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Opinion

Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak could learn from the Obama summer playlist

I haven’t yet heard Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss detail any list of cultural creations that enrich their lives, says Big Issue editor Paul McNamee. It’s a major blind spot.

There is something reassuring about Barack Obama’s summer listening list. First, it’s a list. We all like lists. They bring order and a focal point for an argument. The list arrives annually in high summer, a marker of time, like a putative hosepipe ban but with better choruses. 

The list also always feels real. It’s probably carefully curated, but it never feels confected. In the past when Obama settled on Phoebe Bridgers and Mitski there was a very real sense of a father recommending tunes he’d heard and quite liked when giving his daughters lifts into town. There is less of that now, and, with acts like Wet Leg, Kendrick Lamar and Jack White on his list he has the air of the ageing gent of BBC 6 Music who isn’t quite ready to slip into the Elbow easy chair. 

The other sense of Obama reality comes from the choices themselves. The Miles Davis pick, Blue in Green, might be from Kind of Blue, but it’s not the obvious one. The Rakim track is not exactly drawn from his glory years, The Detroit Spinners song is from when they were moving into Philly soul rather than the Motown years, and who decides of all the Springsteen tracks they’re going for Dancing In The Dark? It’s easy to believe he is genuinely listening to this stuff when he’s on his own, or as on his own as a former president gets, heading out to walk the dog. 

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Obama is a man who likes music and has a fine ear. And liking music, as all the best people know, is a marker of somebody to get along with. It also sits in stark contrast to what came after, and what comes next. 

Donald Trump continues to bleat that the last election was stolen from him, and he may yet face criminal charges over the January 6  Capitol insurrection.

The only music he is associated with comes from a catalogue of artists so incensed he used their songs at campaign rallies – and they range from Neil Young and The Beatles to Adele and Creedence Clearwater Revival – that cease and desist orders were issued demanding he stop. The Leonard Cohen estate, when they heard he was using Hallelujah, joked that Cohen’s late-period peak You Want It Darker was a more fitting choice.

To choose a playlist as varied and interesting as Obama’s requires a rich cultural hinterland, meaning the listener is open to the joy and creativity that artists can bring as they shape and articulate the world. 

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I haven’t yet heard Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss detail the music, or novels, or movies, or TV shows, or indeed any list of cultural creations that enrich their lives. It’s a major blind spot. Quite why the teams around these two, and many other senior politicians, think that humanising them a bit is to be avoided is baffling. When Truss repeats the same tax-cutting mantra for the umpteenth time, or she and Sunak race to the bottom by showing how much tougher they will be on immigrants, they are just any other identikit reactionary politician.

Sooner or later the veneer will be wiped away, and so will they. But if one of them stopped mid-sentence and said, the truth is this, I don’t know and sometimes I find the only way to try and work through things is to sit on my own for a while and listen to Glenn Gould play the Goldberg Variations, then suddenly they would be elevated. Who knows if they’d score with their base – that mythical, lumpen collective who we are frequently told all think the same. But they’d have a point of difference. They could go back to their scripted responses afterwards. 

If they’re not going to come up with a genuine plan to beat soaring energy costs or deal with the NHS, at least give us a tune. 

Incidentally, Obama says recommendations from social media followers help shape his playlist. Perhaps we could do that too. I recommend Rishi and Liz listen to The Smile’s A Light For Attracting Attention. That should give them pause. 

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big IssueRead more of his columns here. Follow him on Twitter

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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