Godspeed, Polaris and the art of saying No.

Two nights ago, on the eve of the Polaris Music Prize gala, in which a Canadian album would be named the year’s best, and awarded a $30,000 cash prize as a result, I was listening to Godspeed You Black Emperor’s Short Listed Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! I consider it a highly accomplished musical creation, one that I personally enjoyed enveloping myself in, and the more I listened the more I thought, “This could win.”


And then I dismissed it. In part because my favourites never win. (Hi Handsome Furs!) In part because it’s instrumental, with songs that are 20 minutes long, and that’s a hard sell, even to the expert open-eared music critics that make up the Polaris jury. And in part because Godspeed is, 20 years after first appearing on the fringes of Canada’s music scene, still pissing off critics, and Polaris is, after all, a critics’ prize.

Disclaimer: I was for many years a member of the Polaris Board of Directors. I also manged the jury, including moderating the final deliberations for the winner. I know more than anyone that those debates really are about the artistic merits of the album. It’s not a consensus vote, and the kind of of Borg-like hive mind that many people in the general public ascribe to the decision making is laughably speculative and false. There is no “let’s award a French act this year” or “that person is too rich to deserve to win.” It. Doesn’t. Happen.

But I know from private discussions with people who write about music for a (humble) living that sometimes when artists are mean to the media, talk shit about journalists, refuse to give interviews (or worse, waste people’s time by not showing up to scheduled ones) or generally act like we’re the enemy, their albums go the bottom of the listening pile. Media are people too, and they can have hurt feelings. I’m not suggesting that is a factor in that final Polaris debate (I certainly never witnessed it) but I did consider for a moment that Godspeed, notorious shunners of media attention, rejecters of interview requests, might not have enough friends in that room.

I’m so glad I was wrong. Last night, after several hours of joyous musical performances — highlighted by fiercely confident Zaki Ibrahim, ferociously pummelling METZ, and wickedly fun A Tribe Called Red — Godspeed was announced as the Polaris Music Prize winner for 2013. Post-gala, the question is always, “What did you think of the winner?” and this year, in all sincerity, I could say “Allelujah.”

It did not go unnoticed that this was the first time in the award’s history that the winner was not in attendance. This was by no means a surprise, knowing GY!BE.  But it was a story. A rep from the band’s label explained the band would be giving the $30,000 prize to try and set up a programme to distribute musical instruments in prisons. People clapped at that, mostly. Then everyone went to the Drake and mingled and talked about music and got on with our lives.

This morning I woke to the band’s official statement,  which starts off with “A FEW WORDS REGARDING THIS POLARIS PRIZE THING.” Right, this “thing.” This dismissive shrug bugged me. But it goes on to thank music writers for the prize, shout out struggling freelancers especially, express gratitude, and then:

BUT HOLY SHIT AND HOLY COW- we’ve been plowing our field on the margins of weird culture for almost 20 years now, and “this scene is pretty cool but what it really fucking needs is an awards show” is not a thought that’s ever crossed our minds.3 quick bullet-points that almost anybody could agree on maybe=-holding a gala during a time of austerity and normalized decline is a weird thing to do.-organizing a gala just so musicians can compete against each other for a novelty-sized cheque doesn’t serve the cause of righteous music at all.-asking the toyota motor company to help cover the tab for that gala, 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.these are hard times for everybody. and musicians’ blues are pretty low on the list of things in need of urgent correction BUT AND BUT if the point of this prize and party is acknowledging music-labor performed in the name of something other than quick money, well then maybe the next celebration should happen in a cruddier hall, without the corporate banners and culture overlords. and maybe a party thusly is long overdue- it would be truly nice to enjoy that hang, somewhere sometime where the point wasn’t just lazy money patting itself on the back.”

And so now we have an even bigger story. Godspeed “slams” Polaris! My social media, full of music biz people, is awash with arguments about whether or not the band’s position is respectable or bullshit—or worse, shtick. Many call them hypocrites, dicks, fake anarchists, for accepting a prize if they don’t agree with what it represents.

Some people seem very angry about the whole thing. I am not.

Sure, it’s fun to argue. But really, I fail to see this as some crisis, some failure of either the prize or the band. For one, they’re not totally slamming the prize. They say thank you. They don’t particularly like the glitzy gala, sponsored by a car company, sure, but in general they mostly sound conflicted. Which is exactly how I would feel about being awarded a prize sponsored by corporations. Grateful, yes. But I’d still have questions and concerns. And I haven’t made my living, my brand, off being anti-corporate.

Many are suggesting the band should not have accepted the win. That they should have withdrawn from consideration months ago, at the Long List stage. And they especially should not be taking the money. I don’t know if that’s some lingering resentment over their anti-industry stance all these years or what. But I do know it’s bullshit.

