Official music page and soapbox of Matt Snell

Monday 26 September 2011

For God's Sake, Canada

Hope you like it bland
I have a scholarly fascination with mediocrity; I think it's neglected as a subject of study though there's a lot to be gleaned. I remember precisely when I cottoned to mediocrity as a matter of urgent importance. I was working as an English teacher, mainly for bankers and management types. At that time I was investing most of my artistic energies in writing fiction, and the adage "write what you know" provoked a crisis in which I feared my daily experience was of no interest and no use to anyone, myself included. I attempted to solve the problem by writing the piece "Banker" (which you can read in the "Short Fiction" section), a short story about a man who tries to teach a corpse to play violin, and a pulp novel about a muckraking journalist, a door to door salesman, a gypsy fortuneteller, a small town girl in the big city, a dusty old professor, a washed-up boxer, a morphine addict and a conceited poet who must band together to fight crime.

My life got more interesting when I moved to Mexico, so I let my studies lapse. I always kept my eye out for those pristine examples of mediocrity that seem to peer straight into the bland heart of man, though, and it all came flooding back when I watched the first episode of the Cover Me Canada competition on CBC.

A few disclaimers. I don't usually publish negative reviews here, because of the queasy balance between criticism and self-promotion. I'm also aware I'm not the target demographic for a show like Cover Me Canada, which seems aimed mainly at teenyboppers and fans of Canadian institutions like Anne Murray and Shania Twain. All the same, there are still a few factors that make me want to write about it: its interest to other scholars of mediocrity, the fact that I find the idea and its execution politically offensive, and its role in a larger trend of neutered, watered-down programming on the CBC.

I was irritated enough to watch the show by noisy ads outlining the selection process. The participants were given the choice of auditioning either "Sundown" by Gordon Lightfoot, "Black Velvet" as performed by Alannah Miles, "Life is Highway" by Tom Cochrane, or "Run to You" by Brian Adams. Apart from compromising the sanity of the judging panel, there is something offensive about asking young performers, some of whom don't seem to have hit twenty, to limit their range of expression to four stale radio staples a generation or more removed from their demographic. Classic Canadian material though it may be, it's almost as if a panel of balding, beancounting producers in their mid-thirties sat down, wrote their favourite songs on a notepad, and presented it as the will of the Canadian people.

The first episode has aired, and virtually every moment is cringe-worthy. Despite billing itself as the "biggest, loudest, most entertaining, star-studded musical competition show on television," host Nicole Appleton's accent drifts weirdly from British to Canadian, and she stumbles over a word or two in every scene, most tellingly on the word "Canada." We know David Clayton-Thomas of Blood, Sweat & Tears, is answering her questions when she interviews him because his lips are moving, but we can't hear him because she forgets to hand him the mic. The judging panel consists of singer Deborah Cox, Jordan Knight of New Kids on the Block fame, and A&R man Ron Fair. Each judge sits in front of a delicious cup of McCafe, and offers exactly the kind of insightful feedback you'd expect from a McDonald's shill, such as "I like your white guitar" and "Penetrate the screen." All three are pointlessly polite, until Fair is personally attacking to the final contestant as if he'd forgotten his mandate til then.

The musical performances themselves deserve credit for being less appalling than everything else. There are some decent voices, which is kind of the point - the singers get all the attention, while band members are instructed to "give her space." Knight tells one contestant, "Man, you are incredible... and the band is tight." All eight competitors interpret classic Canadian material like Avril Lavigne's "Complicated" and Shania Twain's "Up." What's insulting is seeing young people who may or may not be old enough to vote ostensibly groomed to replace the giants of industry they are covering, while having whatever creativity they possess stripped from them and enduring public humiliation. They are fed a lot of lines about moments, lifetimes, and destiny, but it would only be fair to warn them that their destiny involves frequent appearances at the Holiday Inn in Brampton.

It's not clear what role they play in the actual arrangements of the covers, since some of the singers appear to be half the age of their backup band. It's interesting seeing Hawksley Workman, whose first album For Him and the Girls is a perfect pop record I still enjoy listening to, appear as a superstar producer. He very publicly shed his artistic persona in favour of fifteen minutes' fame as a sleazy sex idol. I've wondered whether he ever listens to For Him and the Girls and realizes he has sold his soul. Cover Me Canada is his reward; when he says "Cory is the mad scientist, and Greg is just soft character" in reference to a banal rock band he is producing, I can almost see Satan grinning.

When I ask people if they're as outraged as I am, they sensibly say "I don't watch that crap." I feel a responsibility to bear witness: I smell a sinister plot to enervate the CBC to the point of death. Put less dramatically, the plan is to shift the focus towards entertainment in order to boost flagging viewership, but most of that entertainment seems overheated and desperate to please. Cover Me Canada in particular rubs processed Canadian identity in your face, with the end result of making you feel like a second-rate American. We owe the current state of the CBC to the work of Richard Stursberg, former vice-president of English Services at CBC. According to a November article in The Walrus, "His legacy at CBC is not likely to be undone soon: Every one of the network’s programming directors has been replaced. Its prime-time TV lineup has been overhauled, as has everything about its news specialty channel, including the name... the entire philosophical foundation of CBC English-language TV programming has been rearranged." The situation is complicated, of course, and I recommend checking out the entire article, which I'll link at the bottom of this piece.

I'm not presenting the banality of the mainstream as a revelation. I'm saying that Cover Me Canada has attained those rare heights of mediocrity where badly timed and poorly written material seems to convey as much information as the artfully executed. As an added bonus, if you watch the show online, you'll be treated to the the same VIA Rail ad featuring a waspish woman praising trains four times. May I suggest an episode of Charlie Brooker's How TV Ruined Your Life, another excellent recommendation from my friend CT Staples, as an antidote (notice it's a BBC program).

[P.S. The second episode has been released since I wrote this, and it is sadly more polished, making it essentially valueless to everybody. I recommend the first episode for maximum insight into shittiness.]

A link to the Walrus article:

Watch Cover Me Canada if you dare:

When you're tired of watching garbage, check out How TV Ruined Your Life:

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