TORONTO — When the dust settles from the U.S. election, Canadian musician Dan Mangan wants it to be clear where he stood on President Donald Trump.
The Vancouver singer-songwriter isn’t a U.S. citizen, but he still feels a deep connection to what’s happened with democracy south of the border. His folk song “There’s a Tumor in the White House” doesn’t mince words on the toxicity he feels the leader spilled over some of the nation’s most trusted institutions.
“I don’t want there to be any ambiguity about how I felt,” the Juno winner explained.
“A tumour is a symptom of a deep infrastructural illness…and Trump is the most visibly obvious element.”
Inspiration struck Mangan shortly before the 2020 election. His anxieties were starting to boil over, so he wrote, recorded and released his track in a matter of weeks hoping “it could have any consequence whatsoever in the zeitgeist” as people headed to the polls.
But he also recognized that protest songs rarely leave the impact they once did.
Before the 2016 election, dozens of mainstream artists sang against Trump to draw attention to what many considered his corrupt character, but it seemed to do little to change voters’ minds. The tight race in 2020 suggests that music again failed to inspire the change musicians wanted to see.
It’s a stark contrast from decades ago when Neil Young and Buffy Sainte-Marie were the voices of a generation. Their anthems against the Vietnam War became the soundtrack to a movement, Mangan said, but these days it’s harder to find protest music that’s budged the needle.
“People doing that kind of music now are not the pop stars of this era,” he argued.
Halifax indie-rock singer Rich Aucoin said his frustration over the failure of recent protest songs to leave a mark on popular culture is what led him to write “How It Breaks,” a rousing pop track about a faltering system that’s disguised with handclaps and a drum loop reminiscent of Rihanna and Jay-Z’s “Umbrella.”
Aucoin said the song is partly inspired by David Bowie’s dancefloor political anthem “Young Americans.” Its lyrics are drawn from the community divide he saw while cycling through Arizona around the 2018 mid-term elections.
“It’s not your standard (protest anthem), it’s more a commentary on the problems still ongoing in America,” he said.
“I’m stating things I saw in these small towns in the Midwest, and how the con of ‘Make America Great Again’ could work on people who live in a downtown that’s boarded up and all of the businesses gone.”
Aucoin suggested that perhaps the protest song hasn’t died, as he once thought, but found a different way to exist in the streaming era where listeners have broken off into their favourite subgenres.
He pointed to rap artist Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 single “Alright” as one example that many will recognize for its chantable chorus: “We gon’ be alright.” After its life on the pop charts, it evolved into an anthem for the streets as Black Lives Matter supporters marched with it playing from loudspeakers.
David Strickland, a Mi’kmaw and Cree producer who’s worked with Drake and Method Man, witnessed a similar reinterpretation of his rap song “Turtle Island.” He considered it a “state of the union” on life for marginalized people in 2020, but some listeners received it differently.
“A lot of times, we’re just writing about what’s happening to us… but people took it as a protest song,” he said.
“It’s amazing how that can happen.”
Moksha Sommer believes even if protest anthems aren’t climbing the charts, they still have a vibrant future.
The Montreal-raised singer’s Nashville folk act HuDost released the song “Our Words Will Be Louder” before the election in hopes it would encourage more people to vote. A team of other musicians, including Kevin Hearn of Barenaked Ladies joined her in speaking out through the song.
“No matter who’s in the White House, these issues are going to need to continue to be addressed,” she said.
“Whether some people in power like it or not, artists and musicians have voices that are heard and can inspire others to take action.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published November 7, 2020.