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No, it shouldn’t go to some poor indie band every year

TORONTO (CUP)—THERE WAS NO feeling of surprise and no feeling of upset on Sept. 19 when Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs won the 2011 Polaris Music Prize. No, there was a feeling of complacency—even though there were other albums that deserved it just as much, almost everyone who cared was gunning for this album, even just a little bit.

The Polaris Prize has a history of unexpected wins and rewarding the underdog. Its sole criteria is that it be awarded based on artistic merit alone; in virtually every year past, this has meant the little guy, the unknown, took home the prize.

It is a tough decision for the 11-member grand jury to decide: Every album must literally be stripped of all context and experienced solely on its own before its value can be determined compared to the other nine short listed albums.

Steve Jordan, the prize’s executive director, is fierce in his defence of the criteria of artistic merit. He constantly reminds the jury of 200-plus members that they must not consider sales, marketing, or even popularity when assessing which albums will be long-listed, short-listed, and ultimately awarded the prize.

This vision is what has given the prize its integrity in the past, when underdogs have won—and it is why the integrity of the Polaris Prize remains intact with Arcade Fire’s win.

(Full disclosure: I was a voting member of the Polaris jury this year, and included Arcade Fire on both my short and long list ballots, though not in the number-one spot.)

In the past, the prize has been given to relatively unknown artists. Montreal’s Karkwa, a francophone band, benefited from a newfound English audience by winning the prize last year; they’re about to launch their first full tour of Canada.

Fucked Up, a Toronto hardcore band, was well-known in the broader hardcore scene, but not nearly as recognized in Canada as they were abroad—until their win in 2009. Now, Fucked Up are seen as a major ambassador of Canadian creativity, and frontman Damian Abraham has become an unlikely media personality through his hosting gig on Much Music’s The Wedge.

Other previous winners Final Fantasy, Patrick Watson, and Caribou all benefited from winning the prize, which ultimately increased their visibility and padded their pockets (though Owen Pallett of Final Fantasy rejected the corporate-sponsored cash prize in 2006).

To some, tradition would appear to dictate that the prize should go to a Canadian band that could use the visibility and financial help. While that’s an added benefit, it does not fit in line with the vision of the prize. Arcade Fire won the 2011 prize because, just like previous winners, their album was considered to have the greatest artistic merit of the bunch—and, just like previous winners, this decision was made when the album was stripped of commercial success.

Yes, The Suburbs was well loved, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve a prize for merit. The Suburbs winning the Polaris prize is merely an example of the rare intersection of popularity and criticism: The people loved it, and so did the critics. It should be a joyous occasion, if only because the critics actually got it right.

In this case, too, popularity is a relative term: Consider the “Arcade who?” shock after Arcade Fire won the best album Grammy earlier this year. Consider further that Toronto rapper Drake, whose album Thank Me Later was the eighth best-selling album in the U.S. in 2010, moving 1.3 million copies, but was absent even from the Polaris long list. Canadian Justin Bieber sold 2.3 million albums. Arcade Fire sold about 400,000 copies of The Suburbs. In relative terms, they’re still a low-selling act.

The band that gets the grand prize isn’t the only winner with the Polaris. Even those who watch the prize carefully usually only know five, six, maybe seven of the 10 short listed acts each year. The short and long lists provide an opportunity for people genuinely interested in Canadian music to hear artists they may not have considered, or even heard before.

Just look at Colin Stetson, a fantastic saxophonist who’s worked with Bon Iver, LCD Soundsystem, Timber Timbre and—yes—Arcade Fire. His sophomore album, New History Warfare Vol. II: Judges is a record comprised entirely of intense saxophone with no overdubs. It’s a beautiful piece of art created by one man, which would have gone entirely unknown had some critics not pled his case to the rest of the Polaris jury.

Now, in between Bon Iver shows, Stetson is selling out decent-sized venues for shows that consist only of him and a saxophone. It’s an impressive feat.

But if he won, people would have been mad because he’s another unknown artist.

—Josh O’Kane