The Sorry History of Canadian Pop

canadian pop history len

Emily Baron Cadloff @EmilyBat March 7, 2016

Illustration by N. Friesen

Canada is in the midst of a pop music renaissance.  Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion was one of the best pop albums of 2015 (and if you haven’t listened to her version of the Fuller House theme, stop reading this and come back after you’ve danced your heart out.) Justin Bieber may never be Canada’s proudest export, but he’s finally come into his own with PurposeEven Tom Mulcair couldn’t help but dance to Drake’s “Hotline Bling.”

In fact, 2015 ended with Canadians taking seven of the top 10 spots on the Billboard 100 list. Bieber lay claim to three of the top ten songs, with Drake, The Weeknd, Shawn Mendes, and Alessia Cara rounding out the rest. I’m willing to bet we would have had a Canuck in the top spot too, if only Adele’s 25 wasn’t so fucking perfect.

But it wasn’t always this way. For years – decades – Canada’s pop scene was largely underrated. It always felt apologetic, and tried too hard to compete with Americans. Too often, successful Canadians faltered when they tried to tour south of the 49th.

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A few artists hit their stride in the early ’90s. Celine Dion, obvs, and Shania Twain rocketed to success with power ballads and country-inspired dance hits, respectively. And remember Alannah Myles? Sure, she may not have had the staying power of Celine, but “Black Velvet” made her an international superstar in 1990.  It won her a Grammy, three Junos, and sold over one million units, making her the only Canadian female debut artist to win a Diamond Award for sales.

But for every Alannah, there are a dozen one-hit wonders. Canada’s musical landscape is littered with bands that almost made it. Maestro Fresh-Wes, the Grandfather of Canadian hip-hop, has collaborated with everyone under the sun. But after his 1990 hit “Let Your Backbone Slide,” he couldn’t quite make an impression on American audiences. He’s released a few albums since, but none have regained his early momentum.

In an effort to cash in on the boy-band/sibling trend of the late ’90s, The Moffats briefly took over the airwaves in 1998 with their album Chapter One. The brothers had a twangy harmony, and were well produced by the Berman Brothers, who also worked with Hanson. But alas, there was no chapter two. After releasing Submodalities (what?) in 2001, the band broke up. Which I’ll assume is hella awkward when three of you are triplets. “We’re never playing together again! I’ll see you at Thanksgiving!”

And then in 1999, perhaps the best one-hit wonder to ever grace our frozen tundra and warm our cold, Tim-Bit-loving hearts, came out of Toronto.

Siblings Marc and Sharon Costanzo made up Len, the band known for their iconic hit “Steal My Sunshine.” And don’t even bother trying to make fun of that song, it’s baller and you know all the words to it. It is karaoke gold, even with nonsense lyrics. Off the album You Can’t Stop The Bum Rush, “Sunshine” was a surprise hit, and earned the band a Juno for Best Single. Since then, the song has been included on various “best-of” lists, including Rolling Stone’s 2013 collection of Best Summer Songs.

Perhaps the best thing to come from Len is the story of how their music video was made. You know the video for “Sunshine.” It’s Marc and Sharon and a bunch of their friends (including Moka Only! – Editor) singing at the camera on a sunny beach. They run into a pregnant woman and dance with her. They ride scooters and eat cotton candy. It’s perfect sun-bleached nothingness, winning the 1999 Much Music Video Award for Best Video. And it cost $100,000 to make, a fact I think about at least once a month.

Marc directed this magnum opus, wherein he flew 25 friends to Daytona Beach, Florida for spring break. They shot the video without a script (no!) and best of all, they spent so much money on booze, they broke the elevator in their hotel when they tried to bring it all to their room. For my money, if you’re only going to have one hit song, that’s the way to do it.

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So why have Canadians historically missed the mark when it comes to pop music? Maybe it’s because our national identity is so often tied to that of our American neighbours. When you’re always following the trend in the states, it’s hard to find your own breakthrough. We’re also a nation still tied deeply to folk music. From the Irish-infused fiddles in the Maritimes, to Neil Young wannabes in the prairies, we’ve often been a softer, gentler version of American pop. We’re the acoustic release after the album drops.

That was the case back in the ’90s, when most music was released and played the same way. You get representation, you get an album, you play it on the radio, you tour. But now, artists can bypass those gatekeepers. Alessia Cara signed to Def Jam Records after she started her YouTube channel at age 13. Now the Brampton, Ontario singer is poised to become our next R&B legend.

In the ’90s, our pop stars felt like they were always defending Canada, proving that they could play in the big leagues. Now, our time has come.

Emily Baron Cadloff is a television reporter/reader/writer/binge-watcher. Currently based in New Brunswick, she has lived all over Canada, and credits the Winnipeg Folk Festival with her love of Canadian music. She is always up for dessert.