It’s a sub-zero Sunday evening in Toronto. Under an unheated canopy, a gang of fledgling rock stars wait their turn on the red carpet, shivering in T-shirts and black leather. They’re Down With Webster, a Toronto rock-rap band of twentysomething sensations whose album, Time To Win, has scored a string of platinum hits. The occasion is the 40th anniversary of the Juno Awards at the Air Canada Centre. The band will get to kick off the show, which is a big deal for them. Earlier in their dressing room, these amiable pop idols had been finessing last-minute details, planning a run from the stage into the crowd and voting down a plea from the drummer to shoot video during the performance for the band’s Facebook page. Then, after correcting their hair, rummaging about for their sunglasses, and freshening their breath with gum from a bowl on the buffet table, they head outside, so they can re-enter via the red carpet.
Huddled in the cold beside the Barenaked Ladies, the boys wait for their cue, as Drake, the show’s emcee, is whisked through with his entourage. “Twenty-two years for this s–t!” yells Ed Robertson of the Ladies. “My Junos are getting cold!” He’s joking. But there is something so forlornly Canadian about frozen rock stars queuing up for their turn on a red carpet. When Down With Webster finally gets the nod, pandemonium erupts. Throngs of young teenage girls, pressed against the barricades with outstretched arms, scream their names at an ear-splitting pitch: the sound of Beatlemania, or Biebermania, on a smaller scale.
Later, a grizzled old dude in a long black coat, black hat and red scarf enters to a decidedly less hysterical response. Many of the kids don’t even recognize Neil Young.
For Canadian pop music, the Junos’ ruby anniversary marked a ritual passing of the torch, from the boomer icons of Young’s generation to the world of Drake, Arcade Fire and Justin Bieber. The full pantheon was not on hand: Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Anne Murray, k.d. lang, Céline Dion and Alanis Morissette were present only in video clips. So Neil, making his first Juno appearance in 29 years, was the designated patriarch, basking in tributes and dispensing wit and wisdom like a wily old philosopher king. Shania Twain, a vision of chiffon and sequins, played homecoming queen. And shoring up the old guard were Bryan Adams, Robbie Robertson, Daniel Lanois, Randy Bachman, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and two-thirds of Rush.
The weird thing is, none of those living legends deigned to perform. It’s as if Grandpa Neil had tossed the keys to the family car over to the kids and said, “You drive.”
For years, critics have carped that the Junos were out of touch with contemporary Canadian music. Last week a cruel cover line in Toronto’s Eye Weekly barked: “Step off, Anne Murray,” referring to a woman with a record haul of 24 Junos. It’s true that in past years the Junos often seemed like a major-label cabal of self-congratulation, recycling the old warhorses while snubbing indie acts like Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene. But this year, both orchestral collectives were out in force. And Arcade Fire, flush with its Grammy victory, emerged the champion, winning four Junos—for best album, group, songwriter, and alternative album. But Young held his own. As well as receiving the Allan Waters Humanitarian Award, he beat out Bieber for artist of the year and won adult alternative album for Le Noise (created with Lanois, who won producer of the year).
Young, who seemed as mystified as anyone by the “adult alternative” label, said, “I’m an adult, there’s no alternative.” And backstage, when a journalist asked if he ever expected to share a category with Bieber, he replied: “Of course I’m in the same category. I’m not in the same time zone.”
The first Junos staged in Toronto in a decade, the CTV show unfolded like an intergenerational love-in, as younger musicians paid homage to their elders, and the town Canada loves to hate received its due as an unsung music capital—the cradle of so many ’60s legends. A phalanx of Toronto musicians performed heartfelt covers of classics by Young, Mitchell, Lightfoot and the Band. And as the hometown host, Drake gamely slipped into the role of a retro emcee and milked the generation gap—from doing pre-taped schtick with Lloyd Robertson and Bieber to teaching rap moves to seniors in a retirement home.
The Junos are the one Canadian awards show that people actually watch—a record 2.4 million viewers tuned in Sunday night. And even with the Toronto focus, the show gleamed with a national pride that made you realize our music legends are, by default, Canada’s cultural royalty. Our movie stars have been absorbed by Hollywood, our TV stars are parochial, and despite the international prestige of CanLit, reading is largely a solitary pleasure. But in the past four decades, wave upon wave of Canadian singers and bands have achieved worldwide success, with a diversity of music that amounts to an emotional cardiogram of the country.
When Twain stepped onstage to be inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, she positively gushed about the talent of her compatriots. “I have more pride in what this country has created musically than I have even of my own success,” she said. “I feel like I should just be wearing the Canadian flag tonight. I love our lakes, I love our bush… ?” At which point, laughter ricocheted through the mostly male throng of journalists in the media room backstage. Moments later, as Twain fielded questions from them, a blogger told her that the twitterverse was abuzz with her “bush” reference. She was stunned. “Where have you guys been? C’mon, I’m from northern Ontario. It’s called the bush.”
This being Canada, the media were too polite to grill Twain about her divorce from Mutt Lange, or her recent marriage to Frederic Thiebaud, the ex-husband of her friend Marie-Ann Thiebaud, who was alleged to have had an affair with Lange. I did, however, ask about her Oprah deal, to turn her story into a TV series, coming out in tandem with her autobiography this spring. “It’s not a reality show,” she said firmly, perhaps to avoid any confusion with Alaskan bush diva Sarah Palin. “It’s a documentary-type thing.” Twain has said the breakup left her unable to sing, but “you’re going to hear new music soon,” she promised. “I’m glad to be back to songwriting, back to expressing myself.”
As the top-selling female singer in history prepares to launch Shania 2.0, Neil Young stays the course, oddly immune to his own celebrity. But at the Junos he warmed to the elder statesman role. Unusually loquacious backstage, he launched into a virtual manifesto on how music should be streamed online for free. And he gave a homespun sermon on “this humanitarian-y kind of thing” from the stage. “Musicians,” he advised, “should not worry about helping others. They should focus on the music first. Because music is the language of love. In this world there are so many distractions, and TV, and people telling you what’s going on and how people all hate each other. It’s like perfume on a dirty body. You just have to look inside yourself and the eyes of your friends and you’ll find the secret of how to be a humanitarian.” Perfume on a dirty body? Don’t expect to see that in a self-help book anytime soon.
Later, I cornered Robbie Robertson and asked if there’s such a thing as a Canadian sound. “A lot of Canadian songs are very grown-out-of-the-ground,” he said. “Years ago, when I was playing with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks on Yonge Street, Neil and Joni were playing Yorkville for people sipping cappuccinos. There was no one sipping cappuccinos where we were. But even though we were on different sides of the tracks, there was a unity. Music was warming up to become the voice of a generation and we needed to join forces to make that noise to possibly make a difference. I kinda miss that today.”
Which made me wonder what kind of difference a band like Down With Webster is making, stoking the crowd with branded anthems like Time to Win, while waving a DWW flag reminiscent of the Volkswagen logo. So I asked another elder, Daniel Lanois—who, with his straw hat and sly grin, looked like the crazy uncle of this anniversary bash. “They’re doing very innovative work, a real mixture of things,” he said. “Certain aspects of what we do are still alive as a new frontier. You can mix the alphabet any way you want, so poetry is on the rise. That’s what I like about rap and hip hop: it’s a licence to be poetic.” What about the flag? The former U2 producer shrugged. “Well, it wouldn’t be the first time a flag has been used. Some Irishmen would remember something about that in the ’80s.”