Friday, 3 February 2012
Pop Goes the Politician
Barack Obama singing Al Green's Let's Stay Together at a fundraising event in New York last month was a smooth move by the American president. There is no one in the history of politics that could have pulled it off the way Obama did. The guy oozes an ineffable sense of coolness that evades contemporary politics. Obama has never been known for musicality, but his ability to semi-sing Al Green's soulful track pleased many and boosted his poll ratings.
Obama's rendition of Let's Stay Together increased the track's weekly sales by 490%. The song, which was originally released in 1971, sold over 16,000 downloads in the week ending January 22, and helped Obama raise $3.1 million during the day spent campaigning in New York, thus proving how a politician's music choices can either make or break their vote worthiness.
Politicians have often used pop music as means of enhancing their persona. Modern politics has become less about policies and more about personality. Vladimir Putin, the current Russian president, is hardly known for being a connoisseur of Western pop music, but his rendition of Fat Domino's Blueberry Hill at a charity fundraiser event in St. Petersburg warmed the cockles of even the most hardened communist haters. It proved that if politicians want to be thought of as 'human', they need to pledge their allegiance to a popular band, singer or song.
Britain is a unique country in that it has a pop music history not many other places can rival. From John Lennon singing Give Peace a Chance to the Sex Pistols screaming out Anarchy in the UK, British popular music often encourages its listeners to think about the inequities of modern life, and subsequently, urges them to change things.
Perhaps one of the most formidable political bands to helm from Britain is The Smiths. Their music evoked a poetically elegiac picture of working-class life, giving a lyrical voice to the undervalued people of northern Britain. The songs were identifiably anti-establishment and abjured the unfair nature of Thatcherism.
It's no surprise that neither Morrissey nor Johnny Marr, founding members of The Smiths, is comfortable with our current Prime Minister, David Cameron, claiming their band is his all time favourite. Cameron's leftist music tastes seem completely at odds with his conservative political legislations. He has ushered in some of the most rightwing policies ever seen; the kind of policies designed to disrupt the lives of disadvantaged people across Britain.
As much as it pains me to admit it, our inept Prime Minister Cameron actually does have pretty good taste in music. (Rather humorously, Johnny Marr immediately took to Twitter, forbidding David Cameron from liking his band's music, saying: "David Cameron, stop saying that you like The Smiths, no you don't. I forbid you to like it.") Though artists like The Smiths and Paul Weller have cringed in the revelation that Cameron is a fan of their work, he does seem to be genuine in affirming his enjoyment of quality music. Cameron seems a true liker of popular culture, informing the Sunday Telegraph last month that he has recently been rocking out to Lana Del Rey (rich people tend to like the work of other rich people) and Band of Horses on his iPod. He became even cooler when he said in the same interview that he dislikes the music of Bruno Mars and Katy Perry, describing them both as "appalling."
The notion that a politician like David Cameron can actually have a praiseworthy musical palette is a disorientating thought. His political policies are nothing short of abhorrent, yet his love of good music almost humanises him in a manner many of us are not comfortable with. Cameron discusses pop music as someone with an admirable knowledge of the things he's talking about. He's not just saying he likes music for the sake of increasing his poll numbers; he actually cares about the music he enjoys and thoughtfully admonishes the artists he's not fond of.
Often when a politician tries to be down with the kids, it usually backfires. Cameron's predecessors, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, both tried to use pop music to varying success. Ironically, despite their duplicitous veneer of adolescent-friendliness, both Blair and Brown were also responsible for the proliferation of youth poverty in Britain caused by improper strategies to close the gap between rich and poor stratums of society.
As a teenager in the '60s, Tony Blair was obsessed with rock music and fronted a rock band known as the Ugly Rumours. Blair expertly used the Britpop scene of the '90s to capture the attention of young voters, posing with his guitar in numerous photo shoots and inviting Noel Gallagher of Oasis to promote his cool credentials by endorsing his campaign at the 1996 BRIT Awards. The trick worked and Blair became the first Labour Party Prime Minister in a generation; though his immediate introduction of university student tuition fees exemplified just how hoodwinked the British young populace had been. (Considering that The Smiths―a perennial student favourite―are David Cameron's top band, his party's decision to exorbitantly increase university tuition fees from this September is a further reminder of how far removed his politics are from that of his favourite band.)
Blair's heir-apparent, Gordon Brown, was another political disappointment who tried to use the pop music scene to win the hearts of young folk, but failed spectacularly. Unlike Blair, Brown was bereft of charisma and seemed almost mechanical at times. Everyone knew that Brown was never a real fan of pop music. It was obvious that he had spent his youth bookishly festering away in libraries of Scotland, reading up on politics, economics and philosophy: not learning how to play the guitar like his colleague Blair. Therefore, it was nothing short of embarrassing when Brown told New Woman magazine that he is a fan of the Arctic Monkeys, enthusiastically declaring their music "wakes [him] up in the mornings." When Brown was later quizzed on the subject by GQ magazine, it transpired he didn't even know the title of a single song by the Arctic Monkeys, saying: "I prefer Arctic Monkeys to James Blunt, and I think I said I'd prefer Coldplay... Arctic Monkeys would certainly wake you up in the morning. So, I mean, I've heard Arctic Monkeys and they're very loud." (Huh?)
The barefaced shame of modern politics is that it has become something it shouldn't be. Showing off your knowledge of music trends totally isn't what is required from a politician. Political parties have often used classic pop songs to underscore their campaign junkets, and while that may help to boost their profile in superficial ways, it can hinder their appeal in more important ways. Artists are very quick to rebuke politicians for misusing their songs, and that can affect their standing in the eyes of voters. Although politicians may think we want them to be identifiable, the truth is that we want them to be honest and responsible leaders first.
Voters will always look at policy. There's no way that even the most mentally incapacitated American citizen voted Bill Clinton to office on account of his ability to play a saxophone, just as there is no way Cameron is likely to remain our Prime Minister simply because, according to the Sunday Telegraph, he's confessed to having "finished Angry Birds and moved on to Fruit Ninja" on his iPhone. It's highly condescending that politicians flag their knowledge of pop culture as means of fooling the public into thinking they are just like them.
A politician's political agenda and their personal taste in pop music are mutually exclusive interests: or at least they should be.