Rich Aucoin explains why making music about Canada isn't necessary to being considered a Canadian musician.
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In his NPR column “The Good Listener,” Stephen Thompson hypothesizes that the reason more Canadian musical artists do not make cultural or geographical reference to their native land is because of our “Nationwide Government Program” (FACTOR) funding musicians. He asserts that the program “encourages artists to sing Canada’s praises” and divides the county’s content into two categories: “entertainment for Canadians” and “entertainment for export.” In the desire for “artistic independence” amid this generous benefactor, the musicians, he argues, resist singing about their true patriot love for fear that their career will only reside in the first of his two categories. While I respect Thompson’s writing and agree that there is a visible divide between our international and Can-Con stars, I would argue that the reason for this divide is based upon the other non-lyrical factors which make up a song’s form. As well as the music industry teams for an artist and the role they can play in their development. The cultural references in a song’s content are not the sole factor to whether an artist is popular outside Canada’s borders or not.
Thompson states that our main exports, whom he gives examples as, “Neil Young to Justin Bieber to Rush to Drake to Alanis Morissette” have relegated their Canadian origin to a footnote in their lyrical content. Contrary to this idea, however, all of these artists have examples of their Canadian background in their lyrics— from Neil Young’s hit, “Helpless”: “There is a town in north Ontario…”, Justin Bieber’s “Hey Girl”: “Ask me where I’m from and I say C-C-Canada”, Barenaked Ladies’ “One Week”: “Watchin' X-Files with no lights on, dans la maison, I hope the Smoking Man's in this one” (a Canadian filmed show with a dip into Canada’s second official language for good measure) also the song ends with “Birchmount Stadium, home of the Robbie” which is a stadium outside of Toronto. Or Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You”: “I drew a map of Canada, oh Canada”, Feist’s “Mushaboom” (a small harbour in Nova Scotia), The Guess Who’s “Runnin’ Back to Saskatoon” with numerous examples of Prarie cities to Drake giving constant GTA street name shout-outs for places like Kennedy Rd, Fork York Blvd, and Morningside Ave, as well as giving the city its new nickname “the 6.”
And while all these artists, with the exception of Drake, haven’t brought up Canadian references as much as the Can-Con stars who Thompson mentions, it’s not in their style of songwriting to be so referential (again with the exception of Drake). The Arcade Fire, for example, barely attach any overt references to their lyrics so it would seem out of place if any explicit reference were injected into their lyrics whether it be Canadian or foreign as are the lyrics of Ryan Hemsworth, Purity Ring or Grimes who are all quite globally embraced younger artists from Canada. Their music, were it to have Canadian nouns or not, succeeds on the other elements which make up a song’s form like melody, rhythm, and timbre. All these components have a universality higher than lyrical meaning and are much more immediately felt. Especially when the language of the listener is not the language of the lyrics. I will concede in lyrical heavy genres such as country, folk or rap music that the emphasis on lyrics will be much weightier and that these genres all have a history in containing regionally specific narratives. But their popularity outside of those regions hinges on these other song elements.
Lastly, a lot of a Canadian artist’s making it in other countries, particularly America, has to do with the team of label/management/booking agency they choose in foreign markets. Maybe The Tragically Hip signing with MCA or being managed by a deeply Canadian connected manager like Jake Gold is what kept them from filling stadiums the way they do north of the border. Artists who did make great American label choices like Arcade Fire with Merge, Feist with Interscope, or Celine Dion with Columbia perhaps is what helped them have American success. Or a Justin Bieber being cradled into their career by a talented American manager like Scooter Braun or the long list of Canadian artists who spent a good chunk of their career developing it from an ex-pat location like Neil Young, Purity Ring, Grimes or Alanis Morissette in LA, Joni Mitchell in Detroit/NYC, Feist in Paris. Not to mention, even with this industry team in place, how expensive it is as a Canadian artist south of the border with P2 visa fees for a four-piece band costing in approximately $2,815 CAD not to mention the months of waiting to get said visa (after you’ve already booked your tour) which can lead to bands having to cancel US tours last minute because of American visa delivery delays such as recently with the case of Canadian band, Royal Canoe. These factors all play into whether an artist can breakout in another area of the world and, I think, it would be unwise to diminish their success or failure to the content of their lyrics. So too, whether the choice of inclusion of Canadian referential examples is based on an influence from a national grant system which not all of these artists are beneficed by.
Rich Aucoin is a singer and a wongwriter from Halifax. Follow him on Twitter.