Arts & Culture

Jury duty: ‘Capital City-dwelling female of beige origins’ OM’s Fateema Sayani gets set for Polaris Prize

Next week, some lucky soul(s) will be $50K richer. That’s the loot bag that comes in addition to the bragging rights and sales bump of winning the Polaris Music Prize. It’s an award that has been given out for the last decade, based only on artistic merit, as opposed to album sales or fan popularity, as is the case with some Juno categories.

That means a band like Karkwa can be launched out of obscurity, the album title, He Poos Clouds (name of Owen Pallett‘s second record) or the band name Fucked Up can be found in headlines, and those with existing massive fan bases and household-name-halos – Arcade Fire and Buffy Sainte-Marie come to mind – get anointed with an extra layer of critical approval tinged with music snob sheen.

This year’s Polaris Music Prize winner will be decided by a small jury in Toronto on September 19, a coveted nerd-prom role that rotates among the larger jury each year. Next week, I’ll be a part of the grand jury with 10 other music writers and broadcasters drawn from outlets across the country. You’ve got to know every lyrical nuance, metaphor, cymbal crash, stoner riff, and time signature change on each of the 10 albums and be able to defend and debate them Canada Reads-style. What we’ll be doing is completing a conversation that goes on all year whereby 192 jurors champion albums on a private discussion board that eventually leads to the 10-album shortlist.


An electronic voting process whittles down hundreds of suggested albums — this year there were 225. Each one is brought forth by a jury member and that’s the only way to be considered for the prize. That first round of voting by ranked ballot gets us to the 40-album long list, which was released in June. A midsummer secondary vote establishes the 10-album shortlist —the one everyone is talking about.

The grand jury meets in person, casts ballots to eliminate the bottom five, and then the bottom two, followed by a vote for the winner, which is only revealed at the gala in Toronto later that evening.

I’m chuffed at the range of styles on this year’s shortlist that sees PUP, Kaytranada, and Black Mountain on the same playlist. I love the range of expression of women channeling characters and anxieties: White Lung, U.S. Girls, Jessy Lanza, Basia Bulat; the keen observations of the party scenes in Andy Shauf’s sketch dramedies, the peppy indulgence of Carly Rae Jepsen, and the masterful pop subversion of Grimes.


Often anticipation is the best part of any prize, and in the weeks before the announcement of each list, the online and watercooler kvetching begins. Around the Ottawa Magazine offices, an editor still gets worked up over the 2015 Buffy Sainte-Marie win, when underdogs Caribou and Alvvays were cast aside.

Over the years, the prize has been described as too white, too male, too Toronto, too indie rock, or too something else, and the jury was described in similar terms (as a capital city-dwelling female of beige origins, I’ll do my part, but that’s another essay).

Amidst the passionate frothing one can tease out an un-legislated #CanCon pride, described aptly by inaugural Polaris Music Prize winner Owen Pallett, speaking to juror Cam Lindsay in Exclaim in 2007:

“I always feel like Canadian critics, especially, have for a long time, been hesitant to get behind something and say, ‘Hey this is really great.’ It’s just part of the Canadian mentality. I think the best thing about the Polaris Prize is [that] it’s maybe going to set a precedent for people to actually get behind our artists.”

Nearly a decade on, I think it’s safe to say Canadian artists have a huge backing and critical support here and abroad.


Catch 2016 Polaris Music Prize nominees in the area in the coming weeks:

Basia Bulat is at the Almonte Old Town Hall on September 16 and CityFolk September 17.

White Lung plays House of Targ on October 25.

Andy Shauf will play the NAC on December 8.

PUP will play two Zaphod’s dates on December 9 and 10.

Follow the discussion via #Polaris2016. Our intrepid columnist will likely blag about it too.