Godspeed, to themselves: "Yo us, we're really happy for us, Imma let you finish but ... our country is fucked."

Godspeed, to themselves: “Yo us, we’re really happy for us, Imma let us finish but … our country is fucked.”

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Amidst award shows like the Grammies, Canada’s Polaris Awards seemed to be something different. As Internet over-abundance has made some feel big media has grown yet more powerful, Polaris seemed oozing with indie cred. Metric, Purity Ring, and Metz played the award ceremonies. Tegan and Sara, Zaki Ibrahim, and A Tribe Called Red got shortlisted. There’s even a cute infographic explaining how the selection process works, and it seems legitimate. (One potentially-bad sign: cloned, hipster-like characters in the image, vintage eyewear present, people of color entirely absent. But designers will be designers.)

Past selections have been laudable, too: Feist (2012), Arcade Fire (2011), Karkwa (2010), Fucked Up (2009), Caribou (2008), Patrick Watson (2007) and Final Fantasy (Owen Pallett) (2006).

Faced the question of why music couldn’t shortlist artists the way the Pulitzer, Man Booker, and Orange prizes do, ever-thoughtful American radio network NPR praised Polaris as a music award show that actually mattered and its ten “wildly eclectic albums.”
The Good Listener: Forget The Grammys — Which Music Awards Matter?

And then Godspeed You! Black Emperor wins the award – well afield of the mainstream. It seems that’d seal the deal. The Polaris is a Grammy for people who actually care about music.

Well, maybe. There’s just one catch: Godspeed You! Black Emperor questions whether the award show should have happened at all.

Oops – better change the plot on this one.

The band is humble and grateful, but they also issued a scathing critique of Polaris and their home and native land of Canada.

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.

On the last point, they may be a bit hard on Toyota. As car companies go, Toyota (here via their Scion brand) have had a mixed record, but not an entirely negative record. The Daily Beast wrote in 2007 how volunteer-run environmental megagroup Sierra Club’s Dan Becker went from championing the company (for Prius) to attacking it (for policies that opposed climate change reforms). Under public pressure, Toyota finally distanced itself from some of those policies, though it still is a member of the climate change-denying US Chamber of Commerce. (Disclosure: I worked with the Sierra Club when the Prius thing was happening, and even met Dan on occasion. I’ve also pitched Scion. I make no claim for my own independence.)

But generally, it seems the adventurous band have a point.

It’s worth reading their whole statement, as there are a number of lines of critique:
A FEW WORDS REGARDING THIS POLARIS PRIZE THING [Constellation Records]

And they’re not just complaining: they have a proposal.

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.

They’re taking their prize money to give prisoners in Quebec musical instruments, and suggest more government funding for lesser-known artists in more venues.

And perhaps, ultimately, there’s a message here. The Internet and the rise of “indie” (perhaps alongside the accompanying rise of “EDM” in dance music) has often rewarded sameness, not the utopian variety it once promised. The aforementioned NPR could perhaps be part of the critique: the network’s music selections are high quality and help amateur listeners navigate the online sea of possibilities, but have none of the experimental edge of the independent radio stations. (You know, the “what sounds is that cat making in the percussion room” feeling of music. Seriously – I miss some of that.) And those affiliate stations have weakened profoundly, many only repurposing centralized radio.

Award shows may, indeed, not be the way to make things better, culturally speaking. (I’m not clear on whether Godspeed feel that cultural spending is somehow a waste for a government in austerity – I’d hope that’s not what they’re arguing.)

More parties in cruddy halls sound nice.

And in a weird way, Godspeed may have made an event out of a non-event, by Kanye West-ing-Taylor-Swift-ing … themselves. (For the record: Taylor Swift is hanging out with Tegan and Sara, as the trying-ever-so-hard Polaris blog was keen to tell us.)

Maybe what we need is not an alternative to the big awards after all. Maybe we need things that don’t even invite the comparison – even as parody.

The band deserves it. Not the prize – they deserve the chance to say what they want about the position of music in their country. And Constellation is putting out some wonderful music. Queue it up, and make your own party:

For my part, I’m heading to Reeperbahn Festival – Hamburg, Germany’s “don’t compare it South by Southwest” music fest – for a couple days. I’ll let you know what happens. If it goes awry, I can always blame Canada.

Update: Note that a Calgary Herald editorial asks a relevant question: if GY!BE felt that way, why didn’t they bail when first nominated, rather than … now? Of course, possible answers include: if they’d said something before now, no one would have listened; they might not have expected to win, and winning gives them added responsibility. (And they didn’t refuse the award, either – they were effectively grateful for the award and recognition, but thought the money could be used elsewhere, and weren’t grateful for the sponsor, which seems fair.)

