Phantom Power - When Canadiana Becomes Hip

      Date posted: February 26, 1999

Phantom Power


      An infinite number of marketing consultants working on an infinite number of advertising campaigns may eventually discover all that is Canada but, they would have been better off simply asking the Tragically Hip.

      With a Quebec provincial election just around the corner, those of us in English Canada sit idle; hopelessly suspended in our familiar state of prolonged constitutional paralysis, while super-villain Lucien “The Weasel” Bouchard drafts his evil scheme to win the upcoming provincial election and tear our blessed country apart. And, if you trust the opinion polls in Quebec, he and his band of treasonous rogues might just be creeping toward ultimate victory, reinvigorated by a historic Supreme Court decision, not to mention the consistent blunderings of the Federal Liberals. Who will save us?

      Well, at the moment, the best candidate certainly isn’t the befuddled Jean Chrétien, or even the celestial Jean Charest. No, while our national leaders debate the mundane details of federal – provincial relations and labour over yet another inclusive framework for our so-called “community of communities,” one has cause to wonder if they will ever get the damn thing right! But, just when it seemed that all hope was lost, a new set of constitutional players have entered the scene and although they may seem like unlikely saviors, you can’t help but admire their technique.

      I am, of course, referring to our country’s largest corporations who, in a binge of new-found patriotism, have recently been seen pumping millions of marketing dollars into a home-grown, flag-waving, Canadian love-in (neatly packaged up as television commercials and billboard advertisements). Yes, in some strange new representation of our increasingly consumer-driven society, it is the marketing spin-doctors who are defining Canada’s quirky “united diversity” in an effort to sell us everything from beer to breakfast cereal.

      You see, the marketing execs, and in particular the good folks at Molson Inc., have recognized that patriotism and national pride are on the rise in Canadian society, and that this trend is nowhere more evident than among Molson’s target audience - young Canadians. Maybe a backlash against American jingoism? Maybe a grass-roots response to the sovereignty movement in Quebec? Maybe people are even beginning to believe the UN when they tell us that we’re the greatest country on earth? In any case, believe it or not, Canada is cool and marketers have wasted little time in exploiting this latent sentiment in an effort to build essential brand loyalty. If your market is the coveted 18-35 demographic, the buzz is that Canadiana sells.

      Of course, the funny thing is that this is hardly a revelation. In fact, our nation’s finest marketing minds are about ten years late in identifying this “new trend”. Mr. Allen Gregg spotted the whole thing back in the mid-1980’s while he was busy interpreting the opinions of Canadians as chief pollster and policy guru for the governments of Brian Mulroney. Mr. Gregg has always had a unique sense of what Canadians are about and has built an illustrious career around his ability to spot and quantify our society’s innermost secrets. In fact, Gregg was so sure that Canadiana was going to be hot that, when he first stumbled across a little known Southern Ontario rock band called The Tragically Hip, he instantly recognized the way in which these young gentlemen could uniquely speak to our growing sense of collective self-respect. Maybe he heard the ring of an infinite number of cash registers at that historic juncture or maybe it was just The Hip’s strange fusion of roadhouse rock and barstool prophecy that made him take notice. Whatever might have happened at the fateful moment, Gregg was undeniably ahead of his time in recognizing that a proud sense of all things Canadian would sell records, and maybe even beer and breakfast cereal.

      Now, more than 10 years later, the advertising community’s new-found infatuation with all things Canadian, not to mention the wide-spread success of The Tragically Hip, have proven Gregg right once again.

      So, as Molson constructs yet another 30-second celebration of our national eccentricities, I am reminded that although the corporations may sell us national pride in the form of beer branding, only The Tragically Hip are truly Canadian. And, while patriotic marketing may currently be en vogue, no advertising campaign will ever stir the hearts of young Canadians in the way that Tragically Hip have over the past decade.

      Hailing from Kingston Ontario - deep within the Canadian heartland (the only place where our national myths really exist) Rob, Gord, Johnny, Paul and the other Gord have always employed a curious mixture of bar-rock and often esoteric nationalism to define their presence in the Canadian music industry. Yet, over the course of six major label releases, including their newest offering: “Phantom Power”, the great mystery of this band and the riddle that ties them to the heart of our elusive national identity, is that while they have experienced wide-spread commercial and critical success across Canada, they have gone all but unnoticed in the United States and abroad. Indeed, how is it possible that the most popular band in Canada can be next to unrecognizable in the United States, while some of our lesser musical celebrities, including Shania Twain and, more recently, The Barenaked Ladies, have become darlings of the US hit parade? Sure, you could dismiss this odd phenomena as poor management or even dumb-luck but perhaps, just perhaps, there is something in The Tragically Hip’s music, something in the incoherent, yet strangely alluring, ramblings of front-man Gord Downey, that speaks to whatever it is that makes those of us on the north side of the 49th parallel, uniquely Canadian.

      Released this past July and produced by Los Lobos’s Steve Berlin, The Tragically Hip’s new album, “Phantom Power”, is one of the band’s finest recordings to date and vocalist Gord Downey leads the way, shining on tracks like “Bobcaygeon”, a groove-laden memory of love and reconciliation in Southern Ontario, and on “Fireworks” where Downey brilliantly interweaves a coming of age love-story with the politics of Reagan’s new Cold War. Furthermore, lead guitarist Rob Baker, arguably one of Canada’s most under-appreciated musicians, showcases his characteristically eerily (and often hypnotic) talents throughout the album (notably on “Escape Is At Hand For The Travellin’ Man”) all the while backed up by Johnny, Paul and the other Gord who, collectively, make-up one of the more cohesive rhythm sections in Canadian rock.

