Last night I tuned into the final half hour of the Junos to see K.D Lang perform. A buddy of mine, Josh Grange, plays pedal steel in her band and I wanted to check out his playing. I wasn’t too interested in much else about this year’s show. I would have liked to see Alan Doyle win for his excellent video, “Testify,” and another win for Amelia Curran would have been great. But other than that I wasn’t too engaged. Years ago, when I thought I was destined for musical stardom, I kept better track of the Junos. I don’t bother as much these days. I do know a lot of past nominees and winners – either as friends or people I’ve performed with over the years. I’ve gone to a few shows as a spectator or guest. As a Canadian music fan, I’ve been tuning in for decades. As a critical thinker, I recognize the sham behind much of it. But then again, so do the participants.
The inside operations of the Junos are a bit hazy. For the average Canadian music fan, the award show is simply a chance to see their favourite Canadian entertainers all under one roof. The public doesn’t have to think about the politics of the biz. It’s just an entertainment show to them. However, people in the music business know exactly how this award show works and how to use it. For emerging artists, it’s a chance to get exposure both in the form of a nomination and a performance spot on the telecast. For industry people, it’s a chance to network and make deals. For the veteran icons, it’s an opportunity to keep in the loop, use it as a springboard for new releases, and to hopefully get lifetime achievement accolades. It’s our version of the Grammys, and overall it’s a well-run entity that has endured several decades in a constantly evolving music business.
For perspective, I’ll take a minute to explain the process by which one wins a Juno award. The organization CARAS (Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences) has a membership consisting of musicians, promoters, agents, managers, producers, directors, publishers, and anyone else who has a stake in the Canadian music industry. Several months before the awards show, they receive ballots in the mail containing a list of nominees for each category (earlier selected by committee from a larger pool of acts) and they vote according to their preferences. The nominee who receives the most votes wins the award. It’s the same as the ECMAs on the east coast and many awards shows in other countries. I will leave it up to you to decide whether or not this process is transparent and devoid of bias, or if it’s riddled with corruption and incestuous manipulation of votes.
Last night, the Juno Album of the Year was presented the end of the show, as is custom. The presenters were singer/songwriters Tom Cochrane and Colin James, two iconic Canadian musicians who have received numerous Juno accolades in the past. I have tremendous respect for both of them. Cochrane and James are organic rockers, each forging a unique sound and style from the bare essence of who they are as people. What you see is what you get. They get on stage with a great band, strap on their guitars, and captivate a room full of people with nothing but their life stories rendered skillfully in songs that have become part of the Canadian consciousness.
The winner they announced? Carly Rae Jepsen, for her album Kiss. Best known for her 2012 hit single “Call Me Maybe,” the B.C. native and former Canadian Idol contestant (roll eyes here) got a push from Bieber on Twitter and it catapulted her into the international spotlight. The industry hounds then descended and quickly pieced together a full-length release. The result is a bubblegum collection of flirty party tunes with loose plots centered around the retaining of one’s virginity. She accepted her award graciously, thanking mostly the fans but not having much else to say. Cochrane and James stood by politely, but you could sense a sort of bemusement on their faces. I do not wish to speak for them, but it’s hard not to think that inside they were shaking their heads in disbelief at the questionable caliber of album and artist eligible to receive this accolade. It begs the following question: Have the Junos ever been an accurate barometer of “best albums” in this country?
The first problem arises when discussing the highly subjective topic of what constitutes a great album. Celine Dion has won the most Junos in this category, followed by Michael Buble. They are great singers, to be sure. Great albums? I’m not convinced. When I think of great albums, I think of pieces of work that have unity of purpose and expression. Great “album artists” have originality and depth that is first rooted in an affinity for their own favourite albums and then rendered into a new hybrid of melody and lyric. These albums break new ground. They have a structured path from beginning to end that captures an artist or band at a certain time in their creative lives. Great albums punctuate people’s histories and emotionally place them in memorable moments and experiences. When I think of great albums, I think of Dark Side of the Moon, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Blonde on Blonde, Blue, Music From Big Pink, Led Zeppelin II, Abbey Road, After the Gold Rush, The Stranger, Tapestry, Nevermind, Machine Head, ad infinitum. I do not need to list the artists connected to the albums above. If you’re a true popular music fan, you know who made these albums. I wonder how many of these albums are in Carly Rae’s collection? I wonder if she’s even familiar with the catalogues of Bob Dylan and the Beatles, the most basic staples for any self-respecting artist who purports to make real albums. The idea of someone winning Album of the Year in a popular music category without at least a shred of influence from the above list is preposterous to me.
When studying the past winner list for Juno Album of the Year, let’s first consider the following travesties against the true artistry of Rush. In 1980, Anne Murray’s New Kind of Feeling beat out Rush’s Hemispheres, and the next year her Greatest Hits won over Rush’s Permanent Waves. In 1982, Loverboy’s debut album beat out TWO Rush albums, Moving Pictures and Exit…Stage Left. In 1983, Loverboy’s Get Lucky won over Rush’s Signals. In 1986 Glass Tiger’s The Thin Red Line won over Rush’s Power Windows. How can a run of artistic greatness like Rush’s ‘80s output be overlooked by a membership of supposedly “informed” voters in the CARAS organization? Doesn’t it look a bit ridiculous in hindsight that forgettable pop acts with nothing musical to say and no new ground to break could overshadow the magnitude of Rush?
