Peace, Order, and Good Songs: Popular Music and English-Canadian Culture

Article excerpt

Industry sales statistics demonstrate the extent to which popular music permeates Canadian life. According to the International Federation for the Phonographic Industry, Canada is the sixth largest market for recorded music sales. (1) Figures from the Canadian Recording Industry Association (whose members sell 95 percent of recordings sold in Canada) show that in 2003 about 50 million music CDs and cassettes were sold in Canada. (2)

Scholars have long pondered the impact of the musical and lyrical content of popular music on people's political beliefs and activities. Survey research, (3) lyrical analysis, and musician interviews, (4) as well as experimental designs (5) have been used to determine the impact of music on people's ideas and actions. The research presented here contributes to this burgeoning area of scholarship by examining the place of popular music lyrics within the definition of culture. Next it examines the lyrics of a major Canadian band whose songs have been rife with images and ideas of Canada. By examining the ideas and images presented to Canadians by this important band this research shows the role musicians may play in the creation and re-creation of culture, and points toward a rich array of popular musicians whose work may be similarly important and worthy of investigation.

Symbols and Themes in Canadian Popular Music

What do we mean by the term "culture"? First and foremost, culture is not static. People change culture by interpreting and reinterpreting it, so it is difficult to say precisely and definitively at any moment, "this is exactly what we mean when we say the political culture of English-speaking Canadians." Paul Nesbitt-Larking puts it well when he writes "culture, including political culture, is a broad, diffuse, and vague set of beliefs, emotions, values, preferences, and ideals. It provides a kind of 'tool kit' with which to reflect, communicate, and evaluate experience." (6) Ann Swidler defines culture as "symbolic vehicles of meaning, including beliefs, rituals, practices, art forms, and ceremonies, as well as informal cultural practices such as language, gossip, stories, and rituals of daily life" (p. 273). It seems there are as many definitions of culture as there are scholars interested in the concept, but a complete discussion of all the variants need not detain us. For the purposes of this research, culture may be thought of as a collection of symbols whose meanings are constantly being reinterpreted. As carriers of symbolic meaning, the lyrics of popular music constitute an important element of culture. (7)

Barclay, Jack, and Schneider argue that the years between 1985 and 1995 represent a golden age in Canadian popular music, in part centered around the bands that got their start in the clubs of Queen Street in Toronto. (8) This period begins roughly at the same time as the funding by the federal government of the Sound Recording Development Program in 1986. The program gave out $81 million between 1986 and 2000 to encourage production of Canadian music recordings. (9) The program was replaced in 2001 with the Canadian Sound Recording Policy. (10) Moreover, by the beginning of this period Canadian content requirements had been in place on radio for nearly fifteen years. (11) Blue Rodeo, Cowboy Junkies, and The Tragically Hip are three of the most famous bands mentioned by the authors as leading the scene. Barclay, Jack, and Schneider quote former Blue Rodeo and Cowboy Junkies multi-instrumentalist Kim Deschamps on the positive changes in the music industry in Canada since the 1970s:

     "Historically, in the era of Neil (Young) and Joni (Mitchell) there
     was no industry here. There was no possibility of making a living,
     and they all followed the (Gordon) Lightfoot example: release in
     the U.S., become a force down there, and then the Canadian public
     will take you seriously. That's less the case now, but it's still a
     factor . … 


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