A Polaris Prize juror on Feist, Drake and how it all went down

The armchair critics are simply wrong

by Michael Barclay

Photo: Dustin Rabin

Michael Barclay is a co-author of Have Not Been the Same: The CanRock Renaissance 1985-1995 and a blogger at Radio Free Canuckistan. He is also the chief copy editor at Maclean’s.

Feist won the 2012 Polaris Music Prize for her album Metals on Monday night.

Many celebrated the decision, considering the album rich with great songs, inventive arrangements and an exquisitely executed artistic vision. Others wondered why Polaris jurors—of which I was one of 11 locked in room deciding the outcome during the gala—picked such an apparently “safe” act. There were plenty of more daring possibilities: hip-hop artist Drake, outlier Grimes, rock’n’roll believers Japandroids, roots rock queen Kathleen Edwards, avant-garde hip-hop party machine Cadence Weapon, the hardcore punk operatics of F–ked Up, the conceptual Asian psychedelic metal of Yamantaka/Sonic Titan, the goth soul/blues of Cold Specks or the electro-rock firebrands Handsome Furs.

Why Feist? Of course, I know exactly “why Feist,” and I’ll tell you (as much as I can) in a moment.

Polaris has never pleased everyone, and never will. In many ways, the actual winner is a sideshow to the whole event, a MacGuffin. I, for one, have only agreed on two of the past winners so far. Picking the No. 1 is never a unanimous decision. There were jurors this year unhappy with the result, but I don’t think they begrudge it.

Here’s how it goes down.

On Sunday, Sept. 23, the jurors met for a four-hour dinner, to talk widely about the records on the list. Each one of them had an advocate on the table who made a short pitch, and then we all weighed in.

Almost every single shortlist entry had a detractor whose criticism amounted to nothing more elaborate than: “I can’t stand this person’s voice.” Subjectivity is inevitable. But I was surprised to see that almost every record was at least well-liked, if not loved, by at least 80 per cent of the jury. It meant that the guy who’s into hip-hop found plenty to like about the singer-songwriter record, and the punk rock girl found herself lost in synthy sound worlds. The oldest juror at the table fell for the youngest artist on the list. There was no tribalism.

The night of the gala, we entered the Masonic chamber and immediately voted for five albums on a ranked secret ballot. Results were tallied, and five albums removed from discussion. Now we had something new to talk about. Then there was another five-point ranked secret ballot, and two more albums removed. After a tiny bit more gabbing, we ranked the remaining three albums on one more secret ballot and left the room. We discovered the winner’s name at the same time as everyone else. We were done in just over an hour.

All I’ll say about the outcome was this: I was shocked. Each ballot result was secret, so of course I don’t know the actual numbers. But after that first round of voting, two albums that,  based on our Sunday discussions, I was convinced would be consensus picks were suddenly gone.

 

HERE ARE SOME of the entirely speculative arguments I’ve heard from naysayers since Monday night’s decision.

“Feist is an entirely safe artist and this is the most mainstream Polaris pick yet.”

Part of me agrees with this. But I will also say the majority of choices on this list would be considered “safe” by some corner of the culture (and this includes Drake, who has sold almost two million copies of Take Care). After years of somewhat oddball Polaris wins, the “safe” barrier was certainly broken last year by Arcade Fire’s win, and most people forget that supposed dark horse Patrick Watson scored a gold record for his surprise winner in 2007, Closer to Paradise.

Secondly, though Feist’s last album The Reminder was certainly a stadium-filling pop hit, Metals is a drastically different—and deeper—album. Though there are soft moments, I think it’s a tough, at times heavy album, rich with dynamics that barely anyone else in her genre ever dares to attempt. It’s tough and heavy in two ways: one, in the way that Joni Mitchell’s Blue is, deceptively so, androgynously so; and two, in the intensity found even in the quietest moments, and in the fact that metal band Mastodon can faithfully cover something from this song cycle.

Finally, I resent the suggestion that any music deemed “palatable” must necessarily be unadventurous and artistically negligible, and I’m happy to provide hundreds of examples from the history of popular music—as in, actually popular music—to prove this. If you disagree, I can guarantee that you’re an obscurist snob.

**

Here’s another one:

“This is more of a lifetime achievement award for Feist. People don’t actually feel strongly about this record.”

As someone who thinks she did deserve to win, I think she deserved to win for this record. I don’t love everything she’s done, and this is hands-down the best thing she’s ever produced. Just because I’ve followed her career doesn’t mean I’m willing to give her a free pass. This is a great album, no matter who it came from and where in their career.

**

Another one:

“This album only got lukewarm reviews when it came out. Pitchfork gave it a ‘mere’ 7.7 . How can it be the best of anything?”

First of all, most reviews were actually extremely positive. I know as well as anyone in my line of work that reviews are often written hastily, sometimes based on no more than maybe five listens of an album. And in my almost 30 years as a serious music fan, I know that some of my favourite albums of all time are ones I hated at first. (Prince, Purple Rain. Rheostatics, Melville. Bjork, Debut.) If you’re still compelled by an album 12 months later, that speaks much more to its strength.

**

And another:

“Feist was the safe choice compared to this year’s real game-changer of a record, Drake’s Take Care, which takes music in new directions and was wildly successful doing so. Polaris has never rewarded hip-hop, and Drake’s loss this year only proves that it probably never will. It probably didn’t even stand a chance.”

This is the elephant in the room, because Take Care was the most commercially and internationally successful of any of the shortlisted albums, and has dominated post-gala media babble. I will only say that we talked about Drake quite a bit. I’m not suggesting his album progressed anywhere beyond the first round of voting: maybe it did, maybe it didn’t.

