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A new era for protest music, but who’s listening?

Arcade Fire initially dropped its dance-floor rallying call I Give You Power (with vocals from civil-rights siren Mavis Staples as an exclusive to the subscription streaming service Tidal.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

Donald Trump may not have been able to recruit A-list music acts to perform at his inauguration festivities, but his candidacy and presidency has been inspiring – to songwriters who oppose his politics (and probably his person, too).

The spunky British pop star Lily Allen has released a sombre cover of Rufus Wainwright's Going to a Town – "I'm so tired of America" – as an anti-Trump protest song, accompanied by a black-and-white video showing footage of the Women's March in London. The Canadian singer-songwriter David Clayton Thomas, a longtime believer in the adage "what goes up must come down," just posted his new Ode to The Donald on YouTube. And left-wing songster and Woody Guthrie believer Billy Bragg has a Trump-tailored version of Bob Dylan's iconic protest anthem The Times They Are A-Changin he'd like us to hear.

But are all these songs being heard, and, if they are, by whom? Certainly no one has tapped a foot to Randy Newman's latest political ditty. The acerbic songwriter, whose song list includes Reagan-era numbers It's Money That Matters and I Want You to Hurt Like I Do, told American Songwriter that his tentatively titled My Dick's Bigger Than Your Dick was "too vulgar" to release. Do you think?

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And when Canadian rockers Arcade Fire a week ago dropped its dance-floor rallying call I Give You Power (with vocals from civil-rights siren Mavis Staples), initially it was an exclusive to the subscription streaming service Tidal. All proceeds from the song go to the American Civil Liberties Union, and subsequently the song was made available on all streaming services, but releasing a protest anthem in a way that is in any way exclusive would seem to defeat the purpose of it.

Speaking of defeating the purpose, on Friday Arcade Fire put out an instrumental mix of I Give You Power. Why issue a song featuring Mavis Staples – "I give you power, but I gotta be free" – without her vocals?

Voices are being heard, of course. Songwriters would be hard-pressed to resist the actions and rhetoric of the Trump presidency. But what rabble is being roused? Are the modern protest singers preaching to choirs? A nation is divided, and many of the protest songs are not of the unifying "this land is your land" kind.

So, while Fiona Apple's anti-Trump chant Tiny Hands ("We don't want your tiny hands, anywhere near our underpants") is satisfying and excellent, some artists have taken a less confrontational tack. In October, the musician Moby released Trump is on Your Side, a strummed ballad that sympathizes (albeit sarcastically) with the plight of the Trump supporter. "You're all alone and filled with fear, and the billionaire says what you need to hear," Moby sings. "He's never really worked a day in his life, but he's on your side."

Likewise, on his new, socially conscious song Blank Cheque, the Nova Scotian singer-songwriter Joel Plaskett challenges the thinking of the rank-and-file – "in a world full of clowns, man, you still want to join the circus?" – while indicting capitalist greed.

The song is politically charged but not partisan; ultimately it offers music as a reaction and a solace. "We sing of love with sadness," croons Plaskett, whose forthcoming collaborative album with his father is called Solidarity, "because this modern world is madness."

And who can't get behind that?

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About the Author

Brad Wheeler is an arts reporter with The Globe and Mail. More

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