IT IS RARE for a Canadian music awards show to inspire political critique. It is even rarer for this critique to challenge the power of cultural gatekeepers, their corporate backers, and the exploitation of musicians, freelancers and those who keep the industry afloat. Yet this is precisely what Montreal-based instrumental post-rock group Godspeed You! Black Emperor (GY!BE) did in response to their 2013 Polaris Prize win.
In a statement posted on their record label’s website, the group began by thanking the writers and freelancers who have written about their music over the years, “because freelancing is a hard fucking gig, and almost all of us are freelancers now, right? falling scrambling and hustling through these difficult times?” How, they ask, in an environment characterized by normalized austerity and climatic catastrophes, can we rationalize an award show? Is this not, they ask, “a weird thing to do”?
While the band is well known for their political views (their award-winning album Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! features a “le carre rouge” as well as “Fuck Le Plan Nord. Fuck La Loi 78. Montreal right now forever” in the liner notes), the timing of their comments seems particularly apt. With Toronto’s youth unemployment rate creeping above 20 percent, food bank usage in the GTA at a record high, and most young people struggling with overwhelming student debt, it seems downright bizarre to be clinking glasses and receiving oversized cheques on Yonge Street. This seems to be something reserved for LA’s celebrity set, not Canada’s independent musicians.
Yet GYiBE’s comments speak to something beyond the spectacle of excess amid perceived scarcity. In the past 30 years the creative industries have been dramatically transformed by capitalism, creating a world in which Toyota is apparently on the same side as independent hip hop. In this brave new world, business and governments uphold creativity as a driver of economic growth and innovation. Urban theorist Richard Florida’s immensely popular notion of the “creative class” claims to connect economic growth with places that attract creative people. While creativity can certainly create more liveable and attractive cities, the notion of a creative class driving growth and prosperity rings a bit hollow for the legions of young un/underemployed musicians, writers and artists. It also differs dramatically from the transformative potential of creativity embodied by groups like GY!BE.
This transformation of our creative capacities has also significantly individualized our creative efforts, making it difficult to imagine a collective form of creativity that might challenge corporate dominance. This itself has bred a certain understanding of what creativity is, as something that we individually possess, sell, and use to market and differentiate ourselves from others in the line-up of serial interns. As creative/cultural theorist Max Haiven has pointed out, this new hype around creative economies makes creativity into an individualized thing, “the private property of each person” rather than a collective endeavour.
In a time of austerity, creativity is increasingly being held up as a means to escape insecurity and precarity. Young workers need to be more creative in marketing themselves to business, and those who are underemployed need to be more creative in order to find two, three or more jobs. We should read GY!BE’s statement as a manifesto to redefine what creativity could actually achieve if it challenged this narrow definition. Here they suggest two starting points: challenging austerity and climate change. It will no doubt take more than a group of Montreal musicians to make any lasting impact on this score, but in doing so artists can challenge the commodified version of creativity offered by capitalism. It is towards this goal that righteous music, as they call it, should be committed.
CHRIS WEBB is a writer and activist based om Toronto. He is a CD co-editor and a PhD student at the University of Toronto.