"I met Amanda Marshall once. Her hair was amazing" = possibly the most wonderful combination of sentences I have read today / possibly the quintessential statement of what it means to be raised in/by/around/near CanCon pop.
My equivalent is “I witnessed my step-sister get serenaded at her bat mitzvah by her four best friends singing The Moffats’ I’ll Be There For You.”
Or: “I saw Great Big Sea live at the Tulip Festival with my family and they interrupted their set to report on Stanley Cup score updates.”
Amanda Marshall - “Double Agent” [Everybody’s Got a Story] (2002)
I don’t ever recall hearing ‘Double Agent’ on radio and the only video that exists is a live one but Google insists that a promo single was put out in 2002 and Marshall thought it was important enough to include on her singles compilation.
To be honest, even if it did get a proper single release it wasn’t ever likely to get as popular as ‘Everybody’s Got a Story’ did. Personalizing the former’s vague aphorisms, the track tackles Amanda’s experiences with racism head-on, through the prism of a racist ex-boyfriend unaware that her mother is black:
And what do you hear when you hear me?
I hear you crank up Jay-Z, it’s your favorite jam
And you talk with your hands like an MC
Betcha never get stopped by the police
You never ask me about me (no no no)
About how I feel when you call all your white friends
"Homeboy" and "n****" and "homie"
It hurts me
I can’t help but wonder if Canadian radio would have paid much attention to Amanda early on in her career if she’d been releasing this sort of material. Able to write and release a song about domestic abuse in 1995, and working in a genre of confessional folk-rock that was plenty political at times, Marshall still couldn’t confront racism directly in her lyrics until six years later.
Over a decade later, she still has yet to release a follow-up to Everybody’s Got a Story due to ongoing legal disputes with her old label after firing her management. Sigh.
Amanda Marshall - “Everybody’s Got a Story” [Everybody’s Got a Story] (2001), CAN#6
While we’re on the topic of gradually increasing space for R&B in CanCon, I’d be remiss to not mention Amanda Marshall’s third album, Everybody’s Got a Story. After starting off her career with two incredibly successful albums in the Sarah MacLachlan singer-songwriter-storyteller vein, which we’ve discussed before, and likely will again, Marshall survived on Canadian radio after the ascendance of CanCon Pop by pivoting into slightly more pop/R&B-tinged music. This could have appeared opportunistic, but also speaks to the broadening of the Canadian pop landscape.
The lead single and title track is an indictment of superficial assumptions, and if the chorus’ “Everybody’s got a story that could break your heart,” is a bit facile, Marshall nonetheless manages to strike a balance between frothier pop instincts while still carrying through her natural inclination for social commentary and detailed writing in the verses. After initially eviscerating some dude throwing corny pick-up lines at her, Amanda draws her boundaries, stresses her complexity, and then sketches out a handful of characters whose experiences aren’t automatically visible to the audience.
The classmate whose mother just died might come off as mawkish pop fare, but the taxi driver with a PhD gestures at Canadian immigration policy and exclusionary certification requirements in the middle of a top ten pop song. Does the throw-away comment trivialize the issue, or treat the taxi driver as a punchline? Perhaps, but in a song about breaking down stereotypes there was always going to be a slight ‘gotcha’ element.
Mostly importantly, while she doesn’t address it here, Amanda Marshall has a very particular gripe about perception and assumptions and Canadian society that she addresses more explicitly on the album, and that sets her apart from Desman’s ‘Get Ready’ and its ilk. Although Amanda was perceived as white by most of the Canadian public, her mother is black and from Trinidad, and much of Everybody’s Got a Story are her reflections on navigating racial identity and racism in Canada.
That said, Shawn Desman did get tapped as the hook guy for the 2003 remix of Rascalz’ Movie Star, so I guess he kind of has a co-sign?
Desman’s reference to his concurrent hit ‘Shook’ is either clever and cute intertextuality or blatant self-promotion, and the absence of the Sade namedrop in the Rascalz’ verses here makes me sad, but it’s still a pretty good track.
Shawn Desman - “Get Ready” [Shawn Desman] (2002), CAN#1
I mentioned all the way at the beginning of the blog that we’d eventually get to this guy, and thus here we are.
Shawn Desman (né Fernandes, but his friends called him “Des, man” hence the moniker) put out a single or two in Portuguese and danced in a Boomtang Boys video before turning into a popular-in-Canada R&B singer.
The staccato guitar and the dance breaks make me think they were aiming for an Usher-sort-of direction, possibly? But Usher Raymond is smooth, and the dorky enthusiasm with which Shawn dances and shakes for the random girls walking down the Toronto streets perhaps indicates that he’s trying a little too hard.
