Jeremy Dutcher has won the 2018 Polaris Music Prize, to the surprise of no one who has been paying attention to the annual prize’s eclectic motivations over the years. Dutcher is a classically trained operatic tenor, a musicologist and a member of Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick. His winning album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa is a spellbinding work of modern and classical piano aesthetics, with lyrics sung in a dying Wolastoqey language.
Some artists might visit the Motown Museum in Detroit or the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville for inspiration. Dutcher visited the archives at the Canadian Museum of History, where he meticulously transcribed forgotten Wolastoq songs from turn-of-the-century wax cylinders. Ancestral voices did not haunt Dutcher’s project so much as they encouraged it.
Most Canadian music fans, of course, have never heard of Dutcher. Neither are they too familiar with most of the nine other artists nominated for the $50,000 prize that was awarded in Toronto on Monday. Shortlisted group Partner, for example, has been hailed in a national publication as “Atlantic Canada’s Best Lesbian Garage Band.” Jean-Michel Blais is a sublime, piano-string-plucking Chopin enthusiast from Quebec, and Pierre Kwenders is a Montreal-based Congolese-Canadian dynamo who sings in four languages and grooves in plenty more.
Though their music is catnip to the critics, these talented artists are topping no mainstream charts. Polaris voters have a history of championing the obscure, the oblique and the underdogs, starting with maiden winner Final Fantasy in 2006 and including Caribou, Karkwa, Kaytranada, Tanya Tagaq and last year’s winner Lido Pimienta. Is that a problem? Not at all. Singular talents Tagaq and Pimienta in particular have been well-received breaths of fresh, fiery and iconoclastic air on the Canadian cultural landscape.
But whither the pop artist in the Polaris prize world?
The Guardian newspaper recently published an article on the “token” short-listed acts for the Britain’s most prestigious music award. The article’s contention was that for the annual Mercury Prize, nominees who operate in the jazz, folk and classical genres aren’t considered genuine contenders.
When it comes to the Polaris, artists in those genres are rarely nominated, let alone contenders to win. But here’s the real token Polaris genre: Pop music – and not just Shawn Mendes mainstream pop, but alternative pop, too.
For its album Antisocialites, the Toronto troupe Alvvays was put forward for Juno’s 2018 group of the year, and won in the alternative-album category. The band was nominated for this year’s Polaris, but even with its serious Juno pedigree, it probably had little chance to win. Same with Daniel Caesar, even with Juno trophies and Grammy nominations already in hand this year. And while the Meghan Remy-led U.S. Girls was considered a front runner for the Polaris, other highly popular pop/rock acts Bahamas, Arcade Fire, Donovan Woods, the Weather Station and the late Gord Downie were left off the short-list ballot altogether.
As for Drake, an international phenomenon, he’s failed to convert any of his three past Polaris nominations (2012, 2014 and 2015) into an award for the best full-length Canadian album based on artistic merit, regardless of genre, sales or record label.
So, an occasional Feist or Arcade Fire notwithstanding, Polaris celebrates the undercelebrated. Officially, that’s not the prize’s mandate, but it’s hard to argue against Polaris’s freethinking spirit, especially when it comes to its recent shoulder-hoisting of historically marginalized artists.
“You are in the midst of an Indigenous renaissance,” Dutcher said on Monday during his acceptance speech. “Are you ready to hear the truth that needs to be told? Are you ready to see the things that need to be seen?”
Polaris, which counts Colombian-Canadian Pimienta, Haitian-Canadian DJ Kaytranada, Cree folk legend Buffy Sainte-Marie, Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq and now Dutcher as its most recent winners, is not only ready to hear the truth, but is supplying the megaphones to help in its spreading.