Zoilus by Carl Wilson

Polaris, squared (and square-rooted)

July 7th, 2009

This year’s Polaris Prize shortlist:

Elliott Brood - Mountain Meadows (Toronto, ON)
Fucked Up - The Chemistry Of Common Life (Toronto, ON)
Great Lake Swimmers - Lost Channels (Toronto, ON)
Hey Rosetta! - Into Your Lungs (St. John’s, NF)
K’Naan - Troubadour (Toronto, ON)
Malajube - Labyrinthes (Montreal, QC)
Metric - Fantasies (Toronto, ON)
Joel Plaskett - Three (Halifax, NS)
Chad VanGaalen - Soft Airplane (Calgary, AB)
Patrick Watson - Wooden Arms (Montreal, QC)

For the record I voted for exactly one of them, but that’s par for my course. With a couple of exceptions, I do think these are all pretty good to very good albums, and I want to congratulate all the nominees heartily (and give my condolences to those left behind).

And now on to the kvetching: Besides the fact that only one nominee comes from west of Toronto (predictable when you looked at the contenders), the most noticeable trend is that six of the ten nominees are repeats. If they were undeniably stronger or more prominent than the rest of the long list, that wouldn’t be odd, but they’re not. Rather, I think the Polaris’s degree of influence on the large-independent, centre-left stratum of Canadian music is beginning to tell - through the boost in visibility a nomination confers on a short-lister, it’s becoming a primary influence on itself.

This is not really the Polaris organization’s fault: It’s a basic fact of culture and of the psychology of taste that popularity makes things popular. You might pipe up at this point and then ask why, say, Finger Eleven isn’t nominated, but the self-reinforcing popularity effect only operates in a group of, more or less, self-perceived peers. So this is a loop that circulates via music critics, bloggers and college-radio and CBC broadcasters, the judges who select the nominees.

The trouble is that this largely unavoidable phenomenon is underscored by the ideological bias of the way the Polaris defines itself. First there are the biases built into making it a “best album” prize rather than, say, an “artist of the year” prize - which blocks the way for a singles-oriented artist like Kardinal Offishal, or for that matter someone who’s made the year’s best mixtape, like Drake (an issue that I’m sure will arise again). Album-oriented artists are far more likely to look like the folk-rockers who dominate this year’s list.

But even more so the Polaris-nomination-breeds-Polaris-nomination phenomenon exposes the weakness of the criterion the prize itself is founded on, which is that “artistic merit” or “quality” is a virtue that can be discerned by the discerning no matter what genre, commercial apparatus or other contextual factors are at play, so long as everyone makes a sincere effort to keep those facts out of their deliberations. But they are never in fact absent, beginning from whether an artist gets in a position to make a record, and then how well it is distributed and publicized, on up to whether it’s perhaps a triple concept album that’s been given an endorsement by a Beatle.

It’s not that people are so shallow that they are totally swayed by the externals, but those developments do, for instance, help determine whether journalists write about a record, and in that process become more deeply familiar with and attached to the work. And getting a Polaris nomination has become one such trigger.

In addition this “quality” mythos makes people look at albums through a particular prism - it carries associations such as “timelessness” and “consistency” which can put out of the running records whose greatest virtues might be immediacy and daring, work that may in some ways be uneven or flawed but also have more vitality and originality than the finely crafted gems that have tended to win the award - or might simply be in a genre or tradition that doesn’t put a premium on consistency or carry the same signifiers of craft as the dominant forms do. (That’s why, though I’m thrilled Fucked Up was nominated, I doubt a hardcore punk album can win.)

Again, these problems are not unique to the Polaris, and the biases of the Polaris view do serve, as intended, to balance some of the biases of the mainstream music industry, and I applaud and support the prize for that. However, while there’s no real cure for this syndrome, I do think there are some remedies: The organizers could ease up on the insistence on looking at work as if it stood alone on a podium in a velvet-padded room, on their objections to discussions about other criteria of deservingness (such as stylistic variety or whether a voter feels one artist “needs” it more than another, for whatever reason).

Going further, they could lessen the self-reinforcing effect by altering the jury structure so that perhaps (as a hypothetical example) after the long list is chosen, a rotating, lottery-selected but regionally balanced smaller pool of jurors got to choose the short list. That would introduce a dash of randomness into the system that may help thwart the tendency for results to reproduce.

I realize how difficult such revisions may be for the organizers, who strive mightily to protect the prize’s integrity. But I think they’re worth attempting - not because the Polaris isn’t already providing a superb service to Canadian music, but because the grand game of culture is always unfair and so it’s valuable to try anything we can do, however minor, to check its inherent drift to elitism and self-serving, ideological myth-making.

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  2. Doc Pickles says:

    Congratulations to the upper middle class of 2009!

  3. dave m. says:

    that drake mixtape is terrible! get comeback season, post-haste: http://www.mediafire.com/?ehorwznmnoy

  4. Doc Pickles says:

    to elaborate…

  5. Chuck says:

    Not to be a stickling jerk, especially with respect to such a great post, but the abbreviation for my motherland of Newfoundland changed to “NL” a number of years ago after Labrador was added to the official name of the province.

  6. zoilus says:

    Sorry, Chuck, those were copied directly from the Polaris site, and I didn’t check.

