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We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the checks for people who aren't us is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives. This time around: thoughts on music's odd and ever-changing relationship with Canada.
Gregory writes via email: "I have a question about Canadian recording artists who achieve breakout success in the U.S. When I listen to indie artists in Canada on sites like CBC Music, what I love is the references to the Canadiana — for example, in The Weakerthans' 'I Hate Winnipeg' or Sam Roberts' 'The Canadian Dream.' However, the big-name stars — Justin Bieber, Shania Twain, Feist — have none of this content. Even bands like Arcade Fire or Stars, with their strong indie credentials, don't sound particularly Canadian. (I actually read an interview with Kathleen Edwards where she says her record producers put a lot of pressure on her to change the lyrics to 'I Make The Dough You Get The Glory' to remove the references to Marty McSorley, Wayne Gretzky and the CBC.)
"I know that there isn't a universal dislike of Canadian references, but why aren't they the norm? References to Britain are very popular in music and visual media, and you don't sense that there's any self-censorship in their lyrics and writing. I have always suspected that the reason The Tragically Hip and Great Big Sea are enormous stars in Canada and unknown in the U.S. is that they refuse to strip their Canadian identity in their writing. But I can't be sure. I would love to get your take on this. Is there self-censorship in Canadian music? Is it necessary?"
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If Kathleen Edwards has said she's been pressured by producers to strip Canada-specific references from her songs, then she's probably not the only one. But I sense that the issue runs deeper than self-censorship. For nearly 50 years, Canadian radio and television has gone to great lengths to promote Canada-specific content — even going so far as to mandate that a significant percentage of it be included in Canadian broadcast lineups. The Canadian government provides support to the country's entertainment industry, with the expectation that the resulting works do their part to represent Canada.
Government support of the arts has no doubt done many wonderful things for the country's entertainment industry. But I do think the emphasis on Canadian content has led to a mindset that groups Canadian art into two categories: entertainment for Canadians, and entertainment for export. Not too long ago, my son and I spent a lazy Saturday binge-watching the latest season of The Amazing Race Canada — a fun, Canada-specific spinoff of the U.S. reality show with an all-Canadian cast and host — and kept marveling at the degree to which the series pumped up all things Canadian. It felt like part reality show, part commercial for the national tourism board. And, while it made Canada look like a terrific place, I can't imagine how that approach would allow a show like it to find much of an audience beyond the country's borders.
The sense I get is that makers of Canadian entertainment often view "Canadian content" as a limitation that restricts consumption to Canadians only. Aside from a few notable exceptions — SCTV's Bob and Doug McKenzie were characters created to make fun of (and simultaneously meet) guidelines for Canadian content, and they became a phenomenon in Canada and the U.S. — there isn't a lot of precedent for crossover. And without a ton of precedent beyond the McKenzies, it's hard to break the cycle.
This phenomenon is especially true, as you suggest, for bands. The Tragically Hip spent literally decades futilely trying to cross over south of the Canadian border, and has had to make due with being huge only in the North. The Weakerthans' music has justifiably found a cult following beyond Canadian borders, but the band's jargon-filled references to curling and other Canadiana have largely been viewed as a curiosity here. Those who've found major success beyond Canada — everyone from Neil Young to Justin Bieber to Rush to Barenaked Ladies to Joni Mitchell to Drake to Alanis Morissette and countless others — have mostly relegated their country of origin to footnotes, and as you say, that's by design.
I don't think Americans reflexively view Canada as uncool, to the extent that that matters, though individual cities like Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto have a good deal of cachet here. Instead, it most likely boils down to the downside of a nationwide government program that encourages artists to sing Canada's praises. Artistic independence, or at the least the illusion thereof, carries a lot of weight, even today. It only makes sense, then, that in an apparent choice between Canada and the rest of the world, so many musicians would look to conquer the latter.
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