There’s a new top ten at no. 10. Top eight, actually, since the BBC’s long-running Desert Island Discs radio broadcast only allows this many selections in its three-quarters-of-an-hour duration. The musical tastes of the newly-elected British Prime Minister David Cameron—he appeared on the show in 2006, a year after gaining the Tory leadership—are worth a closer look and listen.
I’m all for the introduction of musical litmus tests. Let’s dispense with all the Judiciary Committee grandstanding and instead adopt a different kind of hearing—of music. In these confirmation proceedings the Senators and Elena Kagan would break out their iPods and get right to the heart of the things.
The same goes for campaigns. McCain was not undone by his politics, so indistinguishable from those of his opponent, but by his professed love of ABBA. There was something so pathetic and unbelievable about a gammy veteran, who had been well into middle when disco arrived on the scene, claiming “Dancing Queen” as a favorite. Two out of his top three were ABBA hits. While many politicians gauge their playlists—and one suspected McCain was trying to capitalize on the appeal of Mamma Mia and the ABBA revival or had just been to the movie and couldn’t think of any other music—to appeal to voters, the power of music renders such ploys transparent. Gordon Brown’s opportunistic affection for the Arctic Monkeys—a Sheffield band that vaulted to sudden, internet-aided popularity in 2006—was utterly fake; when asked to be more specific, he couldn’t name a single track, then clumsily retreated to higher moral ground by claiming that he was more interested in the fate of the Arctic Circle than of the shivering simians of Sheffield. Brown wasn’t spinning discs, he was spin-doctoring. The expiration date of his political career was stamped on his lease at 10 Downing Street long before he left that microphone on in the northern town of Rochdale.
No less a political pundit than Plato understood the power of music to mold the man and impress the populace. Anything but a dancing queen, Plato spends many pages of the Republic arguing for the central importance of music in the training of his soldier-statesmen. He banishes panharmonic flute playing, effeminate modes, and lascivious songs, leaving behind the most boring playlist in political history: manly songs.
Brown had possibly thumbed through the Republic before his infamous 1996 appearance on Desert Island Discs. His list is dominated by robust, masculine hymns and classics. Given that posturing, it was perhaps no surprise that the host Sue Lawley asked the then-bachelor Brown if he were gay. As far as the musical choices, Plato would have loved them, though he might have raised an eyebrow at the Gaelic pipers in Brown’s favored rendition of the 23rd Psalm. Brown’s devotion to Jerusalem, that Battleship of Britishness heard late each summer as the rousing sing-a-long finale of the Proms, raised everyone else’s eyebrows. I suppose it could have been comforting after being marooned on that Desert Island to hear the swells of C. H. Parry’s patriotic hymn bouncing off the palms and out over the azure waters of the lagoon, while the stranded politician sips coconut milk and recalls Blake’s evocation of “England’s green and pleasant land.” But this choice, too, seemed calculated, aimed at convincing anti-Euro Middle Englanders of Brown’s nationalistic credibility. Wherever he ventured musically—to the polar ice cape, the desert island, or along the Thames—Brown was found out by the very songs he caddishly courted.
Inevitably, Desert Island lists are shrouded in nostalgia; if Frith is right, it could be no other way, this harking back to the promise and alienation of adolescence. Cameron’s top choice of Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue” reflects a fascination of typically British hue with the expanse of America, the lure of the road: “We drove that car as far as we could / Abandoned it out West.” The hypnotic guitar chords, like the wheels on that car, and the plaintive call of Dylan’s voice drifting out over the continent after a woman: this is music of possibility, not such much of being, but of becoming. It is also music of the school years at Eton, of Cameron’s puffs of marijuana—a recreation that got him punished by having to write out of 500 lines of Latin. In response to later allegations that he had smoked pot and coke. Cameron responded that all had done regrettable things before entering politics. Dylan remains.
Strummed yearning fills up Cameron’s list, an accurate thermometer of the low-grade fever that is Conservative Party sentimentality. Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” is from the mid-Seventies, done not too long before Cameron arrived atEton. It summons the same “green fields” of Blake’s Jerusalem, and the guitar interludes encourage a reverie that oscillates between fondness and disdain for both the past and future.
One can try to push such interpretations in more literal direction. Does the line about “Hot air for a cool breeze? Cold comfort for change?” presage, or even inspire, Cameron’s supposed crusade against climate change, cycling to Westminster during his years as a mere MP with his clothes and belongings being transported behind him in a carbon-spewing automobile? And then there is the song’s excellent diagnosis of the new Prime Minister’s predicament, stepping in to oversee yet another British adventure in Afghanistan: “And did you exchange a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?” The answer to that question is: “Yes!”
