Deep Digs: The Hidden Cameras – The Smell Of Our Own (2003)

By: Sarah Chodos | Art by: Michael Rancic

The memory is still so clear to me. It was around 2000 and I was 19 years old, living in a Campus Co-op house with a bunch of artsy students. I remember how Toronto looked as the sun set over the city. I’d stay out all hours of the night before finally heading home. Hearing the Hidden Cameras’ “Day is Dawning” brings me right back to memories like that, a haunting musical number from an album that encapsulates the grace and the turmoil of what it felt like to be young in Toronto at the time: The Smell of Our Own

In the early 2000s, The Hidden Cameras were the quintessential Toronto band. The Smell of Our Own was not the first Hidden Cameras album, but it was their debut as a musical collective, one which formed around multidisciplinary artist and activist Joel Gibb and was powered largely by his artistic vision. The musical collective movement of the early ’00s arose alongside the receding of rock stardom and the inaccessibility of the traditional music industry, and was telling of these changes. In Canada, the popularity of this dynamic in contemporary music originates with the post-apocalyptic post-rock of Godspeed You! Black Emperor in the mid-’90s, and began to coalesce with groups like Broken Social Scene, Black Mountain, Henri Fabergé and the Adorables, and later Yamantaka // Sonic Titan. 

In Toronto, the collectivism rampant in Will Munro’s Vazaleen parties merged the punk and alternative arts movement that took place in the neighbourhoods west of Yonge Street with the queer subculture that centred around the Church/Wellesley intersection just to the east. While  punk rock was always queer, this was a revolutionary act in Toronto at the time. Less a band than an “artistic moment in community,”  as remembered by writer, playwright, and band member Maggie MacDonald in an interview with Michael Barclay, the Hidden Cameras were the spark at the rubbing together of these movements. This “artistic moment” was not simply concerned with breaking down barriers but in finding the undercurrents the barriers hindered.

The Hidden Cameras have described their music as “gay church folk music.” Indeed, that might aptly describe much rock and roll and popular music emerging from World War II. The early trend-setters combined gospel with sexual transgression, meeting the influences of honky-tonk, the blues, and country.

Walter Benjamin said that once art was separated from its original ritual(s), it would take on a different meaning and could be utilized in revolution. Technology, in this case records and radio in the post-war era, brought this transgressive art form to middle class, mainstream teenagers. It was still seen as transgressive, but the gospel origins of the ritual were unknown to many who took in the art form.

By the 2000s, radio, the recording industry, and glittering rockstardom itself, were all beginning to decline. The Hidden Cameras, really, are their own thing; different from a 1950s gospel-inspired drag show where Little Richard had his beginnings; different still from the “gay icons” of the 1980s such as Culture Club and Wham!; further different from a political movement that identifies with transgressive music but is unaware of its origins. The Hidden Cameras took threads from all of the above, wove their own ritual, and brought their audience along with them. 

Across The Smell of Our Own, the music goes from being extremely predictable to complex, to dissolving into cacophony, all while sounding like rainbows and sunsets, if they had a sound. Guitar, cello, synth, and glockenspiel against a robust chorus of voices, while Gibb’s vocals run from gritty to falsetto.

Post-rock implies music that does not “make sense,” does not follow the same formulae – the three chords, the blues scales, the three-to five-piece guitar/drums/bass configurations – of earlier rock music. This is true of many acts since around the beginning of the 21st century. The Hidden Cameras, while mostly sounding unlike anything else, also have catchy moments so predictable as to almost parody predictability.

In “Breathe On It,” The Smell of Our Own’s second last song, Gibb sings: “I may be damaged by the rod / And damned in the light / Sit with all the wicked / Untamed by holy rites.” Those lines speak to being marginalized and shunned in one way, but also to how there is transformative power in finding community among all others cast out for the same reasons.  “To me, the gay community is just a little microcosm of the rest of the world,” Gibb said in a 2005 interview with Exclaim! “So it’s not like I’m trying to represent homosexuals; it’s trying to use gay experience as a universal metaphor.” 

The Hidden Cameras included gay and straight artists alike, just as it did classically trained musicians and those with no prior musical experience. Gibb credits his introduction to music through the Orff method, which fosters a full engagement of mind and body, and dismisses much of the structure of formal musical instruction, as being foundational to his later work. “I was always interested in seeking people who weren’t formal musicians to play … I even hate using the word ‘musician,’” he said in the Barclay interview.

In the same interview, MacDonald recounts an early show; “I think the first moment when everything really came together was when we played at the Metro porn theatre on Bloor St. West, and we had local artists show films and some women did some dances about menstruation, and there were all sorts of masks and costumes. It was a real community event, a very different kind of concert.” 

