The Polaris Music Prize has never had so much press. Smirking, artists-are-nutty press. Calls-for-revolution press. And from thin-skinned music critics, cries of “Hypocrites!” toward the victorious musical ensemble celebrated Monday evening.
The eight-year-old award for outstanding achievement in the field of musical excellence has arrived.
But then, that is obvious the moment I find my way to The Carlu for the swank gala on a mild Monday evening in September. And let me tell you, gaining entrance to The Carlu is not as easy as it sounds. Or, at least, not for visitors to Toronto. Follow all signs to the venue and you’re liable to be dismissed — held at bay by a velvet rope — and told to try to find another way in. You know how Jeopardy is happy to welcome Canadians to its panel, only to put them in their place by ensuring the Final Jeopardy category is Vice Presidents or The Civil War or Recipes for Grits or something? To an outsider, that’s what it feels like trying to make a gallant entrance to The Carlu.
Once inside, I’m immediately confronted by signs (and vehicles) that show of Polaris’s budding success. In the cramped lobby, one can barely move without hitting a sponsor. It’s an impressive cast, including (curiously) both Sirius XM and Galaxie, plus something called Collective Arts Brewing that on first impression appears to be a beer-drinking hipster’s dream. It all seems more than a little stuffy, a long way from the modest prize founder Steve Jordan envisioned as a more credible voice for achievement in Canadian music than, say, the Juno for Album of the Year. (Though, it should be noted, the two awards met in 2011 by naming Arcade Fire as recipient.) And if product-placement seems stuffy, its nothing compared to the sea of all-in-black apparel crowding the lobby. Because Polaris may appear mainstream, but at heart we’re all still nihilists, fuck!
Just ask tonight’s 11-member panel of judges, which arrives en masse to briefly walk among us, acting all Reservoir Dogs. And I say that with some envy.
Anyway, the problem with humble roots, as readers of Rolling Stone, Spin and Pitchfork can tell you, is that if you follow the model of the big boys, you run the risk of eventually becoming no more relevant than the people you were supposedly reacting against. As I survey the room — and the adjacent VIP room — I cannot but wonder whether somewhere, at this moment, someone is preparing to unveil a new Canadian music award that will rage against this machine. And so forth.
And so to my assigned seat. Balcony. Last row. I can see (some of) the pretty people seated at tables on the main level, set to rattle their jewellery while the rabble above are clapping their hands. Is that Michie Mee down there? Cool! I must say hi when I venture downstairs for a beer. (Did I mention there’s no bar upstairs?) For now, I shall check out the contents of this here gift bag; one has been placed on each seat in the balcony. A Polaris CD. Sunglasses. A magazine of some sort. Hey, a 45! It’s one of a series of special singles released to promote the 10 nominated artists. Nice one. There are also limited-edition t-shirts for sale at the merch table, designed to resemble the famous Sam the Record Man Yonge Street location. Very cool, unless like me you worked for Sam the Record Man.
Right, so let’s welcome our hosts for the evening: Shad and Ottawa’s own Kathleen Edwards. Kathleen is looking très glam, and cleverly deals with her love of profanity early on. “I have a potty mouth. I swear a lot,” she warns those that don’t know her (and those that do) as the gala begins. With that in mind, she continues, each table has been equipped with a swear jar. Every time our hostess utters a bad word, you “assholes at your fucking tables” are to put some money in, for charity. Another nice one.
And so to the performers: eight of the 10 nominees will be playing one or two songs tonight, with introductions by a stellar cast of presenters including Sarah McLachlan, Joseph Boyden and yes, Michie Mee. At 8:35 p.m., when the second performer hits that stage, some can be forgiven for wondering how they’ll be able to wrap this thing up by 11 p.m., even with the meticulously timed breaks and all. But Zaki Ibrahim is onstage, so all is forgiven. Her two-song set turns out to be solid but unspectacular — I spend much of it trying to discern whether her cellist is in fact playing live. (I doubt it.) Her album, though, is considered a favourite. Me, I’m for A Tribe Called Red. For one thing, they’re from Ottawa, which doesn’t hurt. (So is Hayden Menzies of METZ, of course, and, well, I’m pulling for METZ too.) For another, Tribe’s album is the most original, creative and progressive of the bunch (bearing in mind that Colin Stetson‘s album, while remarkable, is the final act of a trilogy). Besides, the band has recently made national headlines by walking the walk when it comes to promoting aboriginal culture and values. Polaris Prize, please.
