Justin Trudeau is having a rough summer. It turns out that a lot of Canadians aren’t thrilled about the federal government’s multimillion-dollar settlement payout to former Guantanamo Bay prisoner Omar Khadr, arguably the only public face in the nation more handsome than the prime minister’s. (Say what you want about Khadr, but he’s got great bone structure.)
However, where there is negative energy directed at a political leader there is also sunny distraction. I highly doubt it’s a coincidence that in the midst of the backlash against the Khadr settlement this past weekend, Trudeau released a summer playlist on Spotify called “PM MIX” – as if to say to the masses, in his own upbeat camp counsellor way, “I know we don’t always agree on everything, but let’s just sit by a fire and sing it out.”
Personally, I have no issues with the playlist distraction method, popularized by former U.S. president Barack Obama, whose own Spotify selections favoured soul and jazz. But why must our own leader’s preferences be so painfully safe? PM MIX is a predictable nod to Canadian content across the genre board. Blue Rodeo? Check. Drake? Check. Chantal Kreviazuk? Check. Justin Bieber? Check. The Tragically Hip? Check. K-OS? Check. Only in Canada is it taboo for politicians to admit that the majority of art and entertainment they consume does not originate in our home and native land. (Maybe I’m totally out of line here, but I don’t believe for a second that the prime minister sits on his back deck blasting Hedley.) Our progressive leaders may tiptoe around issues of nationalism, avoiding a narrative of Canadian exceptionalism like the plague, but when it comes to the arts, they are Canadian-content evangelists.
I know what some of you might be thinking: what’s the big deal? Trudeau is the prime minister of Canada. Obviously he’s not going to plug “Born in the USA” as his song of summer, and besides, several of the tracks included on PM MIX aren’t by Canadian artists, and furthermore, many of them are by Canadian artists who have yet to hit it big; for example, maritime rapper Quake Matthews. A spot on such a list might give these lesser-known musicians the publicity push they need to succeed in a music business where young people hardly ever pay to listen.
Fine. But why the nod to Drake, Bieber and Blue Rodeo? These are hardly artists who need a boost from the federal government. And if the government is in the business of cheerleading for rock stars, where’s Nickelback on PM MIX? It appears that Nickelback, a band surprisingly far more beloved in our nation than loathed, is routinely shafted in the political playlist game.
Earlier this year, when Vice media asked candidates running for leader of the federal Conservative party to provide playlists of their own, not one candidate among the handful who responded included a Nickelback song; not even populist rabble-rouser Kellie Leitch, who shouted out Carly Rae Jepsen instead. (You’d think among the Conservatives, there’d be at least one out and proud Nickelback fan, but no.)
Like Trudeau, Conservative leadership candidate Chris Alexander took the safe Cancon route in his response to Vice, championing Drake and the Tragically Hip, among others. Michael Chong’s list was a bit more interesting with nods to Rihanna and New Order, but he managed to sneak the Hip and Gordon Lightfoot in there too. The most indie playlist came courtesy of lesser-known candidate Erin O’Toole, who is a fan of Australian psychedelic rockers Tame Impala; proof, perhaps, that the less name recognition a leader has, the cooler his playlist will be.
Of course, it’s possible that Canadian leaders genuinely love Cancon more than the average Canadian; that this love isn’t a political performance, but an authentic sample of their BBQ soundtracks. Our nation does after all produce a lot of great music. But it would be nice if every now and then a Canadian leader revealed his or her true colours, even when those colours strayed from the red and white. And it would be wildly refreshing if he or she just came out one day and said it: “You know what, I’m actually not crazy about The Tragically Hip.” “Arcade Fire? Yeah, they don’t really do it for me.” “Chantal Kreviazuk? I’m sorry but I don’t know who that is.”
Alas, the religious doctrine of Cancon lives on. I wouldn’t be surprised if in a last-ditch effort to absolve himself in the eyes of the Canadian public, Omar Khadr released a summer mix of his own: a playlist even more fanatically Canuck than the Prime Minister’s. Think Stompin’ Tom Connors, Céline Dion, Our Lady Peace and, fingers crossed, Nickelback. It’s time they got their due.
Emma Teitel is a national affairs writer