  7. Steve says:

    Carl, I think we’re much closer in opinion than our discussion via Ms. Hamilton would seem to indicate. Not that I think we were vehemently opposed in the first place, but I was looking at the shortlist from an idealistic standpoint, where as you were defending it wearing your pragmatic realist’s hat. This rather wistful essay is much better thought out and articulated than my knee-jerk reactions to the list.

    For the record: in my opinion, for what their record has accomplished, Fucked Up DESERVES the win, and I say that despite not counting myself as a fan (fanboy me wishes Think About Life was still in the running). My prediction is that Plaskett will probably win, and while I’ve liked the guy and his music for a good long time, I will be disappointed by that outcome.

    The Polaris Prize in its first few years was so wonderful for shining a light on all these unknown artists who I ended up falling for, and the idealist in me hopes it continues to be the kind of award where the critically acclaimed nominee who SHOULD win DOES win. But that’s a frankly unrealistic and personal (I suppose you could also say elitist) expectation to have of an award that’s growing in influence exponentially, since the flip side of that is that the influences exerted on the organization (both internally and externally) grow at the same rate.

  8. Wade says:

    Here is some more commentary.


  9. Bill says:

    Last year I sent an email to the Polaris people suggesting that they rename it to be called the Polaris Alt/Pop Music Prize, and asking if the prize was just for pop music or for all genres. I got a response assuring me that the prize was for all genres and that the judges are not genre-biased.

    There is a tendency among music writers and prize givers and festival organizers etc. to say “music” when they actually mean “music made by young men with guitars.” Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against youth or guitars, I love them both, but really, where are the blues, punk, electronic, opera, reggae, bluegrass, classical, jazz, and world music groups on the short-list?

    This bias against most forms of music results in the Polaris Music Prize list being sadly narrow, and missing out on the wonderful multifarious universe of music we have around us.

  10. Gordon says:

    I am once again let down by the lack of negro music on the list.

  11. Calum says:

    I’m not convinced that repetitious nominations are the biggest problem with the Polaris Prize, given that a twice-nominated artist such as, say, Metric probably didn’t deserve to be shortlisted for the prize in either case, let alone both.

    It seems to me that the idea informing the prize (that the best album, based on “artistic merit”, should win) is directly at odds with the popularity and widespread appeal necessary to have the award and its financial prize possible in the first place. When you ask upwards of 150 music industry professionals, many of whom work for major mainstream outlets such as Much Music or the CBC, to vote in such a manner, you’re very likely to end up with just these sort of middle-of-the-road, accessible indie rock and folk acts. So what’s the solution? Cull the most discerning and credible critics from the list and risk alienating broader audiences? My favorite long-list nominee was Tim Hecker, but I was never deluded enough to believe he’d make the next round-there are simply too few people, even those working in the industry, interested in ambient noise music to vote that way. Such is the nature of an award with such a broad scope; anything difficult, obscure, or diverse will fail to make the cut.

  12. david b says:

    after Final Fantasy won, it seemed like the goal of the prize was to push the boundaries of taste (to borrow a phrase) but it has since become clear that they simply want to harness taste and ride it.

  13. david b says:

    …whoever “they” are.

  14. JD Considine says:

    I would have to agree with Calum on this point: “When you ask upwards of 150 music industry professionals, many of whom work for major mainstream outlets such as Much Music or the CBC, to vote in such a manner, you’re very likely to end up with just these sort of middle-of-the-road, accessible indie rock and folk acts.” That’s the trouble with consensus — it’s seldom very edgy.

    It might be possible to broaden things a bit by recruiting more metal writers, or black music specialists, or jazzbos, or whatever, but given the overall numbers I kinda doubt such affirmative action will ultimately make a difference. Truth is, an awful lot of people who write about (or program, or promote) music are essentially specialists, with one area they know well and appreciate deeply, and many areas they don’t know and couldn’t care less about. The Polaris consensus simply reflects that reality.

    But hey — it’s a better consensus than the Junos, right? And would the equivalent of a Fucked Up or Malajube have made the Mercury short list? That the Polaris system is imperfect may be a given, but it’s an improvement over the competition nonetheless.

  15. andrew says:

    didn’t Dizzee Rascal win the Mercury? I think they do plenty fine getting a range of acts in.

  16. Calum says:

    Mercury also had shortlist nominees like Burial, who would never make a Polaris cut were he Canadian.

  17. SK says:

    As a fan of dubstep, the whole Burial thing was brilliant, even if they exposed him more than he would have liked. But back on topic…

  18. Garnet says:

    Is the Malajube album loved in Quebec? What I’ve heard about it doesn’t square with its presence on the list.

  19. Alex says:

    Excellent article. I was looking forward to the release of the shortlist only to be disappointed by the lack of newcomers (I personally single out Timber Timbre).

    It seems that judges/voters/whoever are still stuck on old favorites. I think we have a bit too much of a tendency in Canada to find what we like and stick with it, instead of exploring the new. I’m really happy that the Tragically Hip are not on the list though.

  20. Chris says:

    I was actually there, and I agree about the whole “dubstep Burial thing”. Twas good to see. I believe everyone who got what they did deserved to ttytt. :-p

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