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Canada: A Tragically Hip Nation

In order to understand Canada—its tepid mores and self-important culture, its assumption of election and ingrained narcissism—one could do worse than listen to the music of The Tragically Hip and observe the adulation that greets its lackluster songs and mannered performances. My American readers may have never heard of the group; Canadians have scarcely heard anything but—especially of late. The group, which has a street named after them in their native Kingston, Ontario (Tragically Hip Way that runs beside the Rogers K-Rock Centre), is symptomatic of a self-inflated country, the sort of country where one of its major newspapers, The National Post, can proudly devote an entire page to congratulating an Olympic athlete who brought home—a bronze.

The band’s co-founder and frontman Gord Downie has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. This is every reason for sympathy. But it is no reason to manufacture a farewell tour capitalizing on the illness to create a raucous circus of weeping fans, voracious scalpers, media parasites and CBC prime-time theatricals. Consider the CBC’s self-glorifying “special presentation” of the final stop on the tour in Kingston:

“It was an honour and a privilege for CBC to bring this unprecedented event to audiences across the country and around the world. This is public broadcasting at its very best," said Heather Conway, CBC's executive vice-president of English services.

"For nearly three hours on a summer Saturday night, an entire nation paused to celebrate and pay tribute together.”

The CBC was pumping it for all it was worth—standard publicity-stunt crassness. Why should it be a “privilege” to cover a rock concert? Why would it be “public broadcasting at its very best”? Are there not more important issues to address and probe in a time of rising terrorist attacks and deepening economic decline? Rhetorical questions, no doubt, considering that the national broadcaster is a liberal/left propaganda bullhorn at war with reality and desperate to prove its relevance. Nor was the broadcast “commercial free,” as the network claimed; it was a multi-hour commercial for the CBC, at taxpayer expense.

Continuing its march toward out-and-out frivolity, the Mothercorp treated viewers of its Olympic Games coverage to a fawning interview between an aging cliché of a sports anchor and a primping prime minister on the subject of the band’s historic presence, exchanging a collection of platitudes just about as embarrassing as the band’s Kingston concert. Self-indulgence was the order of the day. As Amanda and Joseph Boyden write in a typically sentimental effusion in Canada’s public affairs magazine Maclean’s (Joseph Boyden is a Canadian novelist who has made a parochial career exploiting his part-Anishinaabe heritage): “We got your back, guys. You are our family band. And we are your giant wolf pack.” Ouch!

Downie’s condition is terribly sad, and nobody would have wished it upon him. But his caterwauling howls, garishly flamboyant gesticulations, and designer robot outfit were not, in my estimation, fitting or dignified. His performance was, rather, off-putting if not aberrant. How bizarre that a group would announce its lead singer’s impending death—and then go on a (presumably) last tour! How can one relate to their music in a normal way? The phenomenon was not so much a musical event as an orgiastic sobfest in which everyone was invited to share “the pain and the tears and the triumph,” to quote Don Pyle of Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet—a route that David Bowie, for example, did not take. And what would happen if Downie’s cancer, as we all hope for his sake, should by some miracle go into remission? (We are told it is incurable; yet I have a friend whose “incurable” disease was diagnosed five years ago, and she is leading an active and vigorous life.) There is something indiscreet and awkward, almost macabre, about the spectacle—“unprecedented” in a way the CBC did not intend.

In a surprisingly balanced article describing the group’s zealously acclaimed final performances, Calum Marsh scores some perceptive analytic points about Canada’s “noxious civic pride and self-consciousness” and the media’s promotional exaggeration and ginned-up euphoria. Subtitling the piece “How this nation made The Tragically Hip more than they were ever meant to be,” Marsh points out that it’s a stretch, for many, to explain the Tragically Hip’s foreign obscurity, “a deficiency it shares with every record” the band has released. (The prime minister was duly fantasizing when he said, “Yes, they have fans all around the world and lots of them.”) Why the band never succeeded beyond our borders is regarded as a conundrum of the first magnitude. As Marsh explains, for the mystified the reason is that the Hip are “intrinsically, fundamentally, indispensably of the land! They’re quintessentially Canadian!”

But there is also another explanation: despite all the saccharine hype that surrounds them, they are just not very good, a minor band with no international resonance and an overblown reputation at home. Reference is often made to the band’s “poignant and witty lyrics,” and to their “enigmatic sound,” as in a by now stock puff piece from the music/film site exclaim.ca. I would beg to differ.

To begin with, there isn’t much variety to be found in their innumerable productions. With two (sometimes three) guitars, a bass guitar and a set of drums, almost every song sounds musically the same, a deficiency, as noted, plastered over as “enigmatic.” As for the lyrics, which generally draw praise among the initiated (“poignant and witty”)—Marsh, who on the whole favors the group, uses epithets like “wonderful” and “excellent”—they are mainly pretentious and often incoherent or just plain silly. What is one to make of “Baby, eat this chicken slow/It’s full of them little bones" (“Little Bones”)?. Or “Sleepwalk…in a motel/That has the lay of home and piss on all your background/And piss on all your surroundings” (“Courage”)? Or “Bring me back in shackles/Hang me long out in the sun/Exonerate me/Forget about me/…ponder the endlessness of the stars/Ignoring said same of my father” (“Fully Completely”)? Or choose any phrase or passage at will from “Poets,” a song with an infectious beat and little else. This catalogue is only a modest synecdoche. Ultimately, I much prefer the straight simplicity, despite the cloying repetition, of classic Canadian rock bands like Bachman Turner Overdrive and Trooper over the faux complexity of The Tragically Hip.

