Miss America, Mary Margaret O'Hara

It’s no surprise that in the most recent round of voting for the Slaight Family Polaris Heritage Prize, Mary Margaret O’Hara’s Miss America won the critic-based Jury Vote for 1986-1995 time period, while fellow Torontonians Blue Rodeo picked up the Public Vote nod for the fan-favourite 5 Days In July. Miss America, Ms O’Hara’s only full-length studio album, has remained highly regarded amongst her peers and the music press in the 29 years since its release. It is an album of stunning preternatural beauty. Time hasn’t weathered these songs; it has only strengthened them.

Much of what makes Miss America such a compelling listen is the way familiar musical conventions take on new and otherworldly forms. It sounds as if the ghosts of jazz, pop, and classic rock music–wispy, eerie versions of their former selves–are haunting O’Hara’s dreams and influencing her creative output. The music of opener “To Cry About” circles O’Hara’s signature vocals like tendrils of cigarette smoke, shifting and taking on new shapes with each breath she takes and each line she sings. Elsewhere, O’Hara’s improvisational, deconstructed singing focuses less on the poetry of her words and more on the powerful emotions of her performance. Her tone, volume, and clarity spin through the songs like free-flowing dials, finding the right moment to pierce through and connect with listeners (as on the Pasty Cline-inclined “Dear Darling”).

I read recently that O’Hara was so disillusioned with the music industry machine, that she delayed releasing Miss America by almost four years. She also started work on a follow-up but scrapped it so as not have to endure the record company shenanigans that so hindered her first release. I don’t blame her for that; she wasn’t the first artist to face the pressures of consumerism and popular culture, and certainly would not be the last. As much as Ms O’Hara may regret the man-handling that Miss America went through, I for one would not want a thing to change about it. As it nears its 30th anniversary with no follow-up in sight, Miss America doesn’t need awards and popular recognition to validate its status as a Canadian musical treasure, all it needs is to be heard.

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