The Junos, on lithium - Macleans.ca

The Junos, on lithium

No highs or lows, but plenty of Bieber and Bublé

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The Juno Awards telecast is not about handing out hardware. It’s part genuine musical celebration, part industry backslapping, part CTV cross-promotional orgy, part high school pep rally and/or provincial tourism ad, with as many live performances as possible squeezed into a tightly run two-hour slot.

Which means that 90 per cent of the awards are presented at a non-televised dinner the night before: everything from album packaging of the year to artist of the year. By the time the telecast started, many of my favourite albums of 2009 had already won Junos: Bell Orchestre for instrumental album of the year (As Seen Through Windows), Charles Spearin for contemporary jazz album of the year (The Happiness Project), Billy Talent for rock album of the year (III), and K’naan for artist of the year. After decades of grumbling about the Junos, this was the first year I was predisposed to genuinely enjoy them.

And yet they disappointed again—not because they were awful, but because they weren’t. Normally they are a combination of the painful and the ever-so-slightly profound, thanks to the cheap commercialization and the glimpses of comparatively obscure artists getting a shot in prime time. If we’re lucky, someone makes a decent speech. The 2010 Junos, by comparison, were like lithium: no highs, no lows, just even keel.

One wonders what the cranky and notorious nationalist Stompin’ Tom Connors would have thought of the opening sequence, where Halifax hip-hop MC Classified marched down George Street in St. John’s, rapping a track called O Canada, a completely earnest lyrical litany of patriotic platitudes waiting to be spun into a tourism ad.

As if to immediately illustrate the evening’s diversity—or, more likely, to comfort anyone over 40 who was bewildered by Classified—the show quickly shifted inside to Michael Bublé, who kicks it REALLY old school. He soon wins single of the year for Haven’t Met You Yet—which, in his acceptance speech, he claims he wrote for his fiancé. Was he stalking her at the time? Is she a mail-order bride?

The Barenaked Ladies take the stage to a) announce that they have a new album and b) assure everyone that they are not the hosts of the show. In fact, there are no hosts. Which, for the absence of Russell Peters alone, is a great idea.The always-deadpan keyboardist Kevin Hearn promises, with noticeably forced enthusiasm, “It’s going to be a great night!” (Doesn’t he mean a good, good night? Aren’t these guys supposed to be pop-culture savvy?)

Tween-pop sensation Justin Bieber performs with only an acoustic guitarist and four male back-up singers and a guest spot from Drake. Say what you will about the puppy-dog eyes and Donny Osmond teeth, the boy can sing, and that swagger coach of his is earning his paycheque. Too bad Bieber’s singing a song with the chorus “I’m like, baby, baby, baby.” Because he looks like baby!

The “action” moves back outside to George Street, where Kim Stockwood and Damhnait Doyle once again have head-scratching Canadians asking: are these two famous for anything other than being the token Newfoundlanders on CBC radio shows and CTV event television? Fellow cutie Newfie (and CTV personality) Seamus O’Regan  shows up to help them all agree that St. John’s is amazing.

Bublé wins the corporate-sponsored fan choice award—do baby boomers actually vote online?—and makes a lame product placement joke in his acceptance speech. By this point in the evening, he’s starting to overstay his welcome, and the next performer proves why. Johnny Reid is a platinum-selling country artist here in Canada, but he just landed an international deal and is planning on making an R&B album. His song Dance With Me is more John McDermott than Johnny Cash, but listening to this guy sing with twice the depth and soul of the cheezeball Bublé, it sounds like he can do anything he wants—as long as he learns some new stage gestures that don’t look like he’s a karaoke king at his local bar, rather than a veteran performer.

Billy Talent are not only the loudest band at this year’s Junos, they’re also the only one performing a song about a Paulo Coehlo novel. They’ve come a long way since their first Juno performance several years back, when Ben Kowalewicz’s shrieking was as much a challenge to old Juno orthodoxy as the first hip-hop performances were. These days, there’s no denying Billy Talent’s melodic strength, and Kowalewicz is sounding more like the Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra. But he still lets out a high-pitched screech near the end of Saint Veronika—and you would too, if you were a punk rocker who just lost a category to Michael Bublé.

K’naan, named artist of the year at the earlier ceremony is, as always, the most dapper man in the entire room. He’s there to present Bryan Adams with the honorary humanitarian award; Adams, in an apparently biblical mood of generosity, says, “Thank you, Canaan.” Adams is stranded in Europe because of the Icelandic volcano; by video link, he gives a gracious and humble acceptance speech that puts a nice dent in his often prickly reputation. Speaking of gracious and humble, K’naan soon returns to the stage to pick up songwriter of the year—which is well deserved, not just for Wavin’ Flag, but for the fact that he’s one of the most compelling MCs working in hip-hop today, who can write circles around most of his peers, including Drake.

