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As the Dust Settles on the Polaris Prize Gala…
Natalie Zina Walschots on Godspeed You! Black Emperor's win and the controversial statement that followed it

image: CST Records

If there’s going to be a kerfuffle of any kind regarding the Polaris Prize, it’s going to happen when the winner’s announced. There is a minor skirmish when the long list appears and a more serious critical uprising when it’s narrowed down to the short list, but it’s the winner that twists or rubs, and that is met with ebullient happiness or dramatic betrayal. I was shocked by the ferocity of my reaction last year (when Feist won)– how deeply I invested, and how wrenching the process was at the end.

This year, however, the announcement of the winner was met with a kind of unexpected pleasure. There is always a collective gasp in the room when the name is read, but when Kathleen Edwards announced Godspeed You! Black Emperor had won for Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, the pause before the applause erupted had an almost pleasantly surprised quality to it. The win tasted anti-climactic – more on that later – but certainly wasn’t unwelcome. It was a buoyant, joyful moment with barely any clashing swords to be heard.

It was the next morning that the critical eruption occurred – not over the win, but the acceptance of the prize. Godspeed You! Black Emperor released a statement via Constellation Records that ignited the critical community in Canada in a way their win alone never could. They expressed their thanks for having received the award, to be “acknowledged by the Troubled Motherland when we so often feel orphaned here.” They gave a shout-out to freelancers and those who write about local bands. They were grateful and humble.

They also raged against the structure of Polaris, which they perceive as too corporate, and the gala, which they criticized as too grand. They expressed dismay that Polaris would “[hold] a gala during a time of austerity and normalized decline,” and that their perception of the purpose of the event was that it existed “just so musicians can compete against each other for a novelty-sized cheque.” They railed against “corporate banners and culture overlords,” wished the event would have taken place in a “cruddier hall,” and announced they planned to donate their prize money “to try to set up a program so that prisoners in Quebec have musical instruments if they need them.”

The statement has been mocked and lauded, eviscerated and carefully dissected. Liisa Ladouceur wrote eloquently about GY!BE and the art of saying no, and how she was “applauding a band for taking its 24 hours of spotlight to actually say something about something, whatever that is.” Francois Marchand instead chose to explore what he saw as the inherent hypocrisy of their statement, and “for Godspeed to disregard the fact that they benefited from the whole build-up to the event and, now, from its much discussed aftermath, which they created themselves.” The conversation has mushroomed and twisted, become both deadly serious and a joke several times over.

The conversation around their statement, and the many varied responses to it, has effectively obscured the discussion about the value of the win, and the record that won. In releasing their statement, Godspeed You! Black Emperor have effectively co-opted the discussion to be about their band identity, choices, personalities, and brand. They have made it about them personally, about how likeable or repugnant they are, how punk rock or hypocritical they’ve become.

There is no doubt in my mind that a great deal of GY!BE’s stalwart curmudgeonliness is a creative choice. They walk a strange line between being mysterious and difficult personalities, while still accepting a supporting slot on NIN’s comeback tour. Their identity, like any public facade, is a construct, one that’s thrived by virtue of its thorniness. They have dug a deep moat and planted a thick forest around themselves as creative individuals, and it’s worked extremely well for them. To be offended by something that’s so transparently a construction, albeit a good one, is naïve.

Now that the dust is settling from the initial explosion caused by their statement, it’s a shame that, in the wake of their victory, so little as been written about Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! It wasn’t my first choice; it wasn’t even my third. I would have been pants-peeingly happy had A Tribe Called Red, Zaki Ibrahim, METZ or Colin Stetson won the prize – each of those records has been transformative, teaching me something. But hearing GY!BE win for Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! was undoubtedly a positive moment. I settled into an uneasy relationship with the record the more I listened to it throughout the jury process; it bothered me, in an intelligent and intensely discomfiting way.

After ten years of silence, Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! represents not only GY!BE returning from a type of creative, self-imposed exile, but expressing a deep discomfort with that reappearance. It struck me from the very first listen that this was music that existed because it had to, that the band write and record because they’re compelled. The intimate clashes with the metallic, the robotic with the visceral. It itches; it writhes. It gives at unexpected places, yielding to pressure with shocking vulnerability, while elsewhere the sound is diamond-hard. It’s aching and uncomfortable, filled with anger and loss, refusing to believe that even smoking ruins aren’t worth fighting for. Whether or not they graciously accepted their award doesn’t change my relationship with that album, nor does it cast a pall on the incredibly difficult job the grand jury had in choosing it.

What the statement also obscured that deserves far more time, attention and press (and the only thing I staunchly disagree with in, terms of GY!BE’s criticism) was the triumph that was the gala. This was an exceptionally good shortlist, assembled out of a year of great records. If I had my way, KEN Mode, Anciients, and Blood Ceremony would also have been on it, but I can’t knock the records that made the cut instead. That exceptional short list gave rise to one of the most wonderful shows – arguably the best – the Polaris Prize has ever put on.

The gala honours everyone who made the short list by offering them the chance to perform, and the line-up this year was absolutely incredible. Shad and Kathleen Edwards were excellent hosts and great foils for each other, with Kathleen’s brash potty mouth and Shad’s slightly ironic restraint. Purity Ring kicked off the event with a hypnotic, enveloping light show, illuminated percussion and a set covered in cocoons, making their woozy synths sound more poetic and dreamy than on record. Zaki Ibrahim was heartbreakingly good, with wicked choreography and an incredible voice, sharp as the shoulders of the military jackets her backup singers wore, images of roses blooming and dying behind her. Colin Stetson, whose finger happily healed just in time for the show, filled the Carlu with luminous, sonorous, otherworldly noise.

Tegan and Sara were unable to attend, but local musical collective Choir!Choir!Choir! performed a joyous, ecstatic rendition of “Closer” in their place. Young Galaxy were deliciously cool and icicle slick. Metric performed as a duo, nakedly acoustic and woodenly nervous, almost endearingly so. Whitehorse ran around the stage, setting up loops and whooping gleefully into the mics – the sound so ordered compared to their manic energy. METZ brought a wall of chaotic thunder, elemental clashes of sound that shook the civilized venue. Closing the night’s festivities, A Tribe Called Red were triumphant and transformative, embodied by the First Nations dancer who performed with them, looping hula hoops over his body in various transfiguring shapes – the hoops would become claws, then wings.

Here is the moment where I return to my remark about Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s win feeling the slightest bit anti-climactic: they didn’t perform at the event. At the moment of the announcement, my mind was humming with all the stellar performances I had just seen, each one reaffirming the position each artist or band held on the short list. GY!BE had never been so conspicuous in their absence as they were then.

Therefore, their statement has become their performance or rather, an anti-performance. They simply saved it for after the gala took place. And now, with the slightest bit of distance and the ability to look back on the event, I can’t think of any performance that could have suited them better.

Oh, and by the way, I’m getting new business cards made with “culture overlord” as my title, because that shit is gold.


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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