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Polaris Music Prize 2023: Debby Friday's Big Night Out

With Debby Friday taking home the coveted prize this year, here's a look inside this year's celebration.

by Sierra Riley

Chris Young

Sept. 19, 2023

Toronto, ON

Massey Hall

I enter the Muskoka Spirits Basement Bar under Massey Hall wearing an inoffensive dress and cat-shaped purse. This is my first time attending the Polaris Gala, and the event’s “Creative Cocktail” dress code intimidated me where it clearly inspired other attendees. Looks include avant-garde streetwear, ballerina tulle, ripped denim, leather moto jackets and Converse All Stars. A snack table offers sour candies, Pringles and mini Nest bars. Though it’s not your traditional red-carpet fare, Polaris isn’t known for following any old-school playbook.

An annual shindig, the Polaris Gala is curated by and for the tastemakers (or “pathfinders”) of Canadian music. This year’s nominees for the $50,000 prize range from burgeoning acts like Aysanabee to 2011 winner Feist, who has said that “getting a Polaris is like getting a Valentine from the right boy.” What makes Polaris so dreamy? Well, there’s the cash – duh – but it’s also an award with a certain bad-boy appeal rooted in its genre fluidity. Polaris prides itself on putting artistic merit first. The jurors–music journalists, primarily–are instructed to vote “without regard to genre, sales history or label affiliation.” Perhaps this is why the gala feels distinctly unstuffy; less like an awards show than a high-octane, immersive music festival. 

Other nominees include Alvvays, Begonia, Dan Mangan, Daniel Caesar, Gayance, The Sadies, Snotty Nose Rez Kids, and of course the evening’s well deserved winner — and RANGE Magazine’s Spring 2023 cover star — Debby Friday

Canada’s marquee live venue has been transformed by Montreal-based artist Aude Guivarc’h into an undulating sonic oasis. The theme for Polaris 2023 is “Waveform,” which was integrated into the show through surreal video design. Melting flames, distorted rainbows and blooming flora occupy the screens. Gobos cast shattered pieces of light on the floor, which drift across the GA section like glacial stragglers. 

This year’s CBC-sponsored event is a sit-or-stand affair. The folks at Polaris wanted “standing crowd energy” while keeping the event accessible. I myself am a notorious sitter (in any given context or setting, I will be sitting), but the passionate performances drew me up to the barricade where I could better see the musicians.

Some highlights: a late-night skit featuring SNRK and DJ Kookum, soulful vocal runs by Begonia, and Debby Friday’s emotional acceptance speech.

“I’ve always been a little bit strange, a little bit different from other people,” the Nigerian-Canadian artist says, glittering under a spotlight. “And it’s only in retrospect that I’ve been able to see that this has been a superpower all along […] I just want to say that I think it’s important to protect your strangeness, protect the things that make you different. These are gifts that you can give in this lifetime.”