Feature: The strange, unholy relationship between politics and pop music

Pop and politics: Strange bedfellows, as Justin Bieber would no doubt agree
Pop and politics: Strange bedfellows, as Justin Bieber would no doubt agree

By Matthew Ashton

As scandals go, the row this week over whether Justin Bieber was going to appear at a Conservative party event as part of a meet-and-greet, is pretty small beer. The party allegedly auctioned off the opportunity to meet the pint-sized popstar in order to raise funds for a future election campaign. It now seems that Bieber was unaware of this and may not appear, despite speculation in some quarters that he might be a secret Conservative supporter. This led many commentators to shake their heads and point out that dabbling in popular music has never worked out well for politicians.

Pop music should, in theory at least, be the antithesis of everything politics stands for. MPs are the establishment; stuffy, elitist and out of touch with everyday life. Rock and roll is meant to be young, hip and exciting, challenging that establishment.

However if you look closely there is more than a superficial similarity between the two. Both careers require mammoth levels of self-confidence where you go on stage and risk humiliation on a regular basis.  Both allow you to use other people's material, but you get extra credit if you write your own. Both allow men who are otherwise as ugly as sin to become unaccountably attractive to the opposite sex. Only in the fields of music or politics could people like Marilyn Manson and Robin Cook be considered sex symbols.

Fundamentally though, both are about charisma and performance and both are increasingly about style over substance. In fact you might even suspect that many MPs are just frustrated rock stars. Neil Kinnock playing to the crowd at the infamous Sheffield rally in 1992, was, in retrospect, possibly a subconscious reaction to when he wasn't invited to perform on the Red Wedge tour. Ken Livingstone did slightly better. Thatcher may have inspired a thousand protest songs, but Ken had a song written about him by Kate Bush. Victory to Ken on that one I think.

Before he decided politics was for him, Tony Blair was famously in the amateur rock band Ugly Rumours - a fact that he used to mention every time he was interviewed in the run up to the 1997 election in a bid to emphasise his 'youth' credentials. Actually this isn't as silly as it sounds. Bill Clinton won the US presidency in 1992 at least in part because of his ability to play the saxophone. Blair reinforced his rock credential yet further after he was elected by inviting whoever was currently in the top 40 round to Downing Street for nauseating 'Creative Britain' parties. Most of those who went later regretted their involvement. Say what you like about Damon Albarn but at least he had the good sense to stay away.

Of course linking yourself with a rock star in the vague hope that their popularity and charisma might rub off on you is tempered by the risk that they might later be discovered doing something a little too rock and roll. In this eventuality faithful spin doctors are briefed to spring into action to destroy any photographic evidence of the meeting. Perhaps the most surreal example of rock and politics colliding is Elvis Presley's famous meeting with Richard Nixon. Kennedy might have been cooler than Nixon, but he never had his photo taken in the Oval Office while enlisting the clearly doped up King of Rock and Roll in the war against drugs.

Normally the closest most MPs come to popular music is when they're invited onto Desert Island discs and have to carefully select a list of songs designed to appeal to as broad a demographic as possible. Something classical to show intellectual depth, something modern to show that they're in touch with the kids etc. It wouldn't surprise me if their choices are carefully vetted by specially picked focus groups. God help anyone who went on there and admitted to liking Steely Dan, Super Tramp, Tangerine Dream and Emerson Lake and Palmer; they'd be deselected like a shot. After all, we live in a world where former PM John Major was ridiculed for not knowing who the Spice Girls were. In many ways he was ahead of the curve as in a few years time everybody else was trying to forget we'd ever heard of them.

On the few occasions politicians have tried to sing the results have not always been successful. Virginia Bottomley came a cropper when she decided to bolster the mood of the faithful at a Conservative party conference by singing Gilbert and Sullivan. Her musical daring was sadly under-appreciated by the majority of attendees. Not learning a lesson from this, Cherie Blair had a go at the Beatles' 'When I'm 64' with similarly mixed results. Perversely John Redwood got into trouble for not singing during the Welsh national anthem.

Some politicians have even managed to wrangle themselves onto proper professional records. While Ken Livingstone's nasal twang gives him a certain sort of authenticity, it's not necessarily the sort of thing you want coming out of your speakers. However purveyors of mid-90s Britpop Blur decided that he was just the man to perform on their album The Great Escape. Damon Albarn in his infinite wisdom decided that the world wasn't quite yet ready for Livingston singing so instead had him narrate the tale of 'Ernold Same' . A few years later Tony Benn decided that he too wanted in on some of that rock and roll lifestyle and performed a number of his most famous speeches over what Amazon describes as an 'ambient groove'. It failed to trouble the charts.

Plenty of rock and pop stars have flirted with the world of politics, most obviously in terms of lobbying and charity. Although he seems to have toned it down a bit recently, there used to be a time when you couldn't watch a press conference on global poverty without Bono popping up to offer his sage wisdom on how to fix things. Some have even attempted to cross the great divide and become politicians themselves, translating their fame into electoral support. Sonny Bono managed to do this, but he ran in California, and let's face it, they'll vote for almost anyone. The British are a more cynical breed. We like our pop stars on stage, not in parliament.

Perhaps the greatest loss rock music ever suffered was when Boris Johnson decided that a career in journalism was the best way forward. Maybe if he'd spent more time at Oxford going to gigs than at the Bullingdon Club, he might have been inspired to pick up a guitar and learn a few chords. With his effortless charisma and stage presence he'd have been a natural. Rock stars used to be all about throwing TVs out of windows and driving limos into swimming pools. Now they're a much more sedate breed. Boris, perhaps sensing that the Great British public are missing something, is clearly trying to fill the gap as best he can by making outrageous statements and performing insane stunts in public. It can only be a matter of time before his first arena tour.

Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.


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