The Real Value of the Polaris Music Prize

While waiting for the show to start at the Polaris Gala, I struck up a conversation with the only other underdressed person in the boujee Carlu on Yonge Street. He was a designer, one of the chosen ten illustrators to produce a poster for one of the ten shortlist records. We both felt a bit out of place, which is typically a strong glue to bring people with untucked shirts together.

We got onto the topic of the Polaris Music Prize’s place in the grand musical landscape, and we agreed that Polaris isn’t like other awards. It differs from industry circle jerks like the Grammys in that its purpose is to elevate talented artists and inspiring artistic growth, regardless of prior exposure. As the evening went on, it started to become clear that there was a bit more at play.

The short list is a mosaic of styles, all united soley in their national heritage. This year alone, we had albums in soul, rock, neo-classical piano arrangements, glam revival, and a record that combines pop with Congolese rhythms just to name a few. Each offers a completely different sound, each with its own musical language to translate, dissect, and appraise, and from those ten albums only one can be awarded the prize. For better or for worse, Polaris effectively shows just how rich the Canadian musical landscape is, and how complex it can be to approach and appreciate. As the gala charged on and artist after artist performed a set completely different than the last, the critical assessment aspect of Polaris appeared more trivial. Every album is important and excels within its genre. Daniel Ceaser’s Freudian is as brilliant a soul record as WeavesWide Open is as a rock album.

The real value of Polaris is in its position as a platform for the range of causes that these artists and albums represent. Art has always been and will always be a constructive venue for social and political comment, criticism, and consideration, and at its best, Polaris feels less like a competition and more like a series of campaigns. The important takeaway isn’t that Jeremy Dutcher made the best Canadian album this year, but what his album says and represents, and what the other nine shortlisters have to say.

We should be proud to have something like Polaris. Nomination validates the message of the albums just as much as the music, and in a country like Canada with all its cultures and social troubles, we’re lucky to have a program that picks up artists with real things to say and shows them their message matters by giving them a global platform. It says you shouldn’t care about Partner just because they made a great rock album, but because they’re carrying the flag of queer culture into a realm without enough queer representation. It says that the messages of Snotty Nose Rez Kids and Hubert Lenoir deserve your attention just as much as their music.

During his acceptance speech, 2018 winner Jeremy Dutcher helped put the award into perspective. “Music is changing this land, and what you see on this stage tonight, this is the future. This is what’s to come.” Dutcher’s winning record Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa is sung entirely in the Maliseet language of the Wolastoqiyik people, a language spoken by less than 500 people in Canada. Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa combines Dutcher’s compositions with archival recordings from his ancestors, and in addition to being a beautiful and compelling collection of songs, the album helps preserve a piece of his culture and history that otherwise could have eventually been lost. Dutcher has done something incredible and important with Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, and because of him and the Polaris prize, his story and the stories of his ancestors will spread to ears that otherwise might have never known they existed.

In a time when careers in music are becoming fewer and far between and no one is really sure where the industry will be in ten years, it’s exciting to know that there’s an institution like Polaris that understands that great music isn’t about followers on Twitter or record-breaking album sales. Polaris recognizes that music is culture, and that the people doing or saying something important with their art deserve to be commended, but just as important, upcoming young people across the country need to know that their struggles are recognized. Every nominee saying something real is another figure to look to for inspiration, and a step towards a better future for Canada.

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