Now that we have established where Canadian music came from, and we have a rough idea of what it is and what it isn’t, it is now time to consider each of the three great Canadian solo artists of the mid and late twentieth century in turn. All three are still living. All three are massively influential inside and outside Canada. All three are deeply flawed in addition to being brilliant, and all three set a standard that seemed impossible to overcome. This is well covered ground, and entire bookshelves couldn’t contain the endless biographies and the analyses of their art, but hopefully I can give some sense of how they shaped Canadian culture and music.

It’s pretty safe to say that Joni Mitchell never intentionally set out to be the archetypal female singer and songwriter, because that would imply some kind of organizing principle on her part. Like Leslie Nielsen, she was a military brat who rebelled against her father, but unlike the ludicrously level-headed Nielsen Mitchell spent her entire life rejecting any kind of structure or constraint. She shunned school, refused to learn traditional guitar chords, had a child out of wedlock, and played non-union gigs and drifted back and forth across the border, falling in and out of relationships and marriages until she was discovered and brought to the attention of David Geffen.

Before and after finding fame, her songs were rambling, deeply personal and free of any sort of pretension, with her voice flying up and down the octaves, borrowing from all Western musical traditions. Rather than chase the culture, it came to her, and she saturated it to the point where her influence can still be seen in the strangest of places if you look closely.

Toy Story 4, currently dominating a box office near you, featured the famous cover version of her song, “Both Sides Now” for its trailer. Disney wanted a wistful, sentimental bit of nostalgia that would make you smile when you saw Woody, Buzz, and the gang dancing joyfully in a circle after their long absence.

Or let’s say you’re watching The Muppets and laughing at the freaky-weird musical antics of Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem. Then you notice that guitarist Janice has what appears to be a Canadian accent (“Oh ya, fer sure!”) mixed in with her Valley Girl voice and you realize that Jim Henson was thinking of Joni when he created her (along with Mick Jagger, Mary Travers, and a whole host of others).

But for all her limitless depth of emotion, there is one crucial element missing: anger.

You might find a dig at Joan Baez here (for being too aggressive), an allegation that Dylan was a plagiarist there, and some harsh words for the music industry, but the dark side of ’60s radicalism seems to have escaped her entirely. A particularly obnoxious man will have his dirty deeds read out in “Free Man In Paris” or “You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio”, and paradise may have been paved and a parking lot may have been put up, but Joni is still giggling by the end of “Big Yellow Taxi”. Somehow- possibly thanks to her nearly lifelong smoking habit- Joni has managed to keep whatever hard times she’s endured from bleeding into her art. She’s never even identified as a feminist. Perhaps, like L.M. Montgomery, we will only learn more about the depths of her private hardships after she passes.

But while she lives, Joni Mitchell has, through no fault of her own, cast in stone what a Canadian female singer-songwriter should look like: wide-eyed, waifish, free-spirited, strumming her guitar, singing about some nameless and faceless dude who doesn’t reciprocate her affections, sometimes sad, temporarily disillusioned, but never bitter.

Sarah McLachlan:

Alanis Morrisette:

Jann Arden:

Chantal Kreviazuk:

Sarah Harmer:

It doesn’t matter if you’re a diva like Celine Dion, a country superstar like Shania Twain, or a punkster like Avril Lavigne. You never get anything that really plumbs the emotional depths, and you get the sense that there is a conscious effort to avoid anything that’s too painful, or too real. Just round, and round, and round, in the circle game.

Next week: A head to head comparison between the king of Canadian country, Gordon Lightfoot, and the Man In Black himself, Johnny Cash.

*****

Photo by PinkMoose