by carl wilson

The Polaris Paradox: Exclusive Inclusivity


My colleague Robert Everett-Green's Globe and Mail essay today on what kinds of acts are and aren't likely to win this or any year's $20,000 Polaris Prize would have raised more of a stir if it had appeared on the front of the Review section on Monday, the day of the gala, rather than deep inside the Saturday edition. So let's give it a swirl.

Robert's main point is that the Polaris bias leans against pop-chart music and non-rock genres. I feel sure independent hip-hop will have its day - at least one such album's been nominated each year, and I wouldn't be super-shocked if jury-room talk led to Shad winning this year (though I doubt it). But jazz, R&B;, notational music, dance, contemporary country (as opposed to rootsy/artsy country-folk) and other genres? Not hardly. It's partly Canadian demographics - no matter how much the country's changing, there are still many more musicians here who make rock and singer-songwriter albums, and so both by volume and through cultural reinforcement, odds are there will be more good ones in those genres.

Music-critic culture mirrors that reality, but also exaggerates it, because critical writing about popular music is more of a tradition in those genres. You can expect that to shift over the coming decades - but I'm not sure by how much.

Robert cites the UK's Mercury Prize as evidence that this problem is endemic, but the Mercury's record of rewarding excellence in pop and non-rock is much stronger, especially on its short lists - because it's engineered that way (despite Britain likewise generating more rock/folk/etc music than other kinds). A Mercury jury is a small group with diverse specialties, and they make their lists not through big rounds of votes but by drawn-out group discussion - like an extended mix of the Polaris finals' "Grand Jury" or, say, a typical book-prize jury.

The Polaris is in its politely Canadian way much more democratic. Hundreds of people are involved. Which is great in itself, but means that critics who favour jazz or gospel or R&B; or even pop are outweighed. Voters in the majority may conscientiously check out the non-rock recommendations but it's unlikely to be where their passion is and where the consensus ends up. Thus: In being very inclusive of working critics and other "taste-makers" across Canada, the Polaris paradoxically becomes somewhat exclusive musically.

The Polaris organizers have a tough choice: Do they go way beyond "tweaking" the jury pool, and deliberately rig it to be much more musically balanced, which would require it to be a lot smaller, but could have the virtue of really considering contenders outside the habitual boundaries? Or do they shrug and accept that the Polaris is gonna represent roughly where Canadian critical consensus tends to lie, hoping that (partly maybe thru the reflection the prize generates), that said consensus gradually will evolve into something more ecumenical and flexible?

The Polaris folks aren't the only ones ever to face this dilemma: Robert Christgau has talked about the way that for many years he and his fellow editors tried to recruit more hip-hop writers and other non-rockistas to vote in the annual Village Voice Pazz and Jop Critics' Poll. But despite their enticements, not many of the rap-and-etc. critics (and fewer and fewer jazz writers, for that matter), ever cared to take part. It didn't seem that relevant to them - and the result was that P&J; became even less relevant to them and less true to the general state of American music. It was a referendum on what music was most important to a certain slice of the music-listening public, useful to those who broadly shared their biases and not so much to everybody else.

Then again, the Village Voice - let alone the Polaris Prize - didn't create the demographic and cultural divisions that sculpt tastes. How far should they go in order to correct for them - at the price, perhaps, of excluding a lot of competent jurists who really care about something like P&J; or the Polaris?

My bias is that I'd like the Polaris to be a compelling, dramatic event; like a lot of stuff in Canada it's at risk of getting dull. And personally if the solution meant I didn't always get to vote - because if there's one group that must be over-represented in the pool, it's straight white male print journalists from Toronto - I'd say "fine." But the issue isn't weakness of acumen or intent among the current jury and organizers. As usual, it's a bigger social imbalance.

Footnote: It's unfortunate semantically that Robert uses "college radio" to describe the nominees. It rings like "sophomoric," which is unfair to the musicians (they're bland as a group, perhaps, but not individually). And college radio could probably disappear tomorrow and the Polaris wouldn't change. College charts serve as handy statistical backup for Robert's point only because the people who run stations (and compile those charts) are generally a younger subset of the sorts of liberal-arts-educated people who are likely to end up as music critics later in life. Most college stations play a far broader range of music, thanks to their myriad specialty shows - but fewer of those specialty DJs get into the list-making, meta-critical tasks, probably because it's not where the social/cultural capital lies for them. (They often do a lot of promo and organization of live shows/club nights.) If the Polaris shortlist looks like anybody's playlist, in fact, it's CBC Radio 3's, and that station parallels the combination of institutional embeddedness and liberal-arts taste ("classroom" taste, as Frank Kogan has put it) that knits together the majority of people eligible to vote for the Polaris.

Anyway, looking forward to seeing some of you at Monday's gala. (Shh, don't tell Stephen Harper.)

General | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, September 27 at 10:57 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)



Excellent, even-handed write up on this. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that there's already whining about a three-year-old award that goes to people who can't be making much money at what they do, but I still sorta am.

My prediction: Holy Fuck (for political reasons, of course)

Who I'd vote for: The Weakerthans (though I wouldn't be at all sad if Stars or Basia took it)

Posted by jer on September 29, 2008 12:16 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson