What Happened to Canada's Female Pop Stars?
What is it like to be a Canadian female pop artist? Defeating as fuck.
Illustration by Ben Ruby
In an interview with Buzzfeed about Carly Rae Jepsen, Scooter Braun—noted American and manager to both Jepsen and famous Canadian pop star, Justin Bieber —headscratchingly noted to the site that he didn’t believe it was necessary for Jepsen, according to them, “to join the ranks of pop’s highest-wattage stars.” Braun also added that he is financially comfortable, as is Jepsen, from the cash flow success of “Call Me Maybe.” Because of this fact, he doesn’t necessarily need to make records to survive monetarily anymore, alluding to Jepsen’s current and potentially future work as a passion project where he can allow his artists to make the records they would like.
In one paragraph that otherwise got buried in a feature interview about the Canadian pop artist, Braun managed to both promote and tear down his client’s work and worth in the pop landscape and gesture at what it’s like to be a Canadian female pop artist: defeating as fuck. Especially in light of the fact that the contributions by Canadian women in pop music have been mammoth in scope. These women have had extreme highs (Celine Dion), crossed genres (Shania Twain), have made us cry and celebrate female camaraderie on a mainstream level (Sarah McLachlan) and let us be fucking angry with bad men (Alanis Morissette). This was the bedrock for other women’s future careers in the pop-scape in Canada. These women managed to finesse a place for themselves in the pop music world and turned a considerable profit. And not just here—they also charted insanely well stateside. Jagged Little Pill topped the Billboard 200 and sold more than 12 million records by 1997; Shania Twain’s Come On Over and The Woman in Me both topped as best performing country records but also just records period; Come On Over debuted number two on Billboard because it was edged out by Ma$e’s Harlem World; and Sarah McLachlan’s Surfacing, which features songs you still cry to today, debuted second on Billboard in 1997 and took the first spot in Canada. Then there’s Celine, who legitimately does not need any quantifiable evidence of superstardom: just watch this.
Pop music by women, however, plateaued in Canada in the late 90s and into the aughts. Nelly Furtado, who first brought us “I’m Like A Bird,” had a real chance with “Promiscuous” and Loose , which did well across the border. Chantal Kreviazuk, Fefe Dobson, Skye Sweetnam, Keshia Chante, Lights, and now Tegan and Sara, have done well-ish. All of the aforementioned women have done moderately well enough for themselves and continue to work. Yet all have had to slide to the side to make way for the rise of Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Beyonce, and Rihanna and so, so many more. They deserve to be in the pop game just as much, if not more than a blasé record, and yet they do not reap similar, charted benefits. If our pop women have a lineage that includes Shania, Alanis, and Celine Dion, then why aren’t they taking up more substantial space in the pop world?
While Celine, Shania, and Alanis have certainly worked in America’s pop framework, they succeeded before a time of streaming and digital sales existed, as well as during a period less dictated by rigorous touring and promotion. Katherine St. Asaph argued in an essay for MTV that the internet killed Carly Rae Jepsen, foreshadowing, maybe, what would happen with Jepsen’s Emotion. While the internet can certainly prop up pop stars—as it did with CRJ and many others—not just here but in the US, too, so can the internet music cycle destroy a pop star. Going back to Scooter Braun’s comments about Jepsen: He called it a passion project for him, which is insulting to someone who legitimately worked hard to produce not only something she is proud of but that can sell by recruiting top producers (Dev Hynes, Ariel Rechtshaid) and honing in on what her audience wants to hear. If, from the outset, you market your artist as someone who doesn’t necessarily need to be a top star then they won’t be. In the American market and locally, Canada’s female pop acts today aren’t worth more than viral or hit singles in the pop world, and this is why they aren’t as successful.
Reaching back to some of the women who have ventured out into the pop world and left only a single impression we have Fefe Dobson, Avril Lavigne, and Feist, as a few examples. These three women bring different genres to the forefront yet they have been, at times, averse to the spotlight, which seems endemic to pop life in Canada. Fefe Dobson was, at the time, a spunky pop punk artist who arrived because of other pop punk-ish woman Avril Lavigne. Lavigne is largely successful and her music was lucrative at the time, which should be noted. But she has since been reduced to a punchline and tabloid fodder. Lavigne’s only real legacy is a hit single about teen skateboarder love. Dobson came through in 2003 with “Take Me Away” but that only cracked the American Billboard chart at 67. In Canada, it didn’t chart at all. What remains of Dobson is a fond memory of a single and that’s all.