Mostly, ‘Get Ready’ is remembered for Shawn’s endless (and mildly grating) declarations that “This is how we rock it in the T-Dot,” popularizing the Toronto rap scene’s name for their hometown among thousands of suburban white Canadian teenagers.
Four years after the Rascalz turned down a 1998 Juno due to industry racism keeping the rap categories untelevised, Canadian hip hop saw significantly greater exposure — including Baby Blue Soundcrew, Jelleestone and the Rascalz themselves. Nonetheless, widespread pop success still required a Portuguese-Canadian white guy and a video that relegated black men to back-up dancers and DJs.
McMaster & James - “Love Wins Everytime” [McMaster & James] (2000), CAN#12
I’m not sure how two boys from Winnipeg put out a Adult Contemporary jam built around Latin guitar and a vague shuffle and horns and make it one of the more inescapable songs of early 2000s Canadian radio existence.
I’m not sure why they arrive to perform in a helicopter.
I’m not sure if this is really a cruising with the top-down with three girls in the back seat who are clearly not wearing seatbelts.
I assume it has something to do with their harmonies, though, because those are pretty on point.
Down With Webster - “One in a Million” (2013) CA#56
So the semester’s been intense and this little project has totally fallen by the wayside but it’s nearly summer and I figure this is as good a time as any to revive 49th Parallel Pop and give sloughing my way through the good, the bad and the ugly of CanCon.
And thus, on that note I present without comment the latest single from Down With Webster, which debuted at 56 on the Canadian charts this week. While I promise I will eventually get around to writing about the horror that is Down With Webster - probably via one of their earlier singles, which instead of being merely mediocre are actively painful, and pretty gross and dudely to boot.
Anyway, for now, enjoy this. I’ll be back ASAP.
Fefe Dobson - “Bye Bye Boyfriend” [Fefe Dobson] (2003), CA#8
Fefe Dobson suffered throughout her early career from constant comparisons to other artists. She languished in the industry for a while before getting signed because labels kept pigeon-holing her as an R&B singer. [HM I WONDER WHY? Sigh.] Then, her self-titled first album came out a year after Avril’s Let Go and the presence of guitars and vaguely mall-punk style ensured that all reviews mentioned ‘Sk8rboi’ at least once.
In an odd way, the Avril comparisons weren’t entirely inappropriate. Avril’s public image c. Let Go emphasized the rock and punk influences present in her music, but most of the album had a lighter touch and more pop sheen courtesy of The Matrix, ‘Losing Grip’ and ‘Unwanted’ excepted. Fefe’s debut, meanwhile, sounded the way Avril’s was supposed to sound. It opens with a doubletime thrash number about crushing on law-school bound prepsters, and halfway through includes four minutes of metal and rage about her deadbeat dad called ‘Unforgiven’.
Even the singles were drenched in guitar heavier than most Nickelback songs (including the romantic ballad included on a film soundtrack). Our first taste of this was the sublime ‘Bye Bye Boyfriend’, which I couldn’t stand for a while - it’s nowhere near as catchy as the album’s other singles, and when it came out I thought that the tonal shift from the verses to the chorus was too abrupt and disjointed. Now I’m convinced that it’s pretty much perfect.
'Bye Bye Boyfriend' opens with gently atmospheric guitar strumming, and just a hint of menace, while Fefe describes the emotional aftermath of a breakup, centring the verse on her ex-boyfriend's feelings.
Now you’re crying and you know that I’m to blame
And I’ll miss you, but it’s over now
Which is such a delicious depiction of entitlement-related dude feelings, especially given the way the rest of the song fills in the details. He knows with certainty that she is the sole person at fault in this breakup, while she’s going out of her way to try and soften the blow. How perfect a depiction of relationships with teenage boys is this?
Rather than jumping into the chorus, Fefe slides right into the second verse, starting with a delicately elongated “I’m so”, whose syllables she savours, still begging him not to hate her, but asserting herself nonetheless. Something about her delivery on those two words reminds me of Sarah Slean.
The build up to the chorus, finally, distorts her vocals as - from a distance - we’re told “but the guy that I fell for / he wanted more and more” (which, boundaries!) and then the crunch of the wall of guitars erupts and in no uncertain terms the pretty boy gets told to pack his bags and leave.
The next two verses are a constant stream of words, her tongue tripping over them as she tries to explain the trajectory of a bad relationship. Even when boys have pierced lips and tattoos and raggedy styles, sometimes everything they do and say is messed up.