      So, with yet another fine album to their credit, The Tragically Hip did just what any other well respected Canadian rock band might do in their position - they headed due south for a coast-to-coast summer tour of the United States, premiering their new material for a largely oblivious American audience!

      Alas, The Tragically Hip suffer from a uniquely Canadian “cultural inferiority complex” that drives them to shun legions of loyal domestic fans in favour of the glitz and glamour of coveted US stardom; reinforcing our national need for praise and acknowledgement from Americans. Canadian society has always been defined by two simultaneously opposing forces - a self-righteous intolerance for all things American and a hidden desire to have our achievements recognized south of the border and, in many ways, The Tragically Hip embody this contradiction. Their decision to begin the promotional tour for “Phantom Power” in the United States is yet another manifestation of our love-hate relationship with American culture and suggests just how closely the band, whether in their music or in their behaviour, represent a microcosm of our national sub-conscious. Sure, The Hip will back-up their US tour with Canadian dates in the new year, but that hardly forgives the fact that, once again, we have been asked to play a cultural “second fiddle” to our American cousins.

      Canadian history is about diversity, division, and compromise and, in some small way, The Tragically Hip profess and emphasize this national idea. Musically, The Hip are all things to all people - both simple and sublime. They are bar-rock, well versed in the classics of AM radio, but also something more; something that stretches beyond the limits of traditional three chord fuzz allowing them to draw a strong following from disparate groups. This ability to find points of convergence among the wide range of musical styles collected under our current definition of “rock” is likely the product of vocalist Gord Downey, who’s lyrics and approach to the music waxes equally between pop nonsense and true insight making him both poet and rock-star. Quietly reflective or the bold professional entertainer, Downey speaks to his “two solitudes” on Phantom Power’s first track, appropriately titled: “Poets”. “Don’t tell me what the poets are doing, on the street in the epitome of vague” Gord sings with more than a passing reference to his own penchant for lyrical ambiguity. “Don’t tell me that the universe is altered when you find out how he gets paid”. Depending on your perspective, and both are equally valid, Downey is either inspirational or merely entertaining.

      Furthermore, Gord, like Gregg, understands Canada. And why shouldn’t he? Today’s dedicated rock musicians may be uniquely qualified to pass judgement on all things Canadian as they criss-cross the country, moving from club-to-club in a series of bar-room focus groups. After more than ten-years of touring, The Hip may very well understand our national nuances better than even the most seasoned pollster, politician or journalist. Indeed, who better to record our national sentiments, as they manifest themselves in rock-clubs across the country than Gord Downey, a former student of Canadian history from our nation’s most prestigious educational institution (a shameless plug for my alma mater) - Queen’s University. But, most importantly, Gord and The Hip understand younger Canadians - the ones who have attend their performances - a generation, defined by diminished expectations, political stasis, and the knowledge that the economic good-times are behind them. Consider Phantom Power’s “Something On”: “I know you’re standing at the station. I know there’s nothing on. I know that alienation. I know the train’s long gone.” These are the Canadians that Gord knows best and he sings: “It makes me feel just rotten, but you’ve got something on”.

     Above all, however, “Phantom Power” is a collection of songs that both embody and reflect the power and stillness of a Canadian winter. Recorded in a makeshift studio just outside Bath, Ontario, much of the planning and many of the tracks for the new album were arranged during last winter’s devastating ice-storm in Ontario and Quebec. Aesthetically, “Phantom Power” exists as a soundtrack for a Canadian winter and while a track like “The Rules” seems to move with the gentle ease of a passing snowdrift, the speed of “Thompson Girl” beautiful captures the cool placidity and icy strength of “Christmas at 55 degrees”. Indeed, winter references to snow, ice, and hockey (namely Bobby Orr) tend to surface on almost every track of the album and the lyrics for “Something On” directly reference the crippling beauty of the ice storm in Southern Ontario. And, although this particular winter crisis may have only impacted upon a limited region of our country, winter endures as a consistent theme in the collective history of Canada. Even as the vast majority of our population huddles together along our southern most border, Canada remains an undeniably northern country. History suggests that our nation was forged not because of geography, but rather in spite of it and this “idea of north” exists as a rallying point across all of our diversities. French or English, East Coast or West Coast, Montreal or Moose Jaw, the Canadian winter comes, without prejudice, to us all. Like Glenn Gould, The Hip seem to understand our place as a northern society and the chill that weaves its way throughout “Phantom Power” speaks to the power of winter as a defining characteristic of our Canadian identity.

     Of course, the only good thing about Quebec’s secessionist movement and our crisis of national unity is that it has sparked a much needed and often frank discussion of what we want for the future of our country. Although the sovereignty movement has, effectively, crippled forward thinking government policy and ravaged our national economy, it has forced us to strongly evaluate what, if anything, defines us as a people and has thereby fostered a new sense of Canadian national pride. Indeed, in English Canada, this sense of collective purpose has never seemed stronger and with their new album, The Tragically Hip delve deeper into this ever developing national self-love offering successful connection with many of our shared values. Something about The Tragically Hip speaks to Canadians and although they may never achieve the status of rock superstardom, they will always retain a loyal following at home in Canada.

     So, where do Gord and the boys net-out with respect to the Quebec question? Well, on “Emperor Penguin”, the last track on the new record, Downie suggests “alien invasion as the only chance for unity”, but later concludes “that’s a physical impossibility”. Of course, we can hardly be sure if the “physical impossibility” refers to constitutional reconciliation or extraterrestrial contact! As always, Downie is hopelessly ambiguous. I wonder if the Molson monkeys have come up with anything more specific?

Marshall Butler

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