In a surprising decision, this year’s Polaris Music Prize was awarded to Tanya Tagaq, an Inuk throat singer whose politically charged album, Animism, made for a controversial win. On September 25, four Polaris jurors gathered at the Soho House to discuss the verdict for the Polaris Prize Salon. Moderated by James Keast of Exclaim! magazine, the panel members consisted of Liisa Ladouceur, author of Encyclopedia Gothica; Julia LeConte of NOW; Mark Teo of AUX; and Melody Lau of Much.
The jury process behind the prize is often overlooked. Ladouceur, a veteran jury member that had served as “jury headmistress” for Polaris from 2006 to 2011, described the process as “arduous.” Each juror is sent the long list of “best” Canadian albums, which then has to be whittled down to a 10-album shortlist. LeConte spoke of how she would listen to the albums “at work, on runs, on walks,” go over the music with the lyric booklets, and force herself to “spend time with albums [she] wasn’t interested in.” The other jurors agreed that the decision process was a heavy commitment, with each juror bringing “pages and pages of notes” on each album.
Surprisingly, none of the panel chose Animism as their favourite album. Ladouceur, who backed Basia Bulat’s Tall Tall Shadow, explained that “everyone brings their own definition of ‘best’ to the [jury] process.” Ladouceur, for instance, revealed that she prefers albums that are original, whereas Teo admitted that he judges albums on a purely musical level. Despite these differences in opinion, however, all the jurors agreed on one point: the winning album is never chosen due to political considerations. Tagaq’s win was not based on the jury’s wish to promote Inuk music or to make a political statement, but on the album’s musical merits, of which there are plenty.
In an industry marked by overproduced, over-processed sound, Animism is a welcome relief. Not only are songs such as “Tulugak” dazzling in their rhythmic complexity, but Tagaq’s grunting vocals, rising above a bed of syncopated drums and discordant synth violin, have an unearthly beauty.
Tagaq is a virtuoso performer. The sheer range of sound in her songs, from low snarling notes to high moans (sometimes produced in the same breath) is astonshing. The conventional chord progressions, standard beats, and synth atmosphere of the shortlist’s more popular albums — such as Drake’s Nothing Was the Same or Arcade Fire’s Reflektor — sound dull in comparison with the sheer force of Tagaq’s throat singing.
Animism holds a kind of transient beauty, akin to that of a powerful photograph, which captures a moment in time that can never be repeated. It pays dutiful homage to Tagaq’s Inuit heritage and then transcends it to create an album of spellbinding originality. Regardless of the jurors’ opinion, for me, it is a well-deserved win.