x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Power ballads: political parties and the popular song

Politicians have been using popular songs as part of their election campaigns for decades, but for every successful collboration there's one that backfires.

The former British prime minister Tony Blair talks to the Oasis star Noel Gallagher at a Downing Street reception. Gallagher was a big supporter of the Labour party under Blair.
The former British prime minister Tony Blair talks to the Oasis star Noel Gallagher at a Downing Street reception. Gallagher was a big supporter of the Labour party under Blair.

As the Conservative leader David Cameron left the stage last month to the soothing pop of Keane's Everybody's Changing, his image consultants and advisers probably reflected on a job well done. A manifesto had been triumphantly launched, their campaign message - Vote For Change - seemingly reflected in a memorable song that had been a hit all over Europe. Except there was a problem. The band might have the kind of demeanour and expensive schooling that suggests they could be favourite nephews of Cameron, but the Tories hadn't actually asked for permission to use the song. Hours later, the story of the day wasn't just about Conservative plans for the economy, immigration or tax. It was also held within a simple tweet from the Keane drummer Richard Hughes.

"Told the tories played keane at their manifesto launch. am horrified. to be clear - we were not asked. i will not vote for them." It turns out a band doesn't have to be asked - in the UK, as long as the conference venue in question has paid their Performing Rights Society bill, any song is fair game. And such tactics reveal that the right music has become a crucial part of the message of an election campaign, ever since the sea change in British politics heralded by Labour's landslide victory in 1997.

There are three memorable images from that election: Tony Blair sweeping triumphantly into Downing Street, an exhausted Cherie Blair opening the door to reporters in her nightie, and the entire Labour party getting down to D:Ream's Things Can Only Get Better. It was as if that song had actually been written for Labour. Its uplifting gospel chorus not only promises the elixir of change - "things can only get better" - but elsewhere we're happy disciples invited to "walk my path".

We're told that "prejudice and greed" are wrong. In fact, the clincher isn't the chorus and title of the song at all. It's the final verse: "I look at things now/ In a different light than I did before/ I found the cause/ And I think that you could be my cure." It wasn't just Labour's 1997 election music, it was their anthem. And Labour didn't just only ask the frontman Pete Cunnah's permission to use the track (which he gave), they invited him to rallies and dragged him up on stage to sing the song after Blair had finished his speeches. "It was surreal, he said at the time. "I'll never forget the big bear hug that Alastair Campbell gave me as Portillo lost his seat."

Cunnah may have mixed feelings about it now - and ironically he's come out in support of Cameron this time around - but the song became the soundtrack to a key moment in British history, and even the title of a popular political memoir by the best-selling author John O'Farrell. But then, Blair's Labour were the masters of manipulating music for their own ends. Before he was even in power, Blair was at the Brit Awards presenting a gong, namechecking The Smiths and The Stone Roses. Oasis received their award for Best British Group and Noel Gallagher told a worldwide audience that there were "seven people in this room giving a little bit of hope to young people in this country". Typically arrogant, he read out the names of his people in his band, and then, with some fanfare, Tony Blair.

Indeed, music started to become somewhat representative of the political landscape. In 2000 the embattled Conservative leader William Hague attempted to reclaim some cool points for his party, striding on to stage to the claustrophobic electronic strains of Massive Attack's Man Next Door. It was a deeply strange choice, and not just because it's probably the least uplifting song ever used by a political party. You could kind of see the idea: Hague was cast against Blair as the friendly, no-nonsense, spin-free "man next door". But after Horace Andy sings "There's a man who lives next door", he goes on to inform us that "he gets me down". Apparently this neighbour gets in late at night, with "always a fuss and fight". Not quite as "on-message", is it?

The Conservatives were forced to employ some spin themselves after Massive Attack furiously responded that they "have not and will never support the Conservative party or their policies". Central Office said the music "was not intended for broadcast" - which is odd seeing as that's exactly what they were doing. They resorted to asking Mike "The Wombles" Batt to compose an election song for them, called Heartland.

The fact that no one's ever heard of it, and the 2001 election has been called Labour's "quiet landslide" may not be unrelated. But interestingly, the writing of specific election songs isn't such an oddity in the United States. Their political campaigns are frequently kept alive by the oxygen of very public messages of support from musical stars. As the voice of blue-collar America, any presidential candidate wants Bruce Springsteen on their side, and so Barack Obama would have been delighted when The Boss not just lent his endorsement, but held concerts to rally voters.

Will I.Am from The Black Eyed Peas went further, enlisting the help of Scarlett Johansson and John Legend in creating the hit song Yes We Can and releasing it online. At the time, "Yes We Can" was just one of the phrases Obama was using in his speeches, but the viral hit made it the slogan of the election. No matter that, with the benefit of distance and hindsight, it's actually a rather messy, knocked together tune.

With the weight of the pop world firmly behind Obama, it was no surprise that the Republican opponent John McCain suffered a rather humiliating chorus of discontent when he revealed the soundtrack to his sound bites. The senator may have rocked out to The Foo Fighters as they sung There Goes My Hero, but Dave Grohl was less enamoured, saying it "perverted the original sentiment". He didn't have much luck with the singer-songwriter Jackson Browne either, who successfully sued the Republicans for using his Running On Empty in an advertising campaign.

In fact, after the drive-time favourites Bon Jovi, Heart, Boston and John Mellencamp all complained about the use of their songs, it wouldn't have been that difficult to imagine McCain sitting on a bar stool and writing an election ditty himself. At least McCain wasn't the first Republican to struggle with the stars. Ronald Reagan's team chose Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA back in 1984 - no doubt seduced by the classic American imagery, the flag on the sleeve and its radio dominance.

The slight problem was what lay beyond the rousing Born in the USA chorus - this was actually an anti-Vietnam polemic about being isolated from government. Oh, and its singer was - and remains - a staunch Democrat. It was a political playlist error that David Cameron repeated recently when he announced a very public love for The Jam's Eton Rifles. When Paul Weller found out that the Conservative leader was a fan of his satirical song from 1979, which savaged social inequality, he spat to the newspapers "which part of it didn't he get? It wasn't intended as a jolly drinking song for the cadet corps". Cameron, of course, went to Eton.

Reagan's aides took the flak for Born in the USA, but Cameron - rather adroitly - responded himself. "I don't see why the left should be the only ones allowed to listen to protest songs," he complained. And it is true that the more conservative parties will always endure far more problems when choosing their anthems: it's a fact of life that most creatives' politics - be they musicians, comedians, artists or filmmakers - are of a liberal, left of centre hue.

It's why Stevie Wonder, Jay-Z, Beyoncé and Aretha Franklin couldn't wait to perform at Obama's inauguration ceremonies, why Tony Blair invited Oasis and many other movers and shakers to a 10 Downing Street "Cool Britannia" party after he'd won the election in 1997. Still, don't be surprised at the following scenario. Cameron, newly crowned as prime minister of Great Britain, arrives at a hastily arranged party in London on Friday. The ticker tape comes down, the assembled crowd cheer, and Gary Barlow - pictured on the campaign trail with Cameron last month - roars the first line of the opening song. "Today this could be, the greatest day of our lives."

Prophetic? Labour and the Liberal Democrats better hope they're not Back for Good.