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Thursday, June 22, 2006

And Now A Word About Polls
First and foremost, don't get me wrong. I'm all in favour of this Polaris Prize. And quite excited to lord my musical knowledge over the Canadian music industry. But one thing must be noted from the outset: almost every music award that has ever been bestowed upon a musician, band or album on the merits of artistic accomplishment has been wrong. (You can look it up.)

This is has nothing to do with the futile nature of judging art (art can be judged, just like turkey sandwiches or haircuts can be judged, it just sounds nicer to say otherwise). This is simply a statement of fact. And an inevitability of circumstance.

Consider the previous winners of the Mercury Prize, the award upon which the Polaris is largely based.

2005 Antony and the Johnsons – I Am A Bird Now
2004 Franz Ferdinand – Franz Ferdinand
2003 Dizzee Rascal – Boy in Da Corner
2002 Ms. Dynamite – A Little Deeper
2001 PJ Harvey – Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea
2000 Badly Drawn Boy – The Hour of Bewilderbeast
1999 Talvin Singh – Ok
1998 Gomez – Bring It On
1997 Roni Size/Reprazent – New Forms
1996 Pulp – Different Class
1995 Portishead – Dummy
1994 M People – Elegant Slumming
1993 Suede – Suede
1992 Primal Scream – Screamadelica

Twenty years from now, some all-mighty critic will sit down and come up with a list of The Best/Most Influential/Most Important British Records From 1992-2005. Maybe five of these records will make the cut. None of them in the top three. (The top three being, of course, The Bends, OK Computer and Hail to the Thief.)

This is not particularly the fault of the Mercury Prize voters. In their defense, they were asked to complete a rather doomed task.

Awards themselves, on a basic level, are not futile. The television and film industries and professional sports hand them out on a regular basis and generally without a similar mistake rate. For sure, there's controversy. But even those who think Steve Nash wasn't the NBA's most valuable player this season can at least grudgingly agree that he was among a half dozen individuals who could make loose claim to the trophy.

Now, if sports awards were like music awards, whoever led the league in scoring at the end of the first week would be declared MVP and we'd be done with it. And that's the problem.

On average, it takes approximately two and a half years to decide whether a record is any good. First, because you have to actually listen to it more than eight times. Second, because you have to see where popular culture and society go and whether said record remains relevant. And third, you have to not listen to it for about a year, go back to it and see if it still sounds any good. All that requires about two and a half years at a minimum. And that's really just a starting point.

The vast, vast majority of records don't age well. Even if they still sound pretty good, they seem quaint or reflective of an altogether insignificant moment in music history. Plenty of records could one day be saved by influential critics or popular artists who name drop them as influences, but I don't know if I'd wager much on, say, Iron & Wine (who I quite like it by the way) mattering all that much in 20 years. In fact, if I was particularly interested in big, bold statements, I'd contend that there have probably only been maybe 250 capital-S Significant records in rock history. If that.

Anyway. For whatever reason, film, TV and sports are not generally so doomed. The biggest/best/most important movies of 2002 are most likely still the biggest/best/most important movies of 2002 now. Good television endures (see MASH or Chips reruns). And award winners in professional sports may fail to impressively follow up a given year's performance, but, for that season, their statistics and accomplishments remain the same.

Music, though, simply can't be judged. At least so soon.

At the end of 1991, Spin named Teenage Fanclub's Bandwagonesque the best album to be released that year. Nirvana's Nevermind was #3. Six years later, Cornershop's When I Was Born For The 7th Time won the prize. Radiohead's OK Computer was #2. But when Spin put together its list of the 100 Greatest Albums 1985-2005, OK Computer was #1 and Nevermind was #2. (When I Born... ranked 98th.)

Were Spin wrong the first time? Well, yeah, sorta. Could they have done much to prevent this? Maybe.

Let's say - and I'm speaking with no inside information to support this - that the Polaris comes down to Broken Social Scene, the New Pornographers, Wolf Parade and Final Fantasy. (I haven't even checked to see if all four are eligible, but, for the sake of argument, let's say they all are.) The question to be asked is not: Which album do you like best? The real question is: Which album will you feel best about picking in 20 years? Or, at least, which album will you feel least bad about picking in 20 years?

I'm not sure history reserves a place for Final Fantasy (the Mariah Carey covers are cute, but the violin is not the new guitar). The New Pornographers are like the top secret Sloan. But then, outside Canada Sloan are like the top secret Cheap Trick, so... Meanwhile, the Wolf Parade probably never escape Arcade Fire's shadow. Which leaves you with Broken Social Scene.

I have a very long and impassioned argument on behalf of their last record, but on the above basis alone, I think they win. Or at least stand the best chance of winning in 20 years. Regardless of whether the record's any good, that's the band, and subsequently the record, that probably ends up "meaning" anything. They've got a trend (the rise of Canadian indie) and a scene (Toronto/Canada) and a bunch of members who might end up doing something remarkable, important, criminal or some combination thereof. That could be enough.

Of course, Broken Social Scene could be my Cornershop. And 20 years from now, some jerk could be berating me about my failure to recognize the obvious and lasting genius of the Trews, who will have gone on to rival The Beatles (or at least Pearl Jam) in influence, scope and power. (Though by then, of course, I will have surely rejected society and retreated to the woods with my collection of rare Apostle of Hustle singles and Stars bootlegs.)

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