the politics of pop: what can music do for our political leaders?

Time to face the music: Donald Trump cannot win over America to the tune of The Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Ahead of his underwhelming inauguration event, we look back at the symbiotic relationship between music and politics over the past few decades.

by Matthew Whitehouse
20 January 2017, 4:48pm

20 years ago this July, a besuited Noel Gallagher arrived at 10 Downing Street for an official reception thrown by the newly elected Tony Blair. Waving to the assorted press, as he emerged from a chocolate brown Rolls Royce gifted to him by Creation Records boss Alan McGee, he was joined by the likes of Ralph Fiennes and Helen Mirren to usher in an era of "Cool Britannia," a luridly self-congratulatory term that reflected the rise of the incumbent PM and his New Labour brand of champagne socialism.

It was, with the hindsight of two decades (and a bloody Iraq war), a horribly miscalculated move, one the guitarist would come to regret. "It was a big deal, the landslide and all that, and everybody got carried away," he later said. "We thought it was going to be John F Kennedy — and for a year or two it was."

Of course, like all things Oasis, the template for this kind of pop/politics crossover was set with The Beatles. When in 1964 the then opposition leader Harold Wilson managed to bag an invite to Variety Club awards to present the band with their Showbusiness Personalities of the Year trophies, he was tapping into the potential kingmaking power of the photo-op (complete with John Lennon's infamous purple heart quip). 14 years out of power and with a nascent Beatlemania on the rise, the group was the perfect shop window for Wilson's "New Britain" — even if Lennon did eventually return his MBE awarded by the politician the following year, with George Harrison writing Wilson diss track, "Taxman," a year after that ("Can't Buy Our Love" etc etc).

Since that time, the image of a politician saddling up to a musician on the campaign trail has become increasingly commonplace. Elvis and Nixon, George Harrison and Gerald Ford, Lembit Öpik and Gabriela Irimia. In the case of the former, the meeting was actually instigated by Presley, the bloated and drug addicted king of rock 'n' roll driving to the White House to personally request a badge from the federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (go figure).

In fact, only as recently as nine years ago, performers were once again vying for a direct line to the Oval Office. Throwing their weight behind a young Illinois senator named Barack Hussein Obama, artists as diverse as Morrissey, Kanye West and Mariah Carey vocalized their support during the 2008 presidential campaign and beyond. Beyoncé appeared at the following year's inauguration and rappers Common and Jay Z making multiple visits to the White House over the next two terms. Perhaps more than any other president (including occasional sax soloist Bill Clinton), Obama was acutely aware of music's importance as a way of connecting with people; an understanding that was reciprocated when a host of stars — including Chance the Rapper, Bruce Springsteen and Solange — turned out for a farewell party at the White House earlier this month.

So what about the Oval Office's next inhabitant? While on the campaign trail, America's first reality TV president-elect was dismissive of musical endorsements — "I'm here all by myself. Just me, no guitar, no piano, no nothing," he whinged at a rally before the election. His transition team has, over recent weeks, made a series of high-profile gaffes in its attempt to secure performers for inauguration day. Once considered one of the nation's highest honors, the polarizing nature of the election campaign has seen artists falling over one another to distance themselves from the ceremony: Elton John, Garth Brooks, Andrea Bocelli, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Church. Even previously reliable guns for hire like Usher (Colonel Gaddafi's 2009 St. Barts New Year's fest) and Jennifer Lopez (Turkmenistan leader Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow's birthday party) have found their diaries suddenly full — functions thrown by questionable regimes seemingly better enjoyed away from your own doorstep.

Whereas President Obama's deployment of music had the effect of making him appear both cool (his crooning of Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" at Harlem's Apollo theatre) and empathetic (his tearful rendition of "Amazing Grace" during the Charleston memorial service), it appears the President-elect's disavowal of music — and its disavowal of him — has the opposite effect. He's neither cool nor empathetic; a man you could hardly imagine curating a Spotify playlist, let alone listening to one.

What we're left with then is a hotchpotch of performers that includes Sam Moore of 60s soul duo Sam and Dave, The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and Jackie Evancho, a vocalist best known for finishing second in the fifth season of America's Got Talent. While her album sales are said to have "skyrocketed" since the announcement, it appears others are unwilling to take a chance on the potential loss of fans. "An artist would be risking too much," music journalist Steven J Horowitz said in an interview with the Guardian. "Their career, their fan base, their relationships in the music industry. As one of the most divisive president-elects in history, Trump shouldn't be surprised that he's facing a lack of support."

Maybe he still has a secret headliner up his sleeve. Longtime friend Kanye West, for instance? (Perhaps not). Noel Gallagher persuaded to get out the old Roller for a performance of Wonderwall dedicated to Mexico-US border control? (We hope not). Until then, it appears the President-elect has got his wish: Just him, no guitar, no piano, no nothing. 

Read: A forgotten moments in pop culture, when queer academic Kathy Acker interviewed the Spice Girls.


Text Matthew Whitehouse
Image via Pixabay

Donald Trump