Last week, Labour leader Keir Starmer undertook the rite of passage for any aspirant political figure: he appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. Because there’s no better way to bond with the populace than with something as universal as music. Pretty much everyone has a song that means something to them. Most people have songs they like, and ones that they don’t. Ahhh, music. Talking about music says “Hey, I’m just like you in a way. I like music too.”
Except most politicians aren’t really like you and me. They spend their lives in what is openly referred to as a ‘bubble’, full of similar people often drawn from a pool of extreme privilege, who are frequently and painfully shown to be very out of step with the people they supposedly represent. And nowhere is this revealed more than when politicians try to use music to appeal to what they call the general public.
Here, in no particular order, is a top 10. And in the spirit of our current regime, it’s very self-centred and focused entirely on the UK (sorry).
1: Keir Starmer – Stormzy
Where better to start than Sir Keir? In a move that couldn’t have been more textbook if he tried, he chose the 2017 charity cover of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ by a group of artists led by Stormzy, for the families of the victims of the Grenfell Tower disaster. He chose it both because “this is what politics is really about” and “because it will remind [him] of [his] children” as they love Stormzy.
The song itself is fine – the original is a classic, the Stormzy verse is actually good, and the cause is very noble. What I take issue with however, is how transparent the exploitation of this whole thing is. Casual mention of one of the most horrific failures to take place under the current Conservative government? Check. Using a black grime artist and cultural icon to show that you’re a multicultural family man? Double check. Thinking the British public actually believe that you’d take a charity cover single to a desert island? Check. This level of inventive thinking would not encourage any Labour supporter.
2: Matt Hancock – Grime
From one grime fan to another, we cross the political divide to Matt Hancock. He’s the Health Secretary, but you probably also know him as the man who was appearing on your television screen daily to disdainfully object to unreasonable questions about why our government had failed so drastically to protect the lives of thousands of people. Hancock became a laughing stock earlier in the pandemic after a Times interview resurfaced titled ‘As a grime fan, I know the power of the UK’s urban music scene’.
You know that annoying thing online when people say “I can’t even” and then don’t say anything else? Well, that. In theory, Matt Hancock having a fondness for grime is no more ridiculous than me, someone who grew up in East Yorkshire, thinking Boy In Da Corner is a seminal masterwork. But I don’t think I look like this when I play football, and I don’t carry myself like a haughty prick when I haven’t done the most important bits of my job properly – which in his case includes the failure to provide frontline medical staff with enough protective equipment, or provide an adequate test and trace system to stop the spread of a virus which is killing people as we speak.
3: Boris Johnson – The Clash
Sorry to bring pandemic chat into this, but while we’re on the subject… I was going to launch into a lengthy diatribe about what a morally reprehensible human being Boris Johnson is, but quite honestly, what’s the point? If you didn’t vote for him at the last election, his traits possibly influenced your decision. If you did, you presumably don’t care that our Prime Minister has repeatedly used blatantly racist language to describe certain people he now represents, or that he’s so self-serving he couldn’t even be bothered to attend government COBRA meetings about the threat of a pandemic that has now cost over 55,000 lives.
Anyway, Johnson (and not ‘Boris’, as he was consistently referred to, jocularly, by the media in the years leading to his premiership) used his Desert Island Discs appearance to spout his fondness for The Clash. Yes, anti-establishment rock pioneers The Clash. Unsurprisingly, this suggests that Johnson hasn’t bothered to read into the lyrics of one of his supposed favourite bands. Because if he did he’d soon realise that The Clash stand against everything he represents.
4: Theresa May – ABBA
Unlike Johnson and Hancock’s double standards, the head of the previous Conservative government had a music taste that seemed authentically naff. Theresa ‘Go Back To Your Own Country’ May, Johnson’s predecessor, listed many poor choices when asked about the stuff she likes. I’m going to focus on ABBA, however.
ABBA are great. But May tried her best to taint this fact by using ‘Dancing Queen’ as her entrance music to the 2018 Conservative Conference.
I’m really sorry to do this, but here’s the video. Each time I watch this, I wonder if it’s possible to actually die from cringing so hard:
5: Margaret Thatcher – Patti Page
May was often compared with Margaret Thatcher for reasons I’m not sure extended beyond their shared gender, but let’s use that as a segue nonetheless. Thatcher didn’t even try to be cool, and looking at the Desert Island Discs of politicians before Tony Blair, it seems like they often just went as bland as possible to not create a headline.
