Thinking on passion and the Polaris Music Prize

Though I’m a regular AV Club reader—and was even before my brother started writing for them—it’s rare that one of their articles strikes a nerve with me quite like Steve Hyden and Noel Murray’s crosstalk last month on the question, “Why do pop-culture fans stop caring about new music as they get older?” It hit home not just because they offer some good explanations for a common phenomenon, but said phenomenon scares the crap out of me. 

Right now, music is more a part of my life than it ever has been before. Perhaps not as much here at McNutt Against the Music as I’d like—my plans to ramp up posts this summer being slightly delayed thanks in no small part to a broken collarbone—but across as many other platforms as I can touch: from Tumblr and Twitter, to The Coast and my academic work towards my masters of musiciology degree. And this doesn’t take into account the two years I just wrapped writing Maisonnueve’s Music Room, nor the fact that my reading material has become rather loaded with music literature (current book: Greg Miller’s Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music), nor the albums I seek out to listen to just for fun.

Oh and, of course, I do all this around a full-time day job.

As much as I’m worried about becoming a bit one-dimensional in terms of my interests, this burst of single-mindedness almost feels a defence mechanism. I’ve always feared becoming one of those people that Hyden and Murray talk about, a ‘music fan’ that treats the art form like a museum exhibit and their listening experience like a nostalgic drug trip. And what I think their piece hints at but skirts around is that unlike other pop art, music exists in a participatory culture. At its best, its about bumming around shows, debating records with friends, diving into relationships with bands, and—above all else—passion for the experience of it all.

I’ve long held that I’d never let myself become the sort of person who stops seeking out new music. To date, I can safely sustain that; heck, I’m listening to genres and artists who my 18-year-old self would have never given the time of day, from country to hardcore punk. But how long can I sustain the sort of involvement that I’m living right now? Is this effort a futile attempt to ward off the staleness that so many culture junkies eventually succumb to? One last gasp of commitment to music before it burns out or fades away?

I don’t know. But for now, passion prevails. Which leads me to the Polaris Music Prize.

* * * * *

I’ve written about Polaris before—critically and complimentary—but this is the first time I’m writing about it as a participant. I was invited to join the jury this year, which is made up of 227 journalists, writers, bloggers and programmers from across the country (you can see the full list here). Though I certainly don’t get the opportunity write about music as much as some other jury members (who, for many, music journalism is a full-time gig), it’s exciting to get to formally share my voice in a competition that has really evolved over the years from a journalist and media event (very ‘inside baseball’) to a much broader discussion about and celebration of Canadian music.

And being involved in the process has given me a new perspective on what makes the Polaris process function. And what’s clever about the way it’s been set up—more clever than I gave it credit for looking from the outside—is how it’s all based around passion.

It’s not just that the Polaris Prize is decided by music journalists and critics, many of whom devote their day jobs and/or night lives to writing/discussing/sharing thoughts on music. It’s that the mechanisms of the process actively encourage participants to bring their passion into the process. There’s the online discussion group all jury members can access, where debate and discussion are encouraged and where there’s no point recommending an album to everyone unless you’re seriously considering it for inclusion (after all, there are no shortage of eligible albums, given that any Canadian release in the past year counts). Then there’s the fact that each jurist is only allowed to pick five albums in each of the first two voting stages (long list and short list). Most of us could easily make a top 10 or 15 (as you’ll see below) but by sticking to five, it ensures that jurists aren’t just fleshing out their ballots with records they simply ‘like’ (well, most of them, at least).

And, of course, there’s the way the winner is selected—by a chosen ‘grand jury’ of 11 members who deliberate on the night of the ceremony. I’ve been most critical of this portion in the past, and I still think its flaw is that the cash prize and open debate risks making it less likely for established artists to win. That said, now being closer to the process, I’ve grown to admire the methodology in spite of this. If anything, it’s a perfect fit with Polaris’ ‘passion first’ model: get a representative sample of the jury to sit down in a room and actually debate, defend and deliberate over their picks, trying to come to a consensus based on tussling through their various points of view; in other words, put their passions to the test.

