Canadian Journal of Communication Vol 43 (2018) 221–244 
©2018 Canadian Journal of Communication Corporation

Popular Music and Canadian National Identity

J. Richard Pattinson, University of Northern British Columbia

J. Richard Pattinson, PhD, is an ELS Associate at the University of Northern British Columbia. Email: .


Background  This article discusses citizen reactions to select musicians and/or their music in terms of Canadian national identity symbols.

Analysis  A theoretical discussion of music as an identity marker is framed within nationalism theories and criteria for “national” music are proposed. The roles of popular culture and music are subsequently examined as mnemonic devices. Finally, the Canadian situation in terms of national identity, American influence, and Canadian music are briefly summarized, with suggested guidelines for government accreditation of Canadian music. The second part of the article relates a research project focusing on citizen reaction to Canadian music in terms of national identity, with comparisons made with responses to American musicians.

Conclusions and implications  The findings indicate a generally favourable response to most of the selected musicians with regard to the musicians as identity symbols.

Keywords  Popular music; National identity; Canadian identity; Linguistics; Symbols


Contexte  Cet article commente les réactions de citoyens envers certains musiciens et/ou leur musique comme symboles d’identité canadienne.

Analyse  Cet article discute de la musique comme indicatrice d’identité dans le cadre de théories sur le nationalisme tout en proposant des critères pour reconnaître ce que serait une musique « nationale ». Par la suite, il examine les rôles de la culture et de la musique populaires comme outils mnémotechniques. Enfin, il résume brièvement la situation canadienne actuelle en fonction d’identité nationale, d’influence américaine et de musique canadienne, et suggère des lignes directrices pour l’accréditation gouvernementale de la musique canadienne. En seconde partie, cet article présente un projet de recherche sur la réaction de citoyens envers la musique canadienne par rapport à l’identité nationale avec comme point de comparaison des réactions envers des musiciens américains.

Conclusions et implications Les données indiquent une réaction généralement favorable à l’égard de la plupart des musiciens sélectionnés comme symboles identitaires.

Mots clés  Musique populaire; Identité nationale; Identité canadienne; Linguistique; Symboles


If you start me up, I’ll never stop.
(Jagger & Richards, 1981)

By default, the term popular music is a contradiction, as it suggests that there should be a category of “unpopular music.” All music is popular, though not for all people. Through a process of eliminating attempts at defining it, John Connell and Chris Gibson (2003) reasoned that there cannot be a formal definition of popular music. Lacking such a definition, this articles determines that popular music is recognized as a socially constructed phenomenon in much the same manner as Benedict Anderson’s (1991) imagined communities, in which members of a society share an understanding of what their society is without necessarily having the ability to transcribe their understanding to words. The following caveats also apply: 1) the music is distributed by and easily available via mass media (Middleton, 1990); 2) it is somewhat time-sensitive in that it often only has current relevance; 3) it can be mythologized by being subcategorized as classical pop or classical rock; 4) it is understood to be mainstream music, the dominant trend/taste of the masses; and 5) it sources from the developed societies of the industrialized West (Middleton, 1990). This article focuses on popular music and Canadian national identity with regard to American cultural dominance and a perceived lack of national identity in contemporary Canada, an issue of special importance to historians, ethnomusicologists, scholars of media studies or Canadian identity, the Canadian government—especially the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC)—and perhaps Canadians in general.

Until recently, there has been a scarcity of academic research on the subject of pop music as a national identity symbol (Weisethaunet, 2007; see also Folkestad, 2002), yet the importance of pop music as a conduit for national ideologies, histories, experiences, and values is immeasurable. Ken McLeod (2011) indicates how certain genres of popular music are “stereotypically representative of national identity” (p. 163), using Jamaican reggae and American country or blues music as examples. Andy Bennet (2001) adds that during the 1960s “music became … [a] medium for dissemination of social-political issues” (p. 30), and that it can express feelings of unity or create a collective bond between its listeners and their shared understanding of its message. As McLeod (2011) so aptly expresses, popular music is “a cultural [expression] of the modern and postmodern era[s]” (p. 7). 


It’s written in the books in the literature that I’ve read.
(Hucknall, 1987)

Music as an identity marker

Who are you?
(Townshend, 1977)

In Britishness, Popular Music, and National Identity, Irene Morra (2014) creates a convincing argument for pop music being symbolic of the British national identity:

The Beatles and their contemporaries … represent a social and cultural revolution that ushered in the Swinging Sixties and “modern Britain” … the Sex Pistols manifested a new generation of disaffected youth. The Clash and the Specials transformed that energy into a vital social activism. The Jam embodied the people’s rebellious resistance to Thatcherism, the Smiths an equally rebellious and emphatic individualism. (p. 11) 

Morra’s argument that pop music both mirrors and expresses a social and a national history is supported by Larry Starr and Christopher Waterman (2003), who assert that “music is one important medium through which we formulate and express our identity” (p. 4). This does not imply that pop music must mirror national identity. Roy Shuker (2005), in contrast to Starr and Waterman (2003), notes that certain types of pop music from New Zealand lack a national denotation, a point echoed by Nabeel Zuberi (2007) who feels that it is not necessary to produce national identity during the creative process. That being said, it is difficult to determine whether or not at least some aspects of national identity are not reproduced, rather than produced, during the creative process. Perhaps, as Shuker (2005) summarizes, “national music” may simply be the adoption of what is international to the local level.

