rough notes

Music, Winter, and Canadian culture

with 2 comments

Enter another page of mindless data on the Interweb regarding Canadian culture (but now with embedded music at the end of the text!).

Canadians, as any Canadian will tell you, are both insecure and obsessed about the idea of a national culture or lack thereof. Answering a question such as “What does it mean to be Canadian?” will draw many different responses, from impassioned pleas for and against the concept to cynical outbursts about wasting one’s time trying to summarize an ephemeral concept. I tend to fall into line with the cynics on this subject, given the fact that “Canadians” live in a nation that is more than half of a continent in size, stretching across many different regions (be they political, linguistic, racial, economic or otherwise), but generally living within 100 km of the shared border with the United States – the dominant cultural producer in the west. (I would argue that a cultural insecurity about our proximity to the United states, as well as its cultural invasion of our nation, is an acceptable and inherent part of our shared “Canadianness” – but that’s a different subject for another time.)

The Canadian population is diffused predominantly along this ribbon from east to west, making the development and maintenance of a unique sense of “Canadianness” a bit of a pipedream. Our shared sensibilities are generally marketed to us, and are therefore weak cultural signifiers: the purchase of a Tim Horton’s double-double is not too different from a specialty drink from Starbucks; Hockey Night in Canada unites a people’s love of a game through advertisements for Ford trucks and Esso/Imperial Oil; and the CBC itself is but one of many channels of data to choose from through different media today. I have also been suspicious, if not most suspicious, of the experienced “Canadian winter” to unite a people and define its culture. Winters are indeed cold, and often full of snow, wind, and slush, but I have wondered if the three to four months of cold-climate living should not mark a nation’s self as much as the other eight to nine months of humid weather. My childhoods, for instance, were full of green Christmases, brown Januarys, and hot, hazy and humid summers. Winnipeg, meanwhile, is known as much for its cold winters as it is for awful summer black flies. The Canadian winter, full of heavy snowfalls, long nights, and toasty, warm fires is not ubiquitous, but is likely an extension of an American belief in Canada as not only the land to the north but a land that is an Arctic tundra.

Perhaps Canadian culture is marked then by the myth of winter? I will not deny that. It is completely plausible that we’ve all bought into the idea, or have at least been fooled into thinking that this is the way things are (here, too, is a subject for another day). Some recent time I have wasted on YouTube, however, has left me reconsidering the place of winter in the shared borg-like Canadian conscious. Maybe I’ve spent too much time grumbling about the lack of snow that we all long for and then complain about when the real importance of winter on the Canadian soul is its short days of filtered sun or overcast afternoons of long shadows before the even longer night falls. The winter does force Canadians to run indoors and stay there, unless they’re willing to bundle up in either wool or synthetic knits for “winter sports.” Maybe something has happened to all of us, then, by spending too much time in our parents’ rec rooms and dens, that has altered the way our synapses fire vis-à-vis other national cultures? The time spent on YouTube wondering about this was based around a flurry of Canadian music videos. Many that I watched offered long shots of grizzled Canadians in the middle of winter, bundled up against the cold, wearing touques, singing while their breath condenses in front of them. Of course, a couple music videos featuring the Canadian winter does not mean that all Canadian music videos feature the Canadian winter. But at the same time, I hardly think that there has been a cabal of record label managers, artists and musicians who have decided over the ten years ago that Canadian culture must be developed by way snow and ice and wool and faux-fur on Super-8 film. There’s something organic to this trend that shows in the way in which our musicians visually display their aural art.

Now, the evidence. Let me begin by offering to your senses Bran Van 3000‘s video for “Astounded” (2000).

This great song, on an album that didn’t get the exposure it deserves due to the folding of its label Grand Royal, offers its listeners a great sample from Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up“; it should not conjure of notions of cold winds or layered clothing. But the music video – a four-minute makeout session – encapsulates a vital part of the Canadian music and club scene – how does one dress up for the club in the middle of winter? The video conjures up the stasis of winter – piles of snow, hibernating trees, overcast skies – as a backdrop to Makeout Couple finally making it to the club. We identify with the electricity and heat of the club, as well as the couple’s great outerwear. There is a constant movement from out-of-doors to the warmth, and community, of indoors.

