The Polaris Music Prize makes people mad. It starts endless arguments and divides people into bitter camps which lob ugly invectives at each other, impugning the enemy’s taste and artistic sensibilities. But that’s the whole point.
Polaris is modelled after other national music prizes, including the much-hyped Mercury Music Prize (U.K.), Prix Constantin (France) and the Shortlist Music Prize (U.S., although it’s been on hiatus since 2007). The winner gets $20,000 for providing the best full-length Canadian album of the year. Artistic merit is everything, regardless of commercial success, genre or record label.
Getting to a winner is as complicated as electing a pope — and filled with nearly as much intrigue. Over the course of many months, nearly 200 music journalists, broadcasters, bloggers, critics and general tastemakers weigh in with which albums they think should be considered.
In June, votes are cast to whittling dozens of suggestions down to the 40-album Long List. Tuesday, the results of a second vote were announced, resulting in the ten-album Short List. On the eve of the grand gala in September, a carefully selected jury will be sequestered to debate the artistic qualities of each finalist to determine which one deserves to be declared a Great Canadian Album for All Time.
With something set up to be so subjective, you can see where the fights begin. And given the closed nature of the nomination and voting processes, words like “elitist,” “myopic” and “exclusionary” are thrown around. Not enough hip-hop or aboriginal music. Where are the jazz and classical and world music nominees? Do the English-speaking jurors really know what’s happening in Quebec? Are jurors pre-disposed to vote for something blatantly non-commercial and thus out of touch with mainstream tastes? Is being on a major label or selling lots of CDs a handicap?
Maybe. Possibly. But at least Polaris gets people talking about music. Artists and albums that might otherwise forever remain obscure are discussed and heard, not only domestically but internationally. In an era when far too many people shut themselves off to unfamiliar or disagreeable sounds with ear bud, anything that gets anyone to interact over the artistic qualities of music is a good thing.
You might not agree with who wins in September, but if you follow along, you’ll certainly know a heckuva lot more about the music Canadians are making.