These notions summarize two opposing theoretical standpoints concerning national music histories (Weisethaunet, 2007). On the one hand there are those that affirm that at least part of the national heritage resides in music, while the opposing view is that the “foreign” transforms to the domestic. There are inherent problems with the latter view, however. First, despite the lack of a requirement to engender national characteristics during the transformation of foreign music into domestic, surely there must be some influence from the national collective consciousness in order for this transformation to occur at all. Otherwise, the music would simply remain “foreign.” Second, the “foreign” must, at some point and place, begin as “domestic,” with perhaps some inherently national influences as part of its creation. Zuberi (2007) states it is not necessary to insert the “national” while creating music (2007), and many artists create what might simply be referred to as “chart music” without national overtones. Most Elton John music, for instance, would fit this description. However, at some point it must be difficult not to do so. Felix Keesing (1965) has noted the “universal tendency for any people to put its own culture and society in a central position of priority and worth” (p. 46) (see also Porter & Samovar, 1997; Ting-Toomey, 1999), and as such it would seem difficult, if not impossible, to consistently circumvent the creative process without putting some of one’s own identity into what is being created. Eventually, it seems probable that some music would contain either direct or indirect references to the nation. Third, and perhaps most important, is the commonality that citizens mentally create through sharing experiences, values, and histories via the medium of pop music, despite never having met the vast majority of their fellow citizens (Anderson, 1991). Truly, if the concept of shared imagined communities is accepted, then the idea that certain media play an important part in said sharing must also be accepted, including the medium of pop music.

Either local or global culture can be represented in music—it is simply a matter of perspective. Using Bruce Springsteen as an example, it is clear that many of his songs represent “working class issues,” which Connell and Gibson (2003) determine “[evoke] notions of community and local identity” (p. 42) displaying “the murky reality of the American dream” (Frith, 1988, p. 98). Utilizing Anderson’s notion of imagined communities, it can then be argued that people living in far-flung countries can apply Springsteen’s values to their own situation given that they find it authentic. Bennett (2001) illustrates how both reggae and punk began as local music, lending voice to social criticism of colonialism and marginalization, respectively. He describes how both became global music, and in the process of doing so, punk in particular became passé in its birthplace, Britain. From global music, both were reborn as local music in different locales, with slightly different connotations in their new settings, and occasionally re-became global music. For example, reggae became local in the United Kingdom, as music performed by non-Caribbean groups such as the Police; in the process, reggae lost the political message it contained as Jamaican music. Punk became “Hungarianized,” where youth lamented socioeconomic decline caused by the failure of socialism. In essence, the local became global, which in turn became a new version of local. 

The nation 

The face of the nation keeps changing and changing.
(Mellencamp, 1985)

To better understand “national” pop music, it is necessary to examine the concepts of nation formation and nationalism. A nation must be far more than an area with imaginary lines around it. Henri Tajfel (1981) declares that a nation can only exist if its people believe they belong to it and self-categorize themselves as “we” and exclude others who are “not we,” remaining as parts of such a collective as long as it results in a positive outcome. Rather than focus on the concept of nation, it is more practical to focus on nation formation, which will better encapsulate the relationship between pop music and identity. There are three general theories of nation formation that often form part of academic debate: primordialism, modernism, and postmodernism.

Nation formation: Theoretical concepts

It’s another fine day of nation-building, let’s have a parade.
(Jollett & Harmon, 2011)

Primordialism—and its close cousin, perennialism—is the belief that modern nations are the descendants of ancient constructs based upon kinship, shared origin, and the concept of a “homeland,” where a basic biological need to form a nation is the driving force. The important commonality between both of these themes is that of history—both ascribe to ancient traditions, myths, and ethnic and family ties. The most distinguished proponent of the perennialist view is Anthony D. Smith (1986), who believes that the concept of ancient ancestral territory with emotive ties, which he calls “homeland,” is necessary, heroes and golden ages are explicitly symbolic, and that ethnic nuclei are essential for the survival of the state. A “soft” version of primordialism asserts that a common homeland, with an accompanying history and mythology, can supplant the requirements of kinship or cultural heritage (Joireman, 2003). Being an immigrant nation disqualifies Canada as primordial, excepting the indigenous population.

Ernest Gellner (1983) offers a different and modernist theory of nationalism, herein referred to as “modernism,” in which nations are created by social conditions such as industrialization, education, and outgrowths of the latter, such as mass communication. Gellner believes that the modern nation as it is presently understood began around the time of the French Revolution, although others have ascribed it to different events at or around the same time period, such as the rise of the Industrial Age. While history is still an essential part of the nation (Conversi, 2006; see also Block, 2006; Miller, 1992; Wrong, 2000), it is not fixed on an ethnically inspired historical beginning, as in primordialism, but can evolve as the nation evolves or be from a range of cultures (Hutchinson & Smith, 1996). In many ways Canada could be classified as a modernist nation.

A third view is that of the postmodernist nation. Anderson (1991) defines a nation as an “imagined political community—and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. … Communities are to be distinguished … by the style in which they are imagined” (p. 6). He further elaborates, describing the nation as imagined, as its unity lies within the minds of its members, despite their never having met as a collective whole; as limited, due to its (political) boundaries or the boundaries set upon it by its members; as sovereign in its right to self-determination; and as a community because, despite internal social inequalities, each member is part of a community of equal membership. Identity in such a nation is socially constructed, not bestowed (Walker, 2001). Maintenance of a postmodernist nation is by means of modern-day national symbols, which are purposefully selected, overtly exhibited, and ubiquitous (Smith, 2001). National character may be created through the representations of the nation in literature and its analysis (and presumably, other cultural media) and selected history. Indeed, “we often learn to construct identities in the present and so not to allow ourselves to be influenced by the narratives of the past” (Seidler, 1998, p. 122). Maurice Roche (2000) suggests that instead of building commonality around a common past, postmodernism is based more on a common present and common future. In many respects, Canada could also qualify as a postmodernist nation, especially in recent years as multiculturalism has become a larger part of what it means to be Canadian.

