Canadian Music and Identity
By Tristanne Connolly
In 2017, Canada celebrates the 150th anniversary of Confederation. Rick Mercer, an iconic commentator on Canadianness, introduced the official Canada 150 festivities by invoking the Last Spike of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, ceremonially driven in 1885. The hard-won completion of the railroad over difficult terrain is the stuff of legend, celebrated in a long poem by E.J. Pratt as well as Gordon Lightfoot’s classic ‘Canadian Railroad Trilogy’. Mercer called the Last Spike a ‘first step’ toward unimagined ways of technologically uniting the vast and diverse nation. In doing so, he reiterated a main argument of Northrop Frye’s conclusion to Literary History of Canada1 which would have been familiar at the Centennial celebrations in 1967, a time period when deliberate, concerted efforts were being made by artists, critics, and government to develop Canadian culture. Mercer made a point of bringing these old ideas into current relevance as he pictured Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, marvelling at the ‘satellite trucks and fibre-optic cables’ on Parliament Hill, there to broadcast music performances from ‘every province and territory from coast to coast to coast’. The unifying power of music, and the technologies that distribute it, is the new railroad.
Joining the cross-Canada music acts were Bono and The Edge. This caused a small controversy. An Edmonton radio station started a petition objecting to the inclusion of non-Canadians, and calling to replace them with Nickelback (from Alberta). The petition only received around 300 supporters, falling far short of its modest goal of 500. The lack of appeal may have to do with typical Canadian politeness: Bono and The Edge took a side-trip to Ottawa, before a show that evening in Cleveland, to play as ‘a birthday present to Canada’. It would be rude to refuse when they had gone to such trouble. It may also have been cosmopolitan maturity, after 150 years of nation-building, to see the Canadian anniversary as a world-class event – or, conversely, a hard-to-shake provincial excitement when international stars join the party and draw attention to the oft-overlooked mouse next to the American elephant. (Criticizing the petition, a Toronto radio station asked, ‘Why be so parochial about things?’, while also saying, ‘Have Justin take a selfie with Bono. The whole world will pay attention to Canada and the fact that we’re now 150 years old’.)
Ultimately, it may be because what defines Canadian music is what defines Canadian identity: the impossibility of defining it. Back in 1971, Justin Trudeau’s father insisted, ‘Uniformity is neither desirable nor possible in a country the size of Canada.... There is no such thing as a model or ideal Canadian. What could be more absurd than the concept of an “all-Canadian” boy or girl?’2 The ‘all-Canadian’ acts at Canada 150 ranged from bhangra to salsa, folk, country, pop, rock, and electronic music. And Bono worked as hard as anyone on the roster to reinforce the definition of Canadian identity as undefinable diversity and openness to difference. ‘The Irish have been welcomed here for hundreds of years and still now.... Whether you have just arrived from Syria or your roots go back thousands of years, this is your home, and we are grateful guests in it. While others build walls, you open doors’.
With the mention of building walls, Bono also participates in a long tradition of defining Canada as not-America. Indeed, a main impetus for Confederation was the fear of takeover by the United States. And yet, surely U2, and equally Nickelback, come out of American rock traditions. American music has permeated the world as part of the cultural imperialism that parallels US economic and political imperialism. But at the same time, the many nations of the world have taken American music and made it their own.
Canada’s relationship to the United States, and the world, is revealed in its music. And it’s a particularly instructive relationship today, when cultural diversity is often contested, and nationalism and globalization are often starkly opposed. As the Canada 150 celebrations emphasized, Canada has known all about these things for a long time – and has sung about them too.
Canadian Music and American Culture: Get Away From Me takes its subtitle from The Guess Who’s ‘American Woman’, an anthem from the era of Canadian cultural nationalism that captures the complexity of Canada’s entanglement with the United States. The essays in the collection begin with music from that era and trace its influence up to the present, from Joni Mitchell to Peaches, with chapters on a variety of artists including Neil Young, Bruce Cockburn, Rush, and The Tragically Hip. Contributors from North America, Britain, and Asia offer views from inside and outside of how Canadian music appears in relation to the American and the international scene. Approaching music as cultural text, contributors trained in English studies apply their interpretive skills to music they love, combining the scholarly with the fan perspective. Canadian Music and American Culture provides a picture of how Canadian music constructs and deconstructs Canadian identity, and offers an informative case study of how national music traditions deal constructively with American cultural dominance.
Tristanne Connolly, September 2017
1 Northrop Frye, ‘Conclusion to the First Edition of Literary History of Canada’ (1965), in Northrop Frye on Canada, ed. Jean O’Grady and David Staines (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003), 339-72.
2 Pierre Trudeau, The Essential Trudeau, ed. Ron Graham (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1998), 146.
Tristanne Connolly is Associate Professor in the English Department at St Jerome's University in the University of Waterloo, Canada. She has edited several essay collections on literature and cultural studies, is a poetry editor for The New Quarterly: Canadian Writers and Writing, and co-organizes the Canada Council-supported visiting writers series at St Jerome’s. Canadian Music and American Culture is available now.