To Polaris Music Prize,
My condolences on the departure of your founder and executive director, Steve Jordan, recently appointed senior director of CBC Music. From modest beginnings in 2006 (in borrowed office space, from what I understand), he created what now stands as a semi-prestigious annual arts award, while fostering musical community and encouraging LP-based water-cooler discussion. For its electrifying live performances, for its atmosphere of camaraderie and for its handing out of a $50,000 cheque in recognition of the year’s best Canadian album, the Polaris gala has become a calendar highlight within the industry. The industrious Jordan is to be applauded and will not be easily replaced.
That said, would you allow me to express my anxiety about maintaining your well-earned reputation? Full disclosure: I’m a Polaris voter and have served as a final jurist twice. My concern is that you’ve drifted from your mission, and it would be a shame if your star, which has shone so brightly, were to lose its lustre.
To start, can we do something about your lack of recognition when it comes to certain styles? Back in 2008, you made the decision to make public your internal ballot of 40 albums each year. Your heart was in the right place, giving exposure to more albums. But the move was a mistake. The long list now is stocked with so much underground indie weirdness and deservedly obscure noise that you’ve alienated yourself from the general music audience. Your disapproval of mainstream pop and your ignorance of blues, jazz and classical music is exposed. You come off as hip and smug, and we know that was not your intention when you pledged to consider albums “without regard to musical genre or commercial popularity,” as you so often make clear.
You hold your annual gala at Toronto’s Carlu, which used to be one of Glenn Gould’s favourite rooms. Have you heard of Gould? He was a pianist big into variations, especially the Goldberg ones. In 2018, the Halifax soprano-conductor Barbara Hannigan won a classical-music Grammy for her adventurous Crazy Girl Crazy album. And yet, Hannigan was not even worthy of inclusion onto a long list of the year’s top 40 Canadian records?
It’s a crime that Newfoundland’s Amelia Curran and Nova Scotian banjoist Old Man Luedecke, indisputably two of the country’s finest songwriters, have never made your 10-album short list. Apparently their uncool craft doesn’t measure up to the avant-garde edge of the twice-nominated saxophonist Colin Stetson. And the B.C.-based blues artist Jim Byrnes? His mojo is working just fine, Polaris, just not on you. Perhaps a rejigging of the jury or a tweak to the voting methods are in order.
A more nuanced issue has to do with the do-gooder bent and impulse for activism you’ve shown over the past few years. Privately, your voters have told me they’re not interested in voting for rock stars, reasoning that the more established artists don’t require the Polaris cache or its bread. So, while there was a time when a Feist or an Arcade Fire could (and did) win a Polaris, I’m not sure it’s possible for a big-timer to win any longer. Justin Bieber’s skin is filling up fast, with dwindling room for any “I Heart Polaris” tattoo on him.
Your jury is stocked with journalists, who, I don’t need to tell you, love a good story. They bypass overdogs such as Drake and legacy acts such as Neil Young, attracted instead to the nerd-noise gloom and exotic punctuation of lesser-knowns such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor. You got it right in 2017 with new-timer Lido Pimienta’s La Papessa disc, but, two years earlier, old-timer Buffy Sainte-Marie’s win for Power in the Blood smacked of lifetime-achievement recognition, when the prize is specifically supposed to single out the year’s best album.
In 2018, the backstory to Jeremy Dutcher’s Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa won out over the radio-friendly melodic soul of Daniel Caesar’s Freudian. Dutcher’s project (which involved a dying First Nations language, wax-cylinder recordings and ancestral duets) was fascinating. But was it the best music of the year?
Personally, I dig the whole anti-establishment thing you’ve got going on. Conceptual or truth-saying or distinctly Canadian music from artists such as Pimienta, Dutcher, Tanya Tagaq and last year’s winner, Haviah Mighty, is exactly what Polaris should be rewarding. Just be more transparent about it. Own your activism. I know you like the whole mysterious Vatican-style sequestered-jury drama of your voting nights, but it’s time to be open about what you’re doing. Admit Polaris is no longer about the “best” album, but the most important album.
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