  • http://vrpr.org/ Henry

    I suppose they did only come out to the public with their thoughts now, because now it becomes relevant, since they won the award. Who would have listened to any band’s statement if they would blablabla even before they would know whether or not they would be exposed?
    I think it makes absolutely sense to only make such statements, when you are somewhat guaranteed a significant audience for your message.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Yes, I don’t agree with the charge of “hypocrisy.” I think it’s legitimate to say, after you’ve won this award, that you have reservations about the sponsor and the prize money. And they’re explaining why they’re sending the prize money elsewhere, and why they would prefer different kinds of celebrations. Seems fair to me – up for debate, but fair.

  • Foosnark

    The list of bands above (aside from G!YBE itself) reads like a laundry list of bands that annoy me more than most pop does.

    “Indie” has to be kind of a contradiction to be commercially successful, I suppose. I’d rather hear music that is *aesthetically* independent — original and interesting, rather than simply “we won’t sign with a major label” or whatever the definition of “indie” is supposed to be.

    • http://jeffkocan.com/ jeffk

      To be fair, I don’t think anyone’s touting themselves as “indie” here.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      No, it’s true, I used the word “indie.” The bands here were chosen on merits without genre or independent status by the judges – their measure. I simply said that tended to an out-of-the-mainstream sort of tack, relative to the award shows in the USA. Now, I might disagree, but that does put them in more the category the person asked NPR – looking for an award that showed some sort of recognition of critical accolades.

      I do like G!YBE and the label they’re on, though. That’s why that was the sample I ran.

  • http://jeffkocan.com/ jeffk

    It’s kind of adorable to see Canadians talk about how fucked their country is. I mean, I love you guys, but get some perspective.

    • Mike Stannard

      Just because it’s better than most does not mean problems should not be pointed out and acted upon.

    • http://jeffkocan.com/ jeffk

      Sure, but calling for some sort of end to awards shows seems a tad overdramatic.

    • Will

      It might be but *have you heard* GY!BE? ;-)

    • http://jeffkocan.com/ jeffk

      Point taken. I recant!

    • Terrible

      jeffk, condescension does little to establish a good opinion (of which you are remarkably vague). Likewise, dismissals on the basis of drama, emotion, hysteria, etc.

      If you read their statement, you’ll find that far from “calling for some sort of end to awards shows”, they’ve actually suggested what sort of celebration would be appropriate “if the point of this prize and party is acknowledging music-labor performed in the name of something other than quick money.”

      They’ve found an opportunity to express something about the industry and culture around their work. They’re using it.

    • lokey

      canada has a wide variety of -very- serious issues that we need to address. from flawed electoral processes, to muzzling of scientific scrutiny, to overpriced information infrastructure, to biased economic policy, to shoddy education systems, to deplorable support for public creativity. anyone who believes canada as it is to be doing well is not paying enough attention.

    • DPrty

      Yes .. but then compare it to the U.S. and Canada looks like paradise. Except maybe cold winters … but those will probably warm up soon.

    • lokey

      NOT the right attitude to adopt. The rest of the world doesnt get a pass just because you folks have let yourself go.

    • DPrty

      Yes .. well then at least don’t forget to be thankful .. there are no bombs dropping from the sky up north except maybe in a South Park episode. I don’t think we have let ourselves go either, more like the corporations have taken control.

    • lokey

      grateful and vigilant. Corporations are not the ones driving todays problems. They’re simply the ones profiting from them. The problems of today are a result of a lack of awareness, and a lack of resolve.

    • DPrty

      Corporations most certainly are driving todays problems. All of the lobbyist in Washington are not due to a lack of awareness and resolve.

    • lokey

      they most certainly are. Lobbyist power comes from a lack of accountability and a lack of oversight. Those are failings across the board. The fact that corporations are taking advantage of you is -because- you lack the awareness of what they’re doing, and the resolve to demand more from your leaders.

    • DPrty

      I personally and a group of other like minded individuals fought the new fracking laws and they were forced through. They out gunned us with money and high powered lawyers. We had no chance against that kind of money. We had awareness and resolve.

    • lokey

      dude, not intending to denigrate the efforts to oppose matters today, but the time to stand up and prevent the erosion of your democracy was decades ago. Your system simply isnt set up for public participation any more. Not saying canada is much better, we have urgent need for electoral reform ourselves, but protesting against specific problems doesnt do anything to address the systemic disenfranchisement youre suffering under. The problem with opposing ‘fracking’ or any other special interest issue is that it takes a lot of energy and time directed at a symptom, instead of the underlying issue.

    • Terrible

      DPrty,

      I can only assume that you’re writing from the U.S., in which case I’d not dismiss others problems based on your outsider’s naïvité – that’s likely to earn you a caricatured reputation.

