Polaris Gala Shows All That's Right with Canadian Music
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Polaris Gala Shows All That’s Right with Canadian Music

Feist may have won this year's Polaris Prize, but the gala was as much about showcasing talent as it was giving away giant cheques.

If there was any doubt in anyone’s mind that the Polaris Music Prize has replaced the bloated mess that is the Junos as the prize that best reflects the state of Canadian music, this year’s edition, which took place last night at the Masonic Temple, would have put those doubts to rest.

While other prizes take things like record sales and genre into account, the Polaris Prize is, at least theoretically, based strictly on artistic merit. It’s almost impossible to tell if every juror sticks strictly to those guidelines, but it’s certainly a noble idea, and one that’s produced some surprising winners in previous years. It also means that Polaris is a prize that’s valued by artists for more reasons than just the $30,000 grand prize.

This year’s winner, Feist, who took home the novelty-sized cheque for her album Metals—beating out records by Cadence Weapon, Cold Specks, Drake, Kathleen Edwards, Fucked Up, Grimes, Handsome Furs, Japandroids, and Yamantaka//Sonic Titan—may have done the best job of summing up the prize’s importance. “It’s like getting a Valentine from the right boy at school,” she said. “It has a sense of being small and real and rooted.”

Feist, who was one of the more commercially successful nominees, said she plans to donate much of the prize money to Stop the Mega Quarry, an organization dedicated to preventing what would be North America’s second-largest open-pit mine from opening between Collingwood and Orangeville.

“It would be deeper than Niagara Falls and as large as the core of the city of Toronto and… It’s just awful,” she said. “I can’t speak about it eloquently, but I try to donate as much as I can to people who can speak about it eloquently.”

This year’s gala, which was hosted by CBC Radio 3’s Grant Lawrence and MuchMusic’s Lauren Toyota, was a display of everything that’s right with Canadian music. The nominees put on a solid show, each one seemingly trying to outdo the last. Grimes came on stage with a male pole dancer, clad in black sequined boxer briefs. Yamantaka//Sonic Titan were both visually striking, with their mixture of fans and face paint, and were chest-shakingly loud. Cadence Weapon made up for being a one-man show by both strutting and hopping around the stage like a madman, as well as wearing the evening’s best jacket. Fucked Up put on a truncated version of the standard-issue, impossibly high-energy, ceaselessly entertaining Fucked Up show, complete with frontman Damian Abraham taking off his shirt and rolling around on the stage.

The best performance of the evening, however, came from Etobicoke-born, UK-based goth-soul hybridizer Cold Specks. Specks’ massive, haunting voice filled the small room, and her serious demeanour held then entire audience rapt.

According to Abraham, the diversity of the nominees speaks to the extent to which Canadian music has matured over the last 10 or 15 years. “In the ’90s, Canadian music was almost a definable genre,” he said. “None of these records sound anything like each other.”

Polaris founder Steve Jordan says the idea for the prize first came to him in the early aughts, after seeing the international success of artists like Metric, k-os, Stars, and Broken Social Scene.

“I felt like there were a lot of [Canadian] artists who were getting a lot of attention around the world, but weren’t getting that attention in Canada,” he said. “I wanted to harness that attention and bring it back here… I feel like this year, it’s really coming to fruition.”

CORRECTION: September 25, 10:50 AM Above, k-os was misspelled as “Kk-os.” The correction has been made.