If you have a point of view, a message even, it serves nobody to withdraw from public discourse.

By pulling out, rejecting their nomination, they would first and foremost deprive many new music lovers from discovering and hearing their album, which is pretty much the opposite of what most musicians I know want. There may have been a few blog posts about their decision but only people who already know who Godspeed are would ever read them. And they most definitely wouldn’t have had the opportunity to take their views to mainstream media. To have a statement read on CBC Radio. To get a nation talking about the nature of arts awards. Even if their statement had its contradictions and flaws. Yeah, I know that their label Constellation has received government funding. I know they are going on a no-doubt gas-guzzling tour with NIN, playing venues named by banks and such. And it doesn’t bother me.

We are all compromised in our ethics. We all have to navigate a world that is for the most part not in line with our core beliefs of justice. Judging other people may be natural, but it’s petty. It’s like saying Tom Morello lost his activist cred by signing with Sony. It’s like tsking a vegetarian for wearing leather shoes to make yourself feel better for eating animals. If someone else is unpure in their convictions, well, then I guess my inaction is OK then.

We have no idea what goes in in other people’s heads, and hearts, and wallets. Maybe the band is giving their profits from the NIN tour to carbon offsets. Maybe Constellation used that funding to hire people to work in their office instead of exploiting intern slavery. I don’t know. And I actually don’t care. I’m still applauding a band for taking its 24 hours of spotlight to actually say something, about something, whatever that is. In my view, that’s what artists should do. It’s part of their job.

One point I am surprised to find overlooked is that the band chose a music journalist to speak on their behalf at the gala. For the first time, the Short Listed artists were given the opportunity to select their own presenters. Whitehorse picked Sarah McLachlan. Tegan and Sara picked Strombo. Godspeed could have picked any number of representatives — Sacheen Littlefeather, perhaps? — or none at all. But they picked Jessica Hopper, a music journalist. She read a short statement about why they would not attend, with a comment about what can be achieved when you “decide to say no.” It was kind of perfect. (Save for host Kathleen Edwards’ comment that Hopper is one of the “few and far between excellent women music writers,” which I found bewildering and offensive.) Here, their actions spoke.

Godspeed don’t hate everyone. They just don’t like everyone. Like their music, I can relate to that.

12 thoughts on “Godspeed, Polaris and the art of saying No.”

  1. Thanks Liisa,

    In reading many of the disparaging comments in regard to the band’s statement, your response covers most of what I have been feeling about it. How is it that “rock and roll” has become an artistic expression that wishes to exclude dissent? GSYBE is how I like my rockstars. Irritable, contradictory, and willing to kick against the bricks. Who else in a culture of artistic expression has the means to do so with direct access to the primary channels, and when do they employ them?

    I plan to repost and share your blog with the haters.

    With bloody respect! Kp

  2. I’ve been totally surprised by how angry people are about this.
    I like Polaris, and I think it’s a smart setup, but I think if it can’t stand a little honest criticism then it just can’t stand. It seems to be just fine, but Polaris fans need to taker’er easier, I think.
    I like debate and discussion; I like people who question things that are established.
    And I like artists that stand up for their convictions – if artists aren’t political, who will be? (Not politicians – if they want to keep their jobs, they’ve got to be politic, not political.)
    I like all of this, and I think it’s all very healthy, but some of the commentary is bordering on hysterical; you’d think that no artist had ever questioned an award before, and that it was treason to do so (even tho it’s a grand Canadian tradition – Stompin’ Tom returned his JUNOs).
    So it’s nice to see some level-headed commentary by someone who knows how the machine works. Thank you!

  3. Apparently Kathleen meant to say not that she was one of the few good music journalists, but more that female music writers can be a rare species in a field dominated by their male peers (which is true enough) — just came out wrong in the live-TV moment, it seems.

  4. I really appreciated your insight Liisa, it’s the first reaction piece about “the statement” I’ve read that doesn’t feel like it’s caged in a latent layer of defensiveness. Totally, let artists be artists!

  5. Love what you wrote but the biggest sticking point for me was simply what poor communicators they were. Yes, they had the ear of the nation (and beyond). Yes, they got people talking. What a privilege and an opportunity!

    and, like, they wrote some stuff and kinda tossed stuff off and oh yeah instruments to prisoners. kthxbyeeee!

    Sure people who knew them already could interpret, but to most others it sounded like a mild rant from a freshman student. ‘Prison’ might as well have been ‘Africa.’ And punctuation is your friend.

  6. Thanks everyone for reading, for sharing, for sharing your comments.

    Txthetxes, I agree that if you didn’t know Godspeed — which would be the majority of people reading those news headlines — the comments weren’t exactly sophisticated and may not have presented their argument in the best light. Yes, pretty freshman…

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