PopCan: Forging out national identity

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By Guy Leshinski

It’s been drilled directly into our brains.


Authors and politicians have made careers of it. “We are a cultural mosaic,” they argue, “and thus have no unity.” They look at out language (two official ones, a whole library of unofficial ones). They point to our population, as varied as a fruitcake. Case after case refutes a unifying binding element. So when politics, population, literature and academia cannot satisfy one’s own search, one must turn elsewhere. And once the notion of a single ideology or political affiliation has been abandoned, the search for an identity broadens. Soon enough, one turns to the inevitable: Music.

Canada has a very distinct popular music, as individual as the German classical form, or English Britpop or American Rock ‘n’ Roll. Canada has its own sound, forged out of geography, history and a myriad of influences. Call it … PopCan (to risk the perpetuation of a truly awful pun). It is unique to our part of the world, and defines our culture and heritage as aptly as hockey, doughnuts and beer.

The first and most notable characteristic of PopCan is its verbosity. It has a lot of words. Artists as stylistically varied as Neil Young, Rush and Sarah McLachlan pack their songs full of lyrics. Lots of words, and big ones too.

McLachlan sings, “There is a love that’s inherently given/the kind of blindness offered to deceive…”

Geddy Lee of Rush sings, “glittering prizes and endless compromises shatter the illusion of integrity.”

One rarely finds words with more than three syllables in songs from Europe or America. In Canada, it’s standard.

Verbosity is intimately connected with another PopCan quality. It’s cerebral. After all, only actively-thinking minds could digest all those lyrics. So to the above examples, add lines like:

“[Jesus] sank beneath your wisdom like a stone,” from Leonard Cohen, or “I ponder the endlessness of the stars, ignoring said same of my father,” by the Hip’s Downie. These aren’t the sort of issues Green Day or The Backstreet Boys usually grapple with. Of course, there are international artists who write ambitious, intelligent lyrics. But as a whole, no other geographical area produces these philosopher-poets as often as Canada does. We have a monopoly.

PopCan is also, more often than not, extremely upbeat. It is positive, head-bopping music for the blissfully sane. Some call it “granola rock” — a very appropriate moniker for music that seems so emotionally well-adjusted. With few exceptions, Canadian musicians write music in a steady, 4/4 meter, with the occasional minor chord added for ue. They sing about healthy things in healthy ways. The evil doppelganger of this trend is irreverence — another PopCan favourite. When positivity is taken to is extreme, disasters like the Barenaked Ladies and Moxy Fruvous mysteriously appear.

The last quality of PopCan is derivatively. Somehow, artists who exhibit this quality are embraced by the rest of the world, even when met with seething contempt at home.

Thus, Bryan Adams, whose songs are literally interchangeable with those of Def Leppard, is a huge hit in Vietnam. Celine Dion, the white Whitney, plays sold-out shows world-wide. Even Alanis, who saw an opportune time to change her image from dance-hall darling to post-grunge rebel, is a composite of all that sold before her.

This isn’t a tirade against the Canadian music industry. It’s an open letter to all of the misguided politicians and historians who continuously rant about Canada’s fragmented state. Sure, the examples given are extremes, but when communicating with this crowd one doesn’t pull punches. Perhaps it will inspire some to take a trip into a record store and find the very object of their grief on proud display. Then again, they’d probably find something even less consequential to complain about.

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