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The problem with this year’s Juno Awards isn’t just that too few women were nominated. It’s that unit sales remain a significant – and sometimes the significant – factor in eight of their most important award categories, from album of the year to breakthrough artist of the year. McDonald’s and Harvey’s don’t make our best burgers; Jurassic World and Furious 7 aren’t our best movies; why are we describing One Direction’s Four or Bryan Adams’s Get Up as among the year’s best LPs? It’s erroneous to the point of farce: Sales do not determine (nor, arguably, even correlate with) quality. That’s why 34 of the Junos’ 42 categories ignore sales numbers. If CARAS (the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences) wants to continue rewarding mass-market records for being mass-market records, they should name those categories accordingly.
I’m not simply bothered by the semantics of the word “best” and whether it should ever be applied to Nickelback. I’m upset because awards like the Junos steer a certain kind of canon-making. And that canonization affects the way we see our own – and occasionally others’ – culture. We should never let the markets dictate the boundaries of what can or cannot be considered great. Crowds are as often witless as wise, and by celebrating what’s already popular we are privileging a status quo that is sexist, racist, heteronormative and by definition conservative. The gender tilt in the Junos’ sales-skewed nominations is a reflection of our equally unequal society at large.
Don’t get me wrong. Matters doesn’t necessarily improve when the only consideration is “merit”: See the whiteness of this year’s Oscars noms, or of CARAS’s board of directors. But at least then you can encourage people to examine their bias and privilege. It’s easier to talk about whom we choose to honour, and why, than to dismantle all the inequalities of a vast economic system.
Which brings me to Grimes. Kill V. Maim is electrifying. It is strange and wonderful. It is a rock song that glides on air, that plunges forward, that smashes into patriarchy and coos its wanton pleasure. Grimes is Vancouver-born Claire Boucher. She has described Kill V. Maim as an anthem “from the perspective of Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II, except he’s a vampire who can switch gender and travel through space.” Either this will make you listen or it will make you not; your answer may depend on your age. “I’m only a man,” Boucher sings. “I do what I can.”
Grimes won a Juno in 2013, in a non-sales-affected category. Her latest release, the pop/rock-oriented Art Angels, was one of the most acclaimed albums this year. It was submitted to the Junos. It did not garner any nominations. Were jurors ambivalent? Did it not sell enough copies? We don’t know.
The system’s broken. The Junos will remain a laughingstock until they’re fixed.
Sean Michaels received the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Us Conductors. He is the editor of the music blog Said the Gramophone.