CanCon: Niche or Novelty?

English: Jian Ghomeshi hosting a live taping o...

English: Jian Ghomeshi hosting a live taping of his radio show Q in Vancouver, 26 Mar 2009 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a recent interview on CBC‘s Q. Jian Ghomeshi sits down with Seth Rogen and partner-in-crime Evan Goldberg about their latest film “This Is The End.” Throughout the course of the interview, Ghomeshi discusses with Rogen among things
cannabis-related, his identity as a Canadian and the influence of American culture. This hit home with me, as a Canadian living close to the border, and especially when Rogen comments rather poignantly that “our culture is the same.” Growing up in Southern Ontario, this has felt very much the case. Our radio, TV, music, and movies are essentially a direct portal into American life and lifestyles. Rogen also states that because our shared culture with Americans is so parasitic (or is it symbiotic?), it’s far easier as Canadians to judge and critique our culture. I will have to meet you half way there, Seth.

Thanks to government policies like CanCon, and a healthy dosage of Canadian programming and stations on TV and the radio (such as the aforementioned CBC and its hip poster-boy, Ghomeshi), we are privileged to the extent that we are at least provided with a slice of Canadiana amidst waves of American content. But how much is too much? The inevitable “name the Canadian” game permeates our culture, chiming in far too often to rear its goofy head. Is our culture truly so marginalized that it’s exciting for the identity of a famous movie star or musician exposed as Canadian? Do we believe a person with talent could not possibly be born north of the border? Why is Canadian identity treated as a participation ribbon on a list of supposed achievements in a successful career? This all calls “CanCon” and similar initiatives (e.g. MAPL) into question–do these movements such help cultivate Canadian stars or marginalize us further?

As a casual radio listener, I have found CanCon to be a double-edged sword. A specific amount of Canadian content is standard issue on TV and radio, which in theory, is fantastic. The idea posits a direct line to Canadian youth, fostering love for Canadian content as they grow up in order to cement the importance of having a strong passion for our national identity. Listening to CBC with my grandparents or at my friend’s house was a constant reminder that great work by Canadian artists is out there and within reach.

Unfortunately, in my experience, Canadian content ends up meaning more Nickelback singles in heavy rotation, or our biggest newsbreak (or potential joke) being Avril Lavigne’s engagement to Chad Kroeger. The cultural implications of this union are both important and relevant. Rather than a powerhouse marriage between two successful Canadian celebrities, it was seen as the laughing stock of the music business and fodder for tabloids. Good, or reputable Canadian content (as slippery a term as it is) therefore often gets thrown to the wayside of the mainstream, in a miniature version of what Americans experience with their own radio. However, America occupies a bigger share of the cultural stage and therefore provides room for more independent and critically acclaimed artists and programming to thrive. But these factors limit the growth of authentic and acclaimed Canadian content and hamper the perception and importance of our culture within our own communities. If Canadian stuff didn’t ‘suck’ so much, there would be more of it, no?

novelty: [nov-uh-l-tee] noun, 3. an article of trade whose value is chiefly decorative, comic,  or the like and whose appeal is often transitory: a store catering to tourists who loaded up with souvenir pennants and other novelties.

niche: [nich] noun, 3. a distinct segment of a market

The problem isn’t with quality, but with perception. Too often Canadian culture is funneled into one of two categories, being ‘niche,’ or ‘novelty’, as defined above. Commenting that Mike Myers is “actually Canadian!” becomes a subject of novelty, adding to the comedian and actor’s perceived identity. However, this is harmful as an attribute because it adds to the idea that being Canadian somehow makes you different, or that your nationality puts you at a disadvantage. It essentially equates years of hard work, effort, and time into an unceremonious head pat when little Johnny asks to eat at the adult’s table. It turns an artist who has paid their dues into a Trivial Pursuit-esque factoid.

Dallas Green aka City and Colour

Dallas Green aka City and Colour (Photo credit: © Natalia Balcerska Photography)

If not ‘novelty,’ the aforementioned artist dissolves into the ‘niche’ category. Take Dallas Green, for example: the artist’s Canadianness becomes a selling point since it confirms his ‘indie’ credibility or authenticity. Coming from a place of fewer successful acts (compared to the States) guarantees his ‘organic’ artistic truth. He then belongs to a select tribe of veritable Canadian superstars who cherish their Canadian identity as it sets them apart from the rest, like being the away team at a homecoming game. This is bullshit for several reasons: first, it supports the theory that being Canadian is inherently ‘cooler’ than being from the States, which makes the artist ‘unique’ or ‘special.’ Thus, our content is marginalized in a way that puts us in a separate league. There is a reason the Junos (while well-loved here) are not as respected as the Grammys. We struggle between a divide of celebrating and cherishing our work, while also isolating ourselves in a way that either totally accepts or refutes consolidation of American and Canadian culture; second, it creates that special ‘kid’s table’ for Canadian artists and whether we like it or not, we become the undesirable ‘Other.’ A high profile but little respected act like Nickelback is unfortunately just as Canadian as a well-regarded but less commercially successful act such as Metric. Anyone wielding an acoustic guitar from Canada is apparently either City and Colour, or Justin Bieber; and finally, it impedes the growth of the artist. Being ‘Canadian’ can only get you so far, as many local musicians and actors know. In some ways, Godspeed You! Black Emperor will always be that weird noise/experimental/drone band without vocals from Canada. Some thrive in Toronto or Vancouver, but to rise above a certain level, the trip to the US seems inevitable (e.g. Neil Young, Joni Mitchell). Worse still, these ‘border-hoppers’ are criticized for a decision necessary to reach their career potential.

Arcade Fire

Arcade Fire (Photo credit: Man Alive!)

What is the medicine for this malady, then? At this point, the difficulty of the situation lies with the importance of separating (and promoting) “Canadian for Canadian’s sake” from critically established, promising work. Clearly we are entering a new age where this kind of acclimation is possible — a rousing cheer seldom heard erupted from all Canadians when Arcade Fire won the Grammy for Best Album of the Year. This was accomplished amidst a slew of plastic pop acts, including the likes of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. And despite the laughable ignorance of teens tweeting in morose aggrandizement and wonder at who the suburbs are?!?!?, the Grammy win announced the arrival of Canadian artists on the world’s stage. We are a long way from the dissolution of the cute, bumper-sticker nod — “oh wow, he’s Canadian?!” — or the counter-culture quip — “you’ve probably never heard of them; they’re from Saskatoon” — but if the talent fostered by the Montreal indie scene (e.g. Metric, Arcade Fire, and more) is any indication, we are on the cusp of a new, more balanced and respected culture. Oh, and by the way, I am Canadian.

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One thought on “CanCon: Niche or Novelty?

  1. Pingback: YSP Sound: Shad, “Flying Colours” Review | The Yonge Street Portage

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