A book celebrates a surprising array of Canadian cultural icons
Pop culture in a new light
The Maclean's Excerpt
A book celebrates a surprising array of Canadian cultural icons
What with the relentless bombardment of the American cultural machine, combined with ceaseless hand-wringing over their own country's identity, Canadians may sometimes
underestimate the scope of popular culture that has emerged within their own borders.
In their newly published book, Mondo Canuck, Geoff Pevere, a Toronto -based film critic and broadcaster, and Greig Dymond, entertainment producer for CTV's Canada AM, prod the national consciousness. "To kick back after an invigorating game of road hockey by watching The Forest Rangers while eating packaged butter tarts off the back ofthe first Guess Who L~"the authors recall with nostalgia, "was to just know you were up to something culturally distinct." From Stompin' Tom Connors to Rush,from Wayne and Shuster to Kids in the Hall, and from Hockey Night in Canada to Trivial Pursuit, their book is a frequently surprising reminder of hundreds of people and institutions that helped shape Canadians' attitudes and identities. Excerpts from chapters on five pop icons, starting with the only politician on the authors' list:
As an iconographically loaded image, Canada couldn’t have asked for a more potent one than Pierre Trudeau as he floated through the mist in a canoe, gliding like a phantom across the glassy surface of a northern lake, resplendently adorned in fringed buckskin, his chiselled features as inscrutably handsome at 73 years as they were at 40. Collectively, a rivetted nation gasped. The greatest media star it had ever produced was back, leaving Canadians with no choice but to do what we’d always done when the effortlessly charismatic Pierre Trudeau deigned to cross our perceptual field: just watch him.
The year was 1993, nearly a decade after the generation-spanning Trudeau era had ended, and nearly three decades since Lester Pearson’s dashing and quicksilversmart young minister of justice had first begun to turn the national head. The context
was nothing short of what would turn out to be one of the most revealing domestic popcult phenomena of recent memory: the longanticipated publication of Trudeau’s Memoirs, an event that was carefully timed to correspond with the equally anticipated CBC documentary miniseries.
That we could still be seduced by this figure was abundantly and immediately apparent. Despite the glib, carefully managed insubstantiality of both series and book,
Canadians ate them up like campfire hotcakes, making Memoirs the publishing and broadcasting event of the year.
As an evocative image, the canoe shot seemed every bit as carefully arranged and assembled as a corporate public relations commercial, or perhaps a campaign spot for someone running for the subconscious office of Supreme National Myth. The serenely confident handling of the canoe reminded us of the enduring virility of the
Reprinted with permission from Mondo Canuck: A Canadian Pop Culture Odyssey, copyright Geoff Pevere and Greig Dymond, published by Prentice Hall Canada Inc., Toronto.
only Canadian politician for whom sexuality was as important as policy (and who was still fathering children in his seventies). More than a mere politician, Pierre Elliott Trudeau was the greatest pop star this country ever produced.
Thanks to the musical-variety tradition of broadcasting in Canada, Anne Murray, the fresh-faced gamine with the drop-dead contralto, had already captured the attention of many Canadians by the time she caught the continent’s with Snowbird in 1970. Following an initial slump during which she gnawed on fears of being a one-hit wonder, she took flight again, quickly soaring to heights no Canadian female pop singer ever had: a mainstay on both pop and country charts through most of the ’70s and much of the ’80s, 30 hit singles in 21 years, so many awards she opened a museum in Springhill, N.S., to hold them, serial appearances on American TV and variety shows and one of the most dedicated followings of any recording artist of her era.
Trouble was, apart from the white-bread music and mail-order fashion sense, Anne Murray didn’t play Anne Murray that well. Once, in the process of promoting a 1985 CBC special that took her to London, she had this to say about having to sing Culture Club’s Karma Chameleon on camera: “It just about killed me,” she confessed. And why? “Because it’s such a piece of shit.” Of guest band Bananarama, who appeared on the same special, Anne said: “They’re three broads from London.” Add to this conversational style Murray’s absolutely non-negotiable control over business and media matters and you have a person who may be more like the country than we like to admit: covered by a blanket of soft, pure whiteness, but hard and unyielding as rock underneath.
Nearly a century after Lucy Maud Montgomery published Anne of Green Gables in 1908, her creation, the freckle-faced, redhaired and verbosely romantic orphan dreamer, Anne Shirley, has become the closest any Canadian literary equivalent can get to Mickey Mouse. Recognized and loved around the world, Anne of Green Gables is the nexus of a multimillion-dollar tourist trade.
