This week, we're be approaching the question of "what is Canadian music?" by looking at three distinct perspectives: the community, the critics, and the charts.
Today: This was the year the world listened to Canadian music. So why now?
It's been a huge year for Canadian music.
This year, for the first time ever, Canadian artists grabbed all four top slots on the Billboard 100. Drake met his countrymen The Weeknd and Justin Bieber on the charts, and even when Adele supplanted them all at the top, Canadian artists dug in further, occupying six (and later seven) out of the top 10 as Shawn Mendes and Alessia Cara joined the maple party. Bieber broke a record previously held by the Beatles, charting a staggering 17 songs on the Hot 100.
Canada also dominated Spotify's 2015 in review — Drake was the most streamed artist of 2015, The Weeknd's Beauty Behind the Madness was the most streamed album, Bieber had the most streams in one day (November 13 — Bieber Day) and Alessia Cara joined all of them and Canadian crooner Francesco Yates on the viral tracks list. The 19-year-old rising pop misfit also came out of her corner to nab a spot in BBC's frighteningly accurate Sound of 2016 class. Then this year's Grammy nominations came out and, look at that, there's that Drake-Bieber-Weeknd triumvirate again.
This music is less humble, more internet-savvy. It's not following trends, but setting them. It's less polite. And yet, it's also more Canadian.
So what's different? And why now?
It's not the first time Canadian musicians have achieved success outside of Canada. 21 years before Bieber celebrated his (somehow) first #1 hit this year with "What Do You Mean" by bumping The Weeknd's "Can't Feel My Face," Celine Dion did the same to Bryan Adams' "All For Love" with "The Power of Love."
But compare this mid-decade 2015 class of chart-toppers to that mid-'90s class, or the 2000s run of Nickelback and Avril Lavigne, and you have to admit this is something new. It's less humble, more internet-savvy. It's not following trends, but setting them. And, even if a couple of those hits prominently feature the word "sorry," it's less polite. And yet, it's also more Canadian.
This, of course, depends on what you consider "Canadian" to mean. If it's the hockey-playing, double-double-sipping, cottage-escaping conception that formed through years of CanCon protectionism, handshakes between (largely white and male) label execs and, especially, the Junos, then sure, look back to the Barenaked Ladies and The Tragically Hip hits of yore.
But these songs represent the "multicultural" vision of Canada the culture industry has been laying claim to since the original Prime Minister Trudeau. You know, the kind of music the Junos nominate, but keep off TV. Some, like The Weeknd and Alessia Cara, circumvented the usual Canadian machinery by finding their audience first on the internet. (Bieber, of course, did this first. Now he's reinvented himself by submitting himself to internet culture, handing his stems over to get remixed by Skrillex and Diplo). Others, like Drake, found it in the United States and then used it to trumpet his hometown.
The Weeknd has hitched his rising star to hitmakers like Max Martin and Ed Sheeran, but that hasn't sanded away his innovative mix of the second-generation experience, modern R&B and genre-blurring production that has come to stand for Toronto music. Drake sometimes slips into the patois of his "real ones living past Kennedy Road." Even Alessia Cara, when she's profiled in American and British press as "the next big thing," is described as from Brampton, not "near Toronto." Their roots are front and centre, right at the top of the charts.
There's a long history of Canadian artists finding two ways onto the charts: either pandering to the aforementioned Canadian stereotypes, or doing a serviceable impression of an American artist. Where the commercial industry may have once pushed young musicians to contort and shape and conceal their identity, they now wear it proudly. And, in Toronto, that identity is largely the suburban-bred, culture-melded mix of their parents' culture, their friends' parents culture, and their own lived experience. And that is increasingly translating into a local flavour of hip-hop and R&B.
I've had multiple discussions and arguments this year about whether Drake is singlehandedly responsible for Toronto's sudden reputation as a hip-hop hotbed. Drake wasn't the first to blend cultural influences and present it as a "Toronto sound." But he's the first that's managed to do it on this grand a scale. Bringing the biggest stars in the genre to Toronto every summer for OVO Fest doesn't hurt, and neither does bringing the media with him.
Some, like Noisey's Slava Pastuk, have argued that the Toronto rap scene, despite the increased attention, still isn't better off, that an OVO co-sign is still the only path to success. The October's Very Own blog and OVO Sound Radio have definitely given a bump to artists like Ramriddlz and Roy Wood$, but just because an artist like, say, Jazz Cartier or Sean Leon isn't memed to death by 70-something city councillors doesn't mean they're not on the rise.
And, whether or not there's another Drake front and centre, the fingerprints of Toronto's sound are all over music in Canada and beyond. Between producers like Boi-1da, Rich Kidd and Wondagurl, more than half of the top albums on the Billboard hip-hop charts this year featured a track produced by someone from Toronto's suburbs.
To me, Drake is the ultimate metaphor for Toronto's sudden cultural ascendance. He kept telling people he was "world class" until, eventually, people started to believe him. Artists like Kardinal Offishall and Maestro Fresh Wes were dripping with Toronto pride long before Drake, but Drake has turned that local phenomenon into an international one.
Increasingly, the writing staff at publications like Pitchfork, Vice and The Fader (whose publisher Andy Cohn teased a Canadian outpost at NXNE) is made up of familiar names from the Toronto music media, many of whom are using the platform to promote once-overlooked upstarts (including a label like Buzz Records, who literally started in a garage and managed to push Dilly Dally to buzzband heights in 2015). Jon Caramanica talks on the New York Times podcast about the streets of Guelph, Ontario. Even the government, now, is hopping on the bandwagon, trying to brand Toronto as a "music city."
You could say it's very Canadian to pat ourselves on the back after those south of the border do it first, but it's not like we started now. We just now have a lot of reasons to be proud. There's a new confidence out there. The swagger of a drought-exorcising bat flip. A rising basketball team wearing black and gold. A decade of darkness suddenly shaken off. The collective, drooling gaze of the rest of the world. A soon-to-be-megastar singing "Queen Street anthems" produced by Kanye West. A stadium full of people chanting "I've been running through the 6 with my woes."
It feels good.
In a year where many discussions focused on appropriation, race and misogyny, we ask: was activism a trend? Or is real change taking place?
The conception of what constitutes "Canadian music" is shifting from industry to critics, but that isn't erasing its problems.