A Complete History of Canada's Pop-Music Takeover

George Pimentel/WireImage/Getty Images
George Pimentel/WireImage/Getty Images

Adele's record-shattering fourth quarter notwithstanding, 2015 was the year Canada colonized American pop. Acts like Drake, The Weeknd, and a resurgent Justin Bieber rode a wave of commercial success and critical acclaim that has made Toronto -- yes, Toronto -- the most important music city on the planet. Not convinced? Check the Billboard Hot 100, where five Canadian artists, all from Ontario, currently account for seven of the top eight slots. 

The invasion didn't happen overnight. We sorted through six decades of Canadian sounds for a blow-by-blow account of how music from the Great White North went from ice cold to red hot.

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1957: Paul Anka becomes the first Justin Bieber

Anka, who first hit No. 1 with "Diana" in 1957, wasn't the first Canadian to top the U.S. charts; bandleader Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians ensemble did it way back in 1944. But the Ottawa-born Anka was one of the original teen idols, with schmaltzy hits like "Lonely Boy" and "Put Your Head On My Shoulder" delivering a mom-friendly, Canada-wholesome alternative to rock-and-roll bad boys like Elvis. Anka endured by writing songs for Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones, and Michael Jackson, and at 74, he still performs, riding the teenybopper hits he's best known for -- a fate Bieber can probably expect 50 years down the line.

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<strong>Celebration at Big Sur |</strong> 20th Century Fox/YouTube

The Late 1960s: Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and The Band cross the border

As American draft dodgers fled into Canada to avoid Vietnam, the country's own musical rebels headed the other direction, adding Maple flavor to the burgeoning '60s counterculture. Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and The Band took off in the '70s, but blossomed during the peace-and-love era, too -- Young with Buffalo Springfield, and then Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; Mitchell as the trippy young singer-songwriter behind folk classics like "Both Sides, Now"; and The Band as Bob Dylan sidekicks and Woodstock highlights. With fewer media outlets documenting the rock scene, stateside hippies never realized their musical heroes were hailing from abroad.

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Warner Music Group/YouTube

1970: The Guess Who say "F-U" to the USA

The worst way to insult a Canadian: mistake them as American. In 1970, Winnipeg's The Guess Who turned latent Canadian resentment (e.g., curling jokes) into music with "American Woman." Despite lines like "I don't need your war machines/I don't need your ghetto scenes," the band's members have actually insisted the song wasn't anti-USA, but rather a pledge of allegiance to Canadian girls. No one believes them. In any case, virtually no one was offended -- it became a massive hit over here, topping the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks in May 1970, even charting a second time when Lenny Kravitz covered it in 1999. It should be noted that "American Woman" was written inside of a curling rink in Ontario.

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The Canadian Public/YouTube

1971: CanCon cons Canada into mediocre music

If you've ever turned on Canadian radio and wondered what the hell you were listening to, blame "CanCon." Instituted in a fit of Canadian jingoism in 1971 -- it coincided with the birth of the Juno Awards, Canada's answer to the Grammys -- this federal regulation required licensed stations to devote a quarter of their playlist space (now up to 40 percent) to homegrown artists. A sort of musical Affirmative Action, CanCon aimed to give Canadian acts a competitive edge against better-funded entities from the U.S. and the U.K., but critics argue it weakened Canadian music by forcing radio stations to play sub-standard tunes from a select group of artists, ad nauseum. CanCon's role in fostering this latest surge in Canadian music's visibility is likely minimal; acts like Drake and The Weeknd broke in the States before Canadian radio got behind them.

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Demon Music Group/YouTube

1974: The first true Canadian invasion

Five Canadian acts hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in '74: Terry Jacks with "Seasons in the Sun," Gordon Lightfoot with "Sundown," Paul Anka with "You're Having My Baby," Andy Kim with "Rock Me Gently," and Bachman-Turner Overdrive with "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet." Revisiting these five songs four decades later, it's hard to find a common thread which unites them all, other than, well, their folksy Canadian-ness. (And the fact that none of these artists ever enjoyed similar success before or after, save for Anka). Chalk one up to CanCon!

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Island Def Jam Music Group/Anthem Entertainment/YouTube

1974: Rush defines Canadian rock

In March '74, Rush released its eponymous debut, beginning a now four-decade run as the band on the front of the black T-shirt worn by that weird guy with the ponytail in your high school who works at the music store. The power trio of Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and (beginning with Rush's second album) Neil Peart became kings of AOR, and remain the quintessential Canadian rock band: technically masterful, quietly successful, and profoundly unhip.

