Only a few weeks ago Canadian icon and Poundmaker Cree Nation-born singer and songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie took a stage in Toronto to accept the Polaris Music Prize, considered Canada’s top honour in music recognition.
The album reviewed well with an NPR review stating the album is “more Bjork than Baez, more Kate Bush than Laurel Canyon”. It went on to state that Sainte-Marie is “still a fiery singer with a touch that can be as strong as a street protester's or as playful as a rock 'n' roller's, Sainte-Marie gives her collaborators room to play with samples, beats and arrangements that range from classic rock to delicate electronic music, all the while keeping her attention-grabbing, yarn-spinning voice at the center.” In an Exclaim review of the album it said “at 74 years old, this perennially underrated artist sounds as vital and as urgent as ever on this, her 18th record. In fact, Power In The Blood might just be the best album she's made since the late 1960s.”
Clearly, although not my favourite, it is an album to be reckoned with. So with such a powerful album from an iconic Canadian singer, why was the larger story not around her receiving the Polaris, but around the award itself?
It’s not the first time that the Polaris Prize has come under fire but what actually has happened in the past 10 years behind the confidentiality shield of the judges chat rooms?
“I was not the first juror in Saskatchewan,” Saskatoon based writer, editor, and juror on the Polaris Music Prize Craig Silliphant said while on the podcast Uncorked Spirits.
In 2007 when one of only a handful of prairie jurors decided to move out West, Silliphant’s name was thrown forward as a possible replacement.
“Basically all year long there are (jurors); they are writers, journalists, bloggers, 200-or-so of the top music writers and broadcasters in Canada; so all year long we have a newsgroup basically where we have boards where we can suggest albums to the other jurors,” he said.
The group then gets the album from the artist and jurors start to listen.
“From there there is the longlist vote, so you get five votes, your five picks for the album of the year basically and basically it’s like your number one was worth five points, your number two was worth four points, and so on. They talley all of those up and they come up with the 40 artist deep long list,” Silliphant explained.
“From there we vote again, you have your five votes but now you are just voting from the long list and so that might change some of your votes in a lot of cases. It goes to a shortlist of (ten) and from there they have the gala and they have 11 jurors that they sort of hand pick from across Canada to come to the gala and they get in a room and argue about it for however long it takes I guess and they walk out with a winner.”
Sounds simple enough.
On top of the jurors there are also 10 board of directors from such industry places as Warner Music Canada, Exclaim Magazine, and Six Shooter Records. There is also an executive director, a former A&R Executive with Warner Music Canada and True North Records, Steve Jordan.
According to Polaris the deal is if you’re Canadian and your record is more than 30 minutes/8-tracks long, plus a few other criteria listed in their rules on the website, it’s eligible for consideration. To Polaris, that means every artist has an equal opportunity regardless of their marketing savvy or budgets.
Modelled after the Mercury Prize in Britain, the Polaris is intended to ignore such things as genre and sales, instead choosing the best album of the last twelve months based solely on artistic merit.
The response after the first year of the award was positive and people were optimistic as 2007 rolled around. For the second year of the award the world was listening to Britney Spears’ latest comeback hit Pieces of Me and some guy named Lloyd was singing a song called “Get it Shawty”. Same deal as the year before with music critics bloggers and the like sending in their top five, voting, narrowing down to 40, voting again and creating a short list which included such albums as Arcade Fire’s “Neon Bible”, the Besnard Lakes’ “The Besnard Lakes are the Dark Horse, and Junior Boys’ slow jam album “So This Is Goodbye”. In the end it was Patrick Watson who took the giant cheque for the album “Close to Paradise”.
So the award handing out continued annually and questions started to be raised whether it should change it’s name to the Polaris “Indie” Music Prize after Caribou won for “Andorra”, Karkwa won for “Les Chemins DeVerre”, Arcade Fire took it for “the Suburbs” and Feist for “Metals”. In those years there was one headline grabbing winner when the band Fucked Up won for their album “The Chemistry of Common Life” in 2009. Although it wasn’t controversy over a heavier sound taking the cheque but moreover what mainstream news was going to do about those headlines when a band with fuck in their name won.
People really start talking in 2013 when Godspeed You! Black Emperor won for their album “Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!” The prog-rock band refused to attend the Polaris gala and a representative from their label accepted the prize and said the money would go to purchase “musical instruments for, and support organizations providing music lessons to, people incarcerated within the Quebec prison system." The next day the band released their own statement which said "holding a gala during a time of austerity and normalized decline is a weird thing to do”. The statement also commented on the choice to have Toyota sponsor the prize "during a summer where the melting northern ice caps are live-streaming on the internet, IS FUCKING INSANE, and comes across as tone-deaf to the current horrifying malaise." In a clear jab to organizers they added that making musicians compete against each other for a novelty-sized cheque “doesn’t serve the cause of righteous music at all.” It was the first year that Polaris decided to discontinue handing that giant cheque to the the winner.