In postmodern nations there is no uniformity of identity, a situation largely attributable to globalization, where homogeneity of all cultures occurs, obscuring the differences between nations, and also the fragmentation of the imagined unity within the nation (Walker, 2001). Linda Hutcheon (1988) notes a paradox within the ideal of postmodernism, revealing a contradiction between establishing a set of values and norms and later challenging their stature as icons of culture. She notes that in postmodernism it is not the product that is of import as much as it is the process of conceiving of, recording, sharing, and interpreting what is important. Jean-François Lyotard and Jean-Loup Thébaud (1985) affirm that under postmodernism the process of judgement requires individuals to disregard all principles and replace them with feelings. Objective reality vanishes and is substituted with individual accounts of reality, with “nothing [lying] ‘behind’ or ‘beyond’ this web of illusion” (Grenz, 1996, p. 93). Douglas Kellner (1992) describes “a fragmented, disjointed, and discontinuous mode of experience [as] a fundamental characteristic of postmodern culture”(p. 144). For the purpose of this article, the main differences between modernism and postmodernism are taken to be: an attachment to past history versus its abandonment in favour of present/future history, and/or a (postmodernist) socially constructed national identity.


I believe in a promised land.
(Springsteen, 1977)

Nationalism is often described in two opposing constructs, ethnic nationalism and civic nationalism, which are sometimes referred to as Eastern (ethnic) and Western (civic) nationalisms, due to the geographic tendency toward one type or the other (Greenfeld, 2001). Anthony Smith (1986) similarly divides the two as Eastern being based on ethnicity and Western being based on territory, or political boundaries. In ethnic nationalism, group membership is distinguished by terms of ethnicity and excludes those not members of the dominant or ruling group, while those from this group are afforded favourable treatment. Huntington’s (1996) Clash of Civilizations is perhaps the best known modern theory describing this philosophy, with nations becoming less important in favour of conventional groupings based on cultural and ethnic ties.

Civic nationalism, on the other hand, aims at involvement over exclusion, and protects the rights of all societal members equally (Ramet, 1997). Individual rights-afforded members of society are of importance in civic nationalism. Michael Billig’s (1995) theory of “banal nationalism” is of this latter type, where deep-rooted histories and myths common to ethnic nationalism are replaced by ritual observances of national identity where constant “flagging”—repetition—of national identity continually reminds societal members of what the homeland is and their place as members in it through symbols such as flags, banknotes, and visual/performing arts. Ritualized re-imagining of the homeland and its values constantly reinvents national identity through political speeches and the like and is disseminated through mass media. Postmodernism is heavily reliant upon flagging, both as conscious and subconscious reminders of nationalism, yet at the same time reinventions of the self and the nation.

Civic nationalism is supportive of a state structure rather than shared origin, heritage, or culture. It also attempts to overcome ethnic nationalism with the goal of the citizenry considering themselves as citizens of the nation rather than identifying as hyphenates or transplants, and in doing so, creating a homogenous society with similar group values and behaviours despite ethnic differences.

The question might arise as to whether Canada is modernist or postmodernist, or ethnically or civically nationalist. The answer may lie somewhere in between, with elements of all present. Older Canadians may tend to be more modernist, dependent upon their abilities to adapt to a changing society versus clinging to their pre-established concepts of the nation, whereas younger Canadians, being brought up in a world that has been more globalized than in the past, may focus more on the “here and now” prevalent in a postmodernist view. Similarly, immigrants from countries in which commonality of ethnicity is the norm may have a bias toward ethnic nationalism even in their adopted country, whereas citizens whose experiences have included maturing in a multicultural society would possibly lean toward civic nationalism. The real issue here is not what Canadian society is, but rather, if popular music provides listeners the means to visit and revisit the Canada they understand through this medium.

Criteria for “national” music 

Ain’t nothing like the real thing 
(Ashford & Simpson, 1967)

It is appropriate to begin this discussion with an analysis of the listeners themselves and their role in identity-creation through pop music. The listeners themselves cannot be ignored when defining criteria necessary for music to become “national.” Allan Moore (2002) describes music and identity in terms of a feeling of authenticity for the listeners, in three persons, dependent on the verbal and/or non-verbal cues given to the listeners. 

First person authenticity describes the values, experiences, and beliefs of one’s own situation, which “arises when an originator (composer, performer) succeeds in conveying the impression that his/her utterance is one of integrity, that it represents an attempt to communicate in an unmediated form with an audience” (Moore, 2002, p. 214). In short, the audience believes that the artist’s words convey an accurate impression of his or her own feelings, values, experiences, or beliefs. Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours would be a prime example of this in that it relates well-publicized details of the interrelationships of the group members at that particular point in time.

Second person authenticity describes the situation of the listeners, or “you” to the singer/writer. This “occurs when a performance succeeds in conveying the impression to a listener that that listener’s experience of life is being validated, that the music is ‘telling it like it is’ for them” (Moore, 2002, p. 220). Adele’s “Someone Like You” would appear to fit this criteria. Though initially a first person experience, concert footage indicates it is likely very personal for many audience members.

Third person authenticity “arises when a performer succeeds in conveying the impression of accurately conveying the expression of an (absent) other” (Moore, 2002, p. 218). Moore describes this in terms of an artist adopting the conventions of another artist, expressing “this is what it was like to be …” (p. 215). This article maintains that third person authenticity can also be expressing feelings, values, et cetera of larger groups, including the nation, with the larger groups (or nation) being the “absent others.” If listeners determine that the performance represents the views of “others,” then third person authenticity occurs. In such a manner, the “local” can be transferred to the global by sharing the perspective of absent others with the listeners. An example of this would be Neil Young’s “Southern Man,” in which Young describes his understanding of racists in the American south. Along these lines, it is worth referring to Connell and Gibson’s (2004) observation that the globalization of music makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to verify authenticity. Thus, this article argues that the local is extremely important in terms of national pop music.

These persons are not mutually exclusive, and can occur in combination. For example, the lyrics of Neil Young’s “Ohio” (1970) relate:

Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago

Here Young relates his opposition to the Vietnam War and the associated domestic tragedies, specifically at Kent State. His mention of “us” can help those who share his beliefs show that this is also true of their worldview. The lyrics can also represent how those supporting the war assess those who oppose it (the “damn hippies” are causing trouble again). All three persons can be simultaneously represented here.