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<strong>David Foster &amp; Friends |</strong> Reprise Records/YouTube

1974: David Foster moves to LA

A prodigy who joined Chuck Berry's band at age 16, future super-rich guy and Real Housewives of LA cast member David Foster relocated from British Columbia to California in 1974, adding Canadian influence to major-label writing rooms. Though Foster continued to work as a musician after his move, forming the aptly-named Airplay with Jay Graydon in 1975, he found his groove as as a songwriter in the '80s, penning "bombastic pop kitsch" for the likes of Peter Cetera, Air Supply and Kenny Loggins. If you've ever been inside a TJ Maxx or a dentist's office, you know his work. In more recent times, Foster (who also wrote Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" among other '90s mega-hits) guided the rise of fellow Canucks Celine Dion and Michael Buble.

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Island Def Jam Music Group/YouTube

The 1980s: Men without hits

The '80s weren't a banner decade for Canadian music. A few acts, like Men Without Hats ('83's "The Safety Dance"), Corey Hart ('84's "Sunglasses at Night"), Glass Tiger ('86's "Don't Forget Me When I'm Gone") and Sheriff ("When I'm With You", a 1983 power ballad that inexplicably hit No. 1 seven years later), enjoyed international success, but their runs were (mercifully) brief and limited. A more enduring Canadian pop act in the '80s was the über-cheesy Loverboy, of "Working for the Weekend" and "Lovin Every Minute of It" fame. Sure, "The Safety Dance" is a jam, but the '80s pretty much set the Canadian music industry's progress back about 10 years.

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Sony Music Entertainment

1990: Canadian women take over

Up until the '90s, Canada's musical exports were predominantly male. That changed in a big way with the arrival of k.d. lang, Celine Dion, Alanis Morissette, Shania Twain, and Sarah MacLachlan. Alannah Myles was the first Canadian woman to hit No. 1 in the '90s (and the second ever, after Anne Murray), with "Black Velvet," but it was Quebecois ballad queen Dion's David Foster-assisted, English language debut that brought down the floodgates, setting the singer up as the eminent easy-listening act. Today, Dion is Canada's best-selling artist by a landslide -- among her countrymen, only Rush has sold half as many albums as she has. Canada has continued to produce popular female acts -- Nelly Furtado, Carly Rae Jepsen, Grimes -- but never with the frequency and aplomb of that crucial '90s wave.

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1991: Bryan Adams does it for you, Canada 

It's impossible to overstate how ubiquitous Bryan Adams' "(Everything I Do) I Do It For You" was in 1991. The saccharine theme to Kevin Costner's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, "I Do It For You" oozed out of the pavement that summer, spending seven and nine weeks at No. 1 in the U.S. and Canada, respectively. But that was nothing compared to its dominance in the U.K., where it spent 16 consecutive weeks at No. 1 -- the longest run in British chart history. Canada's infiltration of American (and foreign) radio became noticeable in the '90s. "I Do It For You" was the song that made it plainly apparent.

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1992: Snow won't turn "Informer"

Snow, a Toronto MC who rhymed in Jamaican dancehall style, topped the Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks in 1992 with "Informer," an unprecedented Canadian success in the hip-hop genre. Of course, Snow, whose real name was Darrin O'Brien, was white (It would be six more years before a Black Canadian artist, R&B singer Deborah Cox, would even land in the Top 10). Snow's embrace of Jamaican patois and dancehall posturing -- he looked a bit like George Michael impersonating Shabba Ranks -- was met with backlash; his perceived inauthenticity was the basis for one of Jim Carrey's most classic In Living Color parodies. But O'Brien told the truth on his raggamuffin "Informer" -- he was in jail for attempted murder when the snitch-baiting hit broke big.

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1994: Not much ado about MuchMusic USA

Ten years after its launch at home, Canadian music video channel MuchMusic debuted on U.S. cable systems, with a CanCon-guided rotation of provincial acts like Moxy Früvous and Roch Voisine. At the time, the format reinforced American teens' perception that Canadian music was... not that cool. Gradually, the network switched to more US-centric programming, before rebranding itself as FUSE and ditching Canadian programming altogether. Looking back, however, the whole thing feels a bit like a musical sleeper cell, softening American teens for the coming invasion of Canuck pop stars. Conspiracy?

