Tanya Tagaq, an artist who is not Arcade Fire or Drake, won the Polaris Music Prize this year in what's being hailed as a triumph for independent artists, outsider artists, for Aboriginal voices, and for female musicians. Not to mention it's the first time an artist from outside Ontario or Quebec has ever taken home the prize. All of that is cool, but isn't that what the Polaris is about? Doesn't all of this cheering basically add up to the Polaris congratulating itself for doing what the Polaris is supposed to do?
Let's start by stating the obvious: Tanya Tagaq is an immensely talented, original, and bold artist, and she deserves all the recognition she can get. She also practices an art form that sees too little representation in mainstream music, and hails from an overlooked part of Canadian identity. People are right to celebrate her victory and most of the things it represents, and applaud her activism for everything from marginalized aboriginal women to seal hunting.
What's unsettling is how the media is presenting this as an unexpected outsider victory. Tagaq is the David to Drake and Arcade Fire and Owen Pallett's Goliath, the underdog who came from nowhere to beat the reigning kings of Canadian music. But why are there reigning kings of Canadian music in the first place, especially when it comes to the Polaris? How has this happened?
People need to understand how the Polaris nomination process works. Albums aren't nominated as such, since any full-length Canadian album is eligible, but jurors communicate over a secret Google board where they can suggest an album for discussion. Jurors then argue it out with the assurance that their opinions will not be made public (the first rule of Fight Club is that no one talks about Fight Club). While this process is theoretically open, democratic, and based on reasoned argument, the fact is, it's rare for an album without much press behind it to gain any significant traction. Artists like Drake and Owen Pallett and Arcade Fire will see endless debate, but an unknown act with a bitchin' album? Not gonna happen.
Tagaq isn't Drake or Arcade Fire, but she's not an unknown artist, and she's not someone who lacked press coverage going into this year's discussions. The CBC already loved her, Exclaim already loved her, and, for whatever it's worth, Bjork loved her. Animism came out on Six Shooter Records, a Toronto based label with numerous other Canadian artists who have received Polaris long and shortlist nominations, and distributed by Warner Music, one of the Big Three record labels. It had tons of PR behind it, coming from a well-greased machine that knows how to get the attention of the music journalists who make up the Polaris jury.
This was a victory for an outstanding artist, but it wasn't a victory for an independent underdog artist in any meaningful way. In celebration of Tagaq's victory, Aubrey Jax on BlogTO wrote: "I'd posit that as young music journalists and musicians take over from the old guard (after all, who can afford the old guard?), the shift away from the blandness of the CanCon which Indie88 resolutely holds in its strong baby-grip is becoming more than an underground movement. Rejection of these plaid-adorned norms was a common theme at the prize, with many presenters emphasizing experimentation, diversity, and activism as important themes in the albums they introduced."
No doubt Tagaq embodies experimentation, diversity, and activism, and I applaud her for that. But her victory does not represent the triumph of the new guard. It's the old guard presenting themselves as new, but using the same old channels that labels and PR firms have used for decades to get attention in the Canadian media. She started in a position to make it far in the Polaris voting process, and while she was one of the more outsider and underdog artists of the last ten standing, she is hardly a beacon for independent music, and hardly a symbol of the Polaris doing their jobs right.
Here's what I suggest: make the Polaris process fully transparent. Get rid of the secret discussion board, get rid of the grand jury, just talk about music in the open using a Twitter-style forum where anyone can suggest an album and anyone can give an opinion. That way, any time unknown artist comes up, they'll still get an audience. Also, that way, music communities that are nowadays marginalized in the indie music press, like hip-hop, jazz, classical, and country—to name a few, will have their say, because they are far bigger than the Polaris gives them credit for.
Greg Bouchard has not won a single Polaris Prize - @gregorybouchard