Now that the votes have been counted, the victory champagne and consolation whiskey sipped, and the school gymnasiums returned to their regular functions, it’s time to get some serious analysis on one of the most important issues of the 2015 election: Which protest song was the best?
Protest songs are truly a genre apart. Utilitarian, usually to a fault, protest songs are built of purpose more than expression, but legitimacy comes from the passion coursing through the veins and vocal chords of the singer (There are not, to my knowledge, any instrumental protest songs. How would that even work?). This election has seen a resurgence of musical political activism in Canada, almost universally indicting Stephen Harper and the tories ( Almost as though the artists had something at stake. Tell ‘em, Margaret!).
Why would you even do something like this?
Honestly, I think it’s so cool to see songs written about important subjects with urgency and passion, but a badly written protest song can end up achieving the opposite of what it wants to do, especially if it’s so badly written it accidentally reverse the politics of those who would be sympathetic to it. I wanted to capture some examples and point out their strong and weak points and explore what makes them effective or not. Ultimately I actually want to see more protest songs, but better protest songs. Protests songs that succeed both as songs and as protests.
Happily and unprecedentedly, youtube is crowded with Canadian protest songs. However, most of them are pretty amateur, and I didn’t think it was necessary to put forward a bunch of criticism onto songs that play on passion and anger more than musical accomplishment. That means I only included songs that I liked, or that were inspired enough to handle a little critiquing. Also the song Harperman, because it was unavoidable for a couple of weeks. That means you’ll have to go elsewhere to listen to bands like the (awesomely named) Theivin’ Harpers, or a political parody versions of American Pie or Imagine. If that’s what you’re into, though, here’s more outdated protest songs than anyone could ever want.
#7. Tony Turner – Harperman
I have to give credit where credit is due, and Tony Turner definitely gets points for bravery and purpose. Turner is a full time scientist who moonlights as a folksinger, or at least he was until his folk career brought his science career to a government-requisitioned end. I’m not going to critique his message in the slightest, or doubt his credentials as an activist who is intimately acquainted with the failings of the Harper government. But, man, just, can we get him back into the lab soon please? This song is just… bad. It’s a million years long, and it’s hokey and trite even in its anger. Strangely, though, those things may play in its favour as a social tool. It’s irritatingly catchy and it’s so repetitive you can sing along with it after the first verse. Even the construction “Harperman”, a phrase previously used by nobody anywhere (Citation), has a weird memetic quality, even if it doesn’t seem like natural, idiomatic English. Maybe I’m not giving Turner enough credit. No criticism along those lines will distract the song from doing its job, and that’s saying something.
#6 Enid Penis – Little Stevie Harper
The fantastically named Enid Penis contribute this little effort, and even though it’s pretty corny, repetitive and based on Folk Cliché #24, I can’t help but like it. The phrase “reptile smile” is just delightful, and even though the song is very brief, there’s like three different little musical ideas in there. Not too shabby.
#5. KDilla feat. Rhyme Ministers – Harper Hates You
A common problem with writing songs about Stephen Harper is that any reasonable list of complaints quickly grows into a litany, and a long angry list doesn’t make for engaging songwriting. However, rapping has a density that can cover more ground in less time than your average acoustic troubadour, which means that the KDilla (Stands for Kayak Dilla. Seriously) and Rhyme Ministers (also seriously) don’t bog down even when spitting out their angry lists. It’s a touch clumsy, but the hook is clever and the beat is solid.
Here’s a way stronger version of this song. It’s just tighter in every regard. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aoGxaz2QFW8
#4. Paul Kolinski – Vote That Fucker Out
See, here’s a song that know exactly what it wants to say and says it. The music is angry, the lyrics are angry, the unkempt men marching through Kensington Market in the video are angry. There’s not a lot of time spent detailing every little cause of the anger, instead, it’s a punked up Bachman-Turner Overdrive backing track with “vote that fucker out!” repeated every 8 bars. It’s unlikely to affect anyone’s pre-existing opinion, but at least it’s succinct and expressive.
#3. Yukon Blonde & Hey Rosetta – Land You Love
Yes, Harper surely trembled at the sound of boot-stompin’, mando-tinklin’, tambourine playin’, gently harmonised indie-folk from St. John’s and Kelowna’s most powerful modern-rock folkstars. In this sham of a contest where I decide the rules, I award this song the prize for best writing because this song actually feels like something. There’s longing, suffering and loss, but also hope and determination. Frustrated but articulate about the betrayal of conservative leadership, these bands want you to get out and do something about it. Unfortunately, it’s undermined by music that sounds more like a Lumineers song about losing your plaid-wearing girlfriend to a banjo player with a better moustache than, say, actual, angry protest (More “Ho! Hey!” than “Hey Hey, Ho Ho, something-or-another has got to go” if you will. I understand if you won’t). That’s not to say that protest music has to be all in your face, but the gentle strumming is downright sleepy. And enough with the Oh-oh-oh sing-alongs. Oh-oh-oh is not the sound of political dissatisfaction.
#2 Cathy Cook and the Atlantic Romantics – Stephen Harper Hates Me
You know what? I absolutely love the blues shuffle/native hand drum that starts off this tune. They just go together so well. Taking a different, more personal tactic, Cook narrates specific stories of different types of Canadians maltreated by Harper’s policies, and she’s got the soul, sadness and frustration in her voice to sell every line. Plus, it’s an unintentional companion piece to Harper Hates You.
#1. Blue Rodeo – Stealin’ all my Dreams
Blue Rodeo effortlessly separates themselves from the pack by writing a song with an actual hook. A junky, jangly country rock jam in which mellowness barely conceals the growling of a seriously upset Jim Cuddy. The verses are a bit ramshackle, but they rhyme, or at least close enough. While the lyrics are specific enough that after October 19th they probably won’t be relevant, there’s enough poetry and eloquence in “War planes, computer games, robo-calls & Senate shame” to forgive “I’m scared for the children & the babies”, and enough venom in “Have you forgotten that you work for me?” to justify the whole affair. Blue Rodeo also manages from being comprehensive without bogging down, and wisely allows the annotations in their music video to do much of the heavy lifting. On the nose, but catchy and even slightly artistic. Plus, I think this is the only song on the list with a kick-ass guitar solo.
Honourable mention: Raffi – I Want My Canada Back, Vote For Democracy
Yes, that Raffi (Do you know of any other Raffis? Nobody who gets by on the strength of his first name alone, I’ll tell you that much), Mr. Bananaphone himself, released not one but two songs in anticipation of the election, although even if you put them together they’re only two minutes long. They’re easily the most basic songs on this list, but that’s not what matters at all. The point is, even a children’s performer is upset at the current political scene, and wants his Canada back from those who control it. Plus, both songs are totally hummable while you fiddle with your little golf pencil in a cardboard privacy booth.
Other Honourable Mention: Shane Koyczan – The Cuts
Well, I mean, it’s not exactly a song. It’s very well written and delivered with precision and controlled rage over a decent backing track, but it just didn’t seem right to break this down with all the other verse-and-chorus affairs.