For now, I will heed the words of Kathleen Edwards, whose cry of “Up next… Metric!” I hear as “Beer break!” No worries; I can see Metric just fine from the monitors in the lobby. And it seems to be a special two-person performance, not unlike previous Metric appearances at Polaris galas. Not sure what the remaining members have against the event. I mean, who holds a grudge against the Polaris gala, right?
Beer break is almost over, I see, and I take a few moments to try to make one of Zaki Ibrahim’s foot soldiers laugh during a nearby on-camera interview being streamed live — presumably on the internet. Ibrahim can take pride in the fact that her shadows remained stone-faced throughout.
I return to my seat in time to catch Colin Stetson blowing everyone’s freakin’ mind. Again, I had arrived pulling for Tribe. Or maybe METZ. Now, and for the next several minutes, I’m all about the Stetson. But that, of course, would be a major upset. And in recent years, Polaris has been nothing if not predictable.
Alas, by Stetson’s set — barely an hour into the proceedings — many of the just-clap-your-hands seats are empty. of course, it’s hardly surprising that few are left upstairs. Again, the beer is downstairs.
Next up, Tegan and Sara. Or, more accurately, a massive choir singing Tegan and Sara in the sisters’ absence, and trying its best to engage a visibly unengaged audience in a singalong. There’s also a potentially amusing video clip of Shad and Kathleen as Tegan and Sara. Or Sara and Tegan. Either way, the audio isn’t working, so we’ll never know just how funny this bit is. We did, however, get to hear George Stromboulopoulos‘s endorsement of Tegan and Sara, complete with a nod to A Tribe Called Red. Stating the obvious as only Strombo can, he notes a similarity between A Tribe Called Red’s name and that of A Tribe Called Quest. Who knew?
Sarah McLachlan speaks up for Whitehorse, a local favourite. Fine musicians. Fine singers. Harmonize well. Good people. Not, however, award-winning songwriting, me thinks.
It’s been well over two hours. The audience is weary. Time for METZ! And oh, does this trio deliver! I mean, I was there in 2009 when the band lame-os call F’ed Up stole the show. And let me tell you, on this night METZ makes that band look like a pile of puke, laying waste to eight years’ worth of previous Polaris performances in two songs. The band also brings its own gear, unlike the night’s earlier performers. (Hell, there’s even a brief soundcheck!) Either they insisted on having their own equipment, or the Polaris people were terrified that the night’s hired drumkit wouldn’t survive an all-out assault from Hayden Menzies. I like to think it’s the latter.
Alas, within seconds of METZ’s having introduced the unbridled rebellion of the punk rock to this refined gathering, widespread looting breaks out in the historic hall. (Quincy was right!) Well dressed, otherwise respectable Polarisites are instantly transformed into rampaging hooligans, maniacally overturning idle gift bags and helping themselves to any and all unclaimed 45s. “I keep getting A Tribe Called Red!” laments one METZ-addled Whitehorse fan (okay, I don’t know whether she was a Whitehorse fan) before demanding (well, inquiring about) 45s from the remaining bags in my row. Cognizant of my role as an accomplice in this sordid giveaway crime spree, help me, I nonetheless reach into the bag resting on the vacant seat to my right, and hand this crazed Metric lover (again…) a 45. Which, for the record, turns out to have A Tribe Called Red as one of its two artists.
Crime, like misguided musical taste, doesn’t pay, kids.
Okay, everybody just cool out! Could you cool out, everybody? Trying to restore order (after encouraging the crowd to chant METZ’s name) Kathleen offers the line of the night: “Suck it, dude!” This, to Jian Ghomeshi. Blame it on the punk rock.
And so to our final performer, your 2013 Polaris Music Prize winner, A Tribe Called Red. And if METZ raised the bar exponentially, Tribe proves to be up to the challenge, offering a dizzying display of beats and dance that seamlessly meld aboriginal sounds to hiphop sensibilities. The audience, newly roused, roars its approval. Victory, I sense, is imminent.
And so to the winner. And, well, you know the rest. A shocker? You could say that. But hardly undeserved. Chip-on-shoulder music writers will in the coming days decry Godspeed’s acceptance/rejection of the award, calling the band out for being hypocrites by, like, playing stadium shows and stuff. And, I hope, applauding a brilliant work that fully deserved to win an award not unlike the Polaris Music Prize. Nice one again, Polaris.
Yes, after two years of surprising no one, Polaris has delivered a verdict that surprised seemingly everyone — this writer included. It’s enough to make me look forward to attending the 2014 gala. Though, next year I must remember to bring some beer.
Now, who needs a 45? I’ve got, let’s see, everyone but A Tribe Called Red.