Quick thoughts:: Making my list, and checking it twice

Like many Canadian music fans, I spent a good part of yesterday afternoon waiting to hear the results of the voting for the 2011 Polaris Music Prize Short list and scrutinizing the results. Like many, the list left me feeling cold, like my voice wasn’t heard.

 

Statistically, this isn’t surprising. If you look at the demographics of the nominated artists (and to save you the trouble, I’ll point you to Michael Barclay’s breakdown, well except for the part where he says Squire and Dan Romano sound the same) and then account for the cultural differences, preferred genres and the age of the 200+ jurors tasked with making that final cut, it’s almost impossible that the bell curve shifts directly to your outliers.

 

The more thought I put into it, the more I realized that for every band I was completely apathetic about or ones I hated to see on the list (yes, I’m a rabid apathater), there was another music fan that loved the results or saw the list closely align to their own selections. Taste is subjective and you can’t tell me what I like anymore than I can tell you what you like, so why does the Short List selection bother me (and so many others) so much every year?

 

If everyone agreed on art and it became a scientific formula, life would be very boring. That’s why the announcement of the Long List is really the most suspenseful and enjoyable moment of the entire Polaris process. Jurors spend the better part of the Polaris calendar year debating or suggestion records in an attempt to procure votes. Records are introduced and some of the most respected minds in music journalism (and some bloggers) dissect each LP and determine the merit. For a site like herohill, one that isn’t really as concerned with major labels and established acts, this is what it’s all about. When I recommended Muneshine, Birdapres, Fred Squire or supported Dirty Beaches and Doug Paisley, I assumed none would have the juice to win the prize, but that wasn’t important. To me, it’s about talking about the records that really turned me on and I thought needed to be heard, regardless of the PR they have behind them, their proximity to major media outlets or whether or not the have a chance to speak at a Polaris Salon or on CBC3.

 

Does everyone think like this? Probably not. People assuming voting for an outlier is like spoiling your ballot. Why not give my vote to someone that has a chance to bring home the hardware? What I think people overlook is that Polaris, more so than anything I’ve ever been apart of, tries to eliminate the staggered start. It’s like opening day in the majors. Anything can happen. Sure, over time the big horses get the most run but every year a few surprises sneak into the mix.

 

I realize I probably care more about the Polaris than I should. The amount of time I spend reading other people’s thoughts is shocking considering I’m a fairly dismissive person when it comes to music and sports and I’m only one vote of almost 250. Sure, I hate missing out on something great but I can’t think of anything else in my life I put so much time into and have such little control over the final outcome. That’s why the year-long process of adding names to my list, changing the order countless times and hoping to hear them announced by Grant, Damien or whatever Polaris alum was enjoying the amuse bouches at The Drake is no different than the 12-year old boy in me making up his Christmas wish list.

 

When I was a kid, I talked to my friends about what Transformer they wanted whether or not a Sega Genesis was the right choice. I factored in what gifts were too expensive or what gifts would be something only I’d get so my friends would be jealous. I weighted all those factors into my gifts, but at the end of the day, I wanted what I wanted and that was more important to me than anything else in life. It didn’t matter if I got 1, 2, 3, or 4 of the 5 gifts I had on that prized piece of paper. If Santa Claus cockblocked me on number 5, it was all I could focus on. “Sure, I got the Nintendo, but what about the Fat Boys Crushin’ tape I wanted! Christmas sucks!” (this actually happened)

 

Looking at this year’s Short List, the parallels are scary. None of my names were called, which isn’t shocking, but looking at the deserving bands on the list I was surprised that I found it so hard to to share in their happiness. Ron Sexsmith? A terrific, underrated song writer without question, but it’s like opening up your gift and finding socks or a comfy sweater. Ironically, you get more use and warmth from both than your more cherished gifts, but they aren’t exciting. Should he really be considered for album of the year (the answer to this is of course, yes)? The Weeknd? I can’t see the future, but I’m going to guess that band is going to be like a Chip N’ Pepper t-shirt, Michael Jackson Thriller jacket, Hypercolour or a Benetton Rugby top. At the time, you felt like you needed to own it or you’d be looked down on, but flash forward a few years and all it provides is laughs and comical, nostalgic photos. Is it fair to vote for Polaris as a snapshot in time instead of looking at the future (again, of course it is)?

 

Even when you get something you want, as is so often the case, it’s a few years late. I absolutely loved Timber Timbre’s last record and pushed it hard to anyone that would listen. The band’s latest, still had moments of brilliance and shocking textures, but felt more like a stop gap until the band complete their sonic transition and something truly great is delivered. It’s like asking for a Discman and then two years later your parents finally saying yes when you already have an iPod. Thanks, but I already ripped and sold my CDs! What am I going to do with this?

 

There are plenty of records on this list that I can’t fault the jury for selecting. Austra is a powerful, dark performance with some beautiful moments. If you overlook some of the lyrics on Native Speaker, the sonic collages Braids presents are jaw dropping. Arcade Fire? Well, I didn’t like the record at all, but obviously they’ve more than proved that The Suburbs is deserving of being nominated for each and every possible award. Sometimes it’s hard to argue with the masses, because you have no leg to stand on.

 

Destroyer and Colin Stetson, more than any of the acts on this Short List fall in line with the true Polaris vision of searching for the best album, the most lasting piece of art. People might say that is just another example of Polaris trying to be different and stay on the fringes, but I disagree. Great art should challenge you, should make you think and should often be met with initial rejection. Without question both feel similar to your “cool” uncle sliding you a tape or a book that could change how you think, but at the time you tossed it aside only to grow into it years later. If I had to guess, I’d say these two LPs will probably stand up better over time than anything on this list, well except maybe the timeless comfort of socks and Sexsmith.