You never put the effort in to the things that really counted
A word here, and a kiss there
Could change the way it’s turning out
You work so hard at all the things I never cared about
How hands work & fingers move & Eyes wide Shut
And baby I’m lonely
Though you’re right in front of me
You controlled me
That was the girl I used to be
Gave up myself
Well it’s over now
Which in one verse (in my experience/opinion, obviously) is much better at conveying the experience and feelings of having your boundaries crossed than Avril’s overly literal second-album attempts at similarly serious topics. The contrast of words and kisses with hands working and fingers moving, and the detachment of “eyes wide shut” is stark, especially leading into her assertion of loneliness and admission that he was a controlling asshole.
It’s all too real, a slowly dawning realization that all of the energy you invested into making excuses for an ex or placing their feelings and needs before your own was misplaced at best. It’s an escape from gaslighting, arguably. It’s a gradual shift and a difficult one to articulate, and capturing it in four minutes is impressive, to say the least.
~feelings~ aside, I think it’s incredibly important to watch Fefe’s facial expressions in the music video in the scenes when she’s playing with her band because she is so great at snarling and making ridiculous faces and communicating anger and mockery and brattiness and determination.
Amanda Marshall - “Birmingham” [Amanda Marshall] (1996), CAN#3, US#43
My tongue-in-cheek references at various points to Canadian radio pre-CanCon Pop Explosion as consisting mostly of Bryan Adams and Women & Songs compilations were gesturing at this - Jann Arden, Chantal Kreviazuk, Sarah McLachlan, Amanda Marshall, and the like. Earnest female singer-songwriters that triangulated Etheridge, Ani and something slightly less confrontational were Canada’s stock in trade for a long time.
Anyway, ‘Birmingham’ was Amanda Marshall’s biggest hit from the first portion of her career and it’s heavier than almost any song I would expect to hear on the radio today. Certainly, it’s not the sort of song likely to cross over to American radio in 2012. It’s a snapshot of a moment in time, a detailed picture of a woman leaving an abusive relationship. The verses are subdued and matter-of-fact before bursting into a fuller, more exuberant, aspirational chorus. (The saxophone solo in the bridge is another moment that renders this an unlikely hit, giving the whole song an air of jazz-roots-adult contemporary fusion.)
Oddly, the woman at ‘Birmingham”s centre never gets named, while her husband, Virgil Spencer, gets a name, a personality, a description, a presence. On the other hand, Marshall takes her audience through the gamut of emotions the woman experiences; despite her status as omniscient narrator, Marshall channels her protagonist’s perspective through regret, fear, anger, hope and relief. ‘Birmingham’ isn’t a public service announcement or a short story or a testimonial, and there are certainly touches of stereotype or cliché, but it’s an admirable attempt at conveying a complex and visceral experience in song.
Most of Amanda Marshall’s subsequent singles wouldn’t be this dark in subject matter, but the inspirational tone of the chorus would ground a number of hits over the last half of the 1990s. As did her voice, which is a beautifully grainy and well-supported instrument, capable of signifying bluesy grit, seduction, or ambivalent regret.
Bedouin Soundclash - “When the Night Feels My Song” [Sounding a Mosaic] (2005), CAN#1
The summer before I started university, this song was nigh-inescapable. An acoustic pop-roots-reggae number, I initially assumed it was a massive American adult contemporary hit that had crossed over north of the border.
There are two reasons for this. The first is that the only people I knew who loved this sort of music were the devotees of Dave Matthews Band and Dispatch and Jack Johnson who I knew from Jewish youth group, most of whom hailed from New York or Massachusetts or Cleveland or something.
The second reason was that ‘When The Night Feels My Song’ sounds uncannily like the sort of thing Paul Simon might release in 2005 if he were still capable of writing pop songs for people rather than for Grammy voters. And when I say “sounds like” I don’t mean just in terms of melody or the incorporation/appropriation of world music that has characterised much of his post-Simon & Garfunkel work; I mean that Jay Malinowski sounds so much like Paul Simon that I was convinced this was actually a Paul Simon song I had somehow never heard for months. Parts of the percussion here actually sound exactly like gumboot rhythms used on Graceland.
And that’s basically the most notable thing about this track, to be honest. It’s pleasant and catchy and compulsively listenable, and the instrumental portion appeared in a number of movie trailers, if I recall correctly, but that’s about it. It’s rare for an acoustic track like this to break out on the pop charts, even in Canada, and Bedouin Soundclash never repeated its success; the lead single from their next album reached #6, but nothing else ever did.
Mostly, though, it served to remind me that - three years pre-Vampire Weekend (lol) - the genre of ‘songs that sounds like Graceland' were overdue for a popular and critical revival.