Feb 102011

Over on Twitter, Ryan Reyes noted:

Most don’t realize #Winnipeg has a deep pool of local talent. We have to overcome our inferiority-complex. Thoughts?

It’s a good question. So good, in fact, that asking it has spilled enough ink in this city to repaint the Exchange. I started writing about arts and entertainment in this city in 1999. This issue of overcoming our inferiority complex was top o’ many people’s minds back then. I have been assured it was top o’ many people’s minds well before then, too.

This inferiority complex even inspired the name of this blog. And it’s obviously on other people’s minds, too. Just check out some of the Google search terms that landed on this blog in just the last handful of days:

Omitted search term: "bisexual couples in Winnipeg." They must have been very disappointed to end up here!

See, I named this blog as a joke to myself. Because after almost a decade struggling against what I — and many others — believed was a persistent refusal of Winnipeggers to look around and realize how much great stuff is going on here, I had another thought.

Maybe our inferiority complex is a feature, not a bug.

Let’s be honest: at this stage of the game, it’s obvious that the Great Winnipeg Navelgaze of Misery isn’t going anywhere. Many have tried to correct it, and many have failed. To most Winnipeggers, there’s still nothing in Winnipeg (except all the stuff in Winnipeg) and this place still sucks (except when it’s awesome) and we’re still crap compared to Tronnah or Vancity.

Yeah, that’s one stubborn belief. But maybe the reason it’s such an intractable belief isn’t entirely because people aren’t aware of what’s out there. Maybe it’s because this inferiority complex — this sense of the city as lesser-than or, dare I say, weaker-than - is an integral part of the culture of an urban waypost awkwardly stranded in the middle of a quiet prairie.

In other words: maybe our talent is talented because of our inferiority complex, and not in spite of it.

I remember my very first interview with Damon Mitchell, then of the New Meanies, circa early 2000. He came over to my very first apartment, plunked himself on my couch, and noodled on my guitar while we talked. And I was all very new to the scene, and I remember very clearly what he said when I asked him about growing up a musician in Winnipeg, and how we assemble so much talent here.

“Because,” he shrugged. “In the middle of a Winnipeg winter, the only thing to do is play music in your basement.”   

This story has since been repeated to me — no lie — a hundred times, by a hundred different musicians. So what if, instead of weakening us, the conviction that there’s nothing in Winnipeg drives people to create, experiment and build small and close-knit networks of artistic and entertainment talent?

What if the defining features of Winnipeg’s artistic communities — their stability, longevity, community activity and sheer volume of creative production — occur precisely because they are bred in a city where nothing much happens? When there’s little pressure or financial lure in developing talent, the balancing factor is that most creation becomes genuine. And that has been one of of Winnipeg’s strongest cultural exports: truly honest, frequently unpretentious and unfettered art.

On that note, when I was heavy-duty in music writing, it always surprised non-musician Winnipeggers when I told them that players outside of Winnipeg envied the scene here. That is true: artists across Canada and even the U.S. frequently spoke in spontaneous and genuine praise of the state of Winnipeg’s talent. They were giddy about seeing the Royal Albert. They knew dozens of the more obscure rock bands and folk artists to come out of the city. “Winnipeg makes the best music,” they’d say. And they meant it.

For the most part, Winnipeggers don’t get that. They’re stuck in the Winnipeg inferiority complex. But I’m starting to think that’s just fine. I no longer seek to change it. I no longer write articles bemoaning its existence. Instead, I’ve come to love it as a curious feature. People who believe that there’s nothing in Winnipeg find a way to make their own something.

The beautiful thing is, they don’t even realize what kind of talent and art they’re building, until it has been built… and then, all of a sudden, there is something in Winnipeg. And it’s real, it’s up close’n'personal, and it’s as genuine as only great art can be.

Just don’t tell anyone, okay?

  • http://www.reservedatalltimes.com Colin

    I’m pretty sure I heard that “nothing to do all winter but write songs in your basement” line from Burton Cummings (or was it Neil Young?) referencing the early ’60s.
    Or maybe about the plethora of local film-makers…where else could a Guy Maddin exist but this place.

    The only negative aspect of this hunkering down is that life here can get very, very clique-y and those circles of friends are often tightly closed circles. “Close-knit” is a pretty fine line to “shut tight”.

  • http://progressivewinnipeg.blogspot.com Graham

    The best search term that I’ve gotten this year so far is…”I want to move away from Winnipeg.” I’m not sure what that person expected to find on the google by typing that in.

  • http://www.nothinginwinnipeg.com Melissa

    Oh LOL Graham. That’s almost… so funny-sad. Like a lonely Winnipegger who can’t escape, typing their loneliness into Google hoping that maybe… maybe… someone out there has written the same thing…

  • http://anybody-want-a-peanut.blogspot.com/ cherenkov

    I got a hit for “can you use 3rd gear to go through snow in a crysler300″ this week …

    @Colin: yes, I heard Burton say that too.

  • http://www.nothinginwinnipeg.com Melissa

    …well Cherenkov? CAN YOU?

  • http://www.nothinginwinnipeg.com Melissa

    Okay, these monster comment icons are the bomb. Seriously.

  • http://anybody-want-a-peanut.blogspot.com/ cherenkov

    Nope. You need the Chrysler 500 for snow.