 

Sadly, records like Seeds and Tigre et Diesel feel like a book I got that I’ll never finish and that’s ok. Obviously tons of people would and that’s why the Short List is destined to be dismissed year after year on first glance. For anyone that cares and is hoping to unwrap a shiny new Frederick Squire or 1st edition Pat Jordache, Polaris will never be “your” list (or more importantly, “my” list) and ten equally as deserving gifts just don’t stand up. Obviously we’ll never be happy, but to quote Ted Leo, “I respect the process, I respect the rules.” Not many awards are as transparent and allow the voice of a large group to vote on nothing more than personal preference. If not this year, maybe next year. Oh, and thanks for the socks.

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MP3:: Braids - Lemonade

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MP3:: Austra - The Beat & The Pulse

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8 Responses to “Quick thoughts:: Making my list, and checking it twice”

Chris Wheeler July 7th, 2011 at 11:46 am

I agree with your assessment of nearly each of the records (I do feel I enjoyed some of these records more than you did ). But a word of support for The Weeknd’s House of Balloons. You are right, the mixtape is a fleeting moment. It is fragile, frightening and shallow in content and context. The album cover, a naked girl in a bathtub protected only by a handful of balloons, actually speaks volumes about the material; pop a few balloons and then everything is bared.

But there is a vulnerability and honesty there, whether you believe Abel Tesfaye actually lives the House of Balloons lifestyle or not, that verges on courageous. Being vulnerable is one of the most shared human experiences, and no mater how fleeting the moment, it can shape who we are as individuals or as a community, MJ being a perfect example. Capturing those moments with a photograph, or in a song, or in literature does not always do it justice, but on a few rare occasions they are captured exactly as they are in art. If we see even a faction of ourselves in that piece we are often immediately called to reject it, especially when the image presented is so dark and unwholesome. But you are right, the process by which we challenge ourselves can be immensely rewarding. Being aware of our own vices and vulnerability can be a very postive experience; “I need confidence in myself.” For me, House of Balloons does all of this.

As a mixtape, House of Balloons can be seen in a lot of ways. On one level it maintains its shallow intent by acting as a promotional tool, reaching for the limelight and support. With the involvement and newfound connection with big brother Drake, it has succeeded on this front. But why the honesty, why protect yourself with mere balloons? On another level the mixtape is a stepping stone to create something bigger, something to bide the time creatively while the real stew is taking shape and collecting flavour. Should those creative flourishes seek to be indelible and more than they are? Or should they seek to capture one emotion and make a connection, however slight or base.

In a lot of ways this is all very new, especially to Polaris and Canadian music; the genre and delivery are relative unknowns. I for one find it incredibly exciting and compelling and hope it garners serious support and consideration for the top nod.

ack July 7th, 2011 at 12:12 pm

I think your passionate defense is exactly in line with my point. For every reason I don’t like The Weeknd you have found reasons to champion the record. I don’t disagree with your liking or the thoughtful reasons you have articulated… it’s just not “my” list. I would say this is similar to my love of Dirty Beaches of Frederick Squire that others would dismiss instantly. For every little detail people grab hold of, others overlook.

Oh, and I actually liked most of the records. I wasn’t into the AF record or The Weeknd - especially if you want to lump that as as the one urban/r&b/hip-hop release - but I like Braids. I like Austra. I actually really like Sexsmith’s record. I can see why people fell in love with Destroyer and Stetson. It’s a strong list for sure, especially since people have been saying is this year has been weak for Canadian music.

Tara Thorne July 7th, 2011 at 12:42 pm

This is why I haven’t participated in jurying awards since 2006. You put in the time, the effort, you have the in-person debates (“SLOAN HAS LIVED IN TORONTO AS LONG AS THEY EVER LIVED HERE,” etc), and then in the end, the larger politics, campaigns and gladhanding favour system will always win out. But hey, the process AS PRESENTED was fair.

BLAGH.

Michael Senchuk July 7th, 2011 at 1:08 pm

You know, I really, really thought Dirty Beaches was going to sneak into the top ten. I felt a late buzz for their efforts, and thought it would be enough to get them in the ten. C’est la vie.

Here’s the way I look at it - my family/friends won’t even let me play my iPhone during MY parties … what makes me think a jury of 250-ish music writers will see the world the same as me?

ack July 7th, 2011 at 1:10 pm

Ha. That needs to be a t-shirt. “My friends won’t even let me play my iPhone during MY parties.”

Smansmith July 7th, 2011 at 3:50 pm

Very good read Ack, I can only image that I feel EXACTLY as you do - a respect for the results, but would have preferred an alternate set of contenders vying for the prize.

Wasn’t it Mr. Spock who said, “The votes of the many outweigh the votes of the few”. I think it was Mr. Spock at least…

Ultimately, taste is one’s own and part of what I like is that my palette enjoys quality, off-the-beaten-path dishes. Well, what I personally see as quality at least…what do I know…I only voted for 1 album that made the short list - and that was only as I replaced a different album with it after the original album didn’t even make the long list!

There is always next year… ;-)

JiM July 7th, 2011 at 10:20 pm

Top notch, my friend. You’ve echoed many of my own thoughts after yesterday’s list. I’m more than willing to give warm socks and discmans a chance, but I think we missed an opportunity to champion some truly great records this year. Oh well, on to 2011-12; I’ve already stared making out a list of possible contenders.

My Benetton rugby shirt shirt was blue. What united colour did you have?

Matt July 8th, 2011 at 12:45 am

A Ron Sexsmith record produced by Bob Rock is like getting a pair of knitted socks from your grandma.

Extra boring yet sooooo comfortable.

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