Cheat the prophecy

An undergrad thesis proposal

[This proposal launched research for “Broken Culture Scene: A pan-Canadian case for regional-local participation, cultural citizenship, and the sunset of federal culture policy for popular music”. The thesis is unpublished.]

Prepared 12 September 2008 for Profs. Robin Elliott and Rick Salutin (UNI420Y1Y, University of Toronto).

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We define Canadian music in wacky ways: Bryan Adams isn’t Canadian, while Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder is. Under Canadian content rules, Vedder, a Seattleite, is a resident Canuck while Adams may as well croon how everything he does, he does it for the U.S. of A.

The road to hell, as is often said, is paved with good intentions. The narrative of Canadian popular music languishes from the same kind of identity quagmire which other areas of Canada’s narrative run into. These conditions have evolved with technology and time, but one question persists: who are we beyond a few threadbare icons and a sole, reductive beauty mark which distinguishes us from Old Glory and apple pie?

Back in 1971, Pierre Juneau, in the cabinet of another Pierre, directed the CRTC to culturally nationalize Canada’s radio and TV broadcasting. His directive followed testimony in the House of Commons which argued whether the performers of a song called “American Woman” was Canadian. After all, why on earth would a bunch of scrappy Canadians from Winnipeg sing about America? To be a Canadian pop musician in Canada? Pack your bags or fade into Stompin’ Tom Connors’ obscurity.

Many did the former by migrating south to establish themselves. It proved absolutely necessary, since a consortium of commercial Canadian broadcasters treated Canadian-based musicians like a smallpox outbreak. From their lofty angle, those American radio stations were just across the border and within the grip of Canadian audiences, and it’d be a scorching day in Iqaluit before they’d just let those Yankee radio signals march on in and colonize those ratings! So Canadian broadcasters played what the Americans did because, as the argument went, that’s what Canadians wanted. Ever since, this consortium, the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, fiercely loathes CanCon rules, but as a condition to hold onto their broadcasting licences, its members reluctantly and begrudgingly comply with the regulation.

And yet, Canadian musical talent managed to find a voice at home before turning abroad, while CanCon has generally worked as intended: to allot Canadian musical talent the airtime being denied to them. MAPL, the formula designed to certify Canadian music from its foreign brethren, let quirky exceptions creep through. In 1991, much to his fury, Bryan Adams was culturally deported from Canada. The recording industry later restored it, but not before he threw a petulant temper tantrum and giving Canada a black eye in the process. Fledgling artists, meanwhile, expressed resentment: Bryan was made, and here he was crying foul while they remained in broadcasting exile.

Juneau’s CanCon rules made for a great bandage, but the cultural bleeding festered in new, unexpected ways. Canadian radio content quotas increased bit by bit, but CanCon rules as we know them are terminally ill. Only blue-chip names like Adams are assured federally mandated airtime. As broadcast radio falls quaint in the face of satellite radio and internet-based products like the iTunes Music Store and peer-to-peer file sharing, globalization paid no mind to nationalistic mandates. Would a new vision for CanCon matter for new Canadian music talent, or are the domains of YouTube and last.fm the functional solution to an abstract question? What do both new and veteran Canadian artists think about the state of CanCon today?

Cheat the Prophecy, the working title for this thesis, shall explore CanCon’s policy relevance. This thesis shall gather research analysis, historical review, narrative interviews, and ways of working forward from today’s cultural landscape. This thesis will help to articulate the Canadian narrative through a lens of popular music, and it shall try to get to the crux of whether CanCon can re-animate into a flexible, workable model which will give new musical talent with tools to assert their voice on a local and global scale. If so, then this could, as Toronto’s own Parachute Club sang in 1986, “cheat the prophecy” of giving even more to Canada’s haves at the expense of its have-nots.

In this case, it has been a prophecy of our cultural irrelevance. I’d like to beg to differ.

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