Godspeed You! Black Emperor dismantle their Polaris Prize win

There you have it — on Monday September 23 the Polaris Music Prize was awarded to long-running instrumental post-rock outfit Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The group who spell Canada with a “K” vocally loathe the music industry (their 2002 album Yanqui U.X.O. contained a chart connecting major labels to weapons manufacturers) and spend their free time scoring independent films with members of Fugazi won $30000 with their 2012 effort ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! deemed to have “the highest artistic integrity without regard to musical genre professional affiliation or sales history.” To Godspeed You! Black Emperor however receiving the Polaris Music Prize is tantamount to Ian MacKaye winning the Hot Topic Award for Punk.

The prize was given out at an awards gala attended by Cancon’s fedora’d elite — and for what it’s worth Mark Teo one of this story’s co-writers was covering it for another outlet. Godspeed didn’t even show up and Constellation Records head Ian Ilavsky accepted the cheque on their behalf saying that the band were grateful to have won but would be donating their money to buy instruments for prisoners in Quebec. Then the morning after the band posted a lengthy open letter decrying the Polaris’ corporate sponsorship and the event itself. “‘This scene is pretty cool but what it really fucking needs is an awards show’ is not a thought that’s ever crossed our minds” they wrote.

Though they described their open letter as one that “almost anybody could agree on maybe” they were unsurprisingly met with a chorus of naysayers across social media. Here are some of the top arguments against Godspeed You! Black Emperor and why those are wrong.

• Corporate funding of the arts is inevitable and we shouldn’t demonize patrons of the arts.

Yes Toyota-Scion was a Polaris partner and yes they’ve contributed funds that have been invaluable to the administration of the event. Similar-minded corporations — Mailchimp Squarespace Axe Body Spray — have also been patrons of the arts. But let’s not pretend that partnerships are charities. Brands fund events labels magazines websites and bands expecting a return on investment. Generally speaking they want three things in return: a) to communicate with a specific demographic; b) to piggyback onto something relevant; c) to eventually achieve messaging brand loyalty and ultimately sales. It isn’t uncut evil — but it certainly is marketing.

As it relates to Godspeed’s letter: The brands attached to Polaris want to be associated with an event and if a band (like Godspeed) wants to deny that association they’re well within their rights. Xiu Xiu and Fucked Up after all sued Rolling Stone over an unwanted tie to Camel cigarettes. This fight’s been fought for decades even if more people are becoming more accepting of corporations in “the scene.”

• Godspeed has accepted Canadian government funding and therefore a dismissal of the Polaris Prize gala is hypocritical.

This conflates two completely separate issues: Arts funding and the Polaris gala. To be clear Godspeed criticized the opulence of the Polaris gala not Canadian arts funding mechanisms. They felt the event was wasteful especially in a time where austerity — the budget-slashing “solution” to tough economic times — reigns supreme. If you have a problem with that take it up with the band.

• Buying instruments for Quebecois prisoners? What kind of political statement is that supposed to be?

For nearly two decades Godspeed has traded in hypocrisy — or at least murky political messages. Without vocals they’ve expressed abstract apocalyptic messages via field recordings of schizophrenics and hand-written liner notes. They don’t have a distinct political stance — instead they deal in paradoxes where the world is at once horrific and dying but also worthy of celebration and community. There’s no hardline belief system in place and they’ve proven that with their own choices — after years of criticizing the way bands like Radiohead made their money Godspeed allowed the use of their music in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later . They’ve had a lot to say about the major label system but they’re opening for Nine Inch Nails’ stadium tour next month. And yeah they’ve applied for and received FACTOR funding in the past.

So how do they justify spending Polaris money on instruments for Quebecois prisoners? First off they don’t have to and it’s not outside the norm to donate a cash award. The argument that it could have been put to a more politically pointed organization is valid but only if you view their move as a purely political one. Based on their previous efforts Godspeed’s move should actually be viewed as more of a poetic symbol. Here they’re giving something to society’s disenfranchised marginalized and potentially misunderstood rather than some established non-profit.

• “Culture overlords” is a needlessly vitriolic term for Polaris decision-makers. We should be glad the prize is awarded on critical consensus not album sales.

This brings us back to the feedback loop of what it means to be the “best album” in Canada. Is Godspeed’s record better or worse than any of the mostly great records on this list? How do you decide? Ultimately you probably can’t since art is so subjective. Yet when the Polaris jury is made up of major media members responsible for leading the national conversation about the arts let’s not mince words: “Culture overlords” isn’t too far off. We’re not discounting ourselves either; both writers of this story have served on the jury.

Besides we’d wager that an industry-hating band like Godspeed won likely because they’re a legacy act; it isn’t the jury taking a risk on a faux-anarchist collective. This is Martin Scorsese winning the Oscar for The Departed . We owe Godspeed for Lift Yr Skinny Fists not ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!

The album that won is great but it’s far from Godspeed’s greatest. And as culture overlords we know what we’re talking about.