EM15: A Day By Day Guide To The Festival

Comrades! Let us now praise the glorious union of Montreal’s MUTEK and Elektra festivals in EM15, whose roster of gigs between Tuesday May 27 and Sunday June 1 is so good, mine eyes can barely stand to look at it. Mostly because I can’t go this year. But for those who can, let me assist you in choosing from among the 85 (!!) performances. Why? Because it’s basically this site in festival form. From Ricardo Villalobos to Pinch to Shackleton to Oneohtrix Point Never to Lee Bannon to Jonas Reinhardt to Tim Hecker to Move D (the latter four of which I didn’t even get to in the festival preview that follows), the artists at this year’s fest are in my opinion among the best that ever did it.

Check out the festival preview below; full passes and some of the individual shows appear to be sold out, but many gigs and several of the packages are available.


Macklemore and the ‘Oh, I didn’t see you there’ defence


I have been, and still am sometimes, a wedding DJ, which is how I found out about Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop.” It was an instant crowd-mover among the predominantly white and Asian audiences attending the weddings I’m hired for, and at first I was a bit baffled as to why. Granted, it has ‘crossover hit’ written all over it. The intro features a cute kid’s voice and an 80s-style swinging drum machine beat that a lot of people probably associate with Will Smith’s early hits (eg. the Fresh Prince theme and large chunks of He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper). There’s a fun wheezing horn sample for a melody and a memorable hook. But I found it odd that, in a pop marketplace where someone like Robin Thicke can have a hard time getting people to warm to the feel-good retro vibes of his non-“Blurred Lines” singles, “Thrift Shop” blew the fuck up right off the bat.

Once I paid closer attention to the lyrics I chuckled, because I get it. I am also a white person who enjoys thrift shopping, and has never to my knowledge spent $50 for a t-shirt. (Out of curiosity, I wonder how much Macklemore & Ryan Lewis tour t-shirts cost. $50 would be high but hardly unheard of by merch booth standards.) From a strictly economic point of view, the only way luxury goods that aren’t obviously of superior quality or durability to less expensive ones is if the buyer values the status it may confer, and since I don’t particularly value the status that comes with looking like I spent a lot of money on my outfit, it simply doesn’t appeal to me. I suspect that my audiences come from similar socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, hence the instant appreciation of the song’s message.

If we were all free to make these choices, unencumbered by background and culture, then there would be nothing wrong or disturbing about this. Of course we’re not, as Reason’s Thaddeus Russell patiently reminds us, introducing us to the theory of conspicuous consumption and reminding us that Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ song is part of a long tradition of the rich knocking the poor for making bad lifestyle choices. My instant reaction was, are we sure “Thrift Shop” is making fun of poor people for lusting after the flyest gear? There’s precious little commentary about expensive clothes in the song, and other than the dismissive tone in his voice about the $50 t-shirt, Macklemore doesn’t appear to be taking shots at other people. Initially, I figured critics who heard that in the song were hearing what they want to hear. But the more I thought about it and talked it over with people, the more I realized that the context doesn’t exactly jive with what I’ll call the “Oh, I didn’t see you there” defence.

We’ve all heard edgy artists respond to angry parents that it’s the parents’ fault they allowed their children access to material that, if they were doing their job properly, they would have known was offensive. It’s pretty convincing, in that the desire to keep kids away from arguably harmful material shouldn’t infringe on anyone’s freedom of speech. This is the textbook application of the ‘Oh, I didn’t see you there’ defence, in that the artist argues that they aren’t responsible for how, or by whom, their art is consumed. I was trying to use a version of the ‘Oh, I didn’t see you there’ defence for Macklemore, pointing out that people who read a critique of others’ materialism into “Thrift Shop” are bringing it to the work, it’s largely absent from the song.

But if Macklemore didn’t intend for people to read his love of thrift shopping as a critique of hip-hop materialism, why did he make a hip-hop song about it? The context takes the credibility out of the denial. It’s a bit like a comedian making a joke about a guy murdering his ex-wife when OJ Simpson is in the audience – the comic can say “oh, that was in my routine before this show” but the decision to say it when you know OJ is present makes it hard to deny the evident intention. The same logic applies to “Same Love,” even if it’s a more socially accepted message – Macklemore could argue it’s not intended to critique hip-hop homophobia (which is arguably driven by similar social conditions as hip-hop materialism), it’s just his opinion. I doubt anyone would find that particularly convincing, because again, why choose a hip-hop song as a vehicle for this message? Why not post a letter in support of gay marriage on your website instead? (Or just make out with a dude on camera? I’m sure WorldStar would be more than happy to host the video.)

