Did Polaris Get It Right?

On Tuesday night, Arcade Fire took home the $30,000 Polaris Prize. For those not in the know, the Polaris is an annual awards gala that aims to recognize the year’s best Canadian album based on artistic merit alone instead of album sales. The shortlist of 10 albums including releases by BRAIDS, Timber Timbre, Austra, Destroyer, and Hey Rosetta was determined by popular vote from over two hundred music critics and bloggers. The final decision was made by a panel of jurors. To many, Arcade Fire taking home the win did not come as much of a surprise. After all, their celebrated third album The Suburbs has won a Grammy, a Brit Award, and a Juno for best album and taken the number one spot on charts across Canada, the U.S., and Britain. However, many see the win as a betrayal of the spirit the Polaris has come to represent in what was arguably a political move.

Although not explicitly stated in their mission statement, the Polaris has traditionally been awarded to independent and largely unrecognized Canadian acts. Past winners include Caribou and Karkwa, both of which have gained significant popularity after their Polaris win. As a result, to many the Polaris has come to represent an opportunity to showcase and gain exposure for acts that may otherwise remain shrouded in relative anonymity within many circles. Of course, the widely celebrated and internationally renowned Arcade Fire does not need the same kind of media attention a Polaris win would award, say, Timber Timbre. This is by far the most damaging aspect of the Arcade Fire win. For many of the bands and musicians nominated this year, the Polaris meant an opportunity to break out on to the national scene in a big way. Of course, an extra $30,000 lining their pockets wouldn’t have hurt, either. So why break with tradition and follow the safe, boring path in giving the Polaris to Arcade Fire? Therein lies the heart of what made it a politically-minded decision.

Imagine for a moment that the Polaris snubbed Arcade Fire, the year’s hottest band, and gave the prize to a smaller, less widely recognized band. From those that follow the annual events surrounding the Polaris, cries of indie snobbery and elitism would likely have erupted. The Polaris would have alienated much of their already modest audience. In simply nominating Arcade Fire, they set themselves up for an opportunity to advance their own public profile. By awarding the prize to the year’s most recognizable, and dare I say, “mainstream” nominee, they ensured that the Polaris was viewed not as a rogue organization, lying on the outskirts of public perception, but as a respectable music prize worthy of widespread attention. An Arcade Fire win, of anything really, is guaranteed to end up in the news more so than any of the other, smaller-scale nominees, thereby once again raising the Polaris’s public profile.

So, did Polaris get it right? Did they award the prize to what was truly the year’s best album, or did they betray their roots and squander an opportunity to recognize lesser-known Canadian talent in favour of social posturing? Even though Win Butler, frontman for Arcade Fire, was correct in saying that “Just because you’ve heard of a band doesn’t mean they suck,” and they donated the $30,000 in winnings to their Montreal studio, the real prize of media exposure was lost to the bands that needed it. One can only hope that a Polaris nomination is enough to get the ignored acts of Polaris 2011 the attention they deserve.

Here’s what one the favourite nominees had to offer: Timber Timbre – Woman

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