music journalist Jessica Hopper said about Godspeed, when acknowledging the group’s non-appearance, “It shows you what kind of career you can have by just saying no.”
The triumph for the hazy eight-piece rockestra was not a surprise, in that there was no consensus among critics beforehand on which of the 10 shortlisted albums was superior. Anybody could have won; anybody did. The album’s ascension to the top is reminiscent of the 2009 win by the Toronto turbo-rock outfit Fucked Up, for its magnificent blitz The Chemistry of Common Life. Albums like that and ’Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! have a built-in advantage, I think. It’s awfully big music, but with a calming effect from the drone – the loud-soft dynamic is the opposite of unnerving.
You don’t so much appreciate the music as you submit to it – obeying the imposition of the sonic will and rhythmic certainty. Godspeed is the lion; the listener is the impala. The 11-person final jury, seduced by the overwhelm, helpless in the face of the storm and mesmerized by the doom, gave in.
The only other act with a nominated album that did not perform Monday was Tegan and Sara, the sassy-smart twin sisters from Calgary. Unlike Godspeed, Tegan and Sara are not no-sayers. Their nominated album Heartthrob is the result of the duo’s unabashed ambition for pop-music stardom. The disc is shiny, crafty and accessible, a departure from their more indie-oriented albums of the past. To an outrageously heavy marketing campaign, Tegan and Sara said “yes.” To adorable videos featuring small dogs, “yes.” To a massive touring schedule, “yes.”
Their single Closer should be the single of the year, with lyrics that could apply romantically or to the eyes-squeezed-hard wish for a new proximity to listeners: “All I want to know is, can you come a little closer?” The answer is yes – and no. Currently selling out shows in the United States, Tegan and Sara were unable to make it to the Polaris gala.
So, Tegan and Sara say yes, while Godspeed says no. Perhaps we take them both too seriously. And perhaps Godspeed, with its self-righteous, overreaching rant, takes itself too seriously as well.