A decade-by-decade look through Canada’s music history
By Manus Hopkins
There is a handful of standout artists in music that have come to be known as uniquely Canadian exports. Canada has produced pop mega-stars like Celine Dion and Shania Twain, along with rock champions like Rush and The Tragically Hip, but it doesn’t stop there. There are hardly any areas of music history that haven’t been touched by Canadian talent.
It’s not uncommon to see Canadian music lodged in with American history. But a look at the evolution of exclusively Canadian music videos, dating back to the 1970s, can show that Canada has its own class of legends.
Though music videos started to appear in the 70s, they weren’t as important for artists to have as they are now. Back then, a band’s best hope of appearing on-screen was to be featured on a variety TV show like The Ed Sullivan Show. The landscape shifted throughout the decade as the seeds were planted for music videos to become a promotional must-have.
Though few prominent Canadian artists began making videos until the early 80s, the late 70s did see some bands hopping on the emerging music video train. The biggest wave of success for Toronto’s heavy prog rockers, Triumph, was their 1979 single “Lay It on the Line,” which had a live performance-based video to accompany it.
Music videos in general during the 1970s centered largely around clips of bands performing. They weren’t big productions yet, and most didn’t follow narratives. There were some exceptions from big-time artists. With lower production and marketing budgets, footage from live shows and shots from different angles could be edited together to make the final product more cinematic, but still simple enough.
With the birth of MTV (United States) in 1981, and Much Music (Canada) in 1984, the demand for and importance of bands’ videos was skyrocketing. Music video production was still in its infancy, however. Primitive clips like the studio footage in Rush’s videos for “Tom Sawyer” and “Limelight” from their 1981 album Moving Pictures were still commonplace. However, some Canadian bands--like Loverboy--were already making the type of videos the 80s would come to be known for. As MTV became more popular and the competition to be featured increased, the ante was upped for music videos.
Music videos became more than performance or studio clips in the mid 80s. Narratives, however loose, were intertwined with shots of bands miming with their instruments, though live performance shots were still often used. It became customary for singles to be released with music videos. Having videos played on MTV proved to be a successful way to promote upcoming records.
If you look at Bryan Adams’ “Summer of 69” video, the 80s MTV clip essence is captured perfectly. Clips shown on MTV often blended scenes of bands playing with action shots that added a thrill factor to the upbeat, good-time songs typically selected as singles. The format was versatile and reached across genre boundaries. Songs from new wave balladeers Glass Tiger’s “Someday,” to thrash metal titans Annihilator’s“Alice in Hell,” used this video style. It would eventually make a resurgence in the 21st century, though it never fully went away.
By the end of the 80s, the wild rock n’ roll rollercoaster that had been the soundtrack to the decade was coming to an end. Mainstream and popular music in the early 1990s took a turn for the more serious. This was reflected in the music videos of the time, as the use of dimmer, gloomy lighting took over the bright, shiny look of the 80s.
The early 90s had its moments of music and videos that seemed to be left over from the 80s such as Tom Cochrane’s “Life is a Highway” in 1991. But the music world of the 90s was far different from its predecessor.
While new artists were emerging, some older Canadian artists fit comfortably into the new scene as well. Folk rocker Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” video, released as a single from his 1992 album of the same name embodies the 90s vibe. The video still shows shots of Young’s band performing between the semi-narrative sequences, but the 80s-style action shots are replaced with the melancholy scenes of couples dancing.
The Tragically Hip rose to prominence in those years, capitalizing on the 90s video techniques. Their videos for tracks such as “Courage” and “Ahead by a Century” use dim lighting and somber imagery to accompany the songs’ messages. Singles no longer had to be feel-good rock anthems and uplifting ballads to become hit songs. Even Celine Dion, Canada’s top selling artist of all time, had hits with downtempo, sad songs throughout the 90s, her music videos often displaying a kind of drab cinematography.
Towards the end of the 90s, the climate started to shift again, and the 2000s brought another new era for music and videos. With pop artists like Shania Twain climbing to chart-topping success in the late 90s and maintaining it into the next decade, fun was put back into Canadian music videos. While some 90s-style alternative rock bands like Nickelback stayed successful and continued making 90s-looking videos, Canadian pop-punk also took a rise in the 00s. The new charge was led by bands like Sum 41, Simple Plan and Billy Talent. 80s-style narrative sequences were once again ubiquitous, as seen in Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated,” probably one of the best-known Canadian music videos ever.
Near the end of the 2000s and into the next decade, Canada continued to produce more pop megastars. Singers like Justin Bieber and Carly Rae Jepsen became overnight sensations, their videos often splicing lip-syncing shots with romance-based narratives, such as their videos for “Baby” and “Call Me Maybe” respectively.
The current decade has also seen breakthroughs in Canadian hip hop, with The Weeknd and Drake soaring to superstardom. The big names of today have high video production budgets as well. The Weeknd’s video for “Can’t Feel My Face” has a simple enough structure, but its state-of-the-art lighting, camera work and visual effects distinguish it. It’s set in a nightclub, with coloured lighting intensifying each shot, as the cameras make use of the occasional glares, and shoot scenes from pretty much every possible angle. The resolution is also much clearer than seen in decades past. The special effects artists of The Weeknd’s calibre have access to takes their videos a step up. In “Can’t Feel My Face,” the singer spends the last minute of the video dancing while engulfed in flames, something that’s made possible by modern video technology.
YouTube has become a prominent platform for music videos in the past decade as well. A video’s success is now measured by how many YouTube views it has amassed. Justin Bieber, Drake and The Weeknd each have music videos with over one billion views. As technology advances and professional-quality equipment becomes more accessible, we could be entering a new age of music videos in the coming years, the groundwork laid by the chart-toppers of today.