The Politics of Dancing: Gloating to Scapegoating at the 2017 JUNOs

In our view, the 2017 JUNO gala, if watched and treated as a whole, was quite a good one. However, when several incidents within the two and a half hours are brought under the magnifying glass and examined on paper, its shine fades into darkness, something that looks like co-host Bryan Adams’ dusty faded black jacket draped over unceremonious jeans. A slant towards honouring works made by the dead and ailing, an opening skit containing foul language, ego-driven babbling with arrogant statements like “this is my arena, not yours,” the gloating roundabout self-promotion of politicians, and certain jokes from a co-host to which a number of folks chose to take offence—all of these failed to derail the overall wholesomeness of the broadcast.

It is interesting that Russell Peters’ jab at the Governor General, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s representative in the Dominion of Canada, was ignored by the press. The comedian pointed out that the Prime Minister was in attendance “and so is our Governor General, but let’s be honest, you’re more excited about the Prime Minister.” What was picked up on were his comments that sexualized women, as he referred to the Minister of Heritage as “hot” and called underage, attractive girls in attendance, “a felony waiting to happen.” The Minister in question later on called such remarks inappropriate, and JUNO president Allan Reid issued a statement of apology basically absolving CARAS from being responsible for the co-host’s off-script jokes.

If the JUNOs felt such comments from Peters were inappropriate, we question why the organization invited July Talk to perform its song “Picturing Love”. Have you read the lyrics? We can also take a look at lyrics of songs that have been nominated at the JUNOs. The Weeknd, for instance, was nominated for the Songwriter of the Year award last year for his song “The Hills”. Have you read the lyrics? (We love July Talk and The Weeknd who make great music; it is the double standard we are questioning here.) We can even look at similar statements made by Russell during his previous JUNO hosting duties, for example his comment about Anne Murray. Why is the fuss bubbling up now?

Besides the fact that CARAS has been under pressure since last year for a lack of female representation in award nominations, this year politicians were present. Politics and music do not mix. Politics is about dividing people, while music is all about bringing people together. It was a tricky situation this year, as it is Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation. Thus, one might expect some form of government presence. The nonpartisan Governor General, the Prime Minister and his wife, and the Minister of Heritage were there, the latter three presenting. There was mention made of the current U.S. President (who ironically was elected despite making a much more lecherous statement), and a former U.S. president (who ironically has been accused of sexual assault) showed up in a tribute to the Hall of Fame Inductee. Many felt this was all a bit too much. The focus of the JUNOs ought to be on the recording artists, not on politicians.

We would suggest that one of the reasons for the strong political presence and also for the emphasis on diversity at the gala was a Canadian attempt to counter the climate in the United States, a country that has been extremely vocal against its current leadership and its perceived suppression of diversity. Whether the spirit behind Canada’s stepping up to the plate to show the opposite of both is more of a taking over the reins of a faltering sister nation in a posture of humble assistance or more of a showing off that we are better in these areas is up for debate. In any event, the political presence put CARAS in a tight situation, because you see, ultimately it comes down to pleasing one’s sponsors for fear of losing funding. And obviously, the politicians were not amused.

Regarding the sexism, if CARAS is really serious about tackling it, principles and standards need to be adopted rather than simply supporting politicians’ scapegoating of a politically incorrect comedian for one or two off-the-cuff remarks, especially when there are more deep-seated issues at stake that involve the music industry as a whole and beyond that society at large. If we are really serious about tackling sexism, then let’s have a conversation about why a male host who bowed out was replaced with two male hosts and why the dinner and awards was emceed by another male host who happens to be the third male in a row that the CBC has appointed as the host of Q. Let’s have a conversation about why many entertainment journalist summaries of the JUNO gala were filled with lengthy, positive remarks about Downie, The Hip, and Cohen while glossing over the wins by Alessia Cara Jess Moskaluke, and Ruth B. Let’s have a conversation about why male singers account for 71% of radio spins across all radio formats and female singers only 29%. Let’s have a conversation about why male singers’ voices are autotuned up to a higher register or they sing in falsetto to sound like women as a means of keeping female vocalists out of the game. Let’s have a conversation about why the designation of pop versus rock depends not so much on the style of music but the sex of the singer. Let’s have a conversation about why the media constantly calls female artists brats not acting their age, reminding us of their age at every opportunity, brands them with hot iron pokers as “one-hit wonders” before they have even had a chance to release new music, analyzes their red carpet looks more than their production skills, and treats their credibility as hinging on the males who work with them to make their music rather than stemming from their own talent.

And while we are all brainstorming on action plans to tackle these issues, let us begin thinking about the exclusion of Francophone artists and their performances and the francophobia that surrounds it.