March 27, 2005


Yesterday, Moxy Fruvous' Jian Ghomeshi wrapped up CBC Radio's second installation of "50 Tracks" -- the Canadian version -- counting down these top ten songs:

  1. 'Four Strong Winds' by Ian and Sylvia (1963)
  2. 'If I had $1000000' by the Barenaked Ladies (1992)
  3. 'Heart of Gold' by Neil Young (1971)
  4. 'Northwest Passage' by Stan Rogers (1981)
  5. 'American Woman' by The Guess Who (1970)
  6. 'Canadian Railroad Trilogy' by Gordon Lightfoot (1967)
  7. 'Both Sides Now' by Joni Mitchell (1969)
  8. 'Suzanne' by Leonard Cohen (1967)
  9. 'Big Yellow Taxi' by Joni Mitchell (1970)
  10. 'Early Morning Rain' by Gordon Lightfoot (1966)

The full list is available on the 50 Tracks website. This Canadian rendition was a spinoff of the highly successful summer version, which enumerated the top 50 tracks of essential popular music. Apparently Alanis was the only artist to make both lists. Go figure.

I speculated yesterday that the CBC had realized they were on to something with the whole list-making thing -- witness not only the two slates of 50 Tracks but also "The Greatest Canadian" (itself a spinoff of a model already played out in a number of other countries and no doubt coming soon to a south-of-the-49th superpower near you).

I have to admit, though, that 50 Tracks was carried out with a great deal more dignity that The Greatest Canadian. Let me say up front that I am a strong supporter of the CBC. That said, I am not always as big a fan of the CBC, and unfortunately there were a lot of reasons to hate the Greatest Canadian (the show, not winner Tommy Douglas).

It's hard to know where to begin. There were, of course, the serious and valid criticisms (of the "great man" view of history, of the lack of gender and other diversity in the top ten especially, etc.). But even if you were able to get past that, there was the quality of the production itself. There were the relentlessly grating puns of the advocates (each of the top ten nominees had an advocate who made the case for their greatness in their one-hour episode.) There was the obviously staged and embarassingly uncreative changeroom riffing from David Suzuki advocate Melissa Auf der Maur (of Hole and Smashing Pumpkins fame). There was MuchMusic host and producer George Stroumboulopoulos detonating an outhouse -- "ACME" cartoon style -- to make a point about one of Tommy Douglas' contributions (plumbing in rural Saskatchewan, if I recall correctly -- the explosion was distracting.) And there was -- who would have expected it? [rolling eyes here] -- Don Cherry advocate Bret "The Hitman" Hart physically beating up a mock David Suzuki, Wayne Gretzky, and Pierre Trudeau in a fake wrestling ring to demonstrate why his was the Greatest Canadian. It was quite sad. You could just see the CBC executives with dollar signs in their eyes, begging the 18-34 demographic to tune in: "You want exploding toilets? We'll give you exploding toilets!"

The sad thing is that all of this was just in the lead-up to the grand finale -- the Greatest Circus, as it were.

The Greatest Circus was actually two separate episodes. In the first, the advocates all stated their case again and then spent some time screaming incoherently at each other. It was just like an all-party election debate on the CBC! They also brought in pinch-hitters like Justin Trudeau to spice things up. I believe the phrase "You can't say that about my father" was shouted at least once.

Nothing, however -- not the insufferably trite advocacy or the juvenile pseudo-political theatrics -- could hold a candle to the final episode. The voting was in, and the countdown was on. CBC made the mistake of inviting Shaun Majumder to join Wendy Mesley in hosting the final episode. Between the two of them, the phrase "I've never been so proud to be Canadian" was officially used to death. And in what appeared to be a blatant, last-ditch effort to blunt one of the show's most stinging criticisms, David Suzuki was referred to as an almost-suitable proxy for women on the top ten list at least twice during the final episode. Um, right.

Here, however, is the real clincher. As the top 10 were counted off in reverse order, each of the "non-Greatest's" advocates was asked to throw their (symbolic-only) support behind one of the candidates remaining in contention. As the evening reached its climax, support was building for two camps -- eventual #1 and #2 Tommy Douglas and Terry Fox.

As the fourth advocate joined the Terry Fox camp, Shaun Majumder said -- and I am not making this up -- "Support for Terry Fox is spreading like cancer!"

This was a live broadcast, and I've never seen a faster cut-to-commercial. Somehow it was fitting that in a series featuring Don Cherry as the seventh Greatest Canadian of all time, the CBC's 7-second tape delay should have been reserved for someone else.

Posted by anatole at March 27, 2005 01:27 PM

I really enjoyed the "50 tracks -- Canadian edition". We listened along the way to the panels, and while they frequently infuriarited me, it's fun to get infuriated about relatively trivial things like the Tragically Hip being dismissed as "hoser rock" and "all about drinking". I liked the final top ten, though I must admit to being suprised that "If I Had a Million Dollars" made it up so high; and Mark was really disappointed that "Home for a Rest" didn't make it even into the top 20. Still, it made for a great afternoon of radio listening pleasure!

Posted by: Aven at March 27, 2005 03:53 PM

We heard it in the car as well and were equally annoyed with all the Ian and Sylvia introductory claptrap by the hosts. I don't think I couldn't have listened to the WHOLE show.

Posted by: Lana at March 28, 2005 01:54 PM

I heard the very first episode of the top Canadian 50 when I was home at Christmas. I can't remember whether there was listener input allowed, but it seems to me that the list gives a pretty good indication of who's listening to the CBC, or who's working at the CBC. The dates say a lot in and of themselves, but the dismissal of the Tragically Hip is also a pretty strong statement.

It's weird because I thought the CBC was selling its soul to appeal to younger people. I know I grew up in a cardboard box painted with Classical musicians, but still, I've only heard of a few of these "top 10" songs. Which is fine, I much prefer to listen to radio aimed at older people (or, rather, what radio producers think of as older people, which is people who live for more than the consumption of popular culture).

Then again, the whole "list to summarize our nationality" is a pretty dumb idea. But the "list to provoke discussion about our culture" is quite a clever idea, so I guess it's a good thing the CBC is doing it. What they should do now is start to gather complaints, appeals, etc. on a website somewhere so that in a few years they can do this again, or at least air some concerns. Because the supposed finality or totality of this is, of course, ludicrous.

I feel like the CBC should work to clarify the division between itself and "popular media" (e.g. corporate radio), rather than try to bridge the gap. But I really haven't listened to the CBC in a long time, so I should stop typing now before I descend into totally uninformed ranting.

Posted by: George at March 28, 2005 11:27 PM

Good news George - there is a website for complaints (sort of). The blog "Pregnant without Intercourse" (?!) is making an alternative top 50 list:

I read about it in this pretty funny Globe article about the show:

Posted by: Miriam at March 29, 2005 01:11 PM