Broken Social Scene‘s “7/4 Shoreline” (2005) continues the dreariness of the Canadian winter. Interspersed between Leslie Feist‘s vocals are shots of the band driving down a road in the middle of winter. Scarves, touques, and coats are requisite in the car, as are the scenes of trees being passed by – trees without leaves, reaching toward a sky coloured by a palette of greys. The confinement of the car holds the scene together – the band is moving through winter, together, protected against the cold by the vehicle’s exterior, and by each other’s company. (If there is one video you should play, it is this one. Shoreline is a beautiful song.)

BSS may have taken their queue from Alanis Morissette‘s “Ironic” (1995). Say what you will about this song’s improper use of irony, and its ‘miseducation’ of an entire generation of North Americans on the term, but Morissette’s music video is required reading when it comes to “finding Canada” in pop culture. No Canadian – not even the urbanites and suburbanites – is unfamiliar with the scene of driving down a rural road in the winter, a road lined with trees and ploughed piles of snow. When you get past all the alter-Alanises singing to one another, one finds a music video where winter plays the starring role. Like BSS’s “Shoreline”, Morissette drives along a ploughed and salted road, wearing a touque and scarf, finding protection against the dreariness of the outside.

The Arcade Fire offered a more artistic notion of winter in 2005, meanwhile, with the video for “Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)”: with a frantic, animated, rendering of an urban winter scene.

The AF example does deviate from the notion of Canadian culture in music videos, I admit, but note it here nonetheless, if only to remind everyone of another song by the Band, “Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)”, which plays with snowed-in fantasies that may as well have been culled from the memories of any Canadian youth. Beginning with “And if the snow / Should Bury My Neighbourhood / . . . / I’ll dig a tunnel / From my window to yours”, “Neighbourhood #1” demands its listener to envision a world altered by the power of winter.

Following Arcade Fire in a more artistic rendition of the Canadian winter, but also completing a cycle by returning to BV3000’s scenes of Montreal, is “Your Ex-Lover is Dead” by Stars (2005). Scenes of skating divide longer shots of the band members performing – singularly and individually – whilst lying down on a sheet of ice marked by an incredible crack that runs the length of the screen. Stars’ world is as frozen-over as Arcade Fire’s own Montreal is snowed-in. The band lies on the ice, nearly incapacitated; any other month and they would presumably by drowning in their sad sung words rather than living them through performance.

Of course, these few videos are not a representative sample of CanCon music videos. K-OS‘s “B-Boy Stance” (2004) (a personal favourite) and more recently, Avril Lavigne‘s “Girlfriend” (2007) both show that Canadian music videos do not demand the snow and the cold within the viewframe. Others, such the Barenaked Ladies’ cover of “Lovers in a Dangerous Time”, or even Rush’s “Tom Sawyer”, still use the climate as part of their footage. I am suggesting, ultimately, that there has been a trend in CanCon to use the winter as vital part of many Canadian music videos. I can’t say if a dichotomy exists between major labels and more “alternative” or “independent” bands (Avril Lavigne is definitely major label, and her video is different from the more indy-type bands listed above – but Kevin Brereton would likely take offense – and rightly so – to be grouped with Lavigne instead of BV3000 or Stars) – that’s a question for Strombo, Ghomeshi, or Lee to evaluate. It remains clear, however, that the cold of the winter months has been a running thread in several recent Canadian music videos, and ought to be researched further…

You are commodified.


2 Responses

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  1. […] Ladies and Winter. 21 12 2007 I was just reading an article posted on Derivative. Here is part of what it had to […]

  2. Yes. I also used to think in the way you do. I really like how you describe.

    Bangla Forum

    February 26, 2008 at 8:14 am

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