BOOKS AND ARTS NOVEMBER 9, 2012
If you've been listening to music, or reading books or paying attention to movies this year—all in all, if you've been vaguely conscious—you've probably noticed something strange, like a breeze of cold air or a whiff of syrup. You've sensed that your pop stars are bit more likeable than usual, your Hollywood hunks seem more polite and your hipster literary icons more self-deprecating. Don't panic. Just let the Canadian cultural invasion take you in, caress you with its be-mittened hands, and soothe you as it sings, "Hey, I just met you, and this is crazy …"
Canadians, far more so than usual, have been everywhere in American culture. We've given you Ryan Gosling, Ryan Reynolds, Seth Rogen, Rachel McAdams, Sheila Heti, and Carly Rae Jepsen. You can thank us for New York's still-thriving food trend (poutine), the year's best romantic drama (Take This Waltz), the electro-goth revival (Grimes, Austra, Purity Ring), buzzy R & B singers (The Weeknd), hipster dance albums (Crystal Castles) and the hottest hardcore act (Fucked Up). Xavier Dolan, who made his first film as a teenager and whose Laurence Anyways was the talk of Cannes, is the new gay hipster darling of the international art film world. We're currently aiding Iranian hostages in Argo, and David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis, filmed in Toronto with a largely Canadian cast, was a critical hit. And then there's Drake, and the whole Justin Bieber thing …
Of course, Canada has been responsible for supplying the U.S. with its leading men and oddball comedians for decades, but at the moment it seems like we're in the middle of a paradigm shift, in which Canada, long considered the U.S.'s boring, denim-wearing neighbor, has become America's leading purveyor of cool. This summer, Frank Ocean, one of the year's most talked about singers, even told The New York Times, that he was planning on relocating to, of all places, Toronto.
How did this happen? How did a land known for politeness and Rush and practical outerwear become a desirable, hip commodity? How did we, dare I say it, become cooler than Americans? And is this yet another symptom in the American crisis of confidence?
On one hand, you can credit the Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene, two unabashedly Canadian bands who pioneered the idea of Canuck coolness in the last half-decade—and put Montreal and Toronto, respectively, on the international hipster map. You can also blame the global recession, which, even as it's eviscerated the American economy, has left many parts of Canada largely untouched. You can blame generous Canadian arts grants, and free health care, and the (for the most part) demise of separatism, and the rise of what some magazines are calling "The Arcade Fire Generation" of self-confident young Canadians. Ever since the market crash, experts have been lauding the Canadian way of doing business, a fact that, I can only imagine, has gone a little bit to our heads.
But there's something else driving Americans to Canada's cultural bounty: the fact that most of our stars and our music and our movies share a subtle and sometimes even subliminal sense of wholesomeness.
Given the many catastrophes that have rocked the United States recently—a nasty election, apocalyptic job reports, the Midwestern drought, that Florida guy who died from eating too many cockroaches, and now Hurricane Sandy—it only makes sense that Americans would turn to Canada for something a little bit more comforting. And from Gosling to Carly Rae, there is something unarguably soothing about most of the Canadian contributions to the coolness economy. Even just by looking at many of these performers, you can sense they came from a good, stable place, like when you see children with rosy cheeks and warm knitwear and think, "Well that kid clearly had a good upbringing."
Canadian music and Canadian movies are rarely about violence or death or exploitive sex (David Cronenberg and The Weeknd, aside). Take This Waltz, which starred Michelle Williams as a Canadian writer, was, for example, a curiously buoyant film about adultery; Heti's novel, How Should a Person Be?, a darkly comic semi-autobiographical take on adult alienation in Toronto, tackles its subject matter with self-deprecating charm and reads like a smarter, more literate version of Girls; Carly Rae Jepsen and Justin Bieber's pop confections are unapologetically cheery and Grimes' dark electronic music is imbued with a sense of relentless whimsy. Drake, despite some recent bottle-throwing activities, has been a less flashy, more self-reflexive rapper than most. Even our scary rock bands are a little granola: Fucked Up, who recorded Spin's 2011 Album of the Year, perform at library benefits and donated much their first major music prize money to a charity for missing indigenous women.
Both Ryan Gosling and Ryan Reynolds, the world's current hunks du jour, embody quintessentially Canadian qualities. They both eschew scandal and like poking fun at themselves. They have a casually self-confident masculinity, slightly macho but also selfless and generous; if their personas are to be believed, they are the slightly eccentric men you take home to your mother, the men who comfort you when things are going bad, who make sure you're wearing a hat if it's cold out (or save you if you're about to be run over on a Manhattan street). In fact, one could argue that America's love affair with Ryan Gosling is a perfect metaphor for its newfound love affair with Canadian values.
But don't worry. Even if Canada has gone from being America's overlooked, forgotten little brother to the hip sibling who also happens to have good grades, that isn't a bad thing for Americans. In fact, it's nothing if not convenient for those of you who threaten, every four years, to move out of the country if the election doesn't turn out to your liking. If you ask nicely, we'll give you our number—and call you … maybe.