Too Hip For The Room? Why Canada's Idols Never Translated Elsewhere
The farewell tour from The Tragically Hip is one of the compelling stories of this summer. Travelling coast-to-coast in the shadow of lead singer Gord Downie’s terminal brain-cancer diagnosis the Hip have been selling out venues across the country. The finale in their hometown of Kingston, Ont., will be a national TV spectacle. Tickets are being sold online for tens of thousands of dollars.
It’s a watershed moment for the Hip’s generation of fans who’ve followed the band since its first recordings in the 80s. Nine of their albums have reached No. 1 in Canada. They’ve been put on Canada Post stamps. They christened the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, the first musical act in the home of the Maple Leafs and Raptors.
But to really appreciate their popularity it was necessary to travel to one of their U.S. concerts where ex-pat Canadians, desperate for a taste of home, found a familiar voice in the band’s evocations of their home and native land. I saw concerts in Chicago and San Francisco where tears streamed down the cheeks of homesick Canadians abroad in America. Still it was a steady stream of smaller venues, not the big football stadiums or basketball arenas down south.
The fanatical following for the Hip has always begged the question: Why did they never break it big in the United States? There is the legendary story of a failed Saturday Night Live gig orchestrated by SNL’s Canadian producer Lorne Michaels. The reasons SNL didn't vault them to stardom are disputed, but the accepted wisdom is their choice of songs that night failed to light a fuse.
There were gigs with the Stones and other high-profile dates. While their Canadian fame only expanded, the U.S. stardom never developed. Why did their record companies in the U.S. never make the push?
For that matter, why haven’t other iconic Canadian acts made it big? Blue Rodeo, Sloan, Our Lady Peace, Hedley and even the great Gordon Lightfoot (outside of If You Could Read My Mind) couldn’t crack the magic equation of mass American acceptance.
It’s not as if Canadians have trouble achieving success in the States. Justin Bieber is an enormous international success. Drake, K-os and The Weeknd are huge stars in hip-hop and rap. Nickelback rode the hard-rock train to a lucrative career south of the border. Carly Rae Jepson, Nelly Furtado and Serena Ryder have also cracked the formula for hits in America. And Vancouver’s Micheal Bublé and Diana Krall are the last word in crossover success.
The list of Canadians who found gold over the decades in the U.S,. is also extensive: The Barenaked Ladies, Celine Dion, K.D. Lang, Avril Lavigne, Alanis Morrisette, Shania Twain, Sarah McLachlan. In the golden past Neil Young, BTO, The Band, Joni Mitchell, Rush and the Guess Who became more than just Canadian hitmakers.
So what happened in the case of the Hip, a band whose recordings and live performances have inspired such devotion in Canada? The most immediate answer is that perhaps they sound too Canadian. To be sure, the Hip have liberally spread references to Canada throughout their work. Talking about Bobcaygeon, the Paris of the Prairies, David Milgard and Bill Barilko will do that.
But Joni Mitchell and Neil Young were never shy about their Canadian roots. Neither were The Ladies, The Band or The Guess Who or others who found success in America.
There is an argument that Downie’s lyrics are an acquired taste, too dense for commercial hit play. While the band has always written excellent hooks in their songs, the lyrical content defies typical hit-making clichés. In other words, the Hip lyrics might have always been a little too cool for the school of rock. (The same lyrical issue faced Steely Dan as they became kings of adult rock in America.)
So is there a Canadian sound that doesn’t travel? The Barenaked Ladies knew how to find a wider audience with their infectious pop and glib lyrics. As Bieber (via Ed Sheehan) has illustrated on his way to the top of the charts, no one ever went broke writing about frustrated love. “Cause if you like the way you look that much/ Oh baby you should go and love yourself.”
The Hip began as a folk-blues sound that morphed into progressive rock over the years. Everyone has their favourite Hip song, of course. But if you’re looking to encapsulate their sound in a few songs for someone just coming to their music you might choose Ahead By A Century, Gift Shop, Hundredth Meridian and Bobcaygeon.
Is there something in there that defies commercial success? Or is it simply a failure of timing the market? Perhaps equal measures of both. MCA records did not break any of their singles at Radio in America. They were signed by MCA Canada and never really got the corporate support from MCA in the rest of the world to accomplish global success. There’s also a case for bad luck.
Whatever the cause of their American shortcomings, there will likely not be as iconic a Canadian sound for a while after the Hip hang it up.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy
Bruce's career is unmatched in Canada for its diversity and breadth of experience with successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald (1998-2009) and the Globe & Mail (2009-2013).