In the middle of the PM’s list, Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees” jumps forward to the 1990s with Cameron on the cusp of his thirties. Here is more plaintive dreaminess: the final line captures a syntactically indeterminate longing that pervades Cameron’s musical choices: “And if I could be who you wanted / All the time, all the time.” Next on the list comes “This Charming Man” of The Smiths. This came out during Cameron’s Oxford years of the early Eighties, when he was at Brasenose College and in the Bullingdon Club, where Tory toffs gather in hot pursuit of drunkenness and broken glass—presumably to a soundtrack of the kind of music Cameron liked, or learned to like. This track represents the real contemporary music of Cameron’s youth. Here in The Smiths front man Morrissey’s lyric is a sprightly portrait of the politician as a young man, and, indeed, of a new prime minister: “A punctured bicycle / On a hillside desolate / Will nature make a man of me yet?” That’s real rugged, life-changing adventure: a ride through Hampstead Heath on a fully-loaded mountain bike.
The search for endless possibility extends to Cameron’s final choice, updating his play-list with The Killers and their “All These Things That I’ve Done,” which came out not long before Cameron appeared on Desert Island Discs in 2006: “I wanna shine on in the hearts of men / I want a meaning from the back of my broken hand.”
It’s also all white. At least Tony Blair had one black musician on his Desert Island—Robert Johnson’s“Cross Road Blues” tucked in beneath Samuel Barber’s hoary Adagio for String.
Two miscellaneous items are thrown in among Cameron’s surprisingly coherent commitment to progressive rock. The second entry is Benny Hill’s “The Fastest Milk Man in The West”—a knee-slapping proto-rap song that chronicles the duel between a milkman and the driver of a bread van over a sexy widow. Who am I to deny Cameron his pre-teen bun, but hauling this bottle of curdled milk onto the Desert Island? Cameron may well enjoy a bit of Benny now and again, but its inclusion here is pure opportunism to show him as a fun-loving, regular guy.
The other oddity is Kiri Te Kanawa singing that overroasted Schubert chestnut “On Wings of Song.” With this choice, Cameron, perched on his shooting stick with his tartan-covered iPod tucked into his Burberry, kills at least three birds with one blast from his Italian shotgun: classical music; a performer of color; who also happens to be female. Without this trifecta payoff, the ethnic and sexual, if not the socio-economic makeup, of Cameron’s list looks very Etonian indeed. Sadly, he found the track on a classic CD entitled “The Essential Wedding Collection” with Dame Kiri accompanied by the Utah Symphony. The Conservative Party’s classical chops have fallen a long way down since former organ scholar and avid amateur conductor Edward Heath was in Downing Street. Margaret Thatcher’s number one on Desert Island Discs was the unbearably cloying “Two Little Boys,” an old music hall song that makes Cameron’s sentimentality seem utterly anemic by comparison. Winston Churchill also favored the music hall. Atop John Major’s Desert Island list was the mad scene from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor sung by Joan Sutherland, though I’ll wager that Major, himself the son of a famous music hall performer, still enjoys imagining a deranged Thatcher in that role with the malign Denis as Enrico.
Two years after Cameron’s visit to Desert Island Discs candidate Obama passed through England on his way to the continent. It was reported that Cameron presented CDs by The Smiths, Radiohead, and Gorillaz to the presidential candidate. The Tory ladies would have been shocked by this music had any of them done a bit of useful digging. The hanky of “On Wings of Song” would hardly have been enough to wipe away their tears of disgust or to muffle the derisive shouts of the hunting-and-shooting set. Did Cameron give Obama Meat is Murder by The Smiths? “Heifer whines could be human cries / closer comes the screaming knife/ this beautiful creature must die … and death for no reason is MURDER.” There goes the vote from the Countryside.
And how about Gorillaz, a “virtual” band made up of animated musicians projected on screen at their “live” concerts.” Here’s a scrap from their commentary on terrorism in the song 911 from 2001, a collaboration with the hip hop group, D12:
Derelict Arabic terrorists in the air
Shit arrogant apparent to punish people by their heritage
NATO barriers, the embarrassed the is the fait to cherish
In your room face to face with race awareness.
I’m a nitwit with a big dick, and big balls /
I don’t miss shit, I hit all
Whoever that did this, we gonna getch y’all
There is no clearer explication of Anglo-American foreign policy than this.
And what of the coalition now forming at the edge of the dance floor in Westminster, with Cameron set to lead his junior partner Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg? Perhaps Clegg’s beloved Chopin Waltz in A Minor—a posthumous work that goes about its business with unusual matter-of-factness—will serve to break the musical ice.
Clegg appeared on the highbrow answer to Desert Island Discs on BBC 4. He goes for German Lieder and 19th-century piano music, for Fischer-Dieskau and Brendel, not Morrissey and Benny Hill. One point of contact between the two playlists is the same Kiri Te Kanawa singing Mozart’s Laudate Dominum. Kiri is the thin bit of sonic glue keeping this Tory-Lib Dem musical union together.
None of Clegg’s choices stray from the beaten track of classical music favorites; in an odd way, Cameron’s list is more adventurous. Among Clegg’s other choices are Richard Strauss’s “Beim Schlafengehen” from the Four Last Songs and Fischer-Dieskau singing Schubert’s ”Erlkönig,” pieces that rapture not in the open road but in death’s embrace, be it luxurious or ice cold. Whether these seemingly incompatible play-lists will combine to produce a political Totentanz for the pair remains to be seen—and heard.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at email@example.com