My sweetheart is a Canadian, those reasonable and quiet folk from the North. I am an American. We met in New York, and, as my style of flirtation is good-natured contrariness and gentle ribbing, we have been arguing about the merits of Canada from the beginning.
It is a favorite pastime of Americans to slight their northern neighbors (well, all of their neighbors), and now that I am faced with a true Canadian, and having consequently visited Canada and been in real conversations with many of her kind, I have had to question my feelings about the country and its people. Wherefore the lack of goodwill?
After many rounds of verbal sparring and some introspection, I came to the decision that Americans show dislike of Canadians for the very reason we love ourselves. They are not what we are, and because what we are is loud, brash, and prideful, we are caught in a cycle of egotistical self-inflation and outward depreciation of everyone that is not us.
It is who we are. Within a short and well-recorded history (and not a little mythology), Americans tamed a wild land, broke the bonds of its oppressors, formed the “greatest government in the world”, and became the world’s most powerful nation, the dominant player of the twentieth century, the most important time of mankind’s history. Canada never did that. They’re still a Commonwealth of Great Britain. They didn’t even have a constitution until 1982.
Canada never bugged us or caused us any real trouble. They’re just not us. And we love us. I could tell you plenty of wonderful things about Canada, not least of which is my boyhood realization that men encountered more rugged terrain in Canada than in America, and therefore Canadians must come from stronger stock, and my later thoughts on Canada’s accomplishment in becoming one of the world’s leading nations (a member of the G8) without being a major military power.
I can’t say I love Canada. I hardly know it. When I visited, I was asked what Americans really think of Canadians. We don’t think of them at all. They’re over there, we’re here, and if we have an image of Canadians as toothless, it probably has more to do with American aggression and egotism than any fault in the Canadian people.
I have plenty of opinions on Canadian music on the other hand, and they’re changing all the time. Before Apollonia showed up, I did not have much experience with her country’s music. She has presented me with a lineup of her favorite bands, and, regrettably, I have rejected nearly all of them.
There is a Canadian sound, especially in the vocals of rock bands, that I cannot get used to. It could be my own darling’s musical tastes, and it is exemplified in the sound of her favorite band, The Tragically Hip. But they are one of the most popular acts in Canada, so I should not fault Apollonia.
I cannot get into a full critique of The Tragically Hip, as I have not listened to them enough to get a bead on them. But I have heard enough to know I don’t like it. Of course, I have been raised on American music: country, R&B, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll; Canadians must have other influences. I could listen to the most wonderful pop song in Portuguese history, the culmination of their entire pop history, and not know it from anything else.
The same must be true of Canadian music. I have no bearing on their history and influences (though I understand that they must share a lot of influences with Americans), and The Tragically Hip only sounds like the kind of rock music I dislike in America. What makes it less palatable to me than the Portuguese song is that it is in my language and uses my musical foundation, but it is somehow off. It occupies that uncanny valley of things that are but in some indefinable way aren’t. I am confident that they must be a good band; it just doesn’t appeal to me.
I have tried again and again with many other bands, and it has had the same effect on me. I have attributed it to a Canadian sound, and I have even theorized that it must stem from that same divide: Canadians do not share our history, so they cannot share our music. I do not know why British rock succeeds where Canadian music falls short, but I theorize again that the British must have that cocksure egotism that we Americans are so derided for. And rock ‘n’ roll is nothing if not cocksure egotism.
Of course, I don’t mean to make a sweeping judgment here. I’m working only on the fact that little Canadian music has found its way to America, and what I have heard has mostly left me unsatisfied. It may only be me, a hard-to-kill bias. This is not intended as a derision of hard-working and talented Canadian musicians, but an investigation into why it doesn't translate. But there are bands worth noting. Also worth noting is that they mostly hail from Vancouver, which by my account is a misplaced American city.
I like Tegan and Sara, twin singer/songwriters whose punk-pop is infectious. The New Pornographers make terrific music. Their album Mass Romantic, with its crunching guitars and smart, bouncing vocals gets regular spin on my iPod. The Be Good Tanyas, one of Apollonia’s favorites, make sweet, jaunty bluegrass. They’re one of the best modern performers of Appalachian music.
And, of course, there is Arcade Fire, perhaps my favorite modern band, whose Funeral is the last album to get Everyday Play in my home, an honor bestowed to masterpieces like Astral Weeks and Pet Sounds. I think they formed in Montreal, and most of their members are Canadian, but the lead singer/songwriter is from Texas. That makes them American, right?
I know I have some Canadian readers. If you are offended by this piece, chalk it up to American xenophobia, pride, and ignorance. I’d be happy if you proved me wrong by recommending great Canadian music in the comments.
And before you mention them: Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and The Band. They’re all pretty good.