Canada stages its next invasion
Scruffy, indie-rock collectives from the past decade no longer represent Canadian cool. They have been replaced by the mellow flows of the DIY, Soundcloud generation
How much has Canadian culture transformed just in the past decade? One illustration is this year's cluster of tepidly received comebacks from the Canadian indie-rock class of the mid-2000s – while the younger, funkier, dancier side of Canadian pop was on a global victory lap.
Feist's first record in six years, Pleasure, aroused polite interest and then quietly sank from view, compared with the soundtrack-of-all-media her music became in the mid-to-late aughts. Her cohort Broken Social Scene's reunion album Hug of Thunder, after seven years, was more of a shoulder squeeze of fond nostalgia. And Arcade Fire, that Grammy-winning paramilitary squad of whooping emotional sincerity from Montreal, drew baffled and irritated responses to its would-be-satirical publicity campaign for new album Everything Now (its first on a major label). Its subsequent tour made headlines in November for leaving arenas in most cities half-empty, despite live reviews as rhapsodic as ever since 2004.
Meanwhile, the royalty organization Socan has counted six consecutive record-high years in revenue for Canadian songwriters, composers and music publishers, thanks to the international chart performances of Drake, the Weeknd, Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes, Alessia Cara and others. It would go down in history as the Canadian Invasion, if only listeners gave a fig whether the artists were Canadian or Alpha Centaurian.
Unlike in the 1960s British Invasion, few American vocalists are about to start faking Canadian accents. But the trends in hip-hop, pop and R&B have shifted toward Drake's and the Weeknd's more self-deprecating, shut-in vibe – which seems fair to tag as a Canadian tone. And there are innumerable young and savvy beat makers, rhymers and singers following in their slipstream.
Not more than 10 years ago, it was the scruffy rock artists who were supposed to mark Canada as the magnetic north of musical cool. The New York Times printed successive features celebrating Montreal's and Toronto's eclectic underground/indie/art-rock scenes (or whatever you prefer, since no term ever fit comfortably). Montreal had the "explosive" sounds of Arcade Fire and the anarcho-rockchestra Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
In Toronto, a sprawling family tree radiated out from Broken Social Scene (BSS), which linked to Feist, Stars, Metric and Do Make Say Think. A more do-it-yourself cluster of "Torontopian" bands launched labels such as Three Guts (including the Constantines), Blocks (featuring Owen Pallett) and many others. The model had been anticipated by the New Pornographers in Vancouver, in which one glam-power-pop band's body was shared by the formidable singer-songwriting heads of Carl Newman, Neko Case and Dan Bejar (a.k.a. Destroyer).
These scenes shared an ethos of collectivism, of diverse aesthetics and interests within communities of mutual support – almost like a dressed-down version of Canadian federalism. They tended to be theatrical and multidisciplinary, continuing a Canadian tendency tracing back to Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen of blending poetic exploration with melodic accessibility (although their circles included less amiable, noisy experimentalists, too).
They weren't particularly radio-friendly. But like indie bands elsewhere at the time, they benefited by the mainstream music industry's calamity-filled transition to digital, as well as the advent of online music bloggers and sites such as Pitchfork as direct channels to potential fans. Perhaps they also answered a need for anti-conformist voices in the Bush era. It's no coincidence that the critic-directed Polaris Music Prize was launched in 2006 as an alternative to the industry's Junos. Artists from these networks dominated the early shortlists.
Today, they're not really anyone's image of the future, not even their own. After the release of the New Pornographers' seventh album, Whiteout Conditions, last spring, Newman told an interviewer, "At some point, you don't know where you're supposed to go. … You're not the hot new band any more, but you're also not the hugest band in the world. It's weird to try to figure out how to stay."
Likewise, Dan Bejar (who has withdrawn gently from the Pornographers) croons on his latest Destroyer album, ken, "Bands sing their songs and then disappear." He unpacked the line for Pitchfork, with characteristic archness: "You know when you go to some rock festival, and there are bands around, and you feel like you're staring at ghosts? It's like death row. … That's a feeling I have, but I didn't want it to be said in a supernegative way. I wanted it to be more like, 'Hey bands, you should embrace this dance with death. Don't fool yourselves: You will be gone soon.'"
Arcade Fire's biggest trouble may be that, with its greater success, it hasn't quite faced that mordant truth. But the conflicted mock-publicity campaign all but confessed it, like a classic psychoanalytic symptom.
Youth-music scenes are made to scatter and wither. But the 2000s in particular were also the twilight of the cultural dominance of rock itself. There remain plenty of vital, creative rock artists, but they're more of a niche concern, like jazz after the 1950s. Meanwhile, the Torontopia scene's bright-eyed urbanism was thrashed out of it in the Rob Ford era. And in most major cities, real estate speculation has gobbled up available practice and performance space, while hip-hop and R&B can more easily be made on laptops in home studios.
For all the old scenes' virtues, one aspect that was all too traditionally Canadian was how white (and, to a lesser degree, male) they were, and based in the usual downtown centres. The recent Canadian Invasion has emanated particularly from cities' diverse inner suburbs, where voices from other communities have been waiting decades to be heard. Yet the newer stars do share some traits with the 2000s indie types. Many of them have used Soundcloud, YouTube and other online channels to muster attention. They still feel an urge to localism and collectivism, in their own way – witness Drake's promotion of "the 6ix" and his recruitment of new artists and producers such as Partynextdoor and Majid Jordan through his OVO Sound label, not to mention the Weeknd's XO label. And their styles continue to fall at an oblique angle to their American equivalents.
There are whirlpools where the waves meet. Although Polaris shortlists still lean white and indie, the past four winners have been Inuit (Tanya Tagaq), Cree (Buffy Sainte-Marie), Haitian-Canadian (Montreal hip-hop producer Kaytranada) and Afro-Colombian (Lido Pimienta). Ottawa's A Tribe Called Red, twice Polaris shortlisted, is an Indigenous collective that's drawn to cross-genre collaboration. Pimienta and other female- and gender-non-conforming artists – Weaves, Witch Prophet, the Highest Order – also gathered this September for the first edition of Venus Fest in Toronto, which preserved the cross-disciplinary ethos of the earlier indie collectives but with a fiercer devotion to inclusion.
As Joni Mitchell would put it, it all goes round in the circle game. Or, as Emily Haines of Metric chants on BSS's album, "just the latest in the longest/ rank-and-file list/ ever to exist/ in the history of the protest song."