Marsh quotes American music critic Robert Christgau: “that northern nation’s favorite rock band…has progressed from a passable blues-band literacy…to candidly ornate and obscure art-rock…Blame Canada.” In other words, the band expresses the kind of preciosity that appeals to the majority of Canadians, who tend to rely on affectation rather than originality to make their mark on the world. There do exist exceptions that prove the rule—whether one interprets “proves” as “confirms” or “tests”; for example, in music (Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot, the partly Canadian The Band, and Rush), criticism (Northrop Frye, Marshall McLuhan), fiction (Mordecai Richler) and poetry (Irving Layton, Gaston Miron). We might note that when it comes to poetry, Downie’s volume Coke Machine Glow, as is the case with most poetry published by rock/folk musicians (John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, and many others—the exception, again, is Leonard Cohen, who began his career as a poet, not a musician), is fully, completely fustian work. But there is no surprise here; rock stars are completely alien to poetic craft and discipline, and Downie is not to blame for being a ghastly versifier. His acolytes, however, are to blame for being ghastly critics.

Marsh sums up the group more or less charitably. “What The Tragically Hip do best is perform loud music to arenas full of people.” Their tour itinerary bears this out. You needed to have prior knowledge of their songs to make some sense of the unalloyed decibels they were belting out.

Consider the group’s recent “The World Possessed by the Human Mind.” Everything about the song shows why the Hip have no audience outside the country. The title is ridiculous (like the name of the tour (and album) itself, “Man Machine Poem”), the melody is completely forgettable (assuming a melody can be detected), and the lyrics both minimal and overwrought—indeed, downright pedestrian. Besides, what matters about the world, surely, is that it cannot be possessed by the human mind.

Listen to “In Sarnia,” a song sometimes mentioned as a hit, which can only be described as a piece of verbal and musical drivel accompanied by massive volumes of noise. (“Oh, so I am cycling after ya/Oh, I'm on my bike riding after ya/Ah, and it's making me old and I'm riding after ya”). Or try the celebrated “At The Hundreth Meridian” or the aforementioned “Courage (for Hugh Maclennan)”—an arty allusion to the Canadian novelist—and if you can find anything of abiding value in them, write me c/o this site. Their signature song, "Boots and Hearts" (in which we learn that “When things fall apart, they really fall apart”), with its fake tremolo lead, is a clunker if ever there was one.

To give credit where credit is due, “New Orleans Is Sinking” is an interesting early song with some good guitar riffs and clever rhymes. “Wheat Kings” memorializes a monumental miscarriage of justice in Canadian judicial history, the long imprisonment of David Milgaard for a murder he did not commit. It’s a Canadian version of Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane,” not as good a song as Dylan’s but a more honest one, as both the event and Rubin Carter were not as Dylan fancifully portrayed them. There’s some pleasing work, i.e., a semblance of stapled-on melody, in “Bobcaygeon,” despite the verbal banality and inconsequential narrative. With its simple, iterative harmonic structure and thematic line, it is in some ways reminiscent of David Bowie’s 1972 “Space Oddity,” though Bowie introduces a saving melodic variation that adds an element of sophistication and hummability to the song. By and large, these songs are the best the Hip can do, all-too-rare instances of listenable material.

Generally, what you’ll get as you sample along the interminable list is a sequence of unabashed chestnuts, spasmodic non-sequiturs and salvos of blurry amplification. The Weakerthans’ John Samson, whom Michael Barclay cites in Maclean's, “cherishes the ‘beautifully meaningful non-sequiturs’”—though Samson’s “beautifully” and “meaningful” are emotive sedatives meant to lull while clarifying nothing. The last “song” of the Toronto performance, a prolonged primal scream accompanied by Downie’s over-the-top facial contortions, a waving Canadian flag and delirious fans, can only be described as grotesque. It would need more than that for most countries to lionize a rock band. But then, this is Canada.

I’m perfectly aware that some of my Canadian readers will accuse me of musical ignorance and/or mean-spiritedness, and I know that no defense I can mount will have any effect on such denouncers. Nonetheless, I believe my remarks on the symbiotic relation between the band and the country are interpretively valid. Irrespective of a few triumphs here and there, Canada is a “quintessential” bronze medal nation, tragic in that it could do better with a measure of humility mixed with a ration of unapologetic go-getterism, and hip when it comes to posturing self-congratulation. Which is why the band is emblematic of the country that has canonized them. And why a vacant prime minister with no intellectual substance but heaps of empty rhetoric and mincing self-regard can proclaim himself a diehard fan. “I’m so glad they’re all ours,” he bloviates in the aforementioned interview; they are “an inevitable and essential part of who we are as a country.”

For a change, he couldn’t have been more right.