The Tragically Miffed

by Matthew McKean

6 November 2007

Canada's Barenaked Ladies make some of today's best, most relevant protest music. No, really.

Once, protest singers looked and sounded a lot alike: Acoustic guitars and harmonicas, caustic poetry about social injustice, and billows of cigarette smoke turned the ‘60s into a golden age of protest music. But much changed in the decades that followed. In the ‘80s, the target of musical dissent switched from civil rights and Vietnam to apartheid and famine. The iconic, shaggy haired folk singer, whose songs were supposed to change the world, gave way to pop-star collectives who believed they were the world.

Now, with global terrorism and warming, an eerily familiar military quagmire in Iraq, and dire situations in Africa, today’s protest singers still have much to draw upon for inspiration. At the moment, though, protest music occupies an awkward space in popular culture. It’s no longer the subculture it once was, and rather than increasing its power, this mainstreaming has blurred the lines and muffled the message. It probably doesn’t help either that the instruments are plugged in now, the lyrics are sleeker, and smoking will kill you.

Canada, too, has a legacy to impart from the ‘60s, but I’m fairly certain that Gordon, Joni, and Neil didn’t intend to pass the mantle on to Céline, Shania, and Nickelback. Their heirs are the likes of Sarah Harmer and Ron Sexsmith, Chris Brown and Kate Fenner, Danny Michel and Andy Stochansky, David Francey and Craig Cardiff, Jenny Whiteley and Jim Bryson, Great Lake Swimmers, Stars, and the Weakerthans, to name a few.

But we shouldn’t also forget the Barenaked Ladies. You may think, aren’t the Barenaked Ladies that harmless novelty band from Canada? What would they have to do with protest music? For anyone paying attention, though, the Barenaked Ladies have become one of North America’s most vital critics and social commentators, not to mention one of Canada’s most prolific bands. But they needed to gain commercial success first (singing, incidentally, about Chinese chicken and chimpanzees should do the trick) before they could mention that the rest of their music actually happens to be about something. To aim high, they’ve had to lay low.

I shouldn’t have to tell you that there’s a great deal more to the Barenaked Ladies than their early-90s kitsch. Obviously, their earliest songs helped shape who they’ve become. Sort of like how Grade 9, however awkward and tragically unfashionable it was for you, played some role in making you who you are now, however awkward and tragically unfashionable you turned out to be. But where many musicians descend into complacency, the Barenaked Ladies have gone to considerable effort to remain relevant. They’ve developed a social conscience. They’re outspoken on political, social, and environmental issues relevant to Canadians. Steven Page, the band’s lead singer, has even been a vocal participant in Canada’s New Democratic Party.  The band’s ‘Barenaked Planet’ project is an effort to minimize the band’s environmental footprint while on tour. They have performed at relief concerts for SARS, Musicians Without Borders, Live 8, and Toronto’s AIDS conference. And through the Canadian Music Creators Coalition, which they helped form, they’ve been instrumental in obligating the Canadian government to be more culturally aware.

It’s easy to miss all this activism, though. Traditionally, the Barenaked Ladies could be relied upon to release one or two radio-friendly songs on each album, to appease labels, no doubt, and sell records to your hockey-jersey-wearing buddies, but balanced the rest of their albums with intelligent, observant songs on important issues. Getting their message out, though, ultimately depends on our actually listening to what they’re saying, at the shows and with the headphones on. And a main part of their protest is that we’re not listening anymore, at least not to what we don’t want to hear.

Consider lines from “Testing 1,2,3” from Everything to Everyone (2003):

Testing 1-2-3 can anybody hear me?
If I shed the irony would everybody cheer me
If I acted less like me would I be in the clear?
She got a new apartment out on the escarpment
In her glove compartment are my songs
She hasn’t even heard them since she found out what the words meant
She decided she preferred them all wrong

Those who love a band or artist often couldn’t tell you what any of their songs are about. And those who dismiss a band or artist are often guilty of the same. We seem to care far more about what we see than about what we hear.

When the Barenaked Ladies released their greatest hits album in 2001, they included a new song on it at the end called “Thanks, That Was Fun”, about a youthful boyfriend-girlfriend relationship ending. It’s essentially about ironic nostalgia, yet in interviews at the time they were constantly being asked if it meant that the band was done. The same sort of people were asking them three years earlier whether their song “Alcohol” wasn’t irresponsibly promoting drinking. Once again, they had missed the irony.

Fewer and fewer of us are listening to one another, though, let alone to the deeper social meaning of songs, which is why so many artists and bands are able to get away without having any meaning at all. It’s why you might recall the retro-diner video for “Pinch Me”, from the Maroon (2000) album, but not the lyrics to “Sell, Sell, Sell”:

Buy buy buy buy
Sell Sell Sell
How well you learn to not discern
Who’s foe and who is friend
We’ll own them all in the end
It goes like this, we have no choice; the minarets,
The wailing voice and vaguely Celtic music fills the air
We choose a foreigner to hate,
The new Iraq gets more irate
We really know nothing about them, and no one cares.

And this record came out a year before September 11.  Hear what they have to say five years later.  In “Fun and Games”, from this year’s Barenaked Ladies Are Men, Steven Page sings in the ironic first-person:

We sent in the army, they sounded alarms
We saw it coming from a mile away
We kept it off the radar
‘Cause we had to say our intentions were to save the day
Why did you fail to see?
It was a gag,  it was all for a laugh
They were shocked and they were awed and they were blown in half

Later in the same song:

We just got reelected
In a while our bill of rights will be rejected,
And the blame will be deflected,
The forests will be unprotected,
The nation’s poor will be neglected,
Creation myth is resurrected,
The new salute is genuflected,
The Gallup poll will be respected,
A gallows pole will be erected
And all this will go undetected …
It was all for a laugh
And now our very nation has been blown in half

It’s all a game now, the majority are losing, but we continue to play along. In songs like this one, the band is pleading with us to snap out of our collective haze.  In fact, I think it’s safe to say that the Barenaked Ladies have become frustrated, exhausted, even a bit exasperated by the extent to which so many of us now blindly consume ideas and anxieties, prejudices and merchandise in lieu of thinking critically about our nation’s foreign policies, let alone our own well-being, and that of others.

The tone of Everything to Everyone, as Steven Page said at the time, was about how dangerous it is to separate ourselves from those around us and from the world in general. A song on the album called “War on Drugs” details the need to preserve lives, to help people out of suicide rather than prevent them from being able to commit it. About the song’s meaning, Steven Page would explain that setting up social and political safety nets, literally and figuratively, doesn’t solve problems. But that fighting for one another’s sanity might be a good place to start.

As it turns out, music can alert us to the infelicities of North American politics and environmental policies, and to conditions in the Third World. It can help us to question our involvement in the Middle East or the propaganda campaigns encouraging people to shop. More generally, it can point out the fact that there’s too much madness in the world; too much disease and poverty; too much pollution; that people are needlessly dying or killing themselves. But most important, perhaps, despite all of these things, it can remind us that there’s still a great deal of beauty in the world, in each of our own little worlds.

If these things don’t resonate with you, if you still think the Barenaked Ladies are all about having a million dollars and a bunch of really fast rhymes, then maybe it’s time to start listening a little closer. Even if, as the band sings in “Helicopters”, “a world that loves its irony must hate the protest singer”.

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