Like most 40-year-olds in a business known for arrested adolescence, it was high time the Juno Awards ceremony started acting its age. That meant no more bad jokes, no embarrassing speeches, no cloying attempts at achieving that nebulous adjective “world-class.” A 40-year-old is neither young nor old, and last night’s Junos maintained a perfect balance between respect for elders (Neil Young won Artist of the Year) and the upstart youth (Justin Bieber won Pop Album of the Year).
Of course, there were still bad jokes—this is an awards show, after all—but nothing as cringe-worthy as in years past. As host, hip-hop superstar Drake was charming enough to make you forget that his whiny emo rap is mostly about the emptiness of fame and how terrible it is to be rich and get laid all the time. In his opening skit with Justin Bieber, they duetted on Sarah McLachlan’s I Will Remember You; with pianist Chilly Gonzales, he riffed on the rapper Snow and the Hockey Night in Canada theme, which at the very least proved that he can actually sing without Autotune.
For a next generation star, Drake was oddly old school—like, Brat Pack old school. The man is an actor, after all, and at the Junos he played his part better than anyone expected. (Or maybe, after James Franco co-hosted the Oscars, our collective expectations have plummeted to new depths.)
Choosing a hip-hop star—whose album Thank Me Later was the eighth-bestselling album in the U.S. last year—to host suggested a large generational shift, but other than an awkward skit where Drake visited an old-age home to teach seniors how to act hip-hop (which was more amusing than it had any right to be), this year’s Junos were remarkable for how successfully intergenerational they were.
Perhaps because the awards were celebrating a milestone, they managed to pull an all-star list of Canadian legends that encapsulate the history of Canadian popular music: present were Robbie Robertson, Neil Young, Buffy Sainte Marie, Rush, Bryan Adams, Daniel Lanois, Blue Rodeo, Maestro Fresh Wes, Sarah McLachlan, Shania Twain, Billy Talent, Feist, Broken Social Scene, Arcade Fire, K’naan, and Deadmau5. Seems only Celine was missing. The days when Canada’s sense of cultural security depended on whether or not Anne Murray would show up at the Junos are long past.
There’s always a fair amount of flag-waving at the Junos, and not just when K’naan is performing. Drake’s opening speech could have been written by Heritage Minister James Moore—and maybe it was, as Moore cancelled his usually stilted performance this year (hopefully because CTV would have considered it campaigning during an election). Shania Twain, being inducted into the Hall of Fame, gushed endlessly about her home and native land, in a speech seemingly inspired by Jean Chretien’s electoral stump speeches—she stopped short of saying, “I love da Rockies!” She did, however, say, “I feel like I should be wearing the Canadian flag here tonight. I love our lakes, I love our bush, I love our people,” prompting filthier minds to snicker at a major sex symbol using the word “bush.” (Though has anyone even made a “bush” joke since the John Waters movie Pecker? The woman is from Timmins, after all, give her a break.)
Humility was also the order of the evening. Twain said she was “more proud of the music made in Canada than I am of my own success.” Young, accepting Artist of the Year after beating Bieber and Drake, laughed, “What year is this?!” Single of the year went to the re-recorded version of K’naan’s Waving Flag, commissioned for Haitian earthquake relief. Arcade Fire promoted its own Haitian charity, Kanpe. Neil Young spoke eloquently while accepting the Allan Waters Humanitarian Award about musicians’ role in philanthropy.
For a ceremony that’s billed as more of a big-tent variety show than a hardware handout (only eight of the 40 awards are presented during the broadcast), the performances were perfectly pleasant, but not earth-shattering: Sarah McLachlan looked lovely; Hedley sounded suspiciously like Sarah McLachlan; Arcade Fire performed “Rococo,” a song that ’70s FM radio DJs might call a “deep cut,” and Broken Social Scene’s Andrew Whiteman made sure the TV cameras could see that he wrote “Vote Harper Out Now” on his guitar.
