Branded Canada [the Evolution of Canadian Popular Culture]

Article excerpt

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In the summer of 2002, a half century after CBC television first flickered on, twenty-five years after Margaret Trudeau got down with the Stones, and a couple of weeks before Mike Myers set a new box office record, an incident passing for a news story briefly fluttered to the surface of national media attention. From the stage of the Just for Laughs Comedy festival in Montreal, Matt Groening, creator of the long-running satirical cartoon sitcom "The Simpsons," revealed that his father was born in Winnipeg.

The logic spurted from there. If Matt Groening's father had been born in Winnipeg, and if Matt Groening's father had provided the inspiration, as well as the name, for the infamous Homer Simpson (a character for whom the word "stupid" is as inadequate as the word "bad" is for Stalin), was it not possible that Homer could qualify as Canadian?

Depending on your mood that morning, this development probably struck you as either stupid, fascinating, or, if you have an appreciation for the nature of popular culture, both. For that is not a bad definition of pop culture: stuff that is both stupid and fascinating.

Canada, a gangly and insecure country that is terrified of looking stupid and fears that it is not fascinating, has traditionally had an uneasy relationship with popular culture. Because it celebrates sensation and vulgarity, and because it appeals so nakedly to the consumable moment, pop culture was, for the longest time, like serial killing and casino gambling - something done elsewhere, but not in Canada. Moreover, since pop culture was largely done - and done so largely - by the very country that made Canada so insecure and self-conscious in the first place, the practice of avoiding its candy-coated frivolity became something like a national badge of honor. Let them soar like an eagle. We were content to chew bark like the beaver.

In our agenda of national eminence, we made some room for certain artists and authors (mind you, never as much as we made for our politicians and sports stars), but we did not leave much space on the shelf for pop singers, TV actors, or comic book creators. These were things better done elsewhere, and if one insisted on doing them, one had best go to that elsewhere. We were a little dull and grey - like our winters and Prime Ministers - and we took a little pride from that. It didn't hurt that this saved us the humiliation of competing with the big guy at his own game either. But we pretended we were above it. We pretended we just weren't good at being stupid.

Yet, we were fascinated. The fascinating stupidity of popular culture had us - privately, and therefore somewhat shamefully - enthralled.

This was the Canada, or, pardon me, the Southern Ontario suburban English Canada, that I lived in for the first decade of my life. It was a place of tightly capped excitement, dutiful ordinariness, and button-down black and white blandness. Newscasters wore thick-rimmed reading glasses. Children's programs featured no cartoons. Game shows offered civic lessons. Square dancing passed for televisual spectacle.

It was an ideal place to sit down and dream of being elsewhere, particularly since technical and cultural circumstances were happy to oblige the activity. TV programs from that elsewhere - where no one square danced, kids' shows did have cartoons, every convenience store stocked comic books, and no movie theatres ever permitted entry of anything Canadian following the national anthem - were a dial's flick away. Opportunities for distraction from the Canadian experience were ample, which for me became the Canadian experience: a state of spiritual absenteeism.

Every once in a while, the reverie would be punctured, and you'd be made aware that somehow, a Canadian had safely sprung the coop and landed on the other side. (It was like that scene in "Cool Hand Luke," a movie my father took me to see during Centennial year. Paul Newman escapes from the prison farm and mails a snapshot of himself flanked by some babes back to the guys inside. …