With a clear need for reboot, the 2014 short list saw a Drake album for the second time, but also crowned Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq’s experimental album “Animism” the winner. But headlines once again were grabbed when Tagaq declared "Fuck PETA," because the organization was trying to end seal hunts in the north where the Inuit population actually uses seals to survive. Tagaq also used her gala performance and interviews as a platform to discuss missing and murdered Aboriginal women across Canada.
That leads back to this year with Buffy Sainte-Marie’s win and also now the prize has been bumped up to $50,000. The controversy this year stemmed largely from an article on the Canadaland website where Weird Canada music blogger Johnnie Regalado wrote an article called “I was a Polaris Juror and it sucked”.
Regalado said in the article that “instead of discussing music and artists, I faced a hostile, boys’ club atmosphere. Discussions about music were a distant second to bullying and overblown egos.”
He pointed to specific problems like loudmouth “high-profile,” “influential” big egos that dominated the conversation and shut down dissenting and marginal voices specifically pointing to CBC’s Grant Lawrence as a problem and he said there was a negative response when certain genres of music were brought up, “contributing to a mob mentality around the indie rock music preference.”
Regalado’s article received mixed feedback especially since he used screen captures of what’s supposed to be a confidential conversation around choosing the short list to enhance his points. But it did still get a lot of people talking, once again, about issues with the Polaris Prize.
“I’ve watched it grow over the last few years both in terms of the jury pool but also the reactions to it. When I started doing it you told someone you were on the Polaris and they were like ‘you ride a snowmobile, what?’” Silliphant said.
Now that the reach and press associated with the award has spread, so has the criticism that it reflects only a Toronto-centric, Factor-associated, indie-rock musical perspective. Silliphant recognized there are issues and said it’s often front-and-centre in their salons and panels held throughout the year all over Canada.
“It doesn’t bother me that people feel that way. For me, as it it gets further and further to the winner, I kind of become less interested in a way. Not disengaging… but for me it’s more about the journey then the destination,” he said. “During that year when we are all posting albums for each other I am basically in a group of 200 people that are really passionate about music and suggesting everything from totally straight up standard stuff to the weird and wild stuff that you wouldn’t necessarily have found on your own. Real regional stuff sometimes.”
Although he is less interested in the shorter lists, Silliphant explained that it’s not because he feels “quieted” or disenfranchised by the other voices in the jury.
“I don’t feel my (silence) was ever because of intimidation or anything like that,” Silliphant said. “People are people, there are all kinds of different reasons why some people might not contribute. There may be people who do feel intimidated, obviously Johnny did, but I think to say that the whole jury feels that way is huge sweeping generalization. He’s putting words in my mouth.”
He added that there is a confidentiality agreement when you become a juror and the content of jury conversations are confidential. Silliphant said that releasing the screen captures, taken out of context, could actually cause more jurors to censor themselves and hold back then being loud in the conversation ever did.
“Are there people on there sometimes that act the baffoon… this is the one place I would say that Johnny was in line was that (there are) some very aggressive voices sometimes and (they) will try to play that off as humour or something like that,” Silliphant said. “I think that sometimes it could be handled more professionally, however it’s a conversation with hundreds of music writers arguing about their favourite albums and the merits of things.”
Even if loud voices dominate the conversation people are still voting anonymously, Silliphant explained.
“The arguments inside the jury, somebody could maybe sway someone through their argument but ultimately it’s a secret ballot. If they felt marginalized they can still go vote what they wanted to vote” he said.
“Whatever Grant Lawrence says doesn’t effect that, if anything he may turn people against whatever music he is championing.”
Being part of the jury since nearly the beginning, Silliphant does see that there are issues to tackle, including the location of many of the jurors.
“The other thing that gets thrown in there…. it’s very Toronto centric too. As you get into that mode you start to look into bands that are Factor granted, too,” he said.
“You start going out West in markets like this and we aren’t quite as connected.”
It’s important not to forget that when you look at what was grabbing the Billboard top spots and sitting at number one on MuchMusic's countdown, it’s often quite a different story than the Polaris Prize.
“People start to focus on the process and what’s wrong with it more than they focus on the fact that we could have no Polaris Prize and lot’s of those albums would never see the light of day, I would never get to know (about) 25 albums a year I pick up just because of this process,” he said.
“As flawed as it is, I think it’s really important to Canadian music and to getting that conversation going (around Canadian music).”
That conversation, like all conversations around the Polaris Prize, will likely continue to be heated, opinionated, and filled with music nerds who all have the “right answer”.
Kelly Geraldine Malone is a freelance journalist, podcaster, and radio producer based out of Manitoba, Canada