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Polaris winners raise questions about prize

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On Monday night, the 2013 Polaris Music Prize -- and the $30,000 that goes with it -- was awarded to Montreal post-rock juggernaut Godspeed You! Black Emperor for its 2012 album Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!.

And I, like many on Twitter on Monday night, didn't see it coming. It's not that Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! isn't a Polaris-worthy -- it is -- it just wasn't the dark horse I was betting on.

The race was between Tegan and Sara's Heartthrob, a slick, unapologetically pop chart-topper that should net the twins a Grammy nod, and A Tribe Called Red's Nation II Nation, a genre-smashing, boundary-pushing, cultural mashup of traditional powwow vocal chants and drums with kinetic electronics.

Still, at an awards gala for which the big prize is awarded to "the best Canadian album of the year based solely on artistic merit," anything can happen, and Godspeed emerged as the winner. I was surprised in the moment, but then I shouldn't have been. The pioneering Montreal band has been turning out risky, experimental opuses on the fringes of the Canadian music scene for nearly 20 years. Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! is another masterwork in its catalogue, a dense, dramatic record with not one, but two tracks that clock in at 20 minutes. (Maybe now people will stop whining about how Polaris is "too mainstream.")

The ever-elusive guys of Godspeed opted not to attend the gala in Toronto, so Constellation Records head Ian Ilavsky accepted it on their behalf, announcing that the band plans to use its $30,000 to set up a music program for inmates in Quebec prisons.

The band released a statement on Tuesday via the label's website, expressing both criticism and gratitude. They thanked Polaris for the nomination and the prize, and thanked the writers and broadcasters who make up the jury for tirelessly championing Canadian music. They also pointed out that "holding a gala during a time of austerity and normalized decline is a weird thing to do" and that "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." (To be fair, there actually was no oversized cheque at this year's awards.)

"These are hard times for everybody. and musicians' blues are pretty low on the list of things in need of urgent correction," the band writes. "BUT AND BUT if the point of this prize and party is acknowledging music-labour 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."

Predictably, there's been GYBE backlash on social media, with jilted fans calling Godspeed selfish, self-righteous, ungrateful, wah, wah, wah, etc. But there's a lot to be said for a band brave enough to speak its mind and stand by its position -- especially when that position is unpopular. It's a true sign of character and maturity. After all, it's not easy to be critical of an organization that just handed you a cheque for $30,000 -- but then, it's a cheque Godspeed never asked for.

While I happen to agree that awarding prizes for music (or any other form of art) is a strange, uncomfortable concept, I think we should still do it -- and I think we should still do it at nice events held in pretty, great-sounding rooms. I believe celebrating and acknowledging the musicians who make incredible music in this country and sacrifice a lot to do so is important because I believe music is important. The Polaris Prize proves that there is room to applaud the successes of stadium-filling acts like Metric and Tegan and Sara while supporting blistering, game-changing debut albums (see: Metz) or creative left turns (see: Young Galaxy). Polaris understands commercial success doesn't negate artistic merit, and that artistic merit means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.

I also believe that asking tough questions of Polaris and the people who are a part of it is equally as important because that's what makes it better. Criticism makes jurors (like me) work harder and listen to more music from more places in more genres which will (one hopes) result in more representative long and short lists.

This year's short list was one of the most sonically diverse yet. It took the pulse of Canada's music scene. Monday's gala wasn't just a celebration of one record, it was a celebration of 10. As Toronto writer/former Polaris board of directors member Liisa Ladouceur tweeted, "I'd like to think if GYBE was actually in the room at the gala some members might feel the purity of intent. It's hard to be cynical there."

She's right. Watching the livestream, it was hard to feel anything but pride.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 25, 2013 C3


Updated on Wednesday, September 25, 2013 at 8:50 AM CDT: adds video

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