Without question, the centre of Annemania is Japan, where Anne and its sequels have been read by more than 13 million Japanese since 1954, and where a national travel magazine survey determined in 1992 that the only destinations its readers wanted to visit more than Prince Edward Island were New York, Paris and London. Meanwhile, back in North America, one-half million new copies of Anne of Green Gables are sold each year. Evidently, Lucy Maud Montgomery unleashed a bona fide Canadian monster on the world. With pigtails, no less.
Yet, as global cultural viruses go, you
could ask for a lot worse than Anne Shirley. Let’s face it, Anne is one of the most confident, intelligent, independent and credible young female heroines found in KidLit anywhere. In fact, no less prominent a Montgomery fan than Mark Twain himself made note of this when shortly after the book’s initial, best-selling publication he wrote that Anne was “the clearest and most lovable child in fiction since the immortal Alice.” She is both, but what makes her so dear and lovable is also what makes it so hard to argue with her international star status; as literary role models for girls go, Anne is one of the most inspirational and positive around.
Born in 1962 just outside Toronto in the much-mailed community of Newmarket, Jim Carrey was the youngest of four children born to accountant Percy Carrey and his wife, Kathleen. Jim’s family moved around a lot, but never out of Southern Ontario. What this most likely meant to young Carrey who, at a precociously early age, exhibited an extraordinary knack for mimicry and classroom disruption, was an almost pathological identification with television: while friends, teachers, schools and even homes were constantly changing, TV offered a degree of comforting constancy. It was, in other words, the glass eye at the centre of the hurricane.
After the Grade 10 dropout made a name for himself as a killer impressionist, Carrey moved to the city from which most of the sounds and images colliding in his subconscious had first emanated: Los Angeles. In 1994, Ace Ventura, Pet Detective, a movie that features Carrey talking through his butt and beating the tar out of a man in a chicken suit, became the sleeper blockbuster of the year, and that’s when Carrey began a run of megahits, which, for their consecutive success, were rivalled only by the unstoppable Tom Hanks: The Mask, Dumb and Dumber, Batman Forever, Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls. In 1996, his winner’s streak snapped with the The Cable Guy, a daringly dark—perhaps too dark— comedy about a deranged cable installer with a pathological fixation on bad TV.
While Carrey is the first contemporary Canadian comic star not to spring from the Saturday Night Live/SCTV stable, his work can be seen as both a continuation and a radical extension of that school: like Dan Aykroyd, Martin Short or Catherine
O’Hara, he is less comedian than fully camouflaged chameleon—an uncanny and ruthless impersonator of comic characters. He attained a position of public recognition higher than that of any other Canadian movie star since Mary Pickford, and it all began with a distinctly Canadian tradition: with a kid sitting at home watching way too much TV beamed in from somewhere else.
Diana, a song the ferociously ambitious Ottawa teenager Paul Anka had written in 20 minutes, became an instant international smash hit in 1957. By 1962, it was the second-biggest-selling single in history, trailing only Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. But Anka was abandoning performing in the early ’60s in favor of songwriting, a step that led him eventually to take the French song Comme d’Habitude and turned it into a musical cash cow. My Way became Sinatra’s signature tune, and in a just world, it would have ended there. Of course, it didn’t. Like lemmings, all sorts of Sinatra acolytes lined up to assault Anka’s ode to self-aggrandizement. Wayne Newton, Jerry Vale, Steve Lawrence and Andy Williams all did it “their way.” But their wooden versions of My Way just don’t compare with the following:
1. Sid Vicious (1978) Anka’s opening line, “And now, the end is near,” held a special meaning for Mr. Vicious, who expired shortly after completing his spirited punk reading of the ultimate showbiz anthem.
2. Elvis Presley (1977) The King took a break from his strict regimen of karate, fried food and shooting TV sets to reinterpret Anka’s tune. The musical result is a lot like Elvis himself at that stage: flabby, pathetic and pretty well incoherent.
3. Hugo Montenegro (1969) A truly delectable musical stew, featuring these tasty ingredients: out-of-tune doodlings on a primitive Moog synthesizer, an obtrusive horn section and a vocalist named Gene Morford who seems blissfully unaware of the mess unfolding around him.
4. Sammy Davis Jr. (1970) Things get completely out of control near the end, when the Candy Man starts doing his trademark rap/scat singing.
5. The Three Tenors: Domingo, Carreras and Pavarotti (1994) The tenors do their best to sing phonetically (à la Abba or Ace of Base), but wind up sounding like AÍ Pacino in Scarface. □
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