Does the Canadianness of Canadian Music Matter?
‘Tis the season for inferiority to rear its ugly head here in Canada, or Toronto more specifically. In other words, it’s Canadian Music Week. What should be a celebration of locally produced music the week serves to reinforce our eternal notion that we, and our cultural products, are inferior to those emerging from the U.S. At this stage, when the Canadian music industry has been thriving for the last 50 years, producing world-renowned artists and new genres, why do we need to reemphasize the Canadianness of Canadian music? Why can’t our musicians simply be musicians?
I started to wonder about this when I noticed a couple of things related to CMW. First, the cost of a wristband is now $75—not a bad price to see both established and promising bands all week. But it’s still a price I and many others can’t afford to pay, making the growth of the event evident. Second, there are flags flying on lampposts downtown advertising the 40th anniversary of the Juno Awards, around which there has been much hype (including a new book detailing its history). Canadian music has become big business. By selling us our Canadianness, both industry and audience benefit. We can go to concerts feeling as though we’re cheering for the underdog, those local musicians who need a groundswell of support to find success beyond national borders, while the industry cashes in on our desire for a collective identity. And yet, the Junos have become a poor imitation of the Grammys, complete with the adulating ‘who are you wearing’ shouts from the hour-long red carpet pre-show, and a focus on big sellers and mainstream artists during the televised portion of the awards. At least CMW is a nice antidote to that, as it culminates in the Indie Music Awards and does feature bands that generally don’t get enough attention.
But why do we feel the need to insist that this music is actually Canadian? It is as though we can’t believe it ourselves and we need constant reminders that we, too, can actually write and perform music. Of course, this is a function of the long-running identity crisis that comes out of the dominance of American culture on our TVs and radios, but after producing Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Anne Murray, The Tragically Hip, Arcade Fire, and Broken Social Scene (not to mention Celine Dion and Shania Twain), can we not just look at our music as plain old music?
Further evidence that we need to stop bracketing ourselves off from the popular music coming out of the rest of the world is seen in my students. Most of the students who come into my classes know which of their favourite artists are Canadian, but don’t see that aspect as being relevant to the quality of their music or their potential for success. They have grown up in a globally oriented popular culture, hearing and viewing most of their music online, which seems to have the effect of erasing (or diminishing) national markers. This was evidenced most obviously when I assigned an essay topic on Canadian music that asked them to discuss the identity and sound of their chosen artist.
“What do you mean, describe the sound of Canadian music,” they would ask me. “Well, it sounds different,” I would say, “You know, Canadian.” They would walk off confused, but I stuck to that narrative I was telling both them and myself. Canadian music sounded rural, open, more natural, acoustic—all properties that are ridiculous, can’t be verified in reality, and in no way represents the rich diversity of music being made in the country today. Still, I held on to my beliefs for several years, and only took the essay question off this year, knowing that students don’t have the same perceptions of Canadian artistic identity as I do.
I wonder how much longer this need to identify our music nationally will last. It is a contradictory thing: I see my students shrug away the notion of Canadianness in music at the same time that they embrace the chance to spend a week cheering on their favourite bands at a festival. Perhaps we are learning to celebrate how great our music is, but just occasionally need to remind ourselves that it actually came from us, here, not someone or somewhere else.