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How Independent Music and the Internet Helped Transform a Nation

Posted on 1 July 2010

I’m going to celebrate Canada Day by posting a half-formed thought of an entry that has to do with the role of independent music and nation-building. After the Vancouver Winter Olympics, there was a lot of talk about how assertive the Canadian national identity had seemed to be, and how it was a tribute to the Olympics that it had transformed our national consciousness.

Now, far be it for me to rain on the accomplishment’s of our national hockey teams, but I have a theory that the Canadian identity had actual been being asserted for a couple of decades, and the Olympics were just the first major opportunity to display that. The reason for this is that the new Canadian identity lies in a generation of Canadians who aren’t aware of the fact that they’re supposed to have an inferiority complex.

I’m 25 years old, and I suspect that I’m among the last people who remember when “CanCon” was a dirty word. CanCon, for those who are unfamiliar, is a term that refers to a set of rules a few decades back that essentially required radio and television to air a certain amount of Canadian content in their regular programming. People who thought this would provide much-needed exposure for artists in Canada thought it was a good idea, critics and Bryan Adams felt like it was propping up people who couldn’t make it on their own. I was in elementary school and didn’t really learn about this debate until after the fact.

What I remember is turning on MuchMusic’s the Wedge one day and hearing a song called “True Patriot Love” by Joel Plaskett. It’s in the player below:

[audio: http://dawn.cbcr3.com/nmc/6/6194/tracks/true_patriot_love.mp3?r=0.5931856161914766]

The lyrics of this song really got me. Here he was singing about things that had happened to me– specifically, hitting the end of the broadcast schedule and being given the little “Oh Canada” jingle that used to happen before every television station was 24/7. Not only was he Canadian, but he was using Canadian-specific references in his songs.

I know now that musicians had been doing this for decades before, but to me it was a revelation. Canadian musicians that I knew at the time had nothing specifically Canadian about them. Growing up, the two most famous Canadian musicians I was aware of were the Barenaked Ladies whose “One Week” was full of American cultural references and Shania Twain, who had a hit song all about the United States.

As time went on, I became aware of CBC Radio 3, a radio show and later internet-based radio station that was/is devoted entirely to promoting independent Canadian musicians. With the Arcade Fire, New Pornographers, and Broken Social Scene leading the way internationally, this and other outlets provide a forum to foster talent at a local level that are part of a larger global “brand” of Canadian music. Whereas the idea of having to play 30% Canadian music was once reprehensible to radio stations, we are now in a situation today where more and more stations (including CFUR) play 50% and upwards not because they have to, but because it’s the natural thing to be doing. Canadian artists today are both loved globally and part of the local communities.

While we once had a situation where the Neil Youngs and Joni Mitchells would move to California once they could, we now have artists staying in Winnipeg and Montreal and Vancouver and still enjoying success on national and international levels. And whereas Neil Young and Chilliwack and Shania Twain and other previous generations of Canadian musicians would write largely about other countries, today’s crop of musicians write about the cities and provinces they know. Part of the reason New York and California hold the allure they do is the sheer amount of art that has been created about them; when somebody like Corb Lund writes a song about Saskatchewan or Said the Whale base an album on Vancouver, it gives those places  just the slightest bit more of appeal. Teenagers sitting in their rooms listening to this stuff don’t feel the need to escape to the glamour of the United States in the same way, because, hey, their favourite musicians are writing songs and performing right here at home.

Mother Mother in Robson Square

And now I’m going to loop this around to the “new nationalism.” When I heard the Joel Plaskett song, I was in high school, and I still got my music from commercial radio and TV. I’m in pretty much the last age group to do this prior to everyone having the internet and access to MySpace pages for whatever local bands they wanted to hear. So while for me it was a revelation to have an artist like Joel Plaskett take a place on MuchMusic alongside “legitimate” artists, for people younger than me every artist is equal, because they all have equal platforms via the internet. And they’re going to gravitate towards the ones who speak to them, and those are likely to be the ones who are writing about things they know, including shared geography. The local (or at least the provincial) become the superstars on everyone’s iPod, they tour nearby more often, and the dream of being a celebrity or at least pursuing a career doing what you want to do in your home country doesn’t seem as out there as it did in the 1960s. After all, hundreds of people are doing it all the time.

What I’m trying to say is that when you have a situation like this, being Canadian isn’t viewed as a hindrance. While I know older generations still might scoff at the notion of 30% Canadian music being a viable thing on the radio, when I tell this to new volunteers at CFUR they aren’t at all fazed by the notion– most were planning on playing primarily Canadian artists, anyways. It’s what they like. And when they feel like Canadian music is as good or better than anything else in the world, they’re less likely to be opposed to Canadian TV, or Canadian art, or cinema, or whatever else. These areas may still have an upward battle, but I suspect we’re just a couple decades (at most) away from replicating what’s happened in the music world in these other arenas. So when you saw these outpourings of Canadian pride in Vancouver occurring, it wasn’t a result of once-staid Canadians suddenly being proud when they once weren’t.It was a result of young Canadians being proud because they were never even aware of the fact they weren’t supposed to be. Get used to it.

Happy Canada Day.

[audio: http://dawn.cbcr3.com/nmc/6/6194/tracks/true_patriot_love.mp3?r=0.5931856161914766]

Joel Plaskett – True Patriot Love

[audio: http://dawn.cbcr3.com/nmc/6/6376/tracks/The-Canadian-Dream.mp3?r=0.2371221575886011]

Sam Roberts – The Canadian Dream

[audio: http://dawn.cbcr3.com/nmc/20/20519/tracks/The-Banks-Of-The-English-Bay.mp3?r=0.013850404880940914]

Said the Whale – the Banks of the English Day

[audio: http://dawn.cbcr3.com/nmc/16/16282/tracks/Neil-Young.mp3?r=0.2656021174043417]

the Wheat Pool – Neil Young

[audio: http://dawn.cbcr3.com/nmc/27/27610/tracks/Song-Written-Upon-Getting-Cut-by-the-Argos.mp3?r=0.37283057533204556]

the CFL Sessions – Song Written Upon Getting Cut by the Argos

[audio: http://dawn.cbcr3.com/nmc/5/5733/tracks/OneGreatCity.mp3?r=0.9420812176540494]

the Weakerthans – One Great City

[audio: http://dawn.cbcr3.com/nmc/15/15008/tracks/The-Rest-of-My-Life.mp3?r=0.902672415599227]

Sloan – the Rest of My Life

Filed under: Best Of, Canada, music

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