And what I love most about Polaris is how over the past few years, that commitment to passionate discussion about Canadian music has rubbed off on those on the outside. You’ve seen two straight years where every nominated band has shown up to perform at the September gala. You’ve seen the message boards on CBC Radio 3 light up with discussion, not to mention all sorts of Twitter and Facebook discussion. My friends and I have been having a yearly Polaris pool, where we’d see who could predict the shortlist the best (this may be a bit more complicated now).  You certainly don’t see folks debating the Juno Awards with the same emotion. Whether online, or over a beer at the pub, it’s that shared passion that has made Polaris what it is today.

As an outsider now brought inside, I’m more than happy to share mine.

* * * * *

I likely won’t be publishing my second ballot (the one that helps knock the 40-album long list down to the final 10 nominees) but given that many jurists are sharing their first round ballot, and a few people have asked me, I suppose I can offer my first cut.

I’m a bit disappointed that no hip hop records made their way close to my list; though I listened to several, only D-Sisive’s Jonestown 2: Jimmy Go Bye Bye had much of an impact, but simply not enough to displace some of the other albums I was considering. I also had hoped to possibly find more of a place for some east coast music, but though there are many records that I liked, only Shotgun Jimmie’s Transistor Sister ended up a real contender when push came to shove (unless you still consider Sloan east coast).

So here goes:

5. Miracle Fortress – Was I the Wave?

Of all the Canadian albums that played in dream pop this year, Graham Van Pelt’s was the one that struck the strongest balance, equally as adept in its slow-building soundscapes as in smooth, sustained melodies.

4. Olenka and the Autumn Lovers – And Now We Sing

This one jumped up my ballot ahead of others I thought I preferred, but it just kept lingering and lingering through the process until it earned its spot. Though there are many impresive country/folk albums that will be strong contenders this year, none felt as varied and hard-hitting as this one.

3. Austra – Feel it Break

I flipped out for this one on first listen—to the point where I actually penciled it in as a ballot contender immediately—but I had to overcome the fact that it wears its influences rather prominently. Did I love it because it because of its antecedents (The Knife, Kate Bush) or on its own terms? The memorable melodies and Katie Stelmanis’ stunning performances won me over.

2. Destroyer – Kaputt

Though I’ve enjoyed his New Pornographers contributions, I’d never connected with Dan Bejar’s Destroyer work at all. By revitalizing the early 1980s smooth synth sound, he now stands as one of the two artists in 2011 who’ve overcome my prior dismissal to completely floor me. (The other, thankfully, missed the Polaris deadline by a week…but we’ll get to them in a future post).

1. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

A sign that, perhaps, I’m not as committed to discovering new music as I think I am? A cliched, predictable choice given the attention its gotten? Still not as good as Funeral? ‘Maybe’ to all the above. But should I continue to be a jurist in the years ahead, I hope there’s always a place on my ballot for BIG music, that succeeds with world-beating ambition and by bringing real heart and emotion to a broad canvas. The tours, publicity cycles and award wins gave me ample opportunity to revisit The Suburbs over the past year, but also equal opportunity to grow tired and bored with it. It’s still here.

And here, in alphabetical order, are the 12 albums it hurt most to cut:

  • Diamond Rings – Special Affections
  • The Dears – Degeneration Street
  • Imaginary Cities – Temporary Resident
  • Pat Jordache – Future Songs
  • The Luyas – Too Beautiful to Work
  • One Hundred Dollars – Songs of Man
  • PS I Love You – Meet Me at the Muster Station
  • Rah Rah – Breaking Hearts
  • The Rural Alberta Advantage – Departing
  • Shotgun Jimmie – Transistor Sister
  • Sloan – The Double Cross
  • Colin Stetson – New History Warfare Vol 2: Judges
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