I don’t think Macklemore or his defenders can credibly argue that the “Thrift Shop” reaction I see on dance floors among middle class white people — for whom criticizing less wealthy people for not being sufficiently thrifty is a bit like a bank CEO criticizing the poor for their lacklustre investing knowledge — is an accident. And if he was really upset at the way the song was being received as a paternalistic rebuke to other rappers and their fans, he could stop performing it, or stop accepting Grammys for it. But he hasn’t done any of those things, and that makes his apology text message to Kendrick Lamar seem even less sincere. “I robbed you,” he wrote, and then posted it on Instagram. It was a gesture that he apparently wanted everyone to see. We don’t know exactly why, but we can guess.

Godspeed wins Polaris, or why Canada makes me blindingly angry sometimes

Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Photo: Eva Vermandel

Godspeed You! Black Emperor are exactly the kind of band the world needs, but Canada especially. Nobody needs another vaguely folky gaggle of troubadours singing oblique art school lyrical dribblings over lilting melodies or worse, reheated 70s boogie rock (sorry, most of indie music). Godspeed may not be your cup of lemon tea but their latest record, Allelujah! Don’t Bend, Ascend is steeped in drones and minimalism, krautrock-y repetition and face-melting noise that’s in perilously short supply anywhere, but particularly here, where government funding helps the mediocre and the excellent in equal measure, thus guaranteeing a larger crop of both. So Godspeed didn’t just accept their Polaris win by smiling and nodding while biting their tongues, as their mothers might have wanted them to do. So fucking what? THEY’RE A ROCK BAND.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love my country, its natural beauty and its warm-hearted people. Even when some hacks that I don’t particularly like win Polaris (sorry, Patrick Watson and Arcade Fire and Karkwa), just seeing the whole thing makes me get a little misty. And Godspeed’s little post-Polaris-win tantrum is pretty juvenile as these things go – oh my god, an awards show is a waste of money? Call the Surete! – particularly the slamming of the car company sponsorship, given that Toyota’s Scion is one of the brands moving into the electric vehicle space; their iQ EV is already being rolled out for car sharing programs and fleets in places like the University of California at Irvine, not to mention that Scion’s fleet are pretty fuel efficient as these things go anyways. It’s not like it was the Polaris Music Prize Brought To You By The 2013 Cadillac Escalade. And the fact that it was a glitzy spectacle is unfortunate but necessary to guarantee the participation of the broader music industry, and make the whole thing happen. Maybe I’m biased because I’m on the jury, but I think the world is a better place because Polaris exists.

But Godpseed’s little rant is by far the least annoying thing about this episode. People are already lining up to bitch about how ungrateful they are for using the opportunity to make a statement, which is utterly mind-blowing when you think about awards shows in general. Marlon Brando was applauded for using his Godfather Oscar win to bring attention to the plight of the Native Americans. Michael Moore slammed George W. Bush when Bowling for Columbine won. Russell Brand cracked Nazi jokes about Hugo Boss at the GQ awards. Sure, plenty of people didn’t like what they said, but really, does anyone think the problem with getting political at awards shows is that it’s ungrateful? In America and the U.K. stuff like this is seen as part of the whole maddening shebang. They take it in stride, for the most part. (Miley Cyrus twerking is a whole different story – nobody thought that was a political statement, except maybe some shrill Jezebel contributors.)

Instead our punditocracy is gearing up to slam them for not being 100% politically consistent because they’re on the Nine Inch Nails megalith of a tour. Jesus H. Tapdancing Christ, rock band breaks own rules! Stop the presses! The whole reaction is pathetic and sad, not to mention stereotypically Canadian. When Jarvis Cocker mooned Michael Jackson at the Brits in 96, people took it for what it was – rock star acts daft, makes headlines. Godspeed are being equally daft, but instead of complaining that they’re not being polite and well-behaved Tim Hortons-sipping Canucks, we might want to ask whether the world is a more interesting place with bands like them in it.

Toronto Best Bets: Your Caribana weekend

Kobo Town (left); Green Velvet
Kobo Town (left); Green Velvet

As a kid, I used to go to Caribana every year with my parents. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, it was just a cool parade to go to. But apparently despite it being a huge event that attracts over a million people, Caribana is not the done thing among my fellow cracker-ass crackers in this city, which I find perplexing. We eagerly consume the Caribbean community’s food, we at least flirt with the music (it’s rare you can get away with a pop or hip-hop DJ set in this city without dropping some Sean Paul in there), but that seems to be where it ends. I say we need to get out there, and if you’re a Toronto person with an interest in music, this weekend is an embarrassment of riches, even aside from soca/dancehall and hip-hop club nights. Here’s a handy guide to events outside the usual Caribana circuit, because if you’re not going to touch di road, at least stroll along the sidewalk.

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