The 43rd Juno Awards were held last night in Winnipeg, highlighting the best of Canadian music for the last year or so. Being a fan of many Canadian artists, the Junos have long held a special seat during awards season for me, even if I rarely agree with most aspects of how they work.
While the Junos are known by many to award the best in Canadian music, my biggest criticism has been that it often sticks with the most popular Canadian artists who have attained international fame within the period of eligibility. If an artist had a big year in the United States, by default they almost always have a good year at the Junos.
Most people, even here in Canada, associate Canadian music with internationally known acts like Celine Dion, Sarah McLachlan or Bryan Adams. The Juno Awards also rely on this recognition. Obviously names like Drake and Michael Buble are more recognizable than Mia Martina and Lindi Ortega so, when pitted against each other, voters will likely select who they know, but this has resulted in very safe results year after year.
And that’s just the categories that are based on votes.
Many of the main categories are based on sales so, by default, internationally-known acts will win over regional or sometimes even nationally-successful ones because of the additional attention they receive through the media. Our national pride for Canadians who attain international fame sometimes trumps all else. We love a Canadian success story.
Sarah McLachlan performs her new song Beautiful Girl at the 2014 Juno Awards
The year after Sarah McLachlan scored her American breakthrough with Surfacing and founded the successful Lilith Fair tour, she won 4 Junos. Before that, the Already-Established-In-Canada (AEIC for short) singer/songwriter only won once, the 1992 award for Best Music Video. Surprisingly, she didn’t win anything during the Fumbling Toward Ecstacy album-cycle.
When AEIC group Barenaked Ladies hit #1 on the Hot 100 (U.S.) with One Week, they won three Junos. That was their first win since getting Best New Group six years earlier.
Nelly Furtado achieved success in America about the same time as she gained fame in Canada. However, she had two distinct periods of fame in America whereas her Canadian popularity had been less divided (her second album Folklore had a string of hits in Canada but none in the US), and her Juno history shows it. In 2001, following Whoa, Nelly!, she won 4 awards out of 6 nominations; in 2004, following Folklore, she won 1 out of 5, and; in 2008, after Loose, she swept with 5 more wins.
While award shows, like best-of lists and pop charts, will never please everybody, it’s become an unfortunate realization that the Juno Awards are almost never really right on. Its reliance on mainstream success and popularity has crippled it into being predictable and not truly representative of what Canadian musicians have to offer Canadians. Instead, it sometimes seems the Junos are tooting Canada’s horn for how much of an impact Canadian-born musicians have made around the world – as if the goal is to point out that, ‘look! This music was made by Canadians and we’re recognizing them too!’
Where the Grammys are somewhat balanced on awarding both acclaim and popularity – sometimes even being the big break for lesser known albeit critical darlings – the Junos don’t have that edge. They are extremely reactive, never proactive.
Tegan and Sara at the 2014 Juno Awards (photo from cbc)
This year’s big winners were Tegan and Sara, who have been notable in the Canadian music scene since 2004 (earlier if you’re feeling argumentative). They won their first Juno Awards following the success of Closer and #3 debut of Heartthrob on the Billboard 200 album chart. Before this year, the duo received five nominations in five separate years; Best Alternative Album for their last three albums and Best Music DVD twice.
The other notable winner was Serena Ryder, who had two big radio hits in Canada last year. While she also attempted an American crossover in 2013, still pending, Serena is becoming part of the group of Canadian elite like the Tragically Hip and Jann Arden, both of whom have won consistently over the years without ever fully breaking into the American market.
Unfortunately, Serena, Jann and the Hip are the happy exception rather than the standard as many other great Canadian artists deserving of Juno attention never seem to quite make it. Artists who have been consistent in delivering solid albums but never make it stateside and thus are never able to capitalize off of that level of fame here at home.
Some examples that I note off the top of my head include:
Chantal Kreviazuk, who was a hitmaking singer/songwriter back in the late 90s and early 20s, and winner of two awards, both in 2000. She’s released five albums since 1996 but has only received recognition from the Junos for three of them, totaling five nominations.
Sarah Harmer built on her following after Basement Apartment became a radio hit in Canada. Since being nominated for Best New Artist in 2001, she’s won 2 awards (Best Adult Alternative Album in 2005 and Best Music DVD in 2011) out of 8 nominations.
Sarah Slean is lesser known but incredibly consistent and continuously present on tours and recorded material. She’s been nominated three times over her career, in 2003, 2005 and 2009.
Kathleen Edwards has been nominated 7 times across four of her albums since 2003 but is still without a win.
Dragonette‘s 4 nominations since 2008 led to a single win in 2012 for Hello (also their only international hit).
Lindi Ortega and Whitehorse are both without awards, although Lindi has been nominated 3 times in total and Luke Doucet (half of Whitehorse), twice.
The Juno Awards have always been an opportunity for Canadian music to show off its diversity across a wide range of award categories. It’s an opportunity not quite taken in recent years as access to music has expanded with the ease of the internet and the blending of Canadian artists into American markets has become less of a talking point.
It should be an opportunity for Canada to showcase regional or country-wide favourites that aren’t necessarily known outside the country, but who are renowned for their talents, abilities and music.