Monday, May 30, 2016

Why the Tragically Hip are an important band

I’d heard rumors that Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie was sick, but it still came as a gut punch when I heard last week that he’s been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.

          One of the first thing people get to know about me is that I’m a huge Hip fan, and always have been.  My first album was Trouble at the Henhouse, and my love of the band had been steady since then.

          Gord Downie writes beautiful lyrics, and his delivery is unique.  Others are more qualified than me to comment on the musical/lyrical/performative chops of the band.  But The Tragically Hip aren’t just a good band, they’re an important band for Canada.

          Teaching Canadian politics to (mostly) 19 year old university students is an interesting experience.  Even though the age difference isn’t that huge, there is a noticeable difference in terms of cultural references and (to a degree) attitudes.  One of the most obvious examples was in discussions of political culture.

          Remember the ‘Joe from Canada’ ad?  Or Heritage Minutes?  That’s the Canada I grew up in.  A defensively nationalistic country where we apparently had to be reminded that we were Canadian, and how that wasn’t the same thing as being American.  And to be fair, a state in which my first political memories were of the country nearly being torn apart in the 1995 referendum. 

          Among all that, a singer, and a band, and a voice that told me, told all of us, what it could mean to be Canadian.  A band that crafted hit songs about the relationship between First Nations and Jacques Cartier, and taught us who Tom Thompson was, and retold the story of the October Crisis more viscerally than any academic tome ever could.  A band, and a singer, who helped shaped who we are now.    

          The country my students grew up in is not the Canada I grew up in.  It’s a more confident country, one in which we don’t need beer ads to reassure us we aren’t American, and don’t need government advertising to remind us of our history, and no small part of that transformation is thanks to the Tragically Hip. 

          The Canada of my students is, ultimately, one in which we may not need a Tragically Hip to help us define ourselves.  But, shit, man.  I still want to have them around.

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