The 2012 Polaris Music Prize gala was an absolute triumph, showcasing the best of Canadian music across a wide variety of genres, full of moving performances and statements, genuine emotion and stunning grace. It also sent me home in such a terrible mood, so outraged by the decision, that I stormed in the door and threw a shoe at the wall. Now I have to repair the plaster before the landlord sees it.
In the last few days, my reaction has gentled somewhat. I’ve tried to pull my critical thoughts away from my much messier emotions, tried to make sense of the simultaneous rage and joy that the night inspired. It’s still a mess, but sometimes journalism means dissecting all of our ugly feelings and terrible impulses in public.
Every single gala performance was absolutely stunning. Every artist who performed — or simply spoke, or no-showed entirely — made a mark on the event, and every single one of them proved exactly why they were part of the shortlist. Fucked Up were gleefully destructive, showing a remarkably posi and cuddly side of the hardcore aesthetic, their rage somehow playful, like a kid harmlessly kicking over a cardboard box city while pretending to be Godzilla. Cold Specks was at once funereal and defiant, her gothic gospel voice full of the kind of impossible weight usually found only at the centre of stars. Cadence Weapon kept the audience dodging verbal shrapnel with his nails-and-gravel delivery. Alexei Perry spoke beautifully about Handsome Furs’ posthumous nomination for the prize, which ended the band’s run on a note of celebration as well as mourning.
Kathleen Edwards tore merciless chunks out of the audience’s heart with her moving performance as well as her thanks to Polaris founder for Steve Jordan, who she acknowledged for creating an award for “those of us who don’t want to march in the Shit Parade.” Japandroids, always busily building their own galaxy somewhere, were honoured from afar as they were on tour in Europe. Grimes’ performance was cheeky and elegant, the looping echoes of her voice popping like ghost bubblegum, a pole dancer named Gary undulating gracefully to her side while she bent over her equipment, manic as a mad scientist adjusting the flow of pipettes and the flames of bunsen burners. Yamantaka // Sonic Titan performed a swelling, post-apocalyptic set that suffered from a terrible sound mix but still managed to come across as fireworks-bombastic and feather-light.
Feist performed accompanied by Snowblink and Aurora, their voices blending, caressing and bouncing off each other in a way that made the sound seem tactile and alive. Over the whole night, the spectre of Drake’s possible attendance hung over the proceedings (he initially called in sick, later stated that he had improved and would try to make it, and finally declined to appear definitively), his absence standing in for the way that the young rapper’s fame has become larger than any man could be, now a character more than a human being as he achieves international acclaim.
The performances, in all their forms and varied executions, each displayed extraordinary and disparate talent. Every performer was at their best, and proved beyond a shadow of a doubt why they deserved to be on the shortlist. The gala performances solidified in my mind that Polaris is doing what it is supposed to do: honouring the best and brightest examples of Canadian music.
And then Feist was announced as the winner, and my heart sank.
I’ve spent the last few days trying to analyze my reaction, to understand my own anger and sense of betrayal at the result. Feist is a lovely human being by all accounts, and the album she won for, Metals, is arguably her finest offering to date, a bold move away from the sound, captured most clearly on The Reminder, that first launched her to fame. It is a muscular, intense, moving album, surprisingly tough and restrained as much as much as it is gentle. It was a record that made me listen more closely, more subtly. Surely that deserves to be honoured. I’m also thrilled that a female singer-songwriter is being honoured by Polaris with a win for the first time.
But, as that great artist hid under the table and finally was coaxed out to take hold of a giant novelty cheque, my heart sank. I clapped hollowly. I went home in a cab at the end of the night in a grand sulk and threw a temper tantrum the moment I got home. Ever since, I have been dissecting why.
The night of the gala, I tweeted that I thought Metals was the weakest record on the short list and deeply disagreed with the grand jury’s decision. My initial feeling (which I described, at length and at high volume, to my poor boyfriend, who was sleeping before I storm-clouded into the apartment) was that the decision was the product the worst kind of compromise. My impression was that the decision was the product of a bland consensus. That the jury had, in the end, chosen the record that they could all agree on, the one that offended their collective sensibilities and challenged them the least. It felt like an act of settling.
