Sunday, September 18, 2011

Open Roads: Life is a Highway: Canadian Pop Music in the 90s, on CBC Television

Life is a Highway is the fourth chapter in the history of Canadian pop music, a CBC television documentary written by Nicholas Jennings. It's the story of Canada's rise on the international music scene in the 1990s, one of the most successful decades ever for Canadian pop. It follows Rise Up (the 80s), The Beat Goes On (the 70s) and Shakin’ All Over (the 60s).

With a steady pace and an editorial eye to celebrating Canadian music, Life is a Highway is a delight to watch. With comprehensive broad strokes it looks at the history of Canadian pop that successfully merges the regional and cultural influences that have shaped the sound of Canadian music in many ways. Canada covers a large geographic footprint, the larger part of North America in fact. It's a country whose regions has played havoc with politics from a federal perspective, but through music have helped defined them. This chapter in the television documentary tells a story of musical convergence where different musical styles from African rhythms to Celtic jigs begin to blend in with hip-hop and pop.

The documentary also talks about the rise of simple recording technologies that took control over the means of production, out of the hands of record companies, and placed it into the hands of the artists. Consequently this decade marks the rise of the so-called Indie Artist. I was a part of that history working in the HMV store on Yonge Street in Toronto from 1991 to 1996. In our store, we had an "Independent" section on the main floor away from the major label catalogue. (A glimpse of it is seen in the doc.) But at that time, a band could only release an album on cassette or vinyl, the former being the prefered format for its size and expense (they were cheap to produce). CDs eventually replaced cassettes as the manufacturing and duplication companies grew and made it more affordable.

Nicholas Jennings
Nicholas Jennings features a slew of performance footage and images of Canadian musicians who were either big stars like Celine Dion and The Tragically Hip, or reached cult status during their short run like Our Lady Peace and Tea Party. I spoke with Jennings about the process of making this documentary and the dozens of interviews he conducted. He said that musicians usually love music other than their own and they like to talk about it. Knowing this, Jennings selected interview segments based an artist’s enthusiasm for other people's work. This editorial choice, albeit non-critical, has made for an enthusiastic story of Canada's best artists during the 1990s.

Life is a Highway can't possibly include every act that broke during that decade, but it does explore the diversity of the music that was being made. Everything seemed to come together for Canadian pop in the 90s particularly due to the rise of hip-hop, in popularity. The element of funk peppers a lot of records including those by Bass is Base and Brand Van 3000.

And with the rise of the Indie music scene, groups that may have been ignored because they didn't fit a format, emerged with great success. This is especially true for The Barenaked Ladies. Their independent cassette was a huge seller in stores particularly once the novelty song "If I Had a $1,000,000" made local radio. Suddenly, what was once considered a demo tape was in demand.

Life is a Highway also grasps an important development in Canadian music during the 1990s: Do It Yourself. Everything from producing and recording your own cassette to sharing the bill on concert tours across Canada to playing on the street required a business-like savvy that wasn’t taught in school. And as the regional music scenes grew in Canada, word-of-mouth also aided and abetted a band’s success. The documentary properly captures that excitement of new music coming out of Atlantic Canada, Toronto and Vancouver.

This business acumen coupled with the growing need for videos to sell your act, created the environment that allowed new bands to achieve a level of notoriety. The Barenaked Ladies, from Toronto, was very good at sustaining their own buzz and using every opportunity to be seen and heard even if it meant playing on the streets of the city. The documentary tells this story very well as it affected other artists like Moxy Fruvous, Loreena McKinnett, and Spirit of the West, The Odds and Bass is Base.

Meanwhile, groups that had started in the 1980s found a new maturity in the 1990s such as Blue Rodeo whose annual output was remarkable for such a young band. More importantly, their music touched many musicians of different stripes because they were getting airplay on radio stations across the country. Blue Rodeo’s mix of edgy country coupled with beautiful ballads offered a sound that was pure and unprocessed, in the commercial sense of the word.

Life is a Highway also chronicles the rise of Canada’s female artists such as Sarah McLachlan, Jann Arden, Shania Twain, Celine Dion and the biggest selling artist of the decade, Alanis Morrisette. Jagged Little Pill was a huge seller and coupled with a steady flow of videos, entered the zeitgeist of pop music and conquered the world.

Jennings told me that a fifth chapter of the series is in the planning stages, as the first decade in the 21st Century ended last year. The hope is to look at changes in Canadian music particularly from the so-called collective or posse bands such as Broken Social Scene and the emergence of Canada’s mosaic blending world music with pop. But the seeds of this music were planted in the 90s as the documentary rightly points out.

Life Is A Highway: Canadian Pop Music in the 90s continues on CBC Television on September 22 at 8 p.m. It will be available on DVD later this fall.

John Corcelli is a musician, writer and broadcaster. He is the co-producer with Kevin Courrier of Revolutions Per Minute a CBC radio documentary series on significant Canadian pop albums of the past forty years heard on Inside the Music.

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