On the indie side, we have Canadian female artists like Leslie Feist who is, perhaps unwillingly, a representative of what we called indie in Canada at the time. Canadian indie at the turn of this century was completely dominated by Arcade Fire and their massive successes. Feist, who was making music in Toronto collective Broken Social Scene when Arcade Fire made it big, fits in the post period of what indie was. Feist got thrust into the spotlight with The Reminder, her second solo record, and single “1234.” Pop acts thirst for the kind of audience reach Feist received but she did not want it as badly. With the help (or hindrance, maybe) of Apple, Feist was propelled further than anyone thought she could be and her management directly credited that to the tech giant. That reads as a proto-example of Braun and how management or labels will maximize their Canadian pop women for viral, single success. “‘1234’ is a bit of a double-edged sword. It brings people’s attention to you, but all they know is that one thing,” Feist said in an interview when the anticipated but less commercially successful Metals dropped. Feist disappeared from the public to create Metals, which was a more typical Feist record thus less monetarily feasible. Alt had a place in the 90s: You could see it with Alanis. So why Feist isn’t known for more than an Apple ad is peculiar. Her success proved that something different from what was then considered traditional pop could sell.
Carly Rae Jepsen and Alessia Cara are two very good current examples of the strong push for a mega pop star from Canada that fell flat. Jepsen’s third record Emotion was received incredibly well critically but sales reflected a different story, debuting at number 16 on Billboard stateside and number 8 on the Canadian chart. It lasted on both charts for one week. It’s a blow to this day for music journalists and CRJ die-hards that Jepsen’s spectacular, sonically nuanced record did not receive the kind of recognition it deserved. It also didn’t help Jepsen that Emotion was released in Japan (puzzlingly but beautifully to her noted huge fan base) before North America. “I Really Like You,” a “Call Me Maybe” 2.0, had long been released before the album, which seemed like an effort to maximize on that viral or single visibility.
Like CRJ, Alessia Cara was a viral success. The soulful/antisocial anthem “Here” was the most played song on Spotify in 2015 and yet debuted at 5 on Billboard Hot 100 in February of this year. Cara was positioned, and perhaps still is though reserved a little since her record’s release, to be the next big thing from Toronto. “Here” was released in April 2015 and was a huge internet hit. Cara’s debut Know-It-All was released in 2016 and since then it has steadily lost steam and slid to 54th place. There is an enormous gap in popularity and profitability between when the viral “Here” debuted and then when it was released via EP and then feature length debut. Is Cara, to Def Jam then, not unlike managerial Mr. Braun, simply a hotly commodifiable artist with an internet hit? If so she served that purpose for this album, this song. Is she also—perhaps maybe are all our pop women—targeted tall poppies: the kind of successful people (women, usually) who are looked up to in America, yet scorned in Canada for their talent or fame or something that makes them special. There is something incredibly cordial and polite about Canadian female and male artists and the way they discuss their successes. Cara looks to be positioned as the future of Canada’s pop lineage in an attempt to veer away from a predominantly traditional pop market and more toward R&B, urban, and genre blending. She still has a chance to swerve out of this current popsphere of a singular, viral hit. But she stands on the outside right now, as someone looking in and not gaining the same traction for her body of work.
None of this is to say that labels and management aren’t sincerely trying to build up the brand and visibility of their female pop acts — save for Braun, maybe, who knows about him. What is defeating about this model is that the talent of our women is looked here and across the border on a single-by-single basis; by what will pull in internet eyes and streaming traffic, and produce strong numbers for one song. When stacked up against the men our country has produced—The Weeknd, Drake, Justin Bieber, and Shawn Mendes, all of whom occupied spots in the top ten on Billboard in 2015—Canadian pop women currently do not reach the same cultural heights. The disparity of success between these men and our pop women is striking. Women are barely factored: the success of this specific group of men is being attributed to the success of Canadian music in general. There’s no denying that the singles our pop women in this period have produced will live on in the ether of this world as spectacular pop hits but that’s basically it—unless something is to change to how we bolster our women in the pop game. By championing a body of work in a world of temporary hits and clicks (this can be done—look at 1989 or Lemonade as examples among many) to succeed here and across the border we can break the cycle of singular or viral hits by Canada’s undeniably but quietly fierce pop women.
Sarah MacDonald is a staff writer for Noisey Canada. Follow her on Twitter.