      As for “not forgetting to be thankful”, they began their posting with very clear thanks for the celebration and the accolade:

      “thanks for the nomination thanks for the prize- it feels nice to be acknowledged by the Troubled Motherland”

      Or perhaps you didn’t read it?

  • PaulDavisTheFirst

    Internet “radio” makes broadcast radio stations close to irrelevant.

    I would consider myself more than passingly acquainted with the general genre of music that, for example, Fluid Channel 1 plays, but I can go for days listening there without recognizing a single artist name.

    SomaFM’s collection of channels makes “independent” music stations/shows seem like corporate and trend suck-ups, frankly.

    In fact, what is really wrong with these awards is the whole idea that you can hand out an award for “best band” or “best album” or “best composition” or “best song” without first describing all the kinds of music that you deliberately (though potentially subconsciously) ignored in order to pick the winner(s).

    The fact, for example, that “best band” routinely means “largely non-improvised, with vocals, making basically accessible music that fits within the parameters largely accepted as defining western-shaped rock and pop” makes the whole title irrelevant to me. why? because i tend to listen to mostly-improvised, generally vocal-free music that tries to avoid the basic structures of rock, pop, dance, edm, idm, electronica or whatever (in exchange for often getting stuck in other cliches such as “ecm trio jazz” or “ambient soundscapes”). And even if I still put “Blurred Lines” on from time to time and can even be caught guilty tapping my foot to the occasional EDM or even pop tune, that doesn’t change the fact that trying to identify a “best band” from this enormous constellation (pun not intended) of creative activity is utterly pointless.

    Stream online. Find human curated shows. Listen a lot.

  • poopoo

    G!YBE response is as contrived as the award show itself. Their complaints sound totally pissy. Is christmas going to cancelled in Canada too? That is some Bono level self righteousness.

    Why is there always some lame “controversy” to go along with these shows (Kanye interrupting, Janet malfunctioning, Portnoy Soy Bombing)? Maybe because awards shows are terminally boring. Honestly, other than music journalists, who gives a f**k?

  • http://mboverdrive.tumblr.com/ Ifthenwhy

    God Speed’s response is, at best, just celebrating tired/lazy political chestnuts of “Indie” culture. Which again proves that “feeling” righteous and “acting” righteous are two very different things indeed.

    Concerned about carbon footprints, melting ice caps, corporate sponsorship and the economic hardships of Austerity? Perhaps the NIN mega-tour ( for which they are opening at $120 a ticket) “may” be best avoided?

    Yes, award shows are repellant. At best, they “all” reenforce some of the more lamentable aspects of the music industry, and their are plenty of legitimate reasons to criticize them. But “God Speed” have not done themselves any favors by sounding like a petulant letter to the editor in Adbusters.

    • Terrible

      Ifthenwhy,

      It’s dispiriting to hear people take time and effort to argue for the status quo – either because things are fine the way they are, or because change is impossible/improbable. No doubt there are reasons for it.

      I think you’re suggesting that the 30K donated to instruments for prisoners is some sort of false righteousness (?) or otherwise a petulant, adolescent act (?) but you haven’t really elaborated why.

      There also might be the suggestion in your comment that they shouldn’t take paying gigs if the ticket prices are too high for the audience, but you haven’t suggested either what the threshold might be, nor what a good model for working musicians might be in terms of making a living.

      I’m also interested to hear what, in your judgement, “legitimate criticism” of awards shows would sound like, and what venues and opportunities would be appropriate to express that opinion.

    • http://mboverdrive.tumblr.com/ Ifthenwhy

      “I think you’re suggesting that the 30K donated to instruments for prisoners is some sort of false righteousness”

      No. Respectfully, you’re mis-reading my comment. I think their letter is hypocritical though. I clerarly stated why. Perhaps they just take the money, and shut the F up? Unless they “like” sinking in political quicksand.

      “that they shouldn’t take paying gigs if the ticket prices are too high for the audience”

      Hypocritical again. It’s rather convent for them to complain about the promoters of this awards show being unsympathetic in times of austerity, yet they sign up for a $120 buck a seat NIN tour? “Again” I don’t know how to state it more clearly.

      “..what the threshold might be, nor what a good model for working musicians might be in terms of making a living.”

      Don’t have any idea, and why should I? I’m “obviously” criticizing their political stances stated in the letter. Before this ridiculous letter, I had no problem with them taking a NIN tour. it looks like a good show, one that I’d be happy to pay $120 bucks for. None the less, if Goodspped wants to live in a world defined by clear political rule sets (as the letter suggests) it might be a good idea to live by these rules?

