Quebec music culture

Win Butler (Arcade Fire), Celine Dion and Jean Leloup

Imposing Quebec music won’t necessarily make people fall in love with the culture

Is the new rule about “Quebec music only” in government buildings and phone lines meant to promote local talent, or is it state-enforced cultural propaganda?

The next time you’re waiting in line at the SAAQ to renew your driver’s licence, the music piping in from the speakers might be 100% Québécois. 

“The days of royalty-free elevator music are over,” announced provincial Culture Minister Nathalie Roy at a recent presser, revealing that, from now on, “all government departments and crown corporations will broadcast Quebec music only.”

Minister Roy was doing fine until that last word. It’s the only that managed to take an innocuous announcement about promoting Quebec artists and imbue it with uncomfortable undertones of parochialism and protectionism. Like Premier Legault’s similar announcement about the creation of province-wide Espaces bleus, this, too, left me with ambivalent feelings. When art and culture are politicized and instrumentalized and put in the service of government, it makes me uneasy. I appear not to be the only one. In a recent Le Devoir opinion piece, a museologist, speaking on condition of anonymity, stated: “When I heard the announcement, I felt like I was going back in time 50 years. It’s retrograde.”

Promoting local talent is good

Hubert Lenoir
Hubert Lenoir (Imposing Quebec music won’t make people fall in love with the culture)

The idea of promoting local culture in and of itself is nothing new.  In Quebec and in Canada we already have more than our share of official government agencies and organizations subsidizing and promoting local talent — the Canada Music Fund, SODEC and ADISQ, just to name a few. Canadian cultural protectionism, a “conscious, interventionist approach to promote Canadian music and limit the effects of foreign cultures,” has been around for a while now. The CRTC uses the MAPL system (music, artist, performance and lyrics) to define what qualifies something as Canadian in order to promote it. I assume something similar will be created for Quebec. 

The truth is that artists have benefited from government patronage since time immemorial. Some of the world’s most beautiful art — think ancient Greece and the Italian Renaissance — wouldn’t exist if not for governments and rich patrons opening their purse strings. Without necessarily comparing Mitsou and Arcade Fire to Botticelli and Sophocles, they, too, deserve to be celebrated and promoted as art that only this part of the world created and allow it to be discovered, fondly remembered, enjoyed and hopefully passed on. I mean, think about it… it’s not such a silly idea. How many times have you been in a café or a store and heard a song you liked and had Shazam work its magic? Why should this be any different?

Popular art, like music and television, often serves as the first accessible gateway for newcomers (visitors, new immigrants, international students) to discover more about the local culture. It worked on me. When I moved back to Quebec from Greece, I quickly decided I needed to speak French because (please don’t mock me) I wanted to understand what Celine Dion and les B.B. were singing about. Being exposed to culture is a little like a virus. It spreads fast and you’re never certain where the transmission point was. It could have been a friend introducing you to a new, cool song, or it could have been the earworm you were suddenly exposed to while renewing your passport.

Let’s face it: Is there anyone who is more of a captive audience than that hapless fool who called Revenu Québec thinking they could get through to a real person in under 20 minutes? If you’re going to be stuck on hold for a while, you might as well expand your musical horizons while you’re at it. 

Instead of some generic muzak that makes you want to throw your cell out the window, here’s a quick melange of Malajube, Paul Cargnello, les Trois Accords and Corneille while you wait. Still on hold? Let’s throw in a pinch of Celine Dion singing Luc Plamondon, a dash of hometown boy Gino Vannelli crooning “about those nights in Montreal” and here’s soul singer Clerel with his smooth vocals making you almost forget you may possibly owe the government money.

On the elevator, on the way down? Here’s some Alexandra Stréliski instrumentals to set the mood, a touch of Charlotte Cardin rasp to get excited about your Friday night plans, or some Damien Robitaille to get the party started. And, no, I don’t care that the man was born in Ontario. He never took a single day off during the pandemic, so he gets to stay and play.

