David Lister: Music belongs to everyone – even politicians

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The Independent Online

Poor old John McCain. His musical taste has been getting him into trouble. It's not that he doesn't like the right artists; they just don't like him.

The Republican candidate for the American presidency has now tried three campaign songs and has managed to offend the composer each time. This week it emerged that Chuck Berry, writer and singer of the current campaign song "Johnny B Goode", was an Obama man. Before that, Mr McCain had tried "I Have a Dream" by Abba, but dropped it after learning that Abba had "gone berserk" (though some would argue that condition pre-dated Mr McCain's campaign). He also had no luck with John Mellencamp's "Pink Houses". Mellencamp wrote asking him to "cease and desist".

Abba also wanted him to cease and desist, which is ironic as those were the very words I once put in a letter to Abba after they released "Super Trouper".

Senator McCain has not been studying his record collection carefully enough. It's a problem for politicians over here too. The Conservative leader David Cameron recently fell foul of Paul Weller after he expressed a liking for Weller's song "The Eton Rifles". Weller was furious, as this song for his former band The Jam was meant to be a satire on social division in Britain. Weller wrote the song after seeing a report about right-to-work marchers being jeered by Eton schoolboys as they passed the school.

The episode reminded some of how Ronald Reagan took ownership of Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA", without realising that the song was actually a lament by an unemployed Vietnam War veteran, not a patriotic hymn.

Reagan missed Springsteen's irony. But I have a hunch that David Cameron didn't really think that "The Eton Rifles" was a marching song for the cadet corps. He just liked the track and was probably amused that it gave a name check for his school. And, if I'm to come down on any side in the battle between the politicians and the rock stars, it's going to be on the side of the politicians, however cursory their study of a song's lyrics or the political leanings of its composer.

In protesting when their music is used as a campaign song by the "wrong" side, musicians are limiting themselves. A piece of music, once it has been released, is public property. If it is an anthem then it is anyone's anthem. A song should be like a play or novel. Once it is "out there", it is available to be used, interpreted, directed as its user sees fit. George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four can be claimed by both the left and the right, with all the interesting academic debate that follows. Orwell would doubtless have enjoyed the claims and counterclaims for his work. Why can't John Mellencamp be as open-minded?

That's the real irony. In being so overprotective of their work and who can play it, pop and rock stars are actually denying the fact that pop and rock can be art. Real art belongs to everyone and can be legitimately argued over and used in all sorts of contexts. Composers who insist on proclaiming that their work is one-dimensional are making a mighty strange defence for its claim to be art.

But Senator McCain's difficulties with assorted pop and rock stars have taught us all one thing we may not have grasped before. Abba's music, it emerges after all these years, was political. Those of us who missed the nuances that made "Honey Honey" a Democrat song rather than a Republican one now know better. Benny, Bjorn, Agnetha and Frida were fighting for universal healthcare. Remember that next time "Dancing Queen" comes on the radio.

Alas, poor Dalek ...

The veteran theatre director Sir Jonathan Miller has hit out at the "obsession with celebrity" on the West End stage, saving particular scorn for the Royal Shakespeare Company's new Hamlet, David Tennant. Sir Jonathan refers to David Tennant as "that man from Doctor Who". It is true that Mr Tennant does indeed play the Doctor on television, and he is shortly to play Hamlet for the RSC. It is also true that there is a real debate to be had on whether theatre producers are obsessed with casting celebrities.

But Sir Jonathan has chosen the wrong time and the wrong bloke. David Tennant was a member of the RSC long before becoming a TV star. As for Sir Jonathan, he has recently failed to get West End transfers for two of his regional productions, one of them a production of Hamlet. His argument would have been that much better if he had made it from a position of strength, with something on in the West End. As it is, it sounds like sour grapes.

* When Roger Wright, the head of Radio 3, ended the regular live performances at 7.30pm, he displeased not only listeners but also the BBC's many orchestras, who rather enjoy playing their instruments. I hear that Mr Wright has now bowed to pressure and will reinstate the concerts, but at 7pm rather than 7.30pm. This rather eccentric decision means that audiences at venues such as the Barbican in London and Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, where the orchestras perform, will have to remember that classical concerts at those venues are generally 7.30pm but 7pm when the BBC orchestras are playing. One source tells me that Mr Wright has decided on the earlier time to stop listeners from deserting Radio 3 at 7pm for The Archers on Radio 4.

I share Mr Wright's hope that dedicated Archers fans will drop the habit of a lifetime for the BBC Symphony Orchestra. But I fear that he and I are the two most optimistic people in the country.