I have my own history with the Drake record. I’m not a fan, for a litany of reasons—none of which involve hip-hop itself, some of which involve nausea. But I recognize it does have moments of musical brilliance. I’ll now cede that some of the lyrical concepts might be a sort of interesting meta commentary on the emptiness of fame. My three main beefs are: a) Take Care as a whole is interminable, dull, unsexy and exhausting; b) Drake himself is monotonous and charisma-free as both a singer and rapper, incapable of carrying much more than a three-minute song, never mind 80 minutes; c) his actual rhymes are poorly written and frankly embarrassing to recite—much of Take Care is unintentionally hilarious, one step above a confessional rap record by Snooki. The few good things about this record do not in any way excuse its many, many shortcomings.

Yes, I feel strongly about this. So strongly, in fact, that one juror from a previous year (who should know better) told me this week that my persuasive powers probably single-handedly stopped Drake from winning. I guess that’s a kind of compliment. It’s also patently false. I was one of 11 people in that room. And there was only one other person in that room who, like me, had to struggle to say anything nice about Drake. In other words, I was vastly outnumbered—and, frankly, humbled. It was my job to listen, not to lecture.

After discovering that most people—including women—on the jury loved almost everything else about Take Care, I kept my condescending, SNAG-gy comments about the death of feminism to myself. (I know better than to argue with what a woman finds hot or not.) I’m pretty sure I did, at one point after a few glasses of wine, find myself exclaiming, “This is a Republican record!” I’m not even sure what that was supposed to mean.

And so if Drake did not win the Polaris Prize, it’s because even people who like this album a lot—a whole lot—didn’t end up voting for it to the end. I can’t speak to their motives. All I know is that we talked about it a whole lot, largely positively, and it didn’t win. Make of that what you will.

**

And here’s the final assumption I heard from the peanut gallery this week:

“Feist only won because she was probably everybody’s No. 2 choice on a ranked ballot. Nobody really loves that record; it’s entirely a middle-of-the-road consensus pick that everyone could agree on.”

Because Metals won, I’m not spilling any beans by telling you that people do love this record. I love this record. But so did people whose No. 1 choice fell off the first ballot and then embraced Feist whole-heartedly, not begrudgingly in the least, and spoke passionately in its defence. Yes, some people openly dissented, but with largely subjective criticisms along the lines of “it’s dreary” or “it’s merely nice.” I don’t think anyone in that room who voted for Feist did so because they believed the album was merely okay, or the lesser of three evils on the final ballot.

Three evils—listen to me, what is this, Sophie’s Choice? It’s just music, people. And there are no objective truths in music, so of course this is all an elaborate parlour game, one where 11 people devote hours of their time studying and traveling across the country to argue about giving someone else $30,000. I’d like to think that the Polaris Prize “means” more than the Junos or the Oscars, but of course it doesn’t. (It does, however, mean much more than the Genies and the Geminis. That’s a given.)

Whatever the armchair critics assume they know about what went down, I can guarantee they are wrong. Most of my own assumptions walking into that room were wrong. I was surprised at almost every turn.

So hats off to Steve Jordan for putting on (and originating) such a classy event, to James Keast for curating the jury and moderating the discussion, and to my fellow jurors: Gregory Adams, Chris Bilton, Ryan Breese, Lisa Christensen, Shawn Conner, Melissa Hetu, Kevin LaForest, Ryan B. Patrick, Tabassum Siddiqui and Nicole Villeneuve. I’d wanted to do this for a long time, and I’m glad I did it with you.




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A Polaris Prize juror on Feist, Drake and how it all went down

  1. I am Australian so it is hard for me to comment on all of these artists. I figured that Drake wouldn’t win, mainly for monetary reasons. Wasn’t the prize something like 30k? he earns that in his sleep and doesn’t need the award. Take Care was far from dull, the mere fact that you say that makes me think you must be dull. I can’t say that he definitely had the best album (because I haven’t heard any of the others) but I can say your comments are wrong (even if they are your opinion). Drake is also one of the only artists that has actually put Canada on the map in recent years. Even though there are many other quality Canadians doing their thing, are any really out there representing Canada? Whenever there is a major artist performing in Toronto you can expect Drake to came back (see J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar and so on). His OVO festival is the biggest thing I hear about in Canada. He has helped The Weeknd reinvent rnb. Take Care was a brilliant album, and probably the best album on the shortlist.

    • He hasn’t helped The Weeknd reinvent rnb, he helped expose him to a wider audience. The Polaris short and long lists always bring to light artists I’d never heard of before and subsequently admired. With regards to this year’s list, at minimum I suggest you check out Cadence Weapon. I’m constantly surprised by how under-the-radar he his in the hip-hop community (by that I mean people who listen (almost) exclusively to rnb/hip-hop). Take Care wasn’t even the best hip-hop album on this year’s short list (my own opinion).
      The great thing about art is there is no right and wrong. It’s all subjective. But the best art is usually polarizing.
      Reading the lyric sheets for each album is also a fun exercise. It’s another way to separate the dull from the interesting.

  2. Thanks Michael for a great article and a different perspective on the Polaris Prize. As you said, everyone can never be happy and although Feist wasn’t my pick for the prize, Metals is definitely worthy. As for Drake, I can’t say I’m a fan but I do appreciate the humanizing elements on Take Care. In the end, all ten albums are worth listening to and showcase greatly Canadian musical talent, which is what matters most. Cheers!

  3. I do not understand the choice of Feist as the winner. I don’t even understand how it was nominated. It was, by far, the worst record out of all the choices, in my opinion. And yes I have listened to the album. Also I’m offended that you have chosen to refer to music lovers with an opinion so dismissively as ‘armchair critics’. Your opinion on the ‘Take Care’ album is obviously in the minority. The fact that you suggest that you had some part in sabotaging it winning just solidifies the fact that, going forward, I won’t be taking this award seriously.

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