But Thatcher’s favourite song couldn’t escape the headlines. She chose ‘(How Much Is That) Doggie in the Window’, an appropriately terrible novelty song from 1953 originally released by Patti Page. Listening to it now, it absolutely screams Thatcher, and one would assume that she chose it for cynical reasons like Starmer: behind the japes is a ringing endorsement for free-market economics, one of Thatcher’s favourite principles.
6: Tony Blair – Britpop
“Yeah yeah, get ’em all down. Fiennes, Henry, Westwood, you know. Get them. Blur and Oasis? Great idea! A few cheeky little drinks with Albarn and Gallagher, love it.”
A direct extract from a conversation between Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell back in 1997 there, as they planned one of their infamous Cool Britannia parties. The polar opposite of Thatcher, Blair’s New Labour were young, cool and the politicians that got you, yeah? Blair was pictured chatting to Noel Gallagher in a picture that encapsulates what New Labour was supposed to represent. They put the P back in Labour Party.
Of course, the party had to end. Blair’s name is now synonymous with accusations of war crimes after he sanctioned the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq based on flimsy and probably illegal reasoning. And several thousand completely innocent Iraqi children, women and men died. But hey, they’ll always have the party pics.
7: Gordon Brown – Arctic Monkeys
Onto Blair’s successor. Some moments in Gordon Brown’s premiership could have been mistaken for outtakes from The Thick of It (think Bigotgate), and this often happened when he attempted to show his human side. In 2006, he named the UK’s hottest rock band Arctic Monkeys as one of his current favourite bands. Put on the spot though, he couldn’t name a single song but called them “very loud”.
There isn’t footage of this and he later clarified that it was a misunderstanding, but the scenario has already been formed in my imagination – and it looks like Dan Ashcroft trying to bluff his job interview on Nathan Barley.
8: George Osborne – N.W.A
Brown of course lost the 2010 election and was replaced with a new coalition government led by men with similarly unrealistic passions. One of these was former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Gideon Oliver Osborne. Osborne claimed to have been a big fan of N.W.A when he was younger, having once attended one of their shows at Brixton Academy. He described it as “the coolest thing he’d ever done” and said his favourite song was ‘Fuck Tha Police’.
I think the most upsetting thing about this isn’t the fact that Osborne, the epitome of Oxbridge privilege who walked into a job editing the London Evening Standard after his stint as Chancellor ended (despite those being, you know, two completely different fields), used anti-establishment rap pioneers for credibility. It’s that Ice Cube called him “his homie”. Just think of how sickly smug Osborne would have looked after hearing that.
9: Nick Clegg – Radiohead
Did you know that Nick Clegg works for Facebook now? It shouldn’t be that surprising that Clegg continues to unquestioningly serve an entity more powerful than he is, regardless of the moral implications. Remember when his Liberal Democrats got loads of extra votes from students and young people after his pledge that he wouldn’t put tuition fees up? Then he formed a coalition government with the Conservatives, and the Tories said “fuck the students, yeah Nick?” and Nick said “I…er…okay” and lost all credibility?
Anyway Nick Clegg picked ‘Street Spirit’ by Radiohead as one of his Desert Island Discs way back in 2010 before he lost his seat in Sheffield, cried, and then left politics to serve Zuckerberg’s evil empire. It’s totally plausible that Nick Clegg likes Radiohead, I just don’t like having it in common with him.
10: David Cameron – The Smiths
It’s fitting to end with David Cameron, because he was the first name that came to mind when thinking of politics vs music. Cameron was notorious for awkwardly trying to co-opt popular culture to mask that void where his personality should be. The man looks like this when he plays table tennis for Jesus Christ’s sake:
The example that sticks out though, is his supposed love for The Smiths. Now, I’d argue that even Cameron, an Eton-educated, former Bullingdon Club member who once stuck his member in a dead pig’s mouth, doesn’t carry views as morally disgraceful as Morrissey’s. But The Smiths in their heyday (before it became clear that they were fronted by a white supremacist) carried a significant amount of disdain for Cameron’s ilk, as evidenced by Johnny Marr forbidding Cameron from liking their music. Cameron can’t even remember which football team he passionately supports, so it’s an absolute certainty that an underling chose his supposed favourite music for him – presumably overlooking the fact that their opus was literally called ‘The Queen Is Dead’. Or maybe that kind of Britain-bashing satire is right up his street, given that he left us all in a quagmire of shit following his EU referendum.
Message to the current inhabitants of Westminster: stfu about music. We’d much rather you share how you’re tackling this country’s festering inequality and your own rampant corruption.
(Lighter articles about good tunes will return soon, I promise.)
Words by Tom Burrows