The buzz in the Danforth Music Hall on April 28 rivals that before a concert. It doesn't feel like I'm about to witness municipal politics. City staffers mingle with local hipsters and artistic agitators of all ages. Tracks by local-kids-made-good Metric play over the sound system, nuggets of cerebral alt-pop presaging candidates straining to cram inventiveness into 60-second speeches.
This is City Idol, brainchild of Dave Meslin and the Who Runs This Town? project, in which nigh on 100 hopefuls will compete for a modestly funded municipal election campaign.
Meslin takes the stage to hooting and applause. "People have been saying to me, 'You can't do this. You'll have a bunch of clowns running.'" A cheer of approval rises up. Meslin smiles.
"American Idol or Canadian Idol is for people who see rock stars and say, 'I wanna be that.' This is the opposite. These are people who look at council and say, 'What the hell are they doing?'"
More cheers. No patience for genteel procedure here; also little respect for the fourth wall. Candidates sit in the audience before being summoned backstage, and when the rhetoric begins, spectators are into it from the start. Short speeches, instant emotional feedback - it's city politics meets poetry slam.
Many of those running are precisely the sort who would be, and probably have been, routinely kicked out of the council bleachers for trying to be heard. I can't help but feel that many in the audience would be more likely to take part in city politics if council allowed, rather than discouraged, emotional outbursts.
But if City Idol were a pinball machine, the "tilt" light would be flashing non-stop. Conservative ideas are mere comic relief. Simon Malek gets my attention by declaring, "Toronto will not be taken by tourists!"
I have little problem with this, so murmurs of displeasure surprise me. Stranger still is his talk of tourists "planning cells." Oh... he said "terrorists." Praising Harper and Bush, Malek is laughed off the stage.
Ren Tong rides the roller coaster a bit longer. "Cameras on the street," he begins, as catcalls start before he can even finish, "are a band-aid solution." Applause and cheers. "More police on the street." The jeers redouble, and his time is soon up.
The number of candidates makes the time limit necessary, but that's not conducive to communicating ideas - instead deepening the crowd's predilection for grand, zany pronouncements. Say you hate cars and you're guaranteed applause. Talk insightfully about the municipal nitty-gritty and it's probably coughs and crickets.
Urban geographer David Hanna talks of opportunities for affordable housing in the port lands, to little fanfare. Irwin Sampat rises high on a declaration that "Toronto has lost its mojo," but drops like a lead balloon at talk of allocating taxes from Peel and Halton to Toronto due to the number of commuters they send onto our roads.
But just like a poetry slam, the time constraints may help crystallize insights, and a few diamonds result.
"I'm not promising taxes or turkeys, I'm promising more time," says an ultra-casual Kevin Peck, easily connecting things like zoning and multi-modal transportation plans to people's leisure time.
"Raise the youth so we don't raise an alert. We need solutions that aren't inert," raps Uche Onyia. "Immigrants come here to do better for themselves. Let's all share the wealth, and put Canada on the global top shelf." If he promises to always speak in rhyme ("Thank you madam chair, my motion is prepared, but these Robert's Rules of Order just ain't fair"), he's got my vote.
Ron Nuriwash also goes the poetic route, relying on the quiet power of our own Dennis Lee. "Parking lots came out to play, a streak of green instead of grey, and I said, why not stay that way? The day we stopped Spadina," he quotes from a poem on the Spadina Expressway fight, adding, "We can still stop the Spadinas that are out there."
Also like slams, the best performers always seem to show up later in the lineup, probably feeding on the energy of a warmed-up crowd.
"The citystate has been replaced by the neighbourhood civilization," says candidate HiMY SYeD (his spelling, not mine). "You don't need a councillor, you need representation for your neighbourhood. You need a superhero for your neighbourhood!" Stripping down to a Superman costume, he jumps off the stage, through the crowd and out the door.
But Shamez Amlani threatens to split the costumed crusader vote, appearing soon after decked out in a red cape. "Councillors should wear capes," he says, "to remind them of their awesome responsibility."
As speeches wrap up, Meslin unveils the "vote-counting army": volunteers in smocks and green hats who begin sorting the audience ballots brought forward by ushers, to Bob Wiseman's improvised organ funk. The spectacle is partially to keep people interested, as results will be announced tonight. But do I detect a bit of irony? The drama seems to tweak the nose of politics just a little. Imagine if all elections communicated an awareness of how silly they are.
In the end, 48 candidates remain standing - a group with as much ebony and ivory as the keys Wiseman is tickling. They'll soon compete in a second round.
Will all this become an exercise in changing city processes through participation - or through highly publicized mockery? I can only imagine Amlani attending committee meetings in a cape. Finding him out in the lobby, I ask how he'd squeeze himself into a council seat if elected.
He wrinkles his nose at the possibility but then considers it. "I'd wear the cape," he says seriously. "On one of those days when councillors are reading books during deputations I'd come in and say 'All right, let's rock the boat. '"
It's easy to imagine some of these candidates dashed on the rocks of bureaucracy. But at a time when City Hall is pondering whether to become an activist body or stay the bureaucratic course, it's equally easy to wonder if this sort of untrained zeal could be the thing to turn the tide.