Last Saturday, 11.7 million Canadians tuned in to the CBC to watch the Tragically Hip’s final concert. That’s nearly a third of the country’s population, making it among the most-watched broadcasts in Canada’s history. Reporters and columnists alike called it a unifying moment for the country — “One nation under Gord,” reads one Globe and Mail headline, referring to the band’s celebrated front man Gord Downie — and commentators from outside the country have taken notice.
But what about the two-thirds of Canadians who, whether by circumstance or choice, didn’t take part in that final goodbye? Here, three writers have a conversation about the nature of fandom, the elasticity of national identity, and what it means to be presented with an event that doesn’t quite square with your own experience of growing up Canadian.
Chantal Braganza: I’d like to thank you both for stepping up to talk about this, because I think it’s a difficult conversation to bring up both in terms of timing and context. In a week filled with op-eds on the Tragically Hip’s embodiment of Canada, and shortly after the band’s last concert (which coverage and clips suggest was a very emotional moment for many people), standing up to say, “I’m not a fan, and I’m not so sure this squares with my experience of being Canadian” isn’t exactly easy. Or is it? I’ve got questions.
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Let’s start with this: what’s been your relationship, or lack thereof, with the Tragically Hip growing up? And how did that inform your experience of their final concert in Kingston last weekend — even if you didn’t watch the broadcast?
Navneet Alang: When I first came to Canada, there was a particular brand of Canadian rock - mostly heard on 102.1 The Edge - that seemed a bit strange to me: 54-40, Treble Charger, and the Hip, that sort of thing. I say strange because it seemed to evoke a vibe and an esthetic that felt removed from my experience coming to central/north Etobicoke — and it was definitely exacerbated by the fact that, in the '90s, in the era of Nirvana and Biggie/Pac, music felt very divided along racial lines. If you were a POC, you listened to rap, or you were whitewashed. Though I was definitely one of those brown kids that listened to rock, the Hip always seemed like they belonged somehow to rural Canada or a white Canada to which I didn’t feel particularly connected. The Hip, in my mind, belonged to Muskoka or Sudbury or B.C., but somehow not diverse Toronto. That may not be fair or even very logical, but it was definitely how I felt as a teen.
Anupa Mistry: I remember being 11 and thinking "Ahead By A Century" was a jam. Even though I couldn't identify with Gord Downie's weird twang (for so long I thought the whole aboot/about joke was an actual lie), I found the chorus rousing and, because I have always been a very literal person, the idea of being in another time felt kind of sci-fi. That perceived futurism was neat because it was at odds with what I knew of the Hip as representative of some rural, wholesome, white version of Canada that I didn't know growing up in Brampton. While I never got into the Tragically Hip's music, I guess I could say they were one of the bands that prompted some of my earliest curiosity about music and culture and identity.
You know what else is a primitive thought, though? That there is a such thing as a “Canadian” identity. Canadians have passports and health care, we get to stand in the shorter line at U.S. customs, and maybe we share some political and social values, but to premise a national identity on a rock band (or bad coffee, or a tolerance for the outdoors and the insects that come with it) is just as irritating as Americans hollering "U-S-A!" every chance they get. But, for those who abide by these narrow parameters of citizenship, I would like to say that I have seen the Tragically Hip play — at the “legendary” Horseshoe Tavern, so there. I didn't watch the final concert; I was at a friend's house on a quiet Bloordale street, dancing to soca and Afrobeats with my friends who grew up across the GTA in very Canadian communities, like mine.
Braganza: I’ve never really thought of any of the musicians I’ve loved as patriotic or representative of a place — even if a place figures prominently in their work. Bruce Springsteen is often talked about as being quintessential Americana, but whose American experience are we talking when making a statement like that?
I think too, as a kid in the pre-YouTube ‘90s with limited disposable income and a taste in music highly tied to preferences of friends, family and particularly genres whose meaning I had access to, my understanding of the Tragically Hip was very much tied to the only platform I heard them on. Unlike my dad playing Gordon Lightfoot on summer weekends on the porch because it reminded him of first moving to Canada in the early ‘70s, or begging my parents to buy me Jagged Little Pill because every girl in third grade was writing Alanis lyrics into her math notebook, the Hip was Top 40 radio for so much of my life.