The sole misfire was right off the top: opening performer Down With Webster. Gene Simmons’s favourite Canadian act is a limp rap-rock group who looked like they won a high school battle of the bands, with a horn section clad in balaclavas and lyrics like “Woe is me / I’m so woah.” Yep, the show had nowhere to go but up from here.
Buck 65 and Deadmau5—the electronic performer who only ever appears in public with a giant mouse mask over his head—presented the Group of the Year award to Arcade Fire, the first of three awards the band scored during the telecast. Arcade Fire’s Win Butler politely kissed Deadmau5 on both sides of his mask, and gave a shout-out to “all the bands we came up with, from Royal City and the Hidden Cameras to Wolf Parade and the Unicorns.” Butler is a Texan who married a Montrealer; those fine bands probably form his sense of Canadian music, and it’s one of the reasons why his band is a hero to a new generation of this country’s music fans.
Not surprisingly to anyone, Justin Bieber won the Fan Choice Award, which is based on an Internet poll. As Esperanza Spalding and Kim Kardashian can tell you, Bieber fans know a thing or two about flooding the Internet with devotion to their idol. When Neil Young took Artist of the Year later in the night, Twitter’s funniest hashtag became whothef—kisNeilYoung.” Bieber phoned in his acceptance speech from a tour stop in Rotterdam, closing by saying, “Peace, Junos”—just to make sure we knew this wasn’t a generic thank-you video he sends out to all the award shows.
If Shania Twain’s induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame ruffled the feathers of Stan Rogers fans, still irked over their hero’s exclusion, they should note that Ms. Twain—who Steve Earle once called “the highest paid lap dancer in America”—has the bestselling album by a female artist in history; she sold 39 million copies of 1997’s Come On Over, a feat that’s considered impossible in today’s music industry.
It was an odd night for the Canadian music industry: Arcade Fire’s success, for example, has been in spite of the industry here, rather than a product of it (they thanked Dounia Mikou, the sole employee of their record label, Sonovox, which licenses the band’s music around the world). Drake and Justin Bieber owe a huge part of their success to their all-star American mentors (Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Usher) and social media. Sarah McLachlan just announced her split with her long-time manager, Nettwerk’s Terry McBride. In one of the only major-label victories of the night, Best New Artist went to Meaghan Smith, whose deal with Warner Music meant she was the only act in that category not on an independent label.
But if Toronto as an industry town was shut out of the awards, Toronto as a cultural centre was celebrated in ways that seem heretical. Did Drake really call Toronto “the greatest city in the entire world” on Canadian television? Isn’t there some kind of CRTC regulation about that?
And then there was the parade of Toronto roots music all-stars paying tribute to the city’s musical history: Sarah Harmer did Joni Mitchell’s Carey; Jim Cuddy, who learned how to play guitar with Gordon Lightfoot songs, did If You Could Read My Mind; City and Colour and Derek Miller did Neil Young’s Old Man, and The Band’s Shape I’m In was performed by all of the above, led by the Sadies and also featuring Serena Ryder, Greg Keelor, Justin Rutledge, and Kevin Hearn doing a very convincing Garth Hudson impersonation. Even though it was a shameless boomer nostalgia trip, it was the most inspired musical performance of the night.
And so there were no ridiculous speeches or performance flubs. There were no awkward presenter pairings. Shameless CTV cross-promotion was at a minimum (Lloyd Robertson appeared in Drake’s opening skit) and Ben Mulroney made himself the butt of a joke before anyone else could. Drake proved to be a much better host than he is a rapper: it was telling that he led the nominations but was entirely shut out, losing even Best Rap Recording to the much worthier Shad.
Two years ago, the Junos had sunk so low that I felt like burning a flag after watching. This year, the Junos were not only more entertaining than either the Grammys or the Oscars, but they represented the real maturity of the Canadian music industry. It’s about time.