Another American Asks “Why Canadian Bands (Sometimes) Can’t Make It in the States”

The story of Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip has become worldwide news, especially the bit where the rest of the planet can’t comprehend how a rock band could unite an entire country. The next step in this querying is usually “Well, if they’re so go, why didn’t they ever make it in the US?”

I hate this line of inquiry because with the Hip, it gets us nowhere. It had nothing to do with the quality of their music, the Canadian-ness of their lyrics, the “enforced hit” stigma of our Cancon rules or anything else like that. They didn’t break in America because of (a) record company issues; and (b) bad timing. Can we stop beating this dead horse, please?

Yet–perhaps because some Americans genuinely feel they’ve missed something good with the Hip–the questions keep coming. This is from the AV Club.

When The Tragically Hip vocalist Gord Downie announced in May that he had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, the news hit Canada like the ice storm of 1998.

While the running joke is that Bryan Adams is Canada’s crappier version of Bruce Springsteen, Downie is likely the better fit for that role (minus the crappiness). The Hip’s sound—which mixes rugged, bluesy rock ’n’ roll with sentimental ballads—has the same rough-hewn, heart-on-sleeve folksiness as The Boss, though the lyrics are more opaque and the instrumentation less bombastic. Think of a bar band with aspirations of being Margaret Atwood and you’re in the ballpark. To lose Downie, it seemed, would be to lose Canada’s unofficial poet laureate, a man who spun tales of ice hockey and Toronto nights into sweeping portraits of a magical snow-swept land.

Of course, the story was picked up by every news outlet in the country. It even managed to generate its own scandal, as scalpers began profiting off Downie’s illness. In the U.S., the response was more muted. While the music press ran stories, it wasn’t exactly making it into the evening news (at least, until the eve of the final concert, when a bevy of Canadian writers managed to infiltrate everything from Slate to The New Yorker). It isn’t a coincidence that the band’s farewell tour featured no American dates.

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Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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