The Juno Awards and the rewriting of the mainstream

Every year I struggle to find something to write about the Junos, and often debate whether to write anything at all. Most years there really isn’t a narrative to grab onto. After all, I’ve already complained endlessly about my biggest issues with the whole operation, most notably the still-stupid process of deciding nominees for several top categories by sales alone. Without fail, the show throws a bone or two towards being relevant and then quickly retreats to its staid, predictable interpretation of Canadian-ness. Most of the time, I make my token complaints and otherwise just sit back and politely watch the show.

And then Drake took the stage to perform with Justin Bieber.

Think about this for a second. Justin Bieber is an international teen pop heartthrob sensation, one whose star is almost certain to fade once his teenage audience grows up and moves on. Drake is on the verge of hip hop superstardom, having been mentored by one of the biggest names in the game – Lil’ Wayne – and having already done guest verses with nearly every major hip hop star you can think of. In years past, these two worlds would never, EVER meet. This should feel like N.W.A. performing with New Kids on the Block; like Eminem giving a guest verse to the Backstreet Boys. This is serious Ghostbusters “don’t cross the streams” shit.

But somehow, it makes total sense.

Now granted, this could just be that Bieber has unique links to the hip hop world through Usher, who first discovered and signed him (Ludacris, an Usher ally, does the original guest verse on “Baby”). And of course Drake’s shares a middle-class accessibility with Bieber despite the genre divide, so they’re not as strangely far-apart as the juxtapositions I suggested above. But I think it’s more than that. After all, when the Barenaked Ladies made reference to both Bieber and Drake earlier in the evening, the pitch of the screams from the audience was identically high and girlish.

In those screams, you can hear the sound of “mainstream” being radically rewritten.

The Junos are a mainstream institution, after all, one intimately connected to the economic core of the recording industry: labels, radio, music television. Together, this alliance had a vested interest in defining and controlling popular music in Canada: the more you can control what people hear, the more you can predict and anticipate what they’re going to buy. And buying used to be everything.

The Internet changed all of this, of course, not just by making music readily available for download but by crippling the traditional broadcast model. No longer restricted to mass outlets, Canadians now have an unprecedented ability to seek out and find their own music, in all sorts of weird and wonderful places. This puts “the mainstream” in an interesting predicament: instead of controlling what people hear, it needs to fight for its own relevance.

So whereas it took years for the Junos to even acknowledge hip hop, last night they gave the Best New Artist award to a rapper who hasn’t even released his first full-length yet. Metric not only performed, but actually won Group of the Year over higher-selling and more popular bands like Hedley and Billy Talent. They gave a performing slot to the Great Lake Swimmers, whose quiet folk is hardly traditional mass fare. Deadmau5 actually got to appear on-camera in his mouse mask.

In the past, similar Juno appearances – like when Broken Social Scene performed and were presented with the Alternative Album award on the broadcast in 2006 – felt like token gestures, oddly out of place with the rest of the show. But last night none of these things felt strange to me. It’s no longer weird to see music once pushed to the margins appearing side-by-side with traditional mainstream fare. And the artists being granted this broader canvas are not only making the most of the opportunity; they seem downright comfortable with it. Drake doesn’t awkwardly avoid Justin Bieber; he sits right next to him, gives him a huge hug when the rapper wins Best New Artist and gives the kid a shout-out from the stage.

I haven’t even mentioned “Wavin’ Flag,” the soaring anthem by K’naan that led to the “alternative” rapper being recognized with the Songwriter of the Year award. The Young Artists for Haiti recording of the song completely destroys traditional genre divides: it’s a folk-influenced hip hop song redone as a pop anthem, with a staggering collection of vocalists who you’d never expect to share the same sonic sandbox. In the name of charity, it accomplishes what 30 years of Juno Awards in the name of commerce failed to do: truly represent and honour Canadian music as a whole, in its moment in time.

So it’s fitting that K’naan got to close the show, starting “Wavin’ Flag” on his own before being joined by his peers: first Drake with his guest verse, followed by Nikki Yanofsky and her pre-chorus belt and then, yes, Justin Bieber for the song’s final lines. Then, extending the chorus, a whole slew of artists took the stage, from Jim Cuddy and Shiloh to Jacob Hoggard and Tony Dekker.

And K’naan clasped hands with Justin Bieber in celebration, for once the Junos kind of sounded like Canada.

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