At the Irving Big Stop somewhere between Montreal and Halifax, in one of those gas station restaurants that most of the country only frequents on road trips, it was already apparent that Maritimers were excited to be hosting this year's Junos. If you've ever met a journalist, you know that they're not a glamorous, easily identifiable bunch. This didn't stop the roomful of hot chicken sandwich-eating patrons from thinking that we were in a Juno-bound band. For the four of us driving down for the weekend it was the first time, and presumably the last, that a room was ever-erroneously or not-"abuzz" because of our presence.
Having lived in Halifax during my teens, I've always seen parallels between the East Coast of Canada and the Shire, the fictional home of the Lord of the Rings' Hobbits. The drinking, dancing and merriment parallels are obvious, but it's the scene near the film trilogy's end, when the four Hobbits have saved all of Middle Earth and are triumphantly walking back into town, that offers the less obvious and more interesting analogy. In the movie, instead of returning to home to hero-worship, our dear Hobbits are greeted with either feigned indifference or accusations of their britches being too big. Perhaps because it has been largely ignored, the thriving Maritime music scene has been created, nurtured and loved mostly by itself.
Juno weekend is about the music industry, not the music, and musical celebrities, not the musicians. Essentially, a bunch of industry and media people from Toronto check their Blackberries to see where they're working that weekend, and get someone to call ahead and book up all the hotel rooms and reserve the guest list spots. For these reasons, while absolutely game and wildly enthusiastic as a host, the city of Halifax seemed to be somewhat left out of the proceedings. There was no spotlight on the East Coast during the broadcast itself and, while co-host Buck 65 is originally from Nova Scotia, he has moved to Paris to find an appreciative audience-he could not represent the region any less.
While there were no shortages of venues hosting events, no attempts were made to alert visiting media of where to catch local, lesser known musicians on Friday and Saturday night and, for the most part, the local musicians were squeezed into playing short sets. For this reason I missed as many shows as I attended and, although people with passes could catch all the bigger names performing at the (un-televised) Gala Dinner or during the broadcast itself, it was no one that I, being from a bigger city center, couldn't see at home.
The most coveted events of the weekend-the star-studded CTV party and the various Juno after-parties-were nearly impossible to get into unless you had accreditation from on high. Once inside these events, however, it was clear that the focus was not on music. Over the course of the weekend, I saw everyone from Ben Mulroney to Justin Trudeau to k-os to Jann Arden to every Canadian Idol judge in-between, and I'm pretty sure that's not why I was supposed to be in town.
The weekend's biggest celeb, Pam Anderson, was the single greatest importer of out-of-town, out-of-touch condescension. In a mid-afternoon press conference (ok, let's go ahead and call it a "chest conference"), the majority of her time was spent talking about the PETA-sponsored attack on the seal hunt. When she was forced to talk about Canadian music, Pam seemed unable to bring up anyone other than her pal Bryan Adams. Hopefully the boos she received during the broadcast, coming from an audience that knows people who survive on the seal-hunt, reminded her from where she was pushing her agenda that weekend.
The thing is, saying that the Junos suck is not very original. Most people realize that it's just a big pageant. What it's really about is television, and what Juno weekend is therefore ultimately concerned with, more than anything, is the televised show, proudly broadcast to 246-million households that for the most part aren't in our country. The organizers can stand behind the inclusion of a wide range of acts that received nominations, but this was undercut by relegating them to a media- and industry-only dinner that wasn't even televised.
There is also no way not to look cynically at the collusion between CTV, Canadian Idol, and the Junos. Is any rational adult really supposed to get behind a kid who was plucked from obscurity by a TV show, is interviewed incessantly by the network that broadcasts that TV show, and is then rewarded at the end of it all by that network's awards show? The fact that the four Canadian Idols nominated this year didn't win anything doesn't change the fact that this is about the music that you see while sitting on your couch eating dinner, and not the music that you listen to in your earphones.
Canadian music has long produced internationally recognized mega-stars like Céline Dion and Shania Twain, but never has it produced, like it has in the last couple years, such a wealth of internationally respected musicians. This year there were baby-steps taken toward recognizing this. The newly created "Alternative Album of the Year" award honoured some of the most critically well-received groups in the world-from the winners Broken Social Scene to nominees the New Pornographers, Hot Hot Heat, Metric, and Tegen & Sara. But as a barometer of how little this catches the Canadian music industry up to reality, try comparing the biggest names in Cancon with the album reviews they received. While the Arcade Fire made it onto almost every influential international end-of-year Top 10, try looking for any of the "Group of the Year" nominees-from Blue Rodeo to Our Lady Peace-anywhere near a relevant, informed, and recent glowing review.
Perhaps it's my East Coast roots, but going too far in the condemnation of mainstream music threatens to smack of the snobbish amongst the intellectual and cultural elite from Canada's larger city centers. As I watched the broadcast from the decidedly not-open-to-the-public backstage area, it was impossible to ignore the audiences' reaction towards the Nicklebacks, Hedleys and Simple Plans of the show. While I, and nearly every other music critic in the country, would be horrified to find one of their songs on our iPods, there's a lot of people who clearly like this music. Someone's buying their records, after all. Is the world of music journalists just as compromised as the Toronto-centric industry because it believes its musical tastes are superior?
Maybe it's simply that the Junos are intended for teenagers. Parents, after all, are just as unlikely to be finding out about music from CTV's Ben Mulroney and Tanya Kim as are the culturally plugged-in twenty- and thirty-something set. Or if it isn't as simple as age (many of those groups have older fans, after all), perhaps it's simply a reminder that there are more people in this country than the inhabitants of its biggest cities. Or perhaps it's like a defiant Kevin Drew from Broken Social Scene said in his comments about the music industry needing to get "smaller." Like the Maritime's music scene being forced to rely on itself, part of the reason for the success of the sprawling Broken Social Scene family-a smaller network within Toronto's larger musical community-is that it looks to the people immediately surrounding it for support and inspiration. To simplify: turn off your TV and go see the band playing around the corner.