Responding to the Polaris Short List Response

The Short List for the Polaris Prize, the annual award given to the Canadian full-length release of ‘the highest artistic integrity’, was revealed last week. The votes of 237 of our peers were tallied and the ballot of 40 fantastic albums was cut down to 10 stellar ones. As a Canadian independent music blogger it is my apparent duty to write about the results but if you’re here for in-depth analysis of the blessed 10 then I’m sorry to disappoint you. I’m not in a position to comment on the list or any of the nominees that made it because I do not own and have not listened to any of them. What can I say? Money is tight.

So now you might be wondering what I’m going to talk about. There is a topic that has been swishing around in my brain for months. Words and phrases, concepts and ideas have been bubbling up intermittently as I struggle to make a cohesive essay out of them. The Polaris Short List, akin to the Academy Awards nominations announcement, and the commentary that followed served as a catalyst to solidify those thoughts. Now that I have thoroughly buried the lede and lost the majority of you, the gist of what I’m here for today is this. What is ‘good’?

You see, of the post-Short List commentary I saw there were 3 basic categories:

  1. Those congratulating the acts that made the cut.
  2. Those assessing the list as a whole. (The general consensus seems to be that this is the strongest Short List in the history of the award.)
  3. Those bemoaning and decrying the ‘Shouldn’t Haves’.

It’s the last group that spawned this article. The Shouldn’t Haves are those that ‘shouldn’t have been left off’ (“I know it’s hard to trim down from the long list, but no A Tribe Called Red?” “What a joke! No Sandro Perri?”) and those that ‘shouldn’t have even been considered’ (“Drake? what?”). I am in no way saying that those individuals are wrong (save for those citing sales, genre, language, popularity, etc. You are wrong. Polaris doesn’t discriminate on those bases. If you think they should, go make your own $30,000 music prize.) They are fully entitled to their opinions and, while non-jurors’ personal views may not have been counted, their opinions will have been represented during the formation of the Polaris Short List.

The process behind The Polaris Prize is a long and complicated one. It starts each year with the Executive Director and Board of Directors of The Polaris Music Prize’s not-for-profit organization selecting a jury of over 200 (237 this year) broadcasters, journalists, bloggers, music programmers… Basically anyone who has a demonstrated professional immersion in Canadian music can be a juror. By requiring such credentials the Directors ensure that the breadth of eligible albums will be represented in the jury’s collective exposure. Additionally, to eliminate conflicts of interest, no juror can have any financial connection to any artist that could be up for consideration.

Each member of the jury then submits a ranked list of the 5 albums that, in their opinion, are the best releases of the past year (June 2011 – May 2012). Each juror’s nominations are given between 1 and 5 points (1st pick gets 5, 2nd gets 4, etc.) These points are totalled from all nomination ballots and the 40 highest-scoring acts make up the Long List. The process is then repeated with jurors this time required to make their 5 selections from the Long List nominees. The points are awarded and tabulated the same way and the top 10 albums are awarded spots on the Short List.

Interpretations of what is required to warrant nomination will vary. Each juror is also a music fan just like you. They each will have their own pet favourites and are welcome to and shall argue for them. These arguments can all be made in a private online forum to which all members of the jury have access. A credible argument may convince some to consider or even to listen to an album they previously hadn’t. All arguments are valid provided they regard the only criterion that matters, artistic merit. How each juror defines that quality is up to them. Some will have opinions that align with yours. Just as well, there will be those who disagree with you entirely.

Everybody is entitled to their opinion. It’s a well-worn cliché that is near-universally accepted and supported. That is, at least on principle. When put to practice it seems there’s a disconnect. Too often, the most accepting listener will turn hostile at the mention of, for example, Justin Beiber, Nickelback or Drake. The rants against these artists will regularly include a statement such as “I don’t know how they sell so many records/are so popular. I’ve never met anyone who likes them.” After some of the hostile commentaries I’ve been witness to I can’t blame those fans for not stepping forward. But why are some people so vehemently opposed to these artist?

For anyone more than a casual listener, music consumption is deeply personal. We forge the strongest attachments to the songs that evoke memories of past experiences and emotions. The same could be said for music which elicits revulsion. Our responses, regardless of alignment, are in part defined by our past. This is potentially why fans will vehemently defend (or attack) criticism of their favourite acts.

But creating music is just as, if not more, personal as listening to it. To paraphrase a line from a recently released film, all of fiction doesn’t break down to a dozen basic story lines; there is only one: “Who are you?” To put it more simply, one writes what one knows. The best musicians create the best music when they tap into their personal experiences and emotions and apply them. It could be a transparent presence or a subtle undertone. The song could be autobiographic or pure metaphor. Regardless of how it is done, their listeners will connect with those emotions and, by extension, the artist. It becomes a shared recollection of individual events.

Obviously, no two individuals will ever have the exact same emotional history. Not all listeners will have the facilities, emotional recollection et al., necessary to make the connection. As such, music ought never be made with the expectation of universal acceptance. This is one of the first and most important lessons an artist should learn. So why doesn’t the reverse happen? Why is it so hard for so many to accept that there are and always will be people who like the music you don’t? When the Polaris jury, or any award/critic/fellow listener, disregards one’s favourite album it gets personal.

Except it doesn’t.

By the Polaris Music Prize’s official rules there is only the question of an album’s ‘artistic merit’.  But one would be hard-pressed to find something more subjective than defining that quality. The Polaris Prize mitigates this subjectivity by way of democracy. When their selections don’t reflect your own, they aren’t suggesting you are wrong. Your connection to the music isn’t invalid. The majority of the electorate merely hasn’t forged the same connections, formed the same opinions, or developed the same tastes, as you. As much as you aren’t wrong for your choices neither are they for theirs.

If you disagree with someone’s choices, that is your right. It is also your right to express that disagreement as does everyone else. What is expected and seems to have been lost is the respect for that difference. No song doesn’t deserve to be written provided someone can take some enjoyment from its. To say an artist sucks is to say that those who like them are wrong for doing so. Instead, use personally-derived phrases like ‘I don’t like their music.’ You’d want someone who doesn’t like your music to do the same, wouldn’t you?

Some people truly will just not ‘get it’. It’s nothing personal against you. It’s just that it’s not personal to them.

But then, this is just my opinion. What’s yours?


2 Comments Add yours

  1. “For anyone more than a casual listener, music consumption is deeply personal. We forge the strongest attachments to the songs that evoke memories of past experiences and emotions. The same could be said for music which elicits revulsion. Our responses, regardless of alignment, are in part defined by our past.”

    I love this part. So perfect.

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