Have you ever watched Drake’s “Hotline Bling” video and wondered just what the earthly hell is going on?

How did this morose, strangely-dressed, monotone-voiced, wacky-waving-inflatable-arm-flailing-tube-man-dancing weirdo who can’t seem to make up his mind about whether he wants to rap or sing come to dominate the airwaves?
Let me guess. Some of you like Drake’s music, some of you are vaguely confused his weird and repetitive lyrics and most of you couldn’t be bothered one way or the other. It’s Drake. He’s fine, I guess, if a little…”off”…in some unquantifiable way, in the way that replicants are a little….”off“. He doesn’t glorify violence or drugs or cruelty to women…well, maybe a little, but not all that much by that standards of most rap.  Some people hate him for being “soft” though, just because he isn’t always rapping about violence and drugs, and if those people hate him, he can’t be all that bad, can he?
The truth is, Drake is just following an extremely well-established formula for Canadians who make it big in the music industry. Justin Bieber has walked this path. So has Celine Dion. So has Nickelback. So has The Weeknd. You could create a short list of traits common to nearly every single Canadian artist or group, regardless of genre or whether they’ve achieved the all-important crossover to the mainstream, i.e. to the point where you, the casual reader, might have heard of them, and we’re going to create such a list, using the example of what I believe to be the quintessential Canadian band- legendary rockers Rush. We’ll also recapitulate the previous steps in our journey through Canadian culture so I can show you how Rush, and Canadian music as a whole, ties the Canadian experience together.

Before we begin, a short primer on the band (if you’ve never heard of them, which is likely): Rush is vocalist/keyboardist/bassist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson, and drummer Neil Peart. They make critically acclaimed rock songs about suburban alienation, Tom Sawyer, Ayn Rand, trees that have evolved class consciousness, staying true to yourself despite being surrounded by a bunch of phonies, and how fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. (There’s that vague libertarian aspect that we saw back in Letterkenny again). Their lyrics are complex and highbrow, their song length is just verging on pretentious, and of course they have some obscure logo that everyone’s forgotten the meaning of. Unlike the Tragically Hip, who usually gets credit for being the Canadian band, Rush has enjoyed…let’s call it a bit… of mainstream success. Now then, on to the short list of what makes them uniquely Canadian…..
One of the reasons I picked Rush as the quintessential Canadian band is because they have just been doing their thing for longer. The band broke up this year after 50 YEARS rocking together, while the Tragically Hip only existed for a paltry 33 years.
OK, you say, that is impressive, but what’s so Canadian about that? The answer is: EVERY Canadian musical act that you’ve heard of, and even those you haven’t, has staying power. The Barenaked Ladies, who you might remember as the “One Week” guys, have been together since 1988. Shania Twain has been singing since 1983. Celine Dion has been doing her thing since 1980. Paul Anka has been going strong since 1955!

Even the younger generation has been doing this for a while. Drake may seem a recent phenomenon, but he’s been acting since the early 2000s and rapping since 2007 – 11 years, and he’s only 32! Justin Bieber has been performing since he was 13. He may still seem like he is 13, but despite his obnoxiousness he’s kept it together remarkably well for someone who’s enjoyed Michael Jackson levels of stardom since that early of an age.
There’s no definitive explanation for why Canadians hang around for so long, but I tend to believe that it’s because of the dedicated camp-follower nature of their fans, and the fact that they all learn their craft in the same relatively low-pressure environment before hitting it big, meeting the same producers, agents, and record executives, all of whom have long established track records too. Think of it as a real-life Essex County for Canadian creatives.
Genre-Bending Appeal
Rush has gone through several periods in its long history. There was the more bluesy era in their early years, the more experimental prog-rock phase in the 70s, and the synthesizer era in the 80s from whence most of their biggest hits came. Through it all, they retained a solid basic core of drums-and-guitar rock. They did have the good sense never to try and rebrand themselves as more grunge-friendly when Kurt Cobain rose to power, though.
This is a key aspect of Canadian music – evolve as time goes on, keep one foot in two different genres, but never rebrand yourselves to the point where your fans can’t recognize you. If you’re Avril Lavigne, stay on the thin edge between punk and pop and never tip your hand- because if you do, you’ll end up with a cringefest like “Hello Kitty“. If you’re , by all means release a video where you ride the subway naked to show that you’ve matured beyond “You Oughta Know“, but that you retain the same innocence and rawness. Shania Twain can experiment with Autotune, Sarah McLaughlin can work in a Gregorian chant or two, Bieber can cover English-language singing duties on “Despacito“, and the Barenaked Ladies can sing about whether life has any meaning at all. Like Scott Pilgrim, you don’t want to nail yourself down or get too far outside your lane.

Weirdly Divisive
Remember when it was really, really cool to hate Nickelback? When you knew people were buying this band’s records but you couldn’t find a single person who admitted to being a fan? Then you have your Drake haters, your Bieber haters, your Avril Lavigne haters. “Love ’em or hate ’em” is what you’re likely to hear when talking about a Canadian group.
The love/hate relationship people have with Rush and their fans is so intense that it inspired Jason Segel’s character in “I Love You, Man“. The list of complaints is familiar. Geddy Lee’s voice can peel paint. The weird time signatures and literary lyrics are oh-so-pretentious. And where do these… these three nerds… find the nerve to pretend to be rock gods?! Not only that but the fact that they seem to effortlessly shrug off the hatred makes the hatred even worse, somehow. If I had to pick a reason why Canadian bands are so good at splitting the listening public down the middle, I’d have to say it is that easy confidence they project.
Attaining musical superstardom is one of the few ways Canadians can be unashamedly proud of themselves. It’s not what people expect from Canadians, and it’s just a little weird – like that uncanny valley that Canadian cartooning captures so well.
Painful Levels of Dorkiness
And oh, does Rush ever exude confidence. How else could you pull off lyrics like these?
In the dog days
People look to Sirius
Dogs cry for the moon
But these connections are mysterious
It seems to me
While it’s true that every dog will have his day
When all the bones are buried
There is barely time to go outside and play – “Dog Years”
But Rush is in good company when it comes to Canadians getting their dork on. Think of Nickelback singing at full power about old photographs, or Celine Dion pounding her chest as she goes up to 11 singing about how her heart will go on, or Drake talking about how he’s going to turn your boy into the man.
My all time favourite example of unfiltered Canadian shooting-for-the-stars is “Not In Love“, a little known song by new-wave group Platinum Blonde. I dare you to make it through the bridge, where some random woman repeatedly shouts “It’s hot inside!” as the lead singer cries, “No, no, NO!” over and over again, without dissolving into laughter. But the joke is on you, because guess who provides vocals on the remix? None other than Robert Smith of The Cure, thank you very much. (Honourable mentions go to The Payolas’ “Eyes Of A Stranger” and Saga’s “Wind Him Up“.)

Canadian music is at its absolute dorky best when it ignores all the contradictions and reasons why it shouldn’t succeed, and then does, in spite of itself. You may roll your eyes, but deep down, you root for these underdogs to have their moment- just like you root for Wolverine despite him not being the biggest, or strongest, or most superpowered of heroes.
Now that we have covered the basics of Canadian culture, and broadly sketched out a few different mediums (graphic novels, film, music, and comic books), we can begin to drill down into specific writers, film directors, animators, and poets – the real personalities that make Canadian culture what it is. We’ll begin with an examination of the roots of Canadian humour – such as it is – with a close look at the grand old man of Canadian letters, a lifelong partisan Conservative, and one of my personal heroes, Mr. Stephen Leacock, also known as the Canadian Mark Twain.

Photo by oouinouin