TORONTO -- Canadian artists should cut the humble act. Enough nobility. Let's trade in some of our innocence for cold Yankee cash. Let's use American ignorance about us to make some real money.
As a singer-songwriter in the pop group Moxy Fruvous, I've become no stranger to travelling North America's highways over the past five years. And one thing that I've learned while touring in the United States is that it's high time Canadian entertainers got crass.
We need to establish a new nationalism in the cultural realm. But please, nothing too earnest, flag-waving or heartfelt. I'm talking about a much more Machiavellian blueprint.
I suggest the exploitation of our vague Canadian identity for our own careerist ends. That's right. Use convenient Canuckism to milk the U.S. market. Oh sure, it's cynical. This is Canada in the new millennium, baby. And I have a very American proposal, if you'll let me explain.
Last fall, my bandmates and I made our U.S. network television debut on the Late Night with Conan O'Brien show in New York. This was quite a thrill for an eclectic little group from Toronto. It was a meagre five minutes of American airtime on the far side of midnight but we revelled in the stardom of the moment. We returned home with our swank new Late Night sweatshirts and the satisfaction of having made hundreds of calls to people across Canada from the backstage phone at NBC (the network bookkeepers may just be learning this).
Unfortunately, to the apparent dismay of many of my friends, I didn't really have the chance to befriend Mr. O'Brien. Few people seem to realize that the point at which the host walks over to the musical guests and shakes hands on these programs is pretty much the extent of any interaction that occurs.
But he did offer some interesting words in the brief minute that we met. As the show went to commercial, Conan joked with us that our group was part of the new "Canadian invasion" of America. It was a fun comment made in the jocular spirit of the moment. But it struck me later that, as seductive as it was to hear the phrase "Canadian invasion" coming out of a prominent American's mouth, I don't know what it means.
Conan was likely referring to the growing eminence of Canadian musical artists in the U.S. market (not to mention our success in comedy, film, television, literature and many other cultural areas). But what does the "Canadian invasion" truly mean? It's not as if there's a choreographed plan of attack to export our artists and capture the U.S. market. Moreover, if the famed British invasion of the Sixties was characterized by a certain sound and look, ours doesn't share such uniformity.
I've been scrambling to identify the nexus between my group, Celine Dion and Our Lady Peace and I'm having a tough time establishing any commonality (it's certainly not our music or, um, sales figures). The only trait that we all seem to share is that we're Canadian. And come to think of it, that's a great angle to draw attention to us in the claustrophobic American-led entertainment industry.
I had a similar thought at a gig at Stanford University in California. A small sect of Canadian students amid the assembled throng cheered my mention of Shreddies from the stage (a delicacy not available in the United States). The majority of Americans in the crowd were beguiled, amused and seemed to want in on the action. Upon meeting with some of the Canadians after the show, I realized that our similarities were entirely superficial. We were bonding over a breakfast cereal, for God's sake. And yet this was enough to make us exotic to the American audience.
Look, I'm not dumping on Canada. I'm proud of the remaining vestiges of our universal health-care system, our social-welfare state and the comparative safety of our urban streets. Anyone who's seen my band perform in America knows that we wear our Canuck roots loudly and proudly. But beyond medicare -- and other "sacred trusts" endlessly under attack by our neo-conservative political leaders -- what do Canadians outside of Quebec have before resorting to hockey, beer and vinegar on our french fries to differentiate us from our American counterparts?
The sad reality is that I've discovered that Americans aren't very different from us. I know, it's humiliating. I've been on the front lines of demonizing those gun-toting Yanks for years. Yet after touring the continent a few times I've come to the conclusion that lots of Americans remind me of, well, Canadians -- and vice versa. Most of them are good humans. And there are often more divisions across the many regions of Canada than, say, between the people of Toronto and Philadelphia or Edmonton and Seattle. We're just not that different as people. Of course, we don't need to let the Americans know that.
Here is my three-pronged prescription for a concerted Canadian cultural advance on America:
1. Get over the inferiority complex: The only time my band has heard the criticism "too Canadian" for American tastes is from Canadian critics. They're wrong, and our career proves it. If R.E.M. can write about their experiences in Athens, Ga., and U2 can sing about Dublin, why can't we write about Oshawa, Ont.? Being Canadian is exactly as sexy as we tell the Americans it is.
2. Use American ignorance about our identity to our advantage: Think about it, if we are vague on what it means to be Canadian, most U.S. citizens have no idea. Tell them we're all erudite scholars, polar-bear hunters or skateboarding punks, if you can use it to your benefit.
3. Pretend we're a distinct society: For many Americans, being Canadian is tantamount to being Norwegian or Algerian. We're foreign animals to be discovered, dissected and celebrated. We don't need to remind them that we live across the river from Detroit.
You see, we Canadians aren't always clear on what makes us unique and binds this country together. It doesn't appear to be much. But whatever it is, we can use it to plunder the U.S. market and bring some Yankee dollars home. We can buoy our economy and gain continental respect in the process. How? We just need to pretend that being Canadian is something exotic -- and then snicker while the Americans buy into it.
Jian Ghomeshi is a Toronto-based musician, producer and writer who aspires to be considered exotic and Canadian.
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