Tom Ewing | A pantomime of pop, politicians and David Cameron's iPod

The urge to snigger at politicians' pop moves is a residue of a wider idea – that the natural state of pop is one in which establishment figures don't listen to it

From hustings ambushes to subverted ads, a British election comes with plenty of sideshows and nine-tweet wonders. Among the most reliable is the apparent misuse of pop music by politicians. It comes in three varieties: the unlikely claim to relevance; the outrageous song appropriation; and the misplaced lyric sheet. This week we got two of them in a single day, with Gordon Brown expressing his admiration for the "brilliant" Glee, and Keane stamping their feet crossly on learning that the Tories had launched their manifesto to the strains of Everybody's Changing. So we await only a lyrical gaffe to complete the set, along the lines of Brown using an old James hit to introduce his conference speech last year, unaware of the line: "Those who find themselves ridiculous, sit down next to me."

Sometimes these stories evoke sympathy, sometimes not. If you make music for some nebulous everyman, your squeaks of dismay when said everyman turns out to include Tory researchers may go unheeded. Really, though, the stories are a kind of pantomime: everyone trotting through the roles provided them. We all tut or laugh at the lazy parties and their obvious song choices, we all agree to pretend for a day that anyone remembers the lyrics to Sit Down or Movin' On Up beyond the title. We know that the prime minister doesn't have to care about Gaga v Madonna, and he knows we know, and we know that too, and everyone plays along with the whole awkward situation when he's asked who he prefers – and pop assumes its role is as a ready supply of minor political banana skins.

But why is it so awkward? After all, we're now well into the era when almost everyone entering British politics will be – or will have been – a music fan of some kind, but people still pounce on a politician's taste in pop culture as if it were cellulite on a starlet's bum. In the days before the Sun backed David Cameron, its report on his attendance at a Killers show included a fan suggesting he should be banned from all gigs, "except for Il Divo". But I've DJed at weddings full of fortysomething public schoolboys, and guess what – they all love the Killers! Indeed, Cameron's music taste is probably the most believable thing about him.

From a distance, other countries can seem more settled about politicians' tastes than we are. In the late 80s the NME ran an excited interview with Jack Lang, the French culture minister. The "Minister for Rock" – as the paper depicted him – was genial, sensible and perhaps slightly baffled at being presented as the political equivalent of a Martian. He was in charge of music: he liked music – no problem, surely. In 1992, Bill Clinton turned his presidential bid around by explicitly identifying himself with rock'n'roll and with Elvis – a process mapped in Greil Marcus's fine book Double Trouble. But Tony Blair's rock past never seemed much of an electoral asset, and his pop present was a source of mockery as soon as Noel Gallagher stepped over the Downing Street threshold in search of canapes.

There has been a tonal shift between the mocking of Cool Britannia and the interest in Cameron's iPod, though. People don't really doubt the Tory leader's tastes, they just wish he didn't have them. The urge to snigger at politicians' pop moves is a residue of a wider idea – that the natural state of pop is one in which politicians (and bankers, and admen, and other establishment figures) don't listen to it. But obviously they do, and have done for a long time. Still, the embarrassment people feel when the establishment nods at its embrace of rock comes out in the pantomime reactions to it.

So the idea of the misuse of pop in politics narrows to the notion that politicians do not listen to the right bits of pop music, or not in the right way. And the separation of pop and the establishment isn't based on anything other than the idea they should be separate. But there's a simpler way to manage this issue: if people really do want a culture where the political classes can't try to use pop as a tool, they should probably reward pop that isn't quite so likeable.


Tom Ewing

The GuardianTramp

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