There are many ways that pop music can represent the authentic views of both a modernist nation as well as an imagined postmodernist one. In defense of the position that music can be a receptacle for the national heritage—and thus a conduit of national identity—Tim Edensor (2002) emphasizes the importance of audio/visual media in permitting citizenry to create and share an imagined community, while Scott Piroth (2008) asserts that collectivity is created more through music than through prose. Thus, music plays an important role in the creation and maintenance of a national identity (Connell & Gibson, 2003; Diamond & Witmer, 1994; Folkestad, 2002; Frith, 2004; O’Flynn, 2007; Stokes, 1994), and in many ways, it can also influence national identity by furthering the development of a sense of place, especially landscapes and regions (Biddle & Knights, 2007; Bohlman, 2002; O’Flynn, 2007; see also Piroth, 2008; Stratton, 2006). Hans Weisethaunet (2007) expands this even further, describing a tendency to associate music with a place, and how the physical and social experiences of a certain place might be reflected in the music. The naming or defining (Stokes, 1994) of a place can thus enable identity-based myths to evolve (Biddle & Knights, 2007; Lehr, 1994) or further group bonds and collectivity (Folkestad, 2002; Frith, 2004; O’Flynn, 2007). A sense of place would further a collective bond in a modernist interpretation by mythologizing specific places, regions, and/or landscapes of the nation as part of the nation’s history. On the other hand, a postmodernist perspective can also be established through a sense of place. For example, though not a part of popular music to date, ground zero in New York City instantaneously became flagged as a special place in terms of American nationalism.

Music can also create and maintain national identity by signifying a reflection of socioeconomic and political elements that stand in for a collective (Stokes, 1994), or by representing the comprehension of and relation to events (Biddle et al., 2007; Stokes, 1994) or experiences (Frith, 1996; O’Flynn, 2007) through the embodiment of so-called “national” values (O’Flynn, 2007). Jon Stratton (2006) specifically cites the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen as evocative of national values, while Piroth (2008) goes so far as to suggest that pop music has the power to formulate the values, specifically the political and social values, of the young, which would likely be especially effective under postmodernist attitudes. Piroth (2008) and Weisethaunet (2007) both describe pop music as recording national histories, narratives, and experiences, which would be expressly effective in modernist stances. Weisethaunet (2007) believes that “elements of a culture which have commonly been considered ‘trivial’ aspects of everyday life are central to understanding people’s (and a nation’s) experiences in a historical perspective” (p. 185). Pop music can also mirror national worldviews and ideologies (see Piroth 2008; Weisethaunet, 2007), and it can allow the listeners to perceive themselves as citizens of the nation (Bohlman, 2004) and also formulate and express their identity (Starr & Waterman, 2003). The ways in which the music of Wagner was appropriated and manipulated by the Nazi Party in virtually all the manners described above are indicative of music’s influence in the creation and/or maintenance of national identity (Applegate & Potter, 2002). Though not “pop music” per se, although at one time it may have been regarded as such, this example certainly demonstrates the power of music with regard to national identity.

The artists themselves can also be representative of their culture via the music itself or the persona of the artists and their views on social issues of a particular culture (O’Flynn, 2007). In his detailed analysis of the German group Rammstein, Robert Burns (2008) specifically notes the visuals in the live performances as being reminiscent of prewar Germany, citing imagery that could be connected to the Nuremberg rallies. He also discusses vocal style characteristic of the nation, in this case Germany, but that may be more evident in reggae music or Celtic/Gaelic music being symbolic of Jamaica and Ireland, respectively. This can also be said of the particular melodic style of music containing elements commonly associated with certain countries, as per the two examples above. In addition, the artists themselves may portray a certain national characteristic. Bruce Springsteen, mentioned earlier, often evokes a blue collar/working class image (Frith, 1988), not only in his music but in the way he presents his persona (Connell & Gibson, 2003). Johnny Cash, seen as a deeply religious man of the people, was another artist whose persona enhanced his status as a national icon.

Globally there has been very little empirical research focusing primarily on national identity and pop music (Folkestad, 2002), and as such it is relatively safe to say that in the Canadian context there is next to nothing in terms of such research. Canadian music has borrowed heavily from other sources, while American musicians took their borrowed music and added their own experiences and beliefs, creating a newness to the point where many Americans believe that aspects of their culture are embedded in certain types of music, namely jazz and rock (Hebert & Campbell, 2000; Wright, 1994), a phenomenon that has not occurred in Canadian music (Cockburn, cited in Wright, 1994). American composers defined themselves and their music, somewhat indicative of the individualism valued by their nation; Canadian composers, however, waited for the moment when society—the collective valued by Canadians—would define their music. This moment never arrived (Poirier, 1994). Canadian pop musicians of the 20th and 21st centuries have essentially been subsumed by the juggernaut of the Canadian airwaves, American music, and its demands (Pegley, 2000), including American myths, beliefs, and values. Essentially, Canadian pop music is indistinguishable from other music, especially American, and there is no distinct style of Canadian music (Fredlund, 2000).

The role of popular culture 

Now art’s in pop culture in me.
(Germanotta, Blair, Zisis, Monson, Bresso, 
Mercier, Arias, & Grigahcine, 2013)

Pop music is assuredly one facet of what is known as popular culture; therefore, a working definition of the latter term is necessary. Ray Browne (2006, p. 21) relates an unnamed “serious scholar” as defining a total culture as “the body of intellectual and imaginative work which each generation receives,” referring to pop culture as encompassing all levels of society other than elite culture. Jack Nachbar and Kevin Lause (1992) reaffirm the temporal aspect, describing popular culture as the “spirit of an era” (p. 4). Marcel Danesi (2012) adds that pop culture is not a “timeless universal” (p. 5), although some elements of popular culture can become classic or iconic. This description is especially helpful in determining the use of the term popular culture.

Here, popular culture is determined as the body of intellect and creativity representing the masses at a particular time. This temporal aspect could consign music as a symbol of national identity to a carousel of constant change; however, this article argues that some popular music can transcend the temporal and become “classic,” as in “classic rock.” Some of this music can be retained by at least some of the population as representative of their imagined national community, and might be taken up by a later group and become part of that group’s imagined community, and in turn, the new group’s popular culture. In doing so, the music becomes iconic as it symbolizes more than its own era, and begins to increasingly enter the public consciousness and perhaps attain status as a core symbol. There is the possibility of symbols directly progressing to core status without necessarily being initially discarded. 