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The 2000s: The Nickelback + Avril era

Nickelback and Avril Lavigne defined Canadian music in the 2000s, and, in spite of their actual commercial success, not in a good way. First came Nickelback, whose sterile brand of post-grunge arena rock made them, by many accounts, the most hated band of all-time (though technically, they're actually one of the most popular rock bands going -- paradox). Like a real life DeGrassi character, Lavigne appeared in 2002 with a pop version of punk rebellion aimed solely at tweens graduating from Britney Spears. She also formed a Canadian music supercouple by marrying Deryck Whibley, spiky-haired frontman of once-popular Ontario pop punkers Sum 41, in 2006, and then Nickelback frontman Chad Kroger in 2013. The ultimate union never came together; the freshly dissolved union of "Krovigne" was too short-lived to produce the schlocky duet we all expected.

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Merge Records/YouTube

2004: Montreal rock goes pop (sort of)

Canada knew pop music, but what it hadn't done until about a decade ago, was foster a movement in any of its cities like Detroit in the '60s, Minneapolis in the '80s, Seattle in the '90s, or New York and London every decade or so. That finally happened in circa 2004 Montreal. Harnessing the hype of new media outlets like Pitchfork Media and Vice (which originated in Montreal), bands like Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade, and The Stills got hot together, turning Canadian indie rock into hipster culture's flavor of the month. (Popular Canadian acts from other cities to emerge at that time included Broken Social Scene and Feist). While the movement mostly stopped short of the mainstream, Arcade Fire prevailed as indie rock's biggest draw, filling arenas from Calgary to Nashville. 

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Justin Bieber/YouTube

2008: Justin Bieber YouTubes his way to your little sister's heart

Hardly anyone scoured YouTube for musical talent in 2008, the heyday of Myspace and American Idol. But precocious Canadian tween Justin Bieber (or his mom) showcased his singing and performing skills on the video site, initiating a chain of events that led him to music management whiz Scooter Braun, Usher, and Island Records. With the release of his debut album, My World, in 2009, Bieber's success was instantaneous, almost instantly usurping the Jonas Brothers. His latest album, Purpose, is something of a comeback after years of bad publicity, though Biebs has been one of the most consistent presences in pop culture over the last six years, rarely out of the public eye.

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Aspire/Young Money/Cash Money/Motown/YouTube

2009: Drake changes the game for Canadian rappers

Drake was an improbable act. Not only was he a half-Jewish kid from Toronto -- a city that had never fielded a legit international rap star -- but he was the wheelchair kid from Degrassi: The Next Generation. Surely his past as a handicapped character on a corny Canadian melodrama would count against him in hip-hop, where it still seemed a necessary requirement of success to tout a criminal backstory? Nope. In 2009, hip-hop cared less about where you were from, but where you were at. And suddenly Toronto was where it was at.

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604 Records/YouTube

2011: Famous Canadians helping famous Canadians

Drake, who helped launch some of rap's biggest new names, flexed his taste-making power for the first time in 2011, when, with a post on his October's Very Own blog and some supportive tweets, he helped turn Toronto singer Abel Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd, into R&B's hottest new commodity. Tesfaye built a cult of personality around his hazy, drug-fueled, narcissistic lyrics featured in his 2011 mixtape trilogy, House of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes of Silence. And Bieber gave his stamp of approval to Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe," which went on to become the best-selling single worldwide in 2012, reaching No. 1 in 15 countries, including Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. To date, it's the best-selling digital single of all time.

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Republic Records/YouTube

2015: Conquest complete

On October 10, it happened. The Weeknd ("The Hills," "Can't Feel My Face"), Justin Bieber ("What Do You Mean?") and Drake ("Hotline Bling") collectively held down the four top spots on the Billboard Hot 100, the first such instance for Canadian acts in the chart's history. What seemed like the apotheosis of Canada's American pop conquest, was really a beginning. Two months later, two more Canadians joined the Top 10: Shawn Mendes' "Always" and Alessia Cara's "Here." And Bieber snuck in two more: "Sorry" and "Love Yourself." Unlike Nickelback and Avril Lavigne at their height, this crop -- even Bieber -- are showered with positive reviews from the media. As critical year-end best-of lists pour in, Purpose, Drake's If You're Reading This It's Too Late and The Weeknd's Beauty Behind the Madness have shown up frequently, alongside the likes of Carly Rae Jepsen (E MO TION), and Art Angels by Vancouver one-girl-band Claire Boucher, aka Grimes. It seems Canada won, not just by making music for popular tastes, but by making music people of all sorts and tastes seem to really like. 

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Jesse Serwer is the editor of LargeUp.com, and writes about music for The Fader, Rolling Stone and other publications. As far as he can recall, this is his first article about Canada. Follow him @Jesse Serwer.