So, the idea overall is a great one, assuming “Quebec music” will also include Indigenous, anglophone and allophone musicians who make music here. But it would have been so much more palatable and progressive if minister Roy had announced the focus would be Quebec music; not “Quebec music only.” 

State-enforced cultural propaganda 

Corey Hart (Imposing Quebec music won’t make people fall in love with the culture)

Declaring that “only” Quebec music will be played in government buildings and on phone lines” has vaguely uncomfortable People’s-Republic-of-Quebec vibes. I grew up reading Arthur Koestler and so I’m naturally allergic to groupthink and ever-encroaching state interventionism. It reminded me of those disturbing rumours coming from North Korea about a public radio system that broadcasts regime propaganda into citizen’s homes day and night without respite because there’s no dial or off switch. Are Quebecers looking at a future of around-the-clock broadcasts of “Bye-Bye, mon cowboy” and “I wear my sunglasses at night”? Are we doomed to live in a world of Starmania on a constant auditory loop? 

Of course, I kid. Nothing that sinister is at play here. Quebec culture should be protected and promoted and that’s partly a government’s job. But its job is to finance and facilitate and that’s primarily it. It has no job implementing and defining the vision, and I worry that the CAQ often crosses that line — because government-imposed culture is literally the opposite of what art is and does. Pablo Picasso said, “art is something subversive” and by that he meant that art challenges and provokes and should be “used against the established order,” not used in the service of the established order. 

The CAQ continues to have this socially conservative, parochial, old-fashioned ethno-nationalist, borderline virtue-signalling way of approaching the protection and promotion of Quebec culture and language that always plays on fears of cultural insecurity. As someone who welcomes proactive and confident ways of promoting Quebec culture and language, I don’t want to see vital and fundamental aspects of who we are and how we define ourselves instrumentalized and politicized in the name of vote pandering. Because, make no mistake, this announcement once again conveniently ignored inconvenient facts.

How about some real support for Quebec artists?

Quebec culture music
Janette King (Imposing Quebec music won’t make people fall in love with the culture)

Minister Roy said she was shocked that, while on hold at the ministry, she heard “an American singer singing a little song in English.” I can understand that displeasure, but, when it comes to culture, there are a lot of things Minister Roy could be shocked about — including how little financial support Quebec artists received in the past year to survive the shutdown on cultural events because of the pandemic.

Ask most artists, music venues and theatre companies and they’ll tell you that direct subsidies would benefit them much more and allow them to continue to create the kind of art they want to create. This past year has been impossibly brutal for Quebec’s local music scene, its theatres, its publishing companies, its arts venues. Quebec might have a well-established star-system, but, except for a few celebrities, most artists just manage to eek out a living. By giving $1-million to ADISQ, the CAQ essentially decided to promote and help artists who are already recognized and doing okay. The money isn’t really going to help creators create in so much as pander to the average middle-class Quebecer who wants to feel like their government is doing something to protect said culture. 

The CAQ is very efficient at finding this sweet pandering spot, opting for symbolic gestures that don’t necessarily get to the heart of the issue. What do I mean by that? 

Turn on any French radio station in Quebec and you will listen to a ridiculous amount of English music. Every time I take a road trip across the province, I am shocked at the amount of English music I’m exposed to. Why isn’t Minister Roy equally shocked? Why isn’t she attempting something in these areas where she could really make a dent? How many minutes of radio does the average Quebecer listen to weekly, versus the amount of time they spend being on hold with a government agency? Shouldn’t the announcement have been about measures to increase French music on French airwaves or perhaps incentives — financial or otherwise — to get English stations or businesses to play more Quebec artists? 

You fall in love with culture that you’re not force-fed

Harmonium Quebec music culture
Harmonium (Imposing Quebec music won’t make people fall in love with the culture)

Ultimately, culture is about falling in love. Think of your favourite music, books, movies. The way you feel about them is the way you feel about your first kiss. It’s about the butterflies, the seduction, the falling, the indescribable way they make you want to cry. Sure, you can implement efforts to increase the dissemination of what you to want to promote but piping it through as canned elevator music on an endless loop won’t increase people’s love for it. The quickest way to make something uncool is to make it an obligation. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.