Music and memory

Precious memories, how they linger.
(Wright, 1877)

For this article, memory refers to the shared collection of histories, artefacts, symbols, values, emotions, experiences, and the like that contribute to group identity—in this case the group is the members of a nation, or a significant portion of the nation—and can be recognized by non-group members.

“National” music infers that there is an emotional response occurring between the music and the listener. Patrik Juslin (2011) names seven mental mechanisms that arouse emotional memory in listeners, four of which are relevant to this discussion. The first of these is evaluative conditioning, where an association with a positive or negative stimulus occurs. This conditioning aspect can now be enhanced through the ability to repeatedly imagine group values through the nature of today’s media, such as having the power to purchase or download music, listening to music on the radio, satellite, or internet, or seeing the visual imagery that accompanies music on sources such as MTV. The second is rhythmic entrainment, where the rhythm of music triggers an emotional response. This would be true for reggae or Celtic music, as mentioned earlier, and may be true for certain regions of Canada such as the Maritimes, where much local music is Celtic in origin. In turn, this may create enough of an imagined community that music from the Maritimes could be considered national music, but it would be more truthful to label it as local or regional music. If, however, enough of the national imagined community regarded the Maritimes as part of the Canadian whole, it indeed could be classified as national music. Third is visual imagery, where the music triggers the conjuring of inner images. The naming of places and mirroring of so-called national values, experiences, and histories in music may well trigger such images, and the sharing of such images would then possibly create a national music. Finally, there is episodic memory, which triggers a personal memory for the listener as a reminder of a valued past event. Though these memories are personal, if they should also be shared memories they can enter the realm of the national identity. As examples of this, Weisethaunet (2007) cites Dylan’s performance at the Newport Folk Festival and Jimi Hendrix’s at Woodstock. In a Canadian context, Neil Young’s performance at the 2010 Olympic closing ceremonies or k.d. lang’s performance at the 2005 Juno Awards, though obviously lesser in scale, might have entered the national memory of many Canadians, and perhaps thus gained some form of iconic status.

Pop music is consistently flagged through being played on a contemporary playlist, re-played as an “oldie,” re-covered by other artists, included on a soundtrack to visual arts, such as television or film, or used as a jingle for advertisements, among other ways. “Flagging” in this sense refers to a way of heralding, mythologizing, or bringing an item to the attention of a group or the general population via constant reminders and can be used as a means toward identity formation (Billig, 1995). Through such reminding, pop music, as with other symbols of identity, can enter the collective memory of a people.

The Canadian situation

I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in.
(Newbury, 1967)

Canadian popular music does not live in a vacuum. The sheer hegemony of American popular culture threatens the boundaries between the two countries, as well as Canadian identity itself (Taras, 1997). Any possible Canadian commonality through the media, sport, or music is under threat due to American conglomerates that not only produce overwhelming quantities of American culture for Canadian exposure but also control its distribution (Mathews, 1988; Taras, 1997). This control of the distribution of Canadian music being controlled by primarily American interests results in the music that is produced favouring American market demands and appealing to American listeners (Lehr, 1994). In facing the realities of producing music for a market much larger than the Canadian one, Canadian composers and musicians have been and continue to be strongly biased toward the existing myths of American regions, places, and experiences and produce very little “Canadian” content in terms of values and places (Lehr, 1994). Most Canadian musicians have integrated into American mainstream pop music (Wright, 1994) and are relatively unknown on the national Canadian scene until they first emerge in the U.S. (Fredlund, 2000).

In stark contrast, Stratton (2006) gives a chronicled history of the development of Australian national music, describing experiences of struggling musicians gaining national exposure through appearances on the popular music show Countdown, or through extensive touring, despite the radio industry’s infatuation with British and American music. Eventually, the recounting of specific Australian experiences became standard, beginning mainly with place-naming, but culminating in the naming of Australian values and experiences. Stratton specifically details Midnight Oil’s lyrical focus on Aboriginal rights and Men At Work’s lament for the economic despoiling of their country. While Australian musicians have been busy creating and describing their national character through pop music, Canadian musicians have been busy selling out to America. Examples of this include Neil Young’s “Alabama,” the Tragically Hip’s “New Orleans is Sinking,” or the tendency of many Canadian musicians to record live albums in American venues as opposed to Canadian ones, such as Michael Bublé Meets Madison Square Garden. If the goal of homegrown Canadian musicians is simply to make it in America, then perhaps Canadians should stop referring to them as “Canadian bands.” Americans are constantly being reminded of their national values, mythologies, and memorable places—“Georgia on My Mind,” “Born in the USA,” and “New York, New York”come prominently to mind here—but it is highly likely that Canadians are more familiar with the American identity portrayed in music than their own country’s identity rendered in the same medium.

The Canadian Radio–television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) (1974) was established in 1968, and its main mandate is to enforce Canadian content regulations, though it has criticized its own existence by stating

It is a discouraging fact for anyone who has confidence in this country that administrative bodies like the CRTC have to initiate lengthy deliberations, make complicated recommendations and even resort to establishing quotas in order to ensure that Canadian accomplishments … have their rightful place on our airwaves. (p. 28)

The CRTC has attempted to protect and enhance a particularly “Canadian” music as one of its directives. What has ensued is an environment where Canadian artists have generally flourished, but a distinctly Canadian style has not. The CRTC demands that 30 percent of all recorded music in Canada must meet TWO of the following criteria: 1) an exclusively Canadian performance of instrumentation or lyrics; 2) the music must be exclusively Canadian-composed; 3) the lyrics must be exclusively Canadian-written; 4) a live performance must be wholly recorded in Canada or broadcast live in Canada. The end result of these verifies the nationality of the author, musician, or the performance as Canadian, but not the content. As such, there is no stipulation for a particularly Canadian theme to the music.

