by Matt Williams
At the Polaris Music Prize Gala on Monday night in downtown Toronto, Richard Trapunski, Editor-in-Chief at Chart Attack, presented Yamantaka // Sonic Titan’s album, UZU, by posing an important question. It’s one so simple and obvious that the fact it seems to never get asked is almost downright confusing.
“What exactly is Canadian music? Is it music made in Canada? Is it rootsy songs about dead hockey players and towns in north Ontario?”
Shortly afterward, we had a winner that is arguably the most Canadian album to ever take home the Polaris: Tanya Tagaq’s Animism. It’s a genre-defying record based around throat singing, one of the world’s, and thus Canada’s, oldest forms of music (banned by Christian priests at one point), with an Inuit woman at the helm. It’s also the first time in the history of Polaris that there has been a winner from anywhere west of Ontario, not to mention the northern connection – Tagaq is from Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, a very long, almost straight shot north of the middle of Saskatchewan. She first started throat singing when she moved to Yellowknife at 15-years-old.
The Polaris Grand Jury made their decision at least 20 minutes prior to Tagaq taking the stage for the last live song of the night. Surrounded by the Element Choir, flanked on her right by a scrolling list of missing and murdered Aboriginal women, she put on a chilling, hair-raising performance. She moved around the stage in a hyper-focused trance, periodically making herself massive with tiptoes and outstretched arms, similar to the way someone might try to scare away a bear. There is a palpable energy, a real, physical something in her sonic presence that could only come from a place of profound, unsinkable emotion. On stage she is 100 per cent consumed: walls are broken down, and for a sustained period of time, there is no Tanya Tagaq and no sound, they are the same exact thing, living breathing waves, noise and flesh made one. To say this harrowing spectacle was otherworldly might be a discredit. The feeling that there are no known worlds where something like it exists seems more accurate. Affable host Jay Baruchel, looking like he’d just woken up, provided the absolute most appropriate reaction: “Holy shit.”
It was also the only part of the night the crowd was spurred to its feet by any of the performers, until Baruchel announced her as the winner. In retrospect, to try to follow Tagaq would have been suicidal. It’s not that the rest of the performances were bad. In fact, they were all fantastic. But the staggering intensity of Tagaq’s in comparison made, let’s say, Mac DeMarco’s greasy crooner schtick seem laughable, for reasons other than Mac’s obvious “look-at-me!” amateur comedy. When the last presenter took the side stage to talk about Drake with a well thought-out, sort of slam poetry “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” ode, you got the feeling she was talking to a wall. Tagaq’s song was the mic-drop moment. All that was left now was to have the confirmation of what we all knew the only possible outcome could be.
And while that, along with all the Polaris madness in the glitzy backdrop of the Carlu, the Mac DeMarco crowdsurfing shenanigans, the bustling joyride of schmoozing for the industry set, the fancy food, the gift bags, the Win Butler hugging Basia Bulat moments, and the genuinely hard work that goes into the whole shebang, is a story in itself, there is a much bigger and more important one.
Tanya Tagaq is a veteran artist. She is no overnight success. Her first record came out in 2005, nearly a decade ago. She is Aboriginal. Her music is not particularly accessible, in the way that Drake’s or Jessy Lanza’s or Arcade Fire’s is. She is, as mentioned above, the first winner of the Polaris to not come from Ontario or Quebec. You won’t hear her on the radio unless you’re left of the dial. She makes difficult music, songs that push boundaries and break rules, penetrate listeners in strange ways, and leaves them somehow simultaneously exhausted and revitalized. And highlighting that – artistic merit – is what the Polaris is all about. For Tagaq to be heard, then to make the long list, the short list, and finally, have 11 music journalists (who, your correspondent will admit, are severely opinionated and stubborn by nature) decide Animism is the record most deserving of the big cheque in the country, means something. It means we are listening. Not passively ingesting whatever the biggest music blogs in the world throw our way, but actively listening, and thinking hard about what Canadian music means and what’s important about it.
It also means something politically. With national outcry for a full federal inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada, the new UN Movement for Gender Equality campaign, HeForShe, and Prime Minister Stephen “just a regular guy” Harper running our nation with the attitude that “ordinary people” don’t care about the arts, for an Inuit woman to be honoured with what is arguably Canada’s most important music award also means something. It means, again, that we are listening. It means we in the arts community, and we the “ordinary people,” are listening to what is happening in our culture, our backyards, and to our national identity. It means we still give a damn about it.
When asked about what she was going to do with the $30,000, Tagaq’s answer was refreshingly personal, in no small way because of last year’s Godspeed You! Black Emperor debacle.
“I’m gonna take care of my family,” she said. “I’m gonna give my girls a nice education. Money just trickles away really quickly anyway. I’m not going to donate it to a special cause, I’m going to donate it to my cause.”
At its heart, that’s what Polaris is about: helping take care of our national identity as it exists through art, and specifically music. It’s with that identity, fuelled and made full by the ingestion of our greatest artistic achievements, that the entire nation – yes, including even the “ordinary people” – is able to form complex and deeply significant definitions of what it means to be Canadian. It helps us explain who we are. Recognizing a record like Animism as the best Canadian album of the year, based on artistic merit, is a small step in the direction of defining what kind of country we want to be, by blazing new trails with the help of traditional tools.
In the Round Room, during the post-show press conference, Tagaq’s comments touched on what might be the best way to achieve all this more efficiently. Simply put, stop playing make believe.
“Humans, we’re having a hard time, we’re all pretending we’re not. I get sick of living in that world, where we’re supposed to pretend. I just want to take that out and shake it. We can be honest with each other, we can be real with each other.”
Stop pretending we’re okay when we’re not. Stop pretending our country doesn’t have a problem with missing and murdered aboriginal women. Stop pretending gender equality isn’t a serious-as-a-heart-attack issue. Stop pretending we don’t care about arts funding. Stop pretending art isn’t one of, if not the, most important defining characteristic we have as a culture. Stop pretending these things don’t matter.
And, oh yeah: “fuck PETA.”