Godspeed You Flack Emperor: Does the Polaris Prize Matter?

By: Patrick Grant

I remember the beginning of my relationship with vinyl records very vividly. It began when my mom told me that we had a turntable sitting in our basement but it didn’t work. I went into our storage room, blew the dust off of the old JVC and quickly discovered that the belt had just fallen off. I put it back on and started listening to my parents’ old records. It was all your run-of-the-mill, white-suburban-Torontonian-children-of-the-seventies type stuff: Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Rush, Neil Young, Zeppelin IV, Thriller and few scattered anomalies here and there. I owe much of the way I currently live my life and think about myself to afternoons spent in my mom’s basement with the wax spinning.

The first LPs that I ever owned that were created and recorded in my life time were given to me by my always-in-the-know Godmother Marie. Marie is my second cousin and lives out in Vancouver. She always comes back to visit her family during the holidays and spends a few days with my Mom because they’re like sisters. Marie realized that I was pretty interested in music early on; she gave me a CD of Matthew Good Band’s “Last of the Ghetto Astronauts” when I was too young to appreciate it properly and was responsible for playing awesome bands like Wilco, Modest Mouse and Archers of Loaf for me for the first time.

I was fairly astonished when, opening the calendar-shaped present Marie had left for me on Christmas morning, I unwrapped two vinyl records that I did not know anything about. The first was a Light in the Attic issued compilation of remixed Free Design songs, including tracks by Caribou, the Polyphonic Spree and Danger Mouse ft. Murs. The second was Yanqui U.x.O by Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

Loaded imagery from Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

Loaded imagery from Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

I don’t know how she settled on these two albums. Whether it was based on her taste, some reviews or just asking someone at a record store what would be awesome for a 15 year old, I’ve never known. All I can say is that possessing these two albums changed something in ME. I knew that music was alive and relevant as I was just discovering it (I was pretty obsessed with underground rap at the time) but for new music to be created and distributed in the same way as Led Zeppelin? It was a wonderful new concept to me and essentially created a monster.

Godspeed You Black Emperor! (their exclamation mark has since shifted) in particular opened my ear to a whole different kind of music. Growing up Catholic, I was pretty familiar with orchestral hymns that had big shifting dynamics and space filling grandiose tendencies, but I did not consider that that type of music was so effective because the catharsis delivered by its sheer size mirrored the spiritual message of its content and the space in which it usually performed. The soaring long form songs contained on Yanqui U.x.O shared some of this aural memory but to me it couldn’t have sounded more new and more intense. I was used to rappers explaining their feelings vividly and dramatically; I was not used to the MUSIC conveying this lingering feeling of tension and malaise and general darkness. What I was hearing then was mood, but I didn’t know it because I didn’t know anything.

Frank Zappa gave a lecture at Syracuse University on April 23rd, 1975. It featured Captain Beefheart and George Duke. I had a good Youtube version of the whole thing but it got removed for some kind of copyright infringement. I encourage you to try to find it.

At one point in the question and answer period, he is asked if he considers himself to be a composer and if he can speculate on why the sale of Classical albums accounts for less than 4% of record sales in the U.S. Zappa’s response is basically that, with the advent of amplified pop music, audiences became used to seeing music in rooms designed for sports, played at a volume that registers with the body as well as the ears. These issues, coupled with the sexless boring nature of a lot of the “serious” (meaning academic) music of the 1970s, served to remove a lot of music of this nature from the popular ear.

Godspeed and the handful of bands like them (Do Make Say Think and Silver Mt. Zion come to mind) are particularly interesting when viewed from the perspective of updated orchestral music. While they feature textured electric guitars alongside electrified string, brass and woodwind instruments, the elongated structures of their songs and dramatic dynamic shifts and builds provide throw back to a lot of the “serious” music that previously didn’t sell anything. A big part of that is because the music DOES register both the ear and the body, despite still being fairly intense and sexless. (Although the mind does go to a time that I listened to all of Yanqui U.X.O with an ex-girlfriend while making out and watching porn. Sigh.)

Feist and a novelty cheque. This is the Polaris Prize.

Feist and a novelty cheque. This is the Polaris Prize.

Last week, GY!BE won the Polaris Prize for their latest album (their first in 10 years) Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! They didn’t perform at or even attend the finalists gala, and the next day the internet exploded with their acceptance/rejection letter. There has been a lot of discussion as to whether their reaction is a badass punk rock move or whether it’s hypocritical and they should just shut up and take the award. The band is known for being outspokenly political despite never having any lyrics in their music (except in form of tape looped political speeches, most memorable from the Baby Bush era,) so this reaction should hardly be surprising. My favourite part of the letter is in the sign off: “Sorry for being such bores.” I enjoy that they recognize that they are the dude at the party who won’t stop talking politics and drink a beer.

The music industry, particularly in Canada, isn’t a party, though, is it? More often than not it’s the struggle of literally millions of people of all ages attempting to scream out in to the void and also, possibly make some money and something “important.” Everyone scrambles and bickers about success and Canadian-ness and grant money. It’s a tough and (more often than not) meaningless hustle. I suppose that’s why the pursuit of a life of music is as foolish as it is noble. It’s the perfect balance of not giving a single fuck and giving a few too many.

Godspeed and their mostly less accessible Constellation Records brethren are important exactly for that reason. I can go purchase Eric Chenaux and Polmo Polpo albums on vinyl in any record store (or at least order them) because they decided to take their pursuit seriously, despite bashing anarcho-politics over everyone’s head all the time and making purposefully anti-commercial music. Regardless of how they feel about their own success and acceptance by the in-crowd of Polaris “tastemakers,” it is absolutely wonderful that people want to bend their ears to more intense and traditionally less accessible music in larger settings with wider consumptive audiences. Whether or not their political message is “reaching” more people because of their wider acceptance is debatable. To actually properly quote Zappa:

Just because somebody hears something you say, or reads something that you write, doesn’t mean you’ve reached them. With reading comprehension being what it is in the U. S., you can safely toss that one out the window. If you want to judge by the listening habits of people who buy records, the first thing they do is put it on and talk over it.

– “A Conversation with Frank Zappa” by David Rothman, Oui 1979

In short, nothing ever changes but everything is always changing. Polaris or no Polaris, wide audience or small audience, music making really has to be its own reward. All I can hope is that somewhere, a 15 year old kid is having his mind blown out by Godspeed You! Black Emperor records, or any records, that change his mind and make him feel just a little bit more than he did before.

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