This could perhaps be remedied to some extent by establishing a scorecard similar to that used by Immigration Canada to determine eligibility for admission to Canada, based on a points system. Using the stipulations from the Broadcasting Act(1991), points could be awarded to musicians, with higher points resulting in higher public exposure or perhaps grants toward recording or producing. Below is an edited version of the act, with two separate entities described—the system itself, which includes radio and television programming in general, and the Corporation, which specifically refers to the government-run broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). 

(d) the Canadian broadcasting system should
(i) serve to safeguard, enrich and strengthen the cultural, political, social and economic fabric of Canada,
(ii) encourage the development of Canadian expression by providing a wide range of programming that reflects Canadian attitudes, opinions, ideas, values and artistic creativity, by displaying Canadian talent in entertainment programming and by offering information and analysis concerning Canada and other countries from a Canadian point of view,
(iii) through its programming and the employment opportunities arising out of its operations, serve the needs and interests, and reflect the circumstances and aspirations, of Canadian men, women and children, including equal rights, the linguistic duality and multicultural and multiracial nature of Canadian society and the special place of aboriginal peoples within that society
(m) the programming provided by the Corporation should
(ii) reflect Canada and its regions to national and regional audiences, while serving the special needs of those regions,
(vi) contribute to shared national consciousness and identity,
(viii) reflect the multicultural and multiracial nature of Canada.(Justice Laws Website, 2016)

At present, there appears to be little to no evidence that many Canadian pop musicians focus on the cultural or social environment in Canada, nor do they manifest particularly Canadian attitudes, opinions, values, or ideas, nor do they offer information and analysis concerning Canada, much less from a Canadian perspective. In addition, there is an apparent lack of focus on the land itself and/or regions, present themes related to Canadian multiculturalism, or any other means of promoting a specifically Canadian identity. Adoption of this or a similar system would be much more beneficial than merely promoting musicians who happen to be born in Canada, regardless of where they presently reside, and would assist in the creation of a somewhat Canadian form of popular music. Tom Cochrane’s “Big League” would rank high on such a scale, chronicling the dream of many young Canadians of becoming professional hockey players.

Also conspicuous in its absence is any reference to Canadian diversity, either lyrically or in style of music. A lengthy list of scholars affirms that it is in multiculturalism that Canadians can find their national identity, or at least part of their identity (see Cardozo & Musto, 1997; Fleras & Elliot, 1992; Fleras & Kunz, 2001; Kymlicka & Banting, 2006; Mackey, 1995; Mahtani, 2002). Though this idea may well be true to some extent, it does not extend to Canadian music. If multiculturalism is a Canadian value, then it should manifest itself in Canadian pop music; on the contrary, it is noticeably absent from the mainstream Canadian pop music scene. Nor is there any significant amount, if any, of “ethnicity” in Canadian pop music. Mainstream Canadian pop music outside the province of Québec contains influences from many English-speaking countries, but conspicuously absent is music or musical influence from Canada’s visible minorities or the countries from which they emigrated. C-pop, J-pop, and K-pop (from China, Japan, and South Korea), for example, are noticeably lacking from the mainstream charts, despite a large flow of Asian immigrants to Canada over the past 25 years.


I’m doing research I got to know
(Pope & Staples, 1982)

The following is one component of a research project conducted as part of a doctoral thesis investigating changes in perspective toward Canada’s national identity from a modernist to a postmodernist viewpoint. A section of the thesis focused on Canadian music as a symbol of national identity. The research question analyzed subjects’ reactions to select Canadian musicians and their music as symbols of national identity in comparison to the same subjects’ reactions to select American musicians and music as American identity symbols. 

Participants and location

Can you see the real me?
(Townshend, 1972)

Time sensitivity and a lack of funding limited the breadth of the sample size. Fifty-eight subjects were recruited, consisting of faculty, staff, and students from the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George, British Columbia, a city of about 80,000 located near the exact centre of British Columbia, approximately 500 miles north of Vancouver. This location makes the research unique to some degree, as most research regarding Canadian identity is performed in the major centres near the American border. The university itself was selected as a venue in order to meet criteria necessary for other sections of the thesis research, namely that research participants would have everyday contact with a racially and ethnically diverse group.


If you practice my method.
(Kurtz & Head, 1965)

Participants were given statements regarding musicians and asked to complete a four-point Likert scale indicating the extent to which they felt either the music or the musicians themselves represented the national identity of the country the musicians were from; a fifth option was also offered where the respondents could respond that they did not know or had no opinion. The independent variables measured were age, education, gender, and ethnicity, and owing to length constraints, only findings related to age will be reported here. Due to the small sample size, the data was analyzed quantitatively using a descriptive statistical analysis.

Selection of musicians

Some twisted selection.
(Farriss & Hutchence, 1986)

Comparison was limited to Canadian and American musicians in order to try to distinguish a truly Canadian style of music. Criteria had to be established to determine a selection of musicians. Due to the temporal nature of postmodernism and popular culture, it was deemed necessary to opt for musicians whose works or persona had had time to enter the realm of classic pop music in order to select artists that have been sufficiently mythologized. In addition, due to the link between some pop music and places, artists that represented different regions of the country were included. Québec, which is in essence a culture unto itself, was excluded.

Neil Young, Bryan Adams, Anne Murray, and Gordon Lightfoot all either performed or acted as flag-bearer at a Canadian-held Olympic ceremony, and all have been memorialized on Canadian stamps. In order to better represent the Prairies—Young grew up in both Ontario and Manitoba—the Guess Who, which was the first Canadian group to have a number one hit on the U.S. Hot 100, which has also been honoured on a postage stamp, was added. All the musicians included here are members of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, have had lengthy international careers, and are sufficiently mythologized. As a result of these selections, the Maritimes, Ontario, the Prairies, and British Columbia are all represented.