Gogo dancers were a common addition to the shows, intended to help the audience feel less inhibited and more comfortable in their bodies. One of the few negative responses the Hidden Cameras got at their shows, as relayed by Gibb to Butt Magazine, concerned audience members wishing for dancers who were more conforming to society’s beauty standards.

When I attended a show of theirs around the The Smell of Our Own days, the Hidden Cameras were known for playing in both churches and porn cinemas; this was neither — a dance theatre in Cabbagetown. The venue was packed, both the seats and the stage, with no separation between the two. At one point, MacDonald led everyone — and I mean everyone, in a dance. If, however, this conjures up images of the wildest parties, that would be a misunderstanding. The whole performance seemed like a family affair. I went out for drinks with some of them afterward and, as we talked about school, religion (some of the band members were practicing Christians) and life, I remember their inclusivity: “Oh you play music too? Come and jam with us sometime! Bring your baby!”

Was the concert what I had expected? I don’t know if anyone could predict what to expect from a collective known for singing about sex in church. But I saw first hand how they challenged superficial distinctions between people to make everyone in the audience feel like they not only belonged, but should participate. 

Sometimes their words and actions challenged certain people more than others. “Ban Marriage” was something of a controversial song at the time. Same-sex-marriage hadn’t been legalized yet in Canada and wouldn’t be until 2005. The Cameras’ home province of Ontario legalized it in June of 2003, just two months after The Smell of Our Own was released, so the topic was front of mind for Gibb and company. Many queer-led rights organizations and activists had long been fighting for having those rights enshrined in legislation, to ensure that same-sex couples had the same sets of rights that straight couples had. But many queer people also balked at the idea, feeling as though the fight for the right to legally marry was an attempt at trying to legitimize queer love within what is effectively a straight institution. 

In the song, Gibb sings about a wedding day, and is struck by how rigid the institution is, between the bright morning light blinding and blaring against his night owl body, the tight formal wear, having to choose between his “fag hag” or lover (a nameless “him”), and on. It isn’t all bad: the lyrics fixate on the potency and truth within the church organist’s performance, which gives weight to the rising uncertainty Gibb sings of throughout the song.

Much of The Smell of Our Own is about resisting such forms of confinement and structure, and about how the mess of queer life can ecstatically upend those systems. The album is bookended with “Golden Streams” and “The Man That I Am With My Man.” 

Golden streams of ice

In the cold

Hold up a city of gold

That lives in broad daylight

“Golden Streams”

“Golden Streams” depicts a scene that almost seems embarrassing at first. As if walking out onto the streets of Toronto, with its cold, sterile grey concrete, and losing control of your body, urinating all over, isn’t embarrassing at all, but rather redeeming, like a baptism. Rainbows form in place of grey clouds. 

The Hidden Cameras take their name from the concept of the panopticon: the notion that we behave as if we are being watched, as if, otherwise, we will do the wrong thing, and we must remain on guard. The song “Shame” speaks of a secret relationship between two lovers, and the acts they felt they must put on in order to hide this relationship. We are all performers, and our identities are based on stories we have come to believe; scripts we have internalized.

As a musical collective that kept its feet on the ground, one could attend a Hidden Cameras concert and it wasn’t entirely clear who was the performer and who was the audience. The scripts were left at the door. This way the ritual — rock music, its gospel origins, the church itself — was brought to the ground, but it had been changed, and it had been politicized.

This idea, that we are all performers, is fundamental to 2SLGBTQ+ movements. Costumes are fundamental to parades and drag shows, also hearkening to the carnival. But the inverse is also true: 2SLGBTQ+ movements are fundamental to the idea that everyone is a performer, challenging heteropatriarchy’s narrow life script, and fundamental to everyone’s liberation, too; which could also be what Gibb was getting at using the gay experience as a universal metaphor.

Twenty years have passed, and while gay marriage is no longer front of mind, conservatives and violent extremists alike have shifted to instituting drag and bathroom bans, harassing trans athletes in sports, and finding countless other ways to undermine the rights, personhood, and self-determination of queer people. 

Most societies have some form of carnival — a place where the nonpermissible is permitted, if only for a short time. In this way, things opposed always had a place in society; but a very specific place. Recorded music dramatically changed this carnival — brought it into the day-to-day, giving it the potential to do great changes or to fold into the mainstream. The rituals around the church, the carnival, and sexual transgression actually have much in common, particularly joy and the feeling of connecting with one another. 

The seeds of grace the Hidden Cameras planted in the turmoil of 20 years ago are blossoming into joy: the joy that people feel from family, community, and religion, all intertwined with the joy that people feel from freeing themselves from the confines that can come with these. The Smell of Our Own reminds us that aspects of the carnival are not carnival anymore: this joy can be something we all experience every day in the deeply personal spaces which connect us all.