Putting spotlight on city’s glamour
Sometimes seeing local haunts in music videos reminds us to look at T.O. with new eyes
Thinking of beautiful places — enchanting places, sexy places — when’s the last time the Toronto Reference Library came to mind? Or the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus?
I’d bet that for a large number of Torontonians, the answer to that question is never. Those places exist in our minds, most of us, alongside words like “useful” — maybe associated with educational research we did at some point. But fabulous?
Yes, fabulous. As they appear in Scarborough-raised, globally acclaimed singer The Weeknd’s new video — released this week — those two venues look like they are settings from a Bond film: the undulating layers and stark red-and-white contrasts, alongside the glass elevator and spiral staircase, of the library, the cold geometry of the concrete at UTSC. Playing alongside the Starboy’s R&B voice, they look like places you might pay a lot to visit if you had the money, and the connections, to get into them.
The song is called “Secrets,” and it feels like he is revealing some about his hometown of Toronto — even to many locals. There is, of course, a subset of architecture geeks who have long appreciated architect Raymond Moriyama’s cathedral of knowledge at the Reference Library and even some who have marvelled at UTSC’s brutalism.
But many of the rest of us have lived with Toronto as the workaday backdrop of our unglamorous lives long enough that we don’t even see how gorgeous some of it is. Not just the obvious postcard spots at the islands or the Scarborough Bluffs or the gleaming glass of the skyline, but the places where we work and go to school.
Sometimes you need something like a music video to make you look at your own city with new eyes. See the glamour of your home.
There’s been a bit of that going on lately, with the rise of a generation of hometown-proud Toronto musicians to the top of the international Billboard charts. After Drake and Rihanna shot the video for “Work” at the Real Jerk in the east end, suddenly what was a local island food institution became a tourist spot — a place you could imagine an encounter on the dance floor worthy of the movies.
Alessia Cara’s “Wild Things” showed her and a group of friends hanging around the suburban streets of the GTA — she is from Brampton — mythologizing the teenaged wild rumpus through the cul-de-sacs and mall parking lots (“we’ll rabble-rouse and sing aloud”) many of us grew up living and also showed them venturing down to Chinatown, the Beaches, looking on the night skyline from Riverdale Park.
I imagine that for Toronto teenagers Cara’s age, seeing her in a music video viewed around the world, glamorizing the elements of their lives, in the same places they live them, is a magical thing.
Seeing your places, your familiar haunts, as a setting for larger stories can help transform them in your mind. Onscreen, they look every bit as worthy of dramatizing as New York and Los Angeles and Paris and New Orleans, all those other famous places mythologized by Hollywood, can make your own home feel to you like a place worth celebrating and appreciating.
I remember when I was a teenager living in Scarborough, the Barenaked Ladies filmed the video for “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” from the back of a pickup truck in the neighbourhoods my friends and I knocked around in — a neighbourhood of bungalows and strip malls and apartment towers we didn’t think anyone outside of it even really knew existed. It was validating to see it on MuchMusic, even if at the time the band seemed mostly like a local phenomenon, popularizing our scenery to a mostly local audience.
Similarly, even earlier, the Shuffle Demons’ “Spadina Bus,” lionized the 77B and the crowds waiting for it in Chinatown so long ago before the streetcar replaced it, becoming almost an in-joke refrain long after the song itself had outlived its radioplay moment.
Those earlier videos were made by musicians with smaller audiences and budgets and the Toronto they portrayed looked shakier and scrappier — more like home videos for the family reunion than Bond films. They reflected an image of the city as it felt to many people then. A generation later, more globally celebrated artists are showing a look at the city that maybe has a more global appeal, a more jet-set esthet- ic. It’s still Toronto, but it feels different, looks fresh.
Right down to the libraries and the concrete suburban school buildings. It’s a good look. Especially if it gives us occasion to revisit places we’ve taken for granted and look at them again through a new lens, reboot them in our imaginations.
To see the secrets of this place we didn’t even know we were keeping. Beautiful. Enchanting. Sexy. Home. Edward Keenan writes on city issues firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow: @thekeenanwire
The Weeknd’s new video for “Secrets” — released this week — was filmed in Toronto.