Bruce Springsteen, whose music can be considered as representative of blue-collar America and also of rituals of American youth (see Stratton, 2007), hails from the East Coast of the United States. From the American South, Johnny Cash had a persona and made music that emphasized many American values, especially those of the American Bible Belt. He also hosted a nationally televised music/variety show from 1969–1971. From the eastern Rocky Mountains/Midwest, John Denver composed and sang songs describing many geographic features of the U.S. (as per Konrad, 1985; Smith, 2003), mythologizing them as reservoirs of identity, as well as songs about perceived American values. Denver also hosted a nationally televised music/variety show in addition to numerous television specials. The Beach Boys popularized the so-called “California sound,” and their works described many values and experiences of American youth. 


The results are always perfect.
(Kirkwood, 1983)

The respondent groups of those under 25 years old and groups between 35–50 display little variance in rate of agreement (ROA), whereas the 25–35 and over 50 groups (see Table 1) demonstrate a slightly more pronounced variance. The general trend is for agreement to rise as age increases, especially the responses regarding Canadian musicians. The overall average number of Canadian respondents who view Canadian musicians as embodying Canadian identity tends to be equal to or less than that of the American musicians, for whom the average is about 70 percent, with Cash an exception at an average of 81 percent. Three of the Canadian musicians also average about 70 percent, Adams is slightly lower at 63 percent and the Guess Who are much lower at a 49 percent rate of agreement.

Table 1

The overall average rate of agreement for American musicians is higher than the average rate of agreement for Canadian musicians, at 72.25 percent to 64.8 percent. This is a significant difference considering the research cohort consisted solely of Canadians. Bearing in mind the possibility of the selection process possibly affecting the results, averages are also tabulated for each group while discounting the anomalies from the results. Cash is significantly higher than other American musicians while the Guess Who is significantly lower than the other Canadian musicians. In excluding these two from analysis, the averages become remarkably similar with agreement rates of 69.3 percent for American musicians and 68.75 percent for Canadian ones, albeit the rate of agreement for American musicians is still marginally higher.

The under 25 and the 35–50 age groups were somewhat consistent in ROAs and held most of the musicians in the same regard (Table 1). At other times, the tendency for ROA to rise as age increases suggests several possibilities. One is the possibility that the older groups maintain ties to the past, while younger respondents discard them or do not adopt them at all as they lack relevance. This could be evidence of a changing perspective regarding Canadian nationalism. There are other possibilities, however. The younger respondents may not have had the exposure to the musicians to the extent that the older ones have, as could be expected with a constantly evolving popular culture. A third possibility is that the music itself may in itself be a form of memory trigger, perhaps evoking episodic memory or some type of visual imagery for older respondents.

While some of the Canadian musicians have ROAs at the same level as the American musicians, overall there is a seven percent differential in averages between the two nationalities, favouring the American musicians. The selection of the musicians could be responsible for this, but the possibility that Canadians feel that American musicians better represent their national identity than Canadian musicians do cannot be discounted, especially if the main goal of Canadian musicians is to break into the United States market (Lehr, 1994). These statistics also support the argument of American culture and values being spread in Canada (Mathews, 1988) and the possibility of American interests controlling the distribution of culture in Canada (Mathews, 1988; Taras, 1997). 

Comments: The Canadian musicans

This tune is homegrown, don’t come from Hong Kong.
(Cummings & Winter, 1972)

Gordon Lightfoot 

Despite his high ROA, Lightfoot was highly critical of Canadian content regulations, stating that he had no use for them as he had a large following south of the border (Edwardson, 2009). This being the case, it is difficult to decipher whether his strong showing here is due to the benefits of these regulations or his own efforts. His 1967 “Great Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” a song the CBC commissioned him to write and perform at Canada’s Centennial, cemented him as a Canadian icon for many Canadians, especially older Canadians. Respondents over 50 are markedly higher in agreement for Lightfoot. As mentioned earlier, older respondents might retain ties to the past more than the younger respondents, who may discard such ties or may disregard them completely as they lack present relevance. This would be especially true if the music itself was “dated” and belonged to a particular time period, perhaps a time with a different set of values. The lessening effect of being out of vogue with pop culture may also share responsibility for this age-related disparity, again affirming John Lehr’s (1994) assertion regarding pop culture furthering the mythology of identity. 

Anne Murray

Murray’s rise to fame occurred prior to the onslaught of American cable television in Canada, with her gaining much of her homegrown popularity by being a regular on CBC’s Singalong Jubilee, and benefitting from that exposure while avoiding direct competition with American artists in that medium. She later became famous in the United States and received numerous tributes from various country music associations there. Being Canadian may have resulted in her being recognized as a symbol of Canadian values because she received so many accolades. She also benefitted by being a spokesperson for television and billboard advertisements for the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC), which likely further mythologized her for many Canadians. Her music does not appear to have anything particularly Canadian about it in terms of Canadian places (e.g., Bohlman, 2002), furthering a solely Canadian collective consciousness (Folkestad, 2002), representing Canadian social or political elements (Stokes, 1994), events (Biddle et al., 2007), experiences (Frith, 1996), or values (O’Flynn, 2007). Her appeal as a symbol of national identity, in contrast to her fame, appears to lie more strongly with her persona (O’Flynn, 2007) as a former symbol of the Canadian-owned CIBC and the very Canadian television image that was created for her in this capacity.

The Guess Who

There are many reasons why the Guess Who should have a strong response, one being the international success of their song “American Woman” and its perceived anti-American stance. Though originally released in 1970, it has been re-covered several times, including on the soundtrack of the film American Beauty(Cohen & Jinks, 1999) and a re-covered version by Lenny Kravitz, which also featured in an Austin Powers film (Blenkin, Fox, Lyons, McLeod, Moore, & Myers, 1999). It is thus possible that many younger respondents have been exposed to this song, although they may associate it more with Kravitz than the Guess Who. The song represents the political views of many Canadians (Stokes, 1994), as well as social issues (O’Flynn, 2007) reflecting first, second, and third person authenticity as described by Moore (2002) by representing their own views or those of the listener’s, the views of others, and the views of the nation. The group also released songs commemorating Canadian places, such as “Running Back to Saskatoon,” creating identity markers through the naming of places (Stokes, 1994). Despite this, the Guess Who has one of the lowest ROAs. There does not appear to be a particular explanation for why this occurs, other than perhaps the temporal effect of popular culture.

