“WE ARE COMING BACK FROM BREAK. Take your seats please. If your admittedly riveting conversation needs to continue, please do so in the foyer.”
“PLEASE TAKE YOUR SEATS, as there will be a performance that renders your current conversation obsolete.”
“SIT DOWN AND STFU.” – Polaris Music Prize audience notices.
You can’t help thinking there’s something different here. Since its 2006 inception, Polaris has struck disenchanted Brits as an antidote to its ailing British counterpart, the Mercury Prize. Where the latter tends to punctuate predictable shortlists with perfunctory jazz-nominations, Polaris draws from a broad palette while rejecting any suspicion of tokenism. In fact, if anything feels tokenistic, it’s the inclusion of mainstream crossovers - see this year’s Tegan and Sara nomination.
It’s also an institution that, strangely for an award-giving ceremony, can be defined by its humility, a cornerstone of the Canadian identity. During the gala, Polaris founder Steve Jordan astutely diagnoses his audience, celebrating our being the “geekiest, most socially awkward, but sexiest people in Canada,” at least two of which claims hold water. The juror’s room is alleged to be a hotbed of furious debate, but having met the judges, it’s kind of hard to picture.
Recently, however, Polaris has come under fire. Upon announcement of 2013’s shortlist – which covers hardcore DIY enthusiasts Metz, sullen post-rockers Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and instrumental hip-hop trio A Tribe Called Red – detractors among North American media campaigned for more diversity.
Theirs is a concern shared by nominee Zaki Ibrahim, whose debut LP ‘Every Opposite’ - a set of oppressive, tribal R’n’B tunes - was nominated despite its Bandcamp-only release. “There’s so much happening in Canada in different genres,” she posits. “And [Polaris] kind of has leaned towards the folky-indie side of things. There’s a deep history of black music, and other cultural music, that hasn’t necessarily been well-represented in the past.”
Even sidelining cultural concerns, it’s undeniable that Polaris has recent history of awarding the prize money to artists who don’t need it - namely Feist and Arcade Fire. Later on, in presenting Godspeed You! Black Emperor with the 2013 gong, Polaris will develop this trend by crowning an artist that doesn’t want it, either. The Constellation Records octet gave this statement.
Elsewhere, accusations of predictability were more predictable by nature: too safe, too dull, too white - similar to those levelled at its British equivalent. The LA Times published a reaction piece denouncing Polaris’s 2013 shortlist as “terrible,” an outburst that still rankles Steve Jordan. “I engaged this LA Times writer on Twitter,” says Jordan, “whose name is escaping me. And I asked him, ‘Have you heard all of these records?’ And he never really answered that question.”
Jordan is a passionate, defensive, tuxedoed awards-show nerd who strolls from conversation to conversation, casually dropping Mercury Prize trivia, reminding people that he founded Polaris and insisting that his prize owes Canada nothing besides a few good and honest album endorsements. “I’m not saying [the LA Times writer] did this, but if he called it a terrible shortlist and he hadn’t heard all the records, that’s really irresponsible. Because it just feeds hate and negativity, which is not what we’re about.”
This in mind, Dazed took a whistlestop tour through the night’s remainder.
Polaris’s “pre-gala media event” is basically an awkward, mid-scale press farm. Its hurried handshakes and soundbite interviews take place in a meticulously arranged round room, whose central feature is a frosted-glass fountain surrounded by symmetrical furniture in concentric circles. It functions as a sort of pristine ceremonial womb, inhabited mostly by musicians untrained in the art of receiving attention, and publicists scurrying in its pursuit.
Unmissable are the necessary signifiers of corporate funding. Sponsored by cars, breweries and fashion designers, Polaris serves up a $30,000 prize for its winner and, in a wonderfully Canadian compromise, $2,000 for each loser. Perhaps that’s why, Godspeed aside, even the more righteous nominees seem immune to the 2013 award’s potentially murky air. Take Chris Slorach, bassist with Metz, a band arguably too heavy to attract Mercury Prize attention: “I definitely don’t feel like Metz are outsiders,” he says. “We’re up there with Colin Stetson and Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Tegan and Sara. It’s a really diverse line-up - everybody in this thing is an outsider.”
On the fringe is Godspeed’s Constellation labelmate Colin Stetson. Says the saxophonist: “A competition isn’t necessarily a celebration. And art is not competitive, art is celebratory. So to me, the idea of competing with something that is, first and foremost, an expression of experience, and emotion, and of consciousness, is unimportant. That said, I’m playing along. I’m here. But if the art you make manages to outlive your short life, and share some aspect of what you left here with future generations, they’re not going to be interested in what that art won. Think about all of the great music and art that we revere now - it was not at all noticed in its own time. Will awards like Polaris help anyone’s music attain immortality? I wouldn’t put any money on it.”
The gala proper commences. Despite constant reminders of big-dollar sponsorship, it’s near-impossible to locate counter-capitalist ill-will here; not least when Kathleen Edwards (a two-time nominee and this year’s co-host, alongside Shad, also a two-time nominee) so neatly qualifies the necessary thank-yous: “It’s called corporate money - right over there, the ones clapping.”
Opening are vanguard electro-pop duo Purity Ring. Nervous and poetic, Braids singer Raphaelle Standell-Preston delivers a sweet introduction for her Montreal friends, describing their songs as “glowing vessels by which we experience something spiritual.” That glow takes literal form within the pair’s stage setup, six luminous hives hung from drooping stems centre-stage. Musically, they’re accessible, weird and innovative, capturing a prevalent notion of what Polaris represents.
After a minimal piano-guitar performance by Metric’s Jimmy Shaw and Emily Haines, Colin Stetson - a favourite among gala attendees - takes the stage. His performance, as ever, is astonishing: veins bulging from his forehead, Stetson rocks back and forth as if generating power for his unwieldy bass saxophone, the volume and virtuosity lifting the lid from your head. Onstage post-performance, discussing his familial allegiance to his two saxophones, Stetson furthers the case for unbridled geekiness being the separator between Prizes Polaris and Mercury.
Metz starkly contrast their predecessors Tegan and Sara (who were unavailable, but represented by a 50-strong choir that covered the duo’s single ‘Closer’). Nonetheless, their energy betrays a similar devotion to youthful intensity and angst. After several impeccably produced performances, the vast absence of mid-range in Metz’s mix carves through the atmosphere, while the stage’s backdrop of flashing headlamp boards burns band-shaped silhouettes onto our retinas.
After a finale from A Tribe Called Red and their frilled, hoop-twirling dancer, there emerges onstage 2012’s Polaris Music Prize winner Feist. She accompanies Shad and Kathleen Edwards, the latter bringing reliable charm to an ad-libbed interview: “I’m supposed to ask you what’s changed since you won the 30 grand, but... [mimes extravagant cocaine-snorting motion].”
The eventual victors were absent from the ceremony, having prepared no fill-in performance or acceptance video. When Feist opened the envelope, she was as genuinely surprised as the audience. Later on, Steve Johnson exercised his humility once more, accepting the possibility that Godspeed simply wouldn’t care about winning. But in a perverse way, the appointment of disinterested victors reaffirms Polaris’s integrity. Augmented by the retaliatory backlash of its heroes, the knotty case of Polaris 2013 suggests, paradoxically, that awards shows can remain vital and provocative in the most obscure circumstances.