Going into the gala for the 2011 Polaris Music Prize, two things were clear. First, Arcade Fire, who were nominated for The Suburbs, were the overwhelming favourite to take home the award. Gala host Grant Lawrence made it clear early in the evening when he suggested the Montreal band was facing off against “nine dark horses.” As a fellow scribe put it, Monday night’s contest was “Arcade Fire versus the world”—or at least, indie Canada.
Second, the Polaris Prize isn’t meant to be a popularity contest. The award’s only criterion is “artistic merit.” This was repeated like a mantra throughout the evening, lest anyone be under the impression that mainstream recognition, clever videos, or album sales might be in play at an awards show featuring bands most Canadians have never heard of. And therein lay the tension—how would the Polaris Prize jury reconcile the fact that Canada’s bestselling band might also be its best band? Can a band that sells out arenas and whose last album hit No. 1 in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. still be credible with the indie crowd?
The answer, evidently, is yes.
Prior to winning the 2011 Polaris Prize, Arcade Fire had left a trail of hopeful award nominees in its wake. Over the past 12 months, the band has added a Grammy, two Brit Awards and a Juno to its trophy mantel. But the Polaris Prize is an altogether different beast. The nominees are picked by a jury of over 200 music critics, writers, bloggers, and broadcasters from across Canada. The winner is then selected by a grand jury of 11 during the gala itself. While a half-dozen of the 10 short-list nominees—including Ron Sexsmith, Austra, Galaxie, Timber Timbre, Braids, and Hey Rosetta!—were playing brief two-song sets for the crowd of about 500 in the ballroom of Toronto’s Masonic Temple, the grand jury was sequestered in a room a few floors up and left to argue among themselves until they settled on a final verdict.
Of course, music critics being music geeks at heart, their tastes tend toward the subversive, the weird, the obscure—the more left-field the better. Which explains how the prospect of a backlash against a band like Arcade Fire, as appreciated as it is by both music snobs and the mainstream, could gain traction. Lead singer Win Butler pre-emptively flicked at the unusual predicament his band’s star status had left them in when he took the stage before the winner was announced. “Just because you know a band,” he said, “doesn’t mean it sucks.”
It’s easy to see why Butler might get defensive. The Polaris Prize is, after all, a symbol of the stratification that’s happened to the music industry over the past two decades. Whereas Canadian bands may have once looked to mainstream success as the ultimate badge of recognition, the Polaris Prize caters almost exclusively to those toiling under the industry’s radar. “This isn’t weird to me,” Katie Stelmanis, lead singer of the synth-heavy, goth-inflected Austra, said in a pre-gala interview. “It’s the Junos that are weird.”
As a result of its focus on artistic credibility, the Polaris Prize ends up serving the dual, sometimes paradoxical roles of cocoon and showcase for the nominees. For some, like Stelmanis, it protects artists from having to cater to lowest-common-denominator mainstream tastes. For others, like the famously underappreciated singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith, it’s an opportunity to finally break through. “I set out to make a hit record,” he says of his Polaris-nominated Long Player Late Bloomer.
So what happens when Arcade Fire, which needs neither the exposure nor the credibility that come with a Polaris Prize, goes home with the $30,000 cheque? Does it change the nature of the award? “I hope not,” says Steve Jordan, the founder and executive director of the Polaris Music Prize. “There’s no doubt that this is the biggest-selling band that’s ever won the Polaris and certainly that’s going to extend our reach. But it’s not our objective to have that kind of reach.”
So don’t go thinking you have good taste in music just because you liked The Suburbs, too.