Toronto: City of Grandmas
Willy Staley, “Talk,” The New York Times Magazine (September 15, 2013)
The following is from an interview with the rapper Earl Sweatshirt in The New York Times Magazine:
You were just in Toronto. How was that? It was crazy. Canadians are weirdos, though. They are so nice – overbearing nice, like grandmother nice. Toronto is like a city of grandmas.
The rapper Drake is from Toronto. Is he grandma nice? Due, Drake is grandma nice. He was at Frank Ocean’s show in L.A. and got into an argument with Tyler, the Creator’s mom. I left and came back in the room, and she was apologizing to him for how she came at him, and he was saying: “It’s all love. I love you, Mom. I love moms.” Drake loves moms. (12)
The idea that Canadians are “nice” is not in itself particularly noteworthy, especially coming from an American; this perceived “niceness” is a close cousin to the “politeness” which we already know we’re famed for south of the border. But then comes the twist: “overbearing nice.”
That’s a new one. Canadians aren’t just nice; we’re overbearingly nice. Here our niceness takes on a bit of an edge, as if its purpose isn’t to make other people feel comfortable, but rather to get our own way, like a grandmother who uses a sugary, wheedling tone to compel you to do what she wants. From this point of view, niceness becomes a type of power play.
This may illuminate the anecdote about Drake which follows, and which on the surface seems to make no sense. If Drake is from Toronto, and Torontonians are nice, then we would expect the story to lead to Drake apologizing to Tyler, the Creator’s mother – or to focus on his being so nice that he never gets in an argument with her to begin with. In fact the opposite happens: the story ends with Tyler’s mother apologizing to Drake. What does it mean?
Arguably, the anecdote simply comes out of the question about Drake, which comes out of the question about Toronto, and isn’t meant to suggest the more self-serving corners of our national niceness.
But if we accept the general notion that everything means something, then we might be inclined to suggest that this story reveals how Canadian niceness becomes overbearing. Drake doesn’t directly win his argument with Tyler’s mother; instead, through a sort of conversational jiu-jitsu, he is so nice to her that at the end of the argument she apparently feels so bad about having argued with such a nice guy that she is compelled to apologize to him, thus giving him a form of victory – at which point he continues to overwhelm her with niceness.
Perhaps Canadians are like the Greeks in Horace’s famous line:
Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit (Epistles II.i.156)
We accept being conquered so nicely that we make our conquerors feel bad about it, and thus ultimately win a stealth victory over them. Some idea along those lines seems to lie behind Earl Sweatshirt’s description of us as “overbearing nice” and gives us an interesting new perspective on Canadians: nice on the surface, but underneath that, consciously using our niceness as a way to get what we want. This is, at least, a little more interesting and nuanced than the more usual image of us as overly polite pushovers.
A Final Question
One final issue arises: why is the question about Toronto even asked?
As a professional musician, Earl Sweatshirt must travel all over the world. Why is the fact that he was just in Toronto of interest? Why does Staley ask specifically what he thought of it? He sounds like a typically insecure Canadian journalist, forever asking foreign celebrities, in a tone of desperate hope, “What do you think of Canada?”
Still, he makes a point of discussing Canada – and if you go to the online version of the article (linked above), you’ll see the headline is “Earl Sweatshirt: ‘Canadians Are Weirdos'”, as though Earl Sweatshirt’s opinion of Canadians were the main point of the interview, and the one most likely to catch people’s attention and make them stop and read.
Could it be our neighbours to the south are beginning to find us as fascinating as we always dreamed they would? We can fantasize.