Posted on December 7, 2017 by Tia Lalani

They’re far more a reflection of what you want them to be, say music scholars.


The Tragically Hip’s label as “Canada’s band” says more about the band’s fans and their vision of Canada than it does about the band. (Photo: David Bastedo via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The Tragically Hip themselves long resisted the title, but the handle “Canada’s band” has stuck to them almost from the beginning.

The outpouring of love across the country for frontman Gord Downie during the band’s farewell tour in the summer of 2016—and following his death last October—made it clear just how closely the band was linked to a sense of national pride. But beyond the hype and convenient tag, do the Hip really articulate Canadian identity, whatever that might be?

Only if you don’t look too closely, say University of Alberta musicologist Alexander Carpenter and his former undergraduate student, Ian Skinner.

It’s certainly true you can find any number of Canadian references in the Hip’s lyrics—from the wrongful conviction of David Milgaard in “Wheat Kings” to the grim musings of “At the Hundredth Meridian” to the ambiguously titled “Dark Canuck.”

But these references tend to be oblique and inconclusive, say Carpenter and Skinner, never arriving at clarity, begging more questions than answers.

“Every time you hear anything about the Hip, it’s ‘Canada’s band.’ So we asked, what can that possibly mean? You quickly realize it’s a useful tag for media, but the idea that they’re a band invested in Canadiana—that’s blown out the window fairly quickly.”

Hip’s music mired in ambiguity

Their inquiry was launched when Skinner wrote a paper for Carpenter’s senior musicology seminar at the U of A’s Augustana Campus. The study subjects the Hip’s catalogue to what’s called semiotic analysis, to find a coherent system of meaning that captures what it means to be Canadian. In a more recent collaboration, Carpenter expands Skinner’s argument with a psychoanalytic lens, examining how human desire might create meaning where it might not otherwise exist.


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