      “I’m also interested to hear what, in your judgement, “legitimate criticism” of awards shows would sound like,”

      Sure! Here’s a wonderful “legitimate criticism” of an awards show:

      http://dangerousminds.net/comments/nick_cave_doesnt_want_mtv_awards_nomination_for_best_male_artist

    • Terrible

      ifthenwhy,

      There might be something more recent, but this was a quick find:

      https://nickcavefixes.wordpress.com/2008/06/18/mojo-awards-bad-seeds-win-best-album/

      I think your words were: “feeling” righteous and “acting” righteous are two very different things indeed.

    • http://mboverdrive.tumblr.com/ Ifthenwhy

      “it seems your point is that you can only criticize “justly” if you don’t participate in the awards. Is that true?”

      Depends on what the criticism is doesn’t it? Godspeed’s was lazy if absurd.

      “That is why I find it discouraging that many seem to argue for the status quo”

      If one wishes to make an meaningful argument against the “status quo” then their consistent political world views are important. Why? Because consistency establishes credibility. Have a look at Fugazi’s career choices for examples.

      Sorry, Im not sure what your Cave link is supposed to demonstrate?

      cheers

    • Terrible

      Quite aside from the celebrity issue (and bad examples) I was more interested to know what you thought good criticism was – it seems your point is that you can only criticize “justly” if you don’t participate in the awards. Is that true?

      I think one of the tests of criticism is results. As a poor analog, I recall much denigration of greenpeace’s efforts to shame apple into taking environmental issues seriously – if you want to see internet hate, the technorati’s attitudes to greenpeace are pretty illustrative. But near a decade later, apple has made efforts (or at least puts on a public face of efforts) on environmental issues in production and use of its products – what part greenpeace’s campaigns had in influencing that we don’t know, but it may have contributed to the result.

      One might hope that this public effort, included by Peter here for further discussion, has the effect of changing how polaris thinks about its awards shows.

      That is why I find it discouraging that many seem to argue for the status quo – the one’s making effort at change far more interesting (and that plays a foundational role in art, I think).

  • Philip

    “I’m not clear on whether Godspeed feel that cultural spending is somehow a waste for a government in austerity – I’d hope that’s not what they’re arguing.”

    I don’t think they’re saying that cultural spending is wrong (although a couple of lines of their letter taken out of context could imply that). What they seem to be saying is that glitzy awards shows like this are a terrible waste of money, that this money could be spent more wisely and productively on other aspects of culture and that this waste is especially galling during times of austerity economics. I see little to disagree with, besides the inarticulacy with which the point was made.

    Glitzy, expensive awards shows don’t so much celebrate music as much as they celebrate capital – music is only the vehicle for the self-celebration of big money. What Godspeed seem to be suggesting is that an event that genuinely celebrated music without also being a cheerleading exercise for capital would take a form more like a grungy, anarchic party than a regimented, polite, glamorous show. Again, I see little to disagree with.

    I’m not generally a fan of Russell Brand but this piece he wrote on the GQ awards show is brilliant and illustrates the point vis-a-vis the confluence of culture, celebration and capital well: http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2013/sep/13/russell-brand-gq-awards-hugo-boss

    I’m sure that this awards event wasn’t as corporate as the GQ awards but its nature is perhaps not altogether different.

    Bloody amazing album, by the way.

  • jonah

    Well, they’ve always been a political band. Crappy cardboard disc protection, commune living, etc. They’re kinda of the template that corporate manufactured indie bands used for the appearance of cred. If they weren’t overly serious and earnest they wouldn’t be the band they are.

    If you didn’t expect this response you weren’t listening.

    On the other hand, I think a large part of the terrible economical and political situation we are in today is because the majority of people on both sides take a binary approach to discourse. I mean, they probably could have done something to change the award for the better, but I think that’s unlikely at this point.

    Couple random ideas:

    Righteous music is spiritually and morally uplifting and gets you through ” austerity and normalized decline”. It can mobilize people or give them resolution to hang on. I have no idea how well any of these bands are doing, but an awards show that says there’s folks out there that dig your shit, here’s some money so you can keep going on, is not a bad thing.

    And I dunno. Have awards shows ever exposed people to new music? I think in the age of too much information (including music), they could provide a valuable resource to slow down an take a pause. Doesn’t have to be the “best”, but people (me included) have such short attention spans that there’s a new “best” band every week. It’s pretty rare that I’ll go back and see what they’re up to.

    I know a lot of the musicians in bands I like from the 70s, 80s, and 90s are dead (too young), have major health problems, broke or often no longer have the means to do music. These aren’t the people in the BS music TV specials. That would be an interesting awards ceremony.

    The popular line now is that musicians should make their money touring and playing live. Not only is it damn hard to come up with new material that way, it’s physically demanding and dangerous work (often without health insurance!).The bands that are hot this year, month or minute probably don’t benefit all that much from an awards ceremony. But the older bands were members might need expensive surgery for arthritis or carpal tunnel syndrome?