Some argue that the artists who won instead of Rush sold a lot more albums, and that is no doubt true. However, the CARAS voting process is not supposed to be based on sales. If it were, there’d be no need for a voting process. A committee could simply compile the sales data and present the award to the biggest seller. In fact, the Album of the Year Juno was actually called “Best-selling Album” in the 1970’s but was changed in 1980. Perhaps the “largest sales” mandate continued subversively in the CARAS membership throughout the industry despite the name change. I’m sure there’s always been a lot of pressure to vote for the money-making albums because they’re the ones paying everyone’s salaries. This dynamic is no doubt behind the Carly Rae win, although no one with a stake in the game wants to break the 40-year code of membership silence and be forever shunned from the fishbowl Canadian music business.
In 1989 the award was finally given to what has now become a truly iconic record, the debut self-titled Robbie Robertson. This was finally some good insight from the CARAS voter base, although it helped that music mogul David Geffen’s logo was on the album sleeve. It must have boded well for CARAS to have the attention of the most influential music exec in the world by bestowing such an accolade on his newest solo artist. Robertson rightly won over Glass Tiger and Honeymoon Suite, but unfortunately another classic album, Blue Rodeo’s Outskirts, lost to Robertson’s debut. This touches on the contentious issue of Canadian exports stealing the spotlight from domestic artists. Stompin’ Tom went to his grave cursing the Junos over this controversial matter, having returned all his Junos decades earlier in protest. And he was right in his convictions. Robertson is native Canadian, but he is essentially an American now; he moved there in 1966 and achieved success far beyond what most domestic Canadian bands could ever dream. Robertson did not need that award half as much as Blue Rodeo did at the time.
In the ‘90s we saw varying levels of artistry in the Juno Album of the Year winner’s list. Tom Cochrane was vindicated in 1992 with the award for the excellent Mad Mad World after losing out to Alannah Myles’ debut a few years earlier. K.D. Lang’s awe-inspiring Ingenue won out over Celine Dion’s self-titled release in 1993. Neil Young’s Harvest Moon took it home in 1994, although the fantastic Leonard Cohen album The Future lost out to Young. In 1995 Celine Dion’s campy release The Colour of My Love inexplicably won over Blue Rodeo’s masterpiece Five Days in July and Sarah McLachlan’s beautiful Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. Alanis Morrissette deservedly won in 1996 with her landmark Jagged Little Pill, and thankfully the Tragically Hip won over Celine Dion’s Falling into You in 1997 with Trouble at the Henhouse. However, Celine stole it back in 1999 when she beat out the Hip’s Phantom Power. The CARAS membership apparently has a lot of love for Celine Dion as an album-oriented artist.
The first worthy new millennium Juno Album of the Year (after several years of relative blandness) was awarded to Sam Roberts in 2004 for We Were Born in a Flame, giving Canadian rock a much-needed kick in the crotch after a yawn-inducing start to the new century. In 2008 Feist’s The Reminder beat out the usual suspects Michael Buble, Anne Murray and Celine Dion, which showed that the ambivalent and unpredictable CARAS membership was actually thinking straight. In 2009 Nickelback won. (Insert nothing here.) Buble took home the accolade in 2010 and 2012 with little serious competition, and the Arcade Fire slipped in to grab the award from Drake, Hedley, Bieber and Johnny Reid in 2011 with their third album The Suburbs.
Taking into account the varied and storied history of this particular Juno award category, I guess it’s not too surprising that someone like Jepsen could actually win. Out of all the albums that have received this award in the past three decades, only a small handful have persevered and become part of our Canadian vernacular. They are as follows:
Cuts Like a Knife, Bryan Adams
Reckless, Bryan Adams
Robbie Robertson, Robbie Roberston
Shaking Like a Human Being, Kim Mitchell
Mad, Mad World, Tom Cochrane
Ingenue, K.D. Lang
Harvest Moon, Neil Young
Jagged Little Pill, Alanis Morrissette
Fortunately, CARAS does not influence the larger public vote for great Canadian albums. In fact, the nominee list from the history of this award contains many more iconic albums than the actual winner list:
The Rush catalogue, 1980-86
Hot Shots, Trooper
Outskirts, Blue Rodeo
Neruda, Red Rider
Black Cars, Gino Vannelli
Strange Animal, Gowan
Gordon, Barenaked Ladies
Reasons to Believe, Rita McNeil
Victory Day, Tom Cochrane and Red Rider
Waking up the Neighbours, Bryan Adams
Lost Together, Blue Rodeo
The Ghosts the Haunt Me, Crash Test Dummies
Fully Completely, Tragically Hip
Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, Sarah Mclachlan
Five Days in July, Blue Rodeo
North Country, Rankin Family
The Future, Leonard Cohen
Happy?, Jann Arden
Granted, some newer albums such as The Suburbs, We Were Born in a Flame and The Reminder are too new to be canonized; but they may see that status in years to come. Will Carly Rae’s Kiss endure as an essential addition to our great Canadian musical history collection? Taste is subjective, but time is the great revealer. What is undeniably true about the Juno Awards is that the CARAS membership will continue to vote in favour of preserving the financial infrastructure of the Canadian music industry. And in no time has it ever been in as much danger of collapse as it is now.