At the halfway point in the ceremony, this year’s Junos are nowhere near the shitshow they were last year, easily the most embarrassing in recent memory (and there’s a lot of competition there). Where are the terrible jokes, the awkward moments, the uncomfortable presenters, the ridiculously over-the-top performances? Why does everyone actually look happy to be there? Can this actually be the Junos?

For a brief moment, it looks like the Olympics, because skeleton athlete Jon Montgomery is standing on the street in a throng of excited, patriotic Canadians, amiably joking with Kim Stockwood and Damhnait Doyle—and with more charisma than either of them put together. He demonstrates his day job skills as an auctioneer by taking bids on Justin Bieber’s phone number and Jim Cuddy’s hotel room key. “This could go on for a while,” Doyle deadpans. Maybe it should—I hereby nominate Montgomery to host the 2010 Junos.

Great Lake Swimmers are a band I never thought I’d see playing the Junos. Not because they don’t deserve it—Tony Dekker is one of the most haunting Canadian songwriters of the last 10 years—but because I once saw their former keyboardist fall asleep on stage. Stadium rock they’re not (nor should they be). Here, however, they do their best, despite a poor sound mix and the fact that the cameraman is clearly more fixated on violinist and backing singer Miranda Mulholland than anyone else in the band, including Dekker.

Every year that the Junos has been held somewhere outside of Ontario, a provincial premier makes a token appearance. For whatever reason, Danny Williams is featured standing innocuously and unannounced somewhere in the middle of the crowd—as if a camera crew just happened to find him there—and only allowed to throw to a commercial. Heritage Minister James Moore, who always looks uncomfortable in the presence of real-life performers, co-presents the award for best new artist. Thankfully, they pair him with fabulously flamboyant loudmouth Jully Black, who all but ignores his painfully earnest introduction by turning around and whooping it up for the crowd: “N-F-L-D! Make some noise!” Moore looks pleasantly baffled that he’s witnessed what these mysterious creative people call an “off-script” moment. They present the award to Drake, who beats Bieber in the only real horserace of the night. Drake thanks his mom, who “is responsible for not only the artist that I am, but the man that I am.” Aw, shucks.

Metric celebrate their win for group of the year—over tough competition from Billy Talent, The Tragically Hip and Blue Rodeo—by singing “gimme sympathy after all this is gone.” Looks like they won’t need it: they’re poster children for international indie success, being, according to their intro, the first band in history to have a Top 20 U.S. single from a self-released album. (Later we learn that April Wine was the first Canadian band to go platinum with an independent album—indie rock is nothing new, kids.) What would Stompin’ Tom have to say about that?

It’s now 80 minutes into the show, and Great Big Sea finally show up. They’re introducing their early benefactors Blue Rodeo, who have every right to phone it in at this point of their career—and yet they don’t, performing a delicate and sparse Jim Cuddy ballad that’s easily one of the best songs he’s written in his 25-year career.

The show starts to grind to a halt. April Wine is inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. Drake performs his mediocre new single, Over (“What am I doin’? / I’m doin’ me”). He then wins for best rap recording, which comes with a catch: he has to hug every member of Hedley, who present him with the award. Is any Juno worth that? Drake says, “I do this because I believe in all forms of music that come from Canada.” Don’t hold your breath for a Johnny Reid collab.

Milking their post-Olympic glow, CTV trots out Alexandre Bilodeau to present the album of the year award, introducing him as “the king of freestyle.” (All you hip-hop MCs watch your back!) The adorable Bilodeau gets a larger cheer than any single performer or presenter has all night, and also gets the biggest laugh when he announces that the winner is “Michael Bubble!” Buble, having exhausted his thank-you list several times already, thanks Ron Sexsmith, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, and his grandma.

The 2010 Junos wrap up with K’naan performing his anthemic Waving Flag with special guests Drake, Nikki Yanofsky, and Justin Bieber—the latter putting special emphasis on the line “when I get older”—appearing only on the final chorus, making it less of an all-inclusive, roof-raising, Tears Are Not Enough-style closer than it could have been. Damhnait Doyle signs off: “With pride, from Newfoundland and Labrador!” One can’t help but think she wakes up every morning saying that.

The camera then lingers on her and Stockwood dancing awkwardly on George Street, in a spotlight surrounded by hundreds of Newfoundlanders not sure what they’re supposed to be looking at by this point. Neither are we.