Not any more

Justin Bieber need not apply

In Canada on August 23, 2010 at 11:30

Justin Bieber is soaring so quickly we can barely keep track of his successes. His first full-length album, My World 2.0, released in March of this year, not only debuted at No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard 200, but made him the first artist since The Beatles to top the charts on a freshman release. He’ll play before a sold-out crowd Tuesday night at Scotiabank Place. And yet the Canadian heartthrob is not one of the artists we can expect to see at the Polaris Music Prize gala this September.

What kept him out of contention?

It goes a little something like this. The Polaris Music Prize is unique in being the only national music award whose winner is selected from all genres by a single panel of critics. The critics are culled from an impressive variety of media sources across the country and asked to submit their Top 5 album releases from that year. These votes get tallied up, and the Top 40 picks comprise the so-called “long list” of nominees. This list then gets whittled down by those same jurors to a short list of 10. In the end, one of those 10 is announced as the winner at a gala, where a second panel of critics — “the Grand Jury” — awards them a cheque for $20,000.

One striking feature of the Polaris is how forgiving its nomination criteria are. The only significant constraint is that the artist must be a Canadian citizen or permanent resident of Canada. (In the case of a group, at least 50 per cent of its members must qualify.)

Jurors have no direct instruction on how to assess which albums are deserving of their votes. As Steve Jordan, the founder of the prize, writes on the website FAQ:

“The 40-title Long List and the 10-title Short List are voted on by the jury based on their own tastes and determinations. They pick their ballot selections based on what their individual criteria for best album is (sic). We do not have a scorecard for lyrics, production, height, length, smell or anything of the sort.”

Moreover, there are no constraints on the kinds of music eligible for evaluation. The rules state that jurors ought to nominate a disc “solely on artistic merit without regard to genre, sales history or label affiliation.”

One boon of the nomination system is that lower-budget independent releases get evaluated on the same grounds as artists with fat production accounts. This levels the playing field. It allows for The Wooden Sky — four scruffy gentlemen who play Ontarian apartment rock — to be featured on the long list with pop stars like Justin Bieber, who have way more resources to invest into their craft.

My mistake. Bieber missed the cut. But not only that. He might have failed to get a single vote.

While the official voting data are kept private, we know that he received fewer nominating votes than 40 other Canadian artists and groups. A sorry showing for the teen who sold out 42 shows of his debut tour in minutes.

The easiest explanation for his omission is that the jury did their job of keeping out the dross. While Bieber met the qualifications, his record was inferior — in their eyes — to at least 40 others.

But this explanation stinks. If Polaris jurors were, in fact, arbiters for excellence across all genres, then we ought to be able to look at the long list and draw legitimate inferences about the hierarchy of music in Canada. The long list, however, is so lopsided that no one could really believe it revealed any substantive truths about music in the first place.

We know that the panel of around 200 music critics did not advance a single classical record. And were it not for the exceptionally talented Elizabeth Shepherd, no jazz record would have made it in either. Rock music — with its crash cymbals and Ampeg bass stacks — overwhelms the long list. On the assumption that Polaris results were telling of anything, it would be quite legitimate to conclude that rock music was the best kind of music in Canada last year.

This absurdity highlights the incoherence of the prize. Without a shared standard of evaluation, the practice of polling jurors will never illuminate more than polling a subset of the population at large — say, the payroll at Soundscapes, or a huddle of Bieber fans camping overnight for concert tickets. In this regard, the Polaris Prize is about as illuminating as a homecoming king voted in by the willy-nilly standards of his admirers.

The odd bit about the Polaris popularity contest? The most popular kid in town doesn’t have a fighting chance. It would be one thing to argue that My World 2.0 is a work of art. Or to argue that Bieber is a talented songwriter. Or to reference the YouTube videos that kindled his fame. But we can leave that to the many legions afflicted by the “Bieber Fever.” The better way to protest his absence is to argue that there is something unjust — even dysfunctional — about the sloppy practices of an album award that could effectively ignore him.

Justin Bieber is everywhere — everywhere, that is, except the long list for the Polaris Music Prize. And he could not give a care. As he sings in Never Let You Go:

Bring the doubters on

They don’t matter at all.

After all, Justin is booked to sing for a sold-out crowd that day.

While the jury is celebrating their winner in Toronto on Sept. 20, 2010, Bieber will be performing at the Saddledome for nearly 20,000 adoring listeners, a tiny faction of the “Beliebers” happy to extend their adoration to the only artist on their list.

Emilio Reyes Le Blanc is an Ottawa-raised musician, active in Toronto’s pop and jazz scenes.

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

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