Bryan Adams 

Adams appears to benefit from success, rather than Canadian content, as there does not appear to be anything particularly Canadian that stands out in his music, although there are many instances of shared values with the U.S. It is perhaps this success that makes him a Canadian symbol in the eyes of those respondents who felt he represented Canadian identity.

Neil Young

Young is another musician who references Canada and Canadian landmarks in his works, helping to create identity by the naming of places (Stokes, 1994). He transcends age groups, suggesting he still has relevance in the present. It appears he does preserve popular memory (Frith, 2004) and further the mythology of identity (Lehr, 1994). This might also be due to his involvement in many social causes that many people possibly believe embody Canadian national values (O’Flynn, 2007) of humanitarianism, and in doing so creates third person authenticity (Moore, 2002). Such involvement also promotes the artist and not only the work. He also creates first person authenticity, writing of his youth in Winnipeg in “One of These Days,” though much of his second person authenticity, apparent in songs such as “Alabama” and “Ohio,” further American identity, not Canadian.


Jive Talkin’
(Gibb, Gibb, & Gibb, 1975)

Some Canadian musicians and groups perform reasonably well in this survey and others perform less well. Similarly, there are musicians and groups that appear to conform to what research indicates is something symbolic of identity, and there are those who appear to do none of this but instead seem to direct their attention toward being successful in America (Wright, 2004). In the instance of this latter group, it seems rather incongruous that they should be acclaimed so highly by the respondents of this survey, although one more element exists that may be an important influence in becoming a symbol of Canadian identity, musically and perhaps in other arenas. It may well be that someone can become mythologized because they have “conquered” America by becoming successful there. It is no secret that many Canadians have a deep-seated inferiority complex regarding the United States—at least in part attributable to a perceived weak Canadian national identity—and a large proportion of Canadians make vociferous attempts to ensure they are not identified as Americans. Thus, it can be suggested that Canadians who become successful in America do so as Canadians who outshine Americans.

Limitations of the research

But I know my limitations.
(Davies & Davies, 1965)

There were several limitations to the research. First, time constraints and a lack of funding meant that the research was not as extensive as it could have been, and a limited number of respondents resulted in an inability to quantitatively analyze the data. Second, the attempt to meet the determined criteria resulted in the possibility of bias in the selections. That notwithstanding, in contrast to copious numbers of American musicians that could fit the criteria, there are a limited number of Canadian bands that do meet said criteria.

Perhaps the severest limitation of the research is the modernism/postmodernism dichotomy. Modernist symbols are easier to identify; in the simplest terms, they relate to historical experiences of the nation and the resulting commonality of the people. In terms of pop music, icons or iconic songs are realized, and remembered, by the collective. Some of these modernist icons may be passed from generation to generation through being shared in an imagined community. Relatively new postmodernist symbols are more difficult to ascertain, as by nature of being present- and future-oriented they are temporal and fleeting in the same manner as pop culture. Under this perspective, national symbols could change monthly. Focusing research on the process of how music and musicians become national would offer a better understanding of what relations exist between popular music and national identity in Canada, which is especially true if Canadians are adopting a more postmodernist outlook.


This is the end.
(Morrison, Manzarek, Krieger, & Densmore, 1966)

This article began with a discussion of music as an identity marker and then proceeded to determine a set of criteria that could be applied to music in order for it to be determined as national music. This was followed by an analysis of the role of popular culture with regard to music, and also a focus on the role of music with regard to memory. These were succeeded by a brief examination of the Canadian identity and Canadian music.

The research considered citizen responses to selected Canadian musicians and groups and/or their music, and compared the results to responses about selected American musicians and groups and/or their music. With rates of agreement ranging between 4 in 10 to 9 in 10, it is clear that the respondents in this cohort recognize, to varying degrees, that the selected musicians and/or their music are representative of Canadian identity. It is also evident that for this cohort, the recognition of said musicians as identity markers rises with age, perhaps due to some influence related to popular culture, and that female respondents had higher rates of agreement than male respondents. The latter may be due to a different style of communication, or perhaps a different values system between the genders.

There are a multitude of possible avenues to explore. Specifically, in terms of this project, it would be advisable to expand the pool of research subjects in order to get a broader view of attitudes toward the Canadian scene with regard to national identity. In addition to being able to run a quantitative statistical analysis, a larger pool of subjects would also allow comparisons to be made. For example, various regions of Canada could be compared, or larger centres could be compared to smaller centres. In so doing, certain styles of music might show themselves to be more representative of certain places. Canada is, after all, a very large country, and such trends have been noticed in the United States.

Of paramount importance is determining the criteria employed by the citizenry in defining national pop music, which might best be achieved through focus group research or interviews. First, it would thus be worthwhile to compare different countries—for example Canada, the United States, Great Britain, and Australia—to look for commonalities and differences in selecting criteria. Second, an examination of works by musicians in the Canadian Music Hall of Fame to test their “Canadian-ness,” as determined by the criteria set forth earlier in this article, could also illuminate understanding of this area. Third, as Canadian responses (though limited in number to date) regarding select American and Canadian musicians have been explored, it would also be beneficial to survey and compare responses by American research subjects regarding select Canadian musicians to examine similarities with and differences to responses by Canadian research subjects. Finally, there is the possibility of many shared national values between Canada and the United States. Despite any such commonalities, there are notable differences between the two countries, one of the most notable being attitudes toward firearms. These differences should be evident in Canadian pop music. Thus, an in-depth analysis of Canadian pop music with a focus on uniquely Canadian values is required.

The role of memory with regard to popular music and national identity has been relatively unexplored to date. In particular, the role played by popular culture in the retaining or discarding of music related to national identity is a virtually unexplored area. It is one thing to identify criteria for national pop music, but yet another to discover why it is retained as such within the national psyche. Perhaps the two concepts are not distinct from each other.


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