On September 23, Godspeed You! Black Emperor won the Polaris Prize, an annual $30,000 award for the Canadian album of “the highest artistic integrity.” In practice, this usually makes it an indie-rock competition; in 2011 and 2012, the winners were Feist and Arcade Fire, respectively. Few expected Godspeed, who helped pioneer the experimental genre now called “post-rock,” to win. Unlike all but one of the other nominees, the band did not perform at Polaris, and a co-owner of Constellation Records—the label that has released all of Godspeed’s albums—accepted the award at the ceremony. As the journalist Jessica Hopper said of Godspeed, “It shows you what kind of career you can have by just saying no.”
The next day, the band released a statement, written in the same part-blistering-part-earnest-part-funny tone of their liner notes, both graciously accepting the award and excoriating the entire Polaris project. “thanks for the nomination thanks for the prize- it feels nice to be acknowledged by the Troubled Motherland when we so often feel orphaned here,” it began, before laying out some concerns in point form:
-holding a gala during a time of austerity and normalized decline is a weird thing to do.
-organizing a gala just so musicians can compete against each other for a novelty-sized cheque doesn’t serve the cause of righteous music at all.
-asking the toyota motor company to help cover the tab for that gala, during a summer where the melting northern ice caps are live-streaming on the internet, IS FUCKING INSANE, and comes across as tone-deaf to the current horrifying malaise.
Anyone who has followed the band’s nearly twenty-year career should not have been surprised, but people were surprised anyway. Music journalists, taken aback that their generosity was spurned (the prize is decided by a jury of critics), wrote snarky responses; social media overflowed with bafflement. The statement itself was pretty mild; the notoriously media-shy band actually praised music writers, of all godforsaken people, and many other past nominees have given the prize money away, as Godspeed plans to do. But the statement proved controversial anyway. If you engage with the world, they call you a hypocrite; if you retreat from it, they call you a hermit.
“The idea that an artist should preserve the sanctity of their work—that they should not allow it to be manipulated by commerce—is no longer considered a mainstream opinion,” Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan wrote earlier this week, in a piece called “What Sellouts Were.” “It is regarded as utopian, dreamy, unserious. The sellouts have lost their critics.” This, I think, is the reason Godspeed’s statement had such an impact. For their detractors, the band’s polite dismissal of the award-show ethos meant they were out of step with the times, unrealistic anachronisms, frivolous radicals. For the band’s fans, it meant the exact same thing, but it was meaningful—it meant something to see Godspeed, in Nolan’s words, “pointing to a line in the sand that has been casually erased and saying, ‘This still exists.’” Accepting the Polaris without complaint would hardly have been “selling out,” but by making the point they did about Toyota and austerity and “lazy money patting itself on the back,” Godspeed clarified that there is no neat delineation between aesthetics and politics—that we once believed in such childish things as good and bad.
Last weekend was Pop Montreal, an annual five-day festival, and the fallout from Godspeed’s Polaris win was never far from my mind. Everyone was talking about it, sure, but I also felt it, sometimes, as if it were a presence in the room. There was plenty of weird, uncompromising music on display, of course, not least of which was Thursday night’s double bill of Colin Stetson and Tim Hecker. Hecker makes dense, claustrophobic, hissing electronic music, and the theatre was entirely dark during his performance; indeed, there was hardly a performance to be seen. Stetson, for his part, was also nominated for the Polaris this year, and his records are released on Constellation, too. He is a saxophonist, and, if you’ve never seen him live, look him up on YouTube immediately. He makes sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before. He uses a technique called circular breathing to play continuously, and he sometimes sings as he does so, resulting in something resembling the dolphin-lion-hybrid wail of the tyrannosaur in Jurassic Park. It is music that will never be commercially successful, and there is something affirming in that.
The next night, I went to see The-Dream. The-Dream is a truly gifted R&B songwriter—he co-wrote Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” and Rihanna’s “Umbrella”—and he has an accomplished, if relatively modest, solo career. But it’s obvious that his own mitigated success isn’t enough, not for him. His latest album, IV Play, has sold poorly and received mixed reviews; he self-released his previous record, 1977, when contract negotiations with Def Jam stalled. Neither album shares the vividness and confidence of his previous work. The-Dream is an utterly contemporary artist; listening to him, watching him, following him on Twitter, you see a man desperate for more, more money, more fame, naked and shameless in his ambition, and yet always, somehow, coming up short. His Pop performance was no different. It was a fun show, sensual and full of swagger, but the crowd only really came alive during the encore—“Rockin’ That Shit,” one of his finest tracks, from 2009’s Love vs. Money—and at the end of the night he abruptly stormed off the stage. Even though The-Dream was Pop’s headlining act, the venue was only half-full. This is a man who wants to sell out, who has sold out, in every sense of the term except the literal one; he couldn’t sell out a mid-sized venue in Montreal.
On Sunday, the final day of Pop, I moderated a panel, as part of the festival’s Symposium, called “When Do You Say No?” It was, loosely, about turning down offers, as an artist. One of the panelists was Ian Ilavsky, a co-founder and co-owner of Constellation Records. The previous week’s Polaris dust-up seemed almost tailor-made for the discussion, and, when I brought it up, Ilavsky spoke at length; it was his first public statement since he had accepted the award, at the award ceremony, on the band’s behalf. He hoped to clarify, he said, that Godspeed did not start or own Constellation—a frequent misunderstanding in earlier days—and that there had been no coordinated campaign between the band and the label to accept or reject the Polaris.
“Godspeed is a band that has never really done anything to try and market and maximize the sales of its records,” Ilavsky said. “If anything, it’s a band that is absolutely and perfectly ready and comfortable to place real limits on their success, on how many units they can shift, based on a number of values that they have held pretty fast to. And I don’t think anybody’s holding up Godspeed, or any other band, as a paragon of 100 percent integrity or perfection. But I think Godspeed has spent a career trying really hard to reflect a deeper analysis that they may hold about the way our social-political-economic world is aligned and structured.”
He continued, “Beyond that, I just sat back like everybody else, and have been trying to interpret what their statement is really about, what are some of the larger themes that hopefully might emerge out of that discussion that are really not specific to the band or to Polaris, per se, but maybe have more to do with questions of terms of engagement and what’s happened to ‘indie rock’ or ‘independent music’ over the last decade.” He cracked a very small smile. “And I’ve tried not to spend very much time on the internet, frankly.”