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Always a Compromise
Why whittling down a Polaris Prize shortlist is "like wrestling a queen-mattress-sized piece of tofu up the stairs"

The Pilgrimage by Mares of Thrace, the author’s favourite Polaris nominee, which failed to make the shortlist

I was a shaking, sweaty wreck by the time I flung myself through the doors of the Drake Hotel for the Polaris Prize shortlist announcement. Founder Steve Jordan had just taken his place behind the podium, a bag of LPs from Sonic Boom in his hand, ready to announce the winner. I couldn’t place my nerves; I ascribed it to the horrors of riding the TTC and anxiety, but knew it was more.

I felt like I was going to puke the entire time Jordan read out the names of the ten records that had made the 2012 shortlist in agonizing alphabetical order:

Cadence Weapon – Hope In Dirt City
Cold Specks – I Predict a Graceful Expulsion
Drake – Take Care
Kathleen Edwards – Voyageur
Feist – Metals
Fucked Up – David Comes To Life
Grimes – Visions
Handsome Furs – Sound Kapital
Japandroids – Celebration Rock

There were smatterings of claps and cheers between each announcement; a few were greeted with ominous muttering and sharp intakes of breath. Then, it was over. The assembled crowd of journalists and a few musicians clapped one more time and scattered to the bar to nab a free bottle of Steamwhistle. Damian Abraham of Fucked Up immediately had a camera shoved in his face as he stood directly next to me; ebullient and self-effacing, he commented that it was such a relief to both be on the shortlist and know for certain that his band was not going to win (Fucked Up won the Polaris Prize in 2009 for The Chemistry of Common Life).

I stood stock still for a few moments, letting annoyed journalists bump into me, before wandering over to a crowd of familiar faces. Gradually, the nausea subsided and my voice came back. I started to grin. I felt giddy. I started to talk too loud and too enthusiastically about my love for Sherlock. It was as though a weight had lifted.

It was then that I realized: for me, the real work of the Polaris Prize was done. I had engaged in hilariously long email battles with fellow jurors for weeks and weeks, imploring them to give my favourite records (and heavy music in general) more of their valuable listening time. I banged my shield and bellowed challenges. I postured and pleaded, and tweeted and wrote articles, warred with words perched on barstools. And now, blessedly, it was over. I had done all I could so, and the release was blissful.

I invested deeply in the Polaris Prize during my first year as a juror, far more deeply than I expected. I have cared about this prize, fought and clawed much more than I ever expected to. I’ve thrown things at my laptop and wrote ridiculous emails where I told very nice editors of recognizable magazines that I would fight them. The Portrait of Natalie as a Juror is not a terribly flattering image, much more hyena in petticoats that rational beast, but I can honestly say that there is very little I could have done to have more of an influence, more of a voice on the jury than I did.

The shortlist is, in a way, a deep disappointment to me. “My” album, The Pilgrimage by Mares of Thrace, the Album I Wanted To Win So Bad, did not make the cut. As much as it is ridiculous, it hurts that I wasn’t able to bully 200+ other people into seeing the genius of that record. It’s hard to see albums that I had come to love on the long list — the swoony, psychedelic Shooting Guns record, A Tribe Called Red’s stunning self-titled effort, and Avec pas d’casques’ effervescent and starlit offering — disappear from the shortlist, too. Which is not to say that I think this is a bad list — far from it, in fact. There are only a few selections that make me raise an eyebrow: I’m lukewarm about Feist, never found a foothold with Japandroids and still feel like Cold Specks is a joke I don’t quite get. If any of the others — Yamantaka//Sonic Titan in particular — were to raise their hands in victory, I would be genuinely happy, without any reservation.

The vitriol that has erupted around the choice — usually involving the incorrect usage of the word “snub” — is staggering. Of course it is. Prestige, money, a very tangible award is at stake. People feel passionately about the art that they love and want to see that art rewarded. There is a part of me that wants to firebomb the whole award to the ground because there isn’t nearly enough heavy music representation yet for me to be remotely satisfied. But at the end of this exhausting process, with the tiniest bit of distance, I am just starting to see the edges of what makes Polaris simultaneously wonderful and infinitely frustrating.

It’s exactly the same detail, in fact: that the top 40, top 10, and eventually the single album that the jury chooses as the best album in Canada in a given year is something that we all have to agree on. And holy shit, there are a lot of us. We come from very different backgrounds, with wildly disparate interests. Some of us are super mouthy and liken the process to actual battle (read: me). Some are entirely silent during the entire selection and debate process, speaking only with their votes. Some don’t even vote at all. And somehow, the whole mass of us has to choose ten albums that we can all agree on, that we can all support in some way. It’s like wrestling a queen-mattress-sized piece of tofu up the stairs. It is impossible.

And somehow, it happens. The list is good, and it is frustrating. It is fair, and it is also intolerable. We’re all of us settling, in the end, because that is really how any organization with a lot of very opinionated people gets anything done. We all have to give, to compromise. I still feel that many of us are asked to compromise more than others — aggressive music, electronic and dance, and hip hop remain woefully underrepresented, in my humble opinion, though the situation is gradually improving.

In a process that by nature must involve compromise, the Polaris Prize aspires to find the album that is unequivocally the best of the year. It it an award based on debate and agreement, give and take. There is a process of finding a middle ground, of third and fourth and fifth options when the albums we individually consider the brightest lights of the year fall away. What is left very well may be the best, or it may simply be the best that most of us could settle on.

I am not sure if, for me, being a Polaris jury member was a success or a failure. I could not make enough of a case for my personal favourites, but I am also proud of the decisions we came to collectively. And, perversely, I can’t wait to do it again next year. But then, I am a masochist.


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.

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