It also didn’t at all conform to the decision that I would have made, and though music journalists all have extremely strong and fully-formed opinions on every single subject imaginable, awards always bring out the most venomous ones of all. At the end of the day, I don’t like things that are quiet, that sidle up to truths, that restrain themselves and don’t fight against those self-imposed bonds. I like the unsettled and disquieting, the destructive and noisy. I like the sharp-edged and uncomfortable, ugly and forceful transformations, violent music. Part of my anger was pure selfishness: Feist does not conform to my preferences. Like a perfectly competent but vanilla lover, she leaves me longing for a gimp suit and violet wand.
A large part of my negative reaction, however, also had to do with a misunderstanding of the process. While Polaris is fairly transparent about the way they go about things, neither are they always very proactive about giving out the details of their process. I was under the impression that the jury decided things the same way that a criminal jury would: lock themselves in a room together until they decided on the one artist who was guilty/the winner. I imagined Twelve Angry Men. I envisioned the jurors getting annoyed being separated from the rest of the party, unable to watch the show or enjoy the grilled cheese sandwiches, and finally fighting with each other until a consensus was reached. The implicit blandness of that process, the defeat through compromise of it, made me furious.
In this way, I discovered I was mistaken, and this piece of information significantly changed my opinions of the process. Rather than debate until they come to a mutual decision, the jurists go through three rounds of ranked voting. During each round, the records that received the lowest votes are eliminated. The discussion that takes place is purely a final attempt to bring other jurors around to your way of thinking as the voting progresses, rather than a process of beating each other’s opinions into the shape of conformity and compromise. After the final round of voting, jurors leave the room having cast their vote, but not knowing the outcome, which is only revealed onstage. It is entirely possible that some of the grand jurors were as shocked as I was by the final outcome.
Somehow, understanding the process was a matter of strong, independent opinions bashing into each other and eventually coming up with a winner out of sheer brute force made me feel much better than my misconception that the result was the product of compromise. Knowing that the grand jurors fought ’til the end made me respect their opinions much more, rather than believing they had all, in essence, given up in order to agree.
Taking this under consideration, my disappointment has morphed into a new, different and milder shape. There were more exciting, dynamic and challenging albums on the short list, several that I would have been much happier to see win. Because my heart is a heavy thing full of sparks and scrap metal, I was pulling for the apocalyptic meta-performativity of Yamantaka//Sonic Titan to win the day. A win by Cold Specks, Kathleen Edwards, Grimes or Handsome Furs would have also warmed my shriveled little apple core of a heart, because I think they are, each in their own way, equally powerful and difficult, albums that challenge and aren’t easily loved on the first listen, but the kind of albums that puts down roots, that twist and cling and haunt you for years.
But I realize that my most fiercest argument against Feist winning the Polaris Prize is that Metals is exactly the kind of album people expect it to honour. That in its short and dramatic tenure, the Polaris Prize has already typecast itself into selecting records with a certain texture and feel, a sweetness and an ease to them that, no matter how good they are, annoy the crap out of difficult, cantankerous people who want an edgier soundtrack to their discontent. Every year, the mantle of the award has fallen on an artist’s shoulders and seemed so right, so expected, so strangely predetermined that it is impossible not to see the line that connects them.
The conclusion that I may have just come to: the choice to award Feist with the Polaris Prize upset me so because it was the clearest decision, because it fit so well. My disappointment was a product of genuinely wanting to be surprised by the result. I would rather see a strange, flawed, iconoclastic album win than something merely excellent. That may reveal more about a crack in my psyche than I was hoping to admit, but I wish that the choice had been tougher, the award more ill-fitting, the result a genuine shock. The Polaris Prize unquestionably awards Canadian musical excellence; the gala proved it from start to finish. Moving forward, I hope it starts getting stranger too.
Natalie Zina Walschots is a poet and music writer based in Toronto, Ontario. Her second book of poetry, DOOM: Love Poems for Supervillains, was published by Insomniac Press this spring. You can follow her on Twitter at @NatalieZed.