Alang: I watched the concert, partly out of a strangely morbid empathy, but also because I’m a sucker for collective events. I don’t like hockey either, but you can bet I watched the 2010 gold medal men’s hockey game in Vancouver. Moments like that form part of a kind of collective consciousness, I think, linking individuals to narratives of nation or identity. And what is a nation or country but a narrative — or a narrative constantly retold, over and over, each time in a slightly different way? I think we look to those instances to mould a relation to this thing — a country — that gives us a sense of place in the world, or a way to understand our connection to the broader social and political realities in which we are imbricated. That seems extra important as the era of monoculture appears to be on the wane.
Braganza: That’s largely what’s made the past few months of seeing huge numbers of Canadians mourning the news about Gord Downie’s diagnosis and celebrating the Hip’s Kingston concert both very beautiful and slightly alienating, in overlapping ways. Stats suggest that a third of Canadians tuned in to the CBC Saturday night for that event. That is huge! I was at a wedding that night and only experienced the Kingston concert’s biggest moments third-hand, through post-event Twitter updates from people who’d tuned in. But reading people’s takes on, say, seeing the Hip’s encores as rallying cries against mortality was hard not to stop for a minute to think about.
One person I follow online put it so well: that it felt a little like attending a stirring church service when you don’t believe in God. Do you think it’s possible to be moved by something that doesn’t reflect your own experience of being Canadian? And what does it mean not to be?
Alang: The tricky thing with those moments is that they have to, almost by definition, be a process of inclusion and exclusion. The Olympics are good for this, because identifying with a super-skilled athlete is, weirdly, pretty easy. It’s not talent we relate to, but the desire to achieve. When someone connected to us, however vaguely, does well or succeeds, it feels like we have somehow solidified or legitimized our place in the world. The effect of a sporting win is blank enough to apply to many people. But with something like the Hip concert (which was incredibly moving at times), you get into the sticky issue of taste and identity.
When the broader media narrative is “this was a moment that unified Canada” that was both true, but a form of exclusion. Not in the simple “I feel left out” way, but a way of narrativizing nation and identity in a particular way that doesn’t quite reflect the reality of many people in the country.
Still, while Gord sang “Grace Too” and screamed — in, what to my mind, felt like him unleashing the anger and resentment and crushing sadness that comes with a terminal diagnosis — I crumpled a bit inside. A moment like that can be many things at once: a connection to that most universal of human things — mortality — but also, in the way it was framed afterwards, something not quite as shared, not quite as common. I don’t know how I feel about that. I have no desire at all to dismiss or minimize what others felt in that moment, or insist that I was somehow removed from the emotion of it; but I also don’t want Canada to forever be seen as captured by the music played on 102.1 The Edge in 1994.
Mistry: I mean, Nav, it’s not! And I think that’s what is my constant frustration: that outsiders see the cool in Canadian music — whether it’s through bands that are modern incarnations of the Hip’s folk rock like Arcade Fire, or genres that have often been deemed (through institutional neglect) as “outsider,” like rap or electronic. Why don’t we value culture-makers who aren’t aligned with the Tragically Hip brand of Canadiana? Why don’t we give ourselves as much credit as people from elsewhere do?
This rigid definition of Canadian-ness has not changed over the course of my life, and while I am grateful for the benefits of my citizenship, this culturally mandated take on patriotism mostly just feels like low-key xenophobia. I’d like to bring your attention to another one-third, that I think we should pay attention to: the nearly one in three Torontonians who believe cops are above the law. When will the values of this one-third be taken to represent a unified vision?
I guess that one-third number Chantal cited above may have something to do with it. That stat gets my back up. You know what’s bigger than one-third? Two-thirds! I promise I’m not trying to be contrarian here, because I actually do believe the Hip and Gord are worthy of acclaim, but what bothers me is exactly what Nav points to. Social exclusion: the idea that the myth perpetuated by the musical preferences of this one-third makes people like me, who just had other things to do, somehow lesser than.
Anupa Mistry is a senior editor at The Fader magazine and writes about music and pop culture.
Navneet Alang is a technology and culture writer based in Toronto.
Chantal Braganza is a digital media producer at TVO.