When it comes to mainstream protest music look to...
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Feb 17, 2017  |  Vote 0    0

When it comes to mainstream protest music look to ... Katy Perry?

Waterloo Region Record
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"1,000 Days, 1,000 Songs."

I didn't even know it existed until I Googled "Donald Trump" and "protest music."

But there it was, a nascent musical rebellion that kicked off during the U.S. presidential campaign under its original moniker "30 Days, 30 Songs," and has since expanded exponentially.

"Fight The Power," "Mississippi Goddam," "Where Have all The Flowers Gone," "This Land Is Your Land" — classics to place America's current troubles in historic context.

But as an orange-haired demagogue threatens American freedoms with swaggering "Make America Great Again" doublespeak, there's a bonus: a slew of modern anti-Trump anthems that proudly hold their own.

"Nobody makes it on their own / Without a million dollar loan," croon indie rockers Death Cab For Cutie in a satirical slam against The Donald's less-than-humble origins.

"Call your father on the phone / And get that million dollar loan."

Singer-songwriter Aimee Mann goes one better, getting inside the head of POTUS 45: "Isn't anybody going to stop me? / I don't want this job / I don't want this job, my god / Can't you tell / I'm unwell."

And, of course, indie rocker Fiona Apple, responding to Trump's infamous pledge to grab women "by the p----": "We don't want your tiny hands," she chants." Anywhere near our underpants."

These aren't tossed off, penned-by-committee sellouts.

They're elegant, musically sophisticated — and angry — smackdowns that breathe fire with every nuanced syllable.

Fuelled by urgency and a need for self-expression, this playlist designed to "inspire and amuse and channel the outrage of a nation" feels right for the times: visceral, grassroots, defiant.

And when I say "right for the times" I mean as opposed to the myopic, flatulent, over-the-top Grammy Awards.

In case you missed this annual orgy of self-congratulation last weekend, it handed most of its major hardware — for the second time in five years — to Adele, the lovable English belter who churns out mopey, angst-filled dirges about failed love affairs in the most unthreatening way imaginable.

Critics were aghast: how could a bland white Brit with no musical edge beat out the Oprah Winfrey of Pop — Beyoncé — who preaches empowerment and acceptance through elaborately staged performance art that is the musical equivalent of Cirque du Soleil?

When I stumbled into an online griping session about how Beyoncé's bold, experimental "Lemonade" should have triumphed over Adele's second trip to the heartbreak well, "25," I had to laugh.

Not just because arguing over who most deserves the "prestigious" Album of the Year award in a world where no one buys albums is like fighting over the prize at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box.

Because what I was thinking as I watched this dispiriting showcase for an industry in the final stages of artistic decline was that if I didn't know it was 2017, I would never have been able to pinpoint what year it was from.

Lame country duets, half-baked tributes, awkward artist mash-ups (Metallica and Lady Gaga?), a raft of annoying baby-men warblers (Ed Sheeran, Lukas Graham), plodding memorials for dead rock stars (George Michael) and officiously contrived "Grammy moments" (an audience singalong to "Sweet Caroline" ... really?) that are repeats of older, more famous Grammy Moments.

If ever there was ever an industry in need of a shakeup, it's pop music in 2017.

Which is exactly what happened a half century ago, when clean-cut crooners like Nancy Sinatra and Frankie Valli were turfed off the charts by psychedelic innovators like The Doors and Jefferson Airplane.

Unlike today's left vs. right wing class wars, it was a generational clash that found traction in a burgeoning youth demographic, an unpopular war and a paranoid law-and-order president who threatened to crack down on dissidents.

Songwriters, in those days, were cultural leaders who could sway opinion with a carefully constructed pop song.

"Fortunate Son," "Ohio" and "For What It's Worth" were not only great tunes you could sing along to, they articulated the festering outrage beneath the surface of American society.

Most important, they got played on the radio.

The difference between then and now is, of course, huge.

The music industry, in the Age of Donald, has become completely monetized, focused on the bottom line to the point of absurdity, squeezing out anything that might offend the low-risk corporate mindset.

If Top 40 hitmakers like Justin Bieber, Drake and Taylor Swift have anything to say about the tenuous state of American democracy, it isn't evident in their naval-gazing pop warblings.

Compounding this, of course, is the rise of the Internet, which splintered mainstream music into a thousand tiny niches and ensured any artist not bankrolled by the big labels would hover forever under the radar, just out of earshot.

Nevertheless, like rogue Senator Elizabeth Warren, they persisted.

"Artists were not willing to speak out before," "30 Days, 30 Songs" curator Jordan Kurland told Rolling Stone. "But we're in a whole different world."

"For me, this is unchartered territory," agreed Blink-182 bassist Mark Hoppus. "But we're in a time of crisis."

Music as resistance.

I don't know if we'll see a saviour rise from these streets, to quote Bruce Springsteen, but there's a growing sense that — barring the impeachment of America's first "reality" president or, perhaps, a long-term hiatus after May sweeps week — change may be in the offing.

Never mind A Tribe Called Quest, the veteran hip-hop group that staged an overtly political performance at the Grammys and pointedly thanked "President Agent Orange for perpetuating all of the evil that you've been perpetuating throughout the United States."

It was a bold statement and critics love them. But they're not in the mainstream. They don't speak to the current generation.

The real party crasher — and best link between the burgeoning underground and that elusive mass audience — is Katy Perry, who managed to work an oblique protest theme into her generic, committee-penned party anthem, "Chained to the Rhythm."

"So comfortable, we're living in a bubble, bubble," trilled the avowed Hillary Clinton supporter, wearing a "persist" armband and singing her perky disco earworm before a slide of the American constitution with the words "We The People."

"So comfortable, we cannot see the trouble, trouble."

"Time is ticking for the empire," chimes in duet partner Skip Marley. "The truth they feed is feeble / As so many times before / They greed over the people / They stumbling and fumbling / And we about to riot / They woke up, they woke up the lions."

Perry, you may recall, spent the last decade frolicking in videos for songs like "California Gurls" in conical torpedo bras that shoot whipped cream.

With her Betty Boop outfits and comic book sexuality, she's a pop pinup for 12-year-olds — a dabbler, a dilettante.

But get this: she has 98.5 million Twitter followers, four times as many as Donald Trump and 750 times as many as indie protest singer Aimee Mann.

For a perky cash cow, in a cleavage-spilling bustier and lip gloss, to take a political stand — even a watered down one — is significant in these troubled times.

"There's so much divisiveness," she told media before the Grammys. "People on one side or the other. I think we just need to listen to each other."

It's a big leap from indie to mainstream, from "we're living in a bubble" to "stay out of my underpants," but social revolutions have been predicated on less.

Joel Rubinoff writes about pop culture every Saturday. Email him at jrubinoff@therecord.com

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