Music

Avoid the fringe

The Polaris jury stays in the middle of the road

The 2010 Polaris Prize went to Quebecois folk-rockers Karkwa, and I'm sure if I cared much at all about who they gave the Polaris to, I'd have something to say about the politics of finally picking the French band. Truthfully, though, the Polaris has gone from forward-thinking to close to irrelevant in about five years, which is a pretty impressive feat.

Although I guess you can't really blame the prize itself: it's voted on by a panel of journalists and bloggers. And that group is not acquitting itself very well of late. This being an Edmonton-centred column, I could complain about the lack of Edmonton nominations—one out of 50 shortlisted artists in five years, and nothing on the long list at all this year—but our exclusion seems to me indicative of a larger problem: the Canadian critical establishment hasn't seemed to advance its taste since the Polaris started.

Some complain about the lack of diversity of genre, but I'm comfortable with having a prize devoted chiefly to pop/rock, and particularly to independent or otherwise under-the-radar pop/rock. But the latter half of that formation is seriously lacking: I mean, sure most of the groups on the list this year were on stereotypically indie labels, but though bands like Broken Social Scene and Tegan and Sara were once truly different and underappreciated, they're now just part of another very established tier that's become as entrenched as Top 40: critical opinion in this country has crystallized around a mid-'00s heyday, what you might call Radio 3 music.

I get that some of that is inevitable, and it's not like some of the folks who fit in that cohort (Owen Pallett, Caribou) aren't still making interesting and challenging music. But look at the long list: there isn't even a nod to lo-fi or chiptune or garage or really anything other than pleasant-sounding indie pop or alt-country (and the mandatory hip-hop inclusion) of the kind you've been hearing since the Arcade Fire. Canadian critics as a whole seem to be entirely uninterested in exploring around the fringes—or, more accurately did it once, and that was good enough for them.

Pallett, the first Polaris winner, put his first two records out on Blocks Recording Club, still a repository for wonderful and eclectic Toronto sounds; I wonder how many of the Polaris jurors even know that label exists? V

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