Singing Truth to Power

Liza Kobrinsky

A couple of pages into American poet Walt Whitman’s Deathbed Edition of Leaves of Grass, you come across I Hear America Singing. In it Whitman describes a chorus of American labourers singing while they work: the mechanic, the carpenter, the shoemaker, and, even, the mother and the young wife. Whitman has “each singing what belongs to him or her and to no one else.” As if in song each person claims a category for themselves. In essence, the song is a shorthand nominally representing an occupation but, sung by individual voices, becomes imbued with something unique to each singer. Interestingly, the politician is absent from Whitman’s list.

The history of politicians singing is long and storied. In fact, the internet is a treasure trove of examples. The reasons why anyone sings, to begin with, are worth considering. In ancient Greece, song played an important role in military and religious life. Song could be performative or competitive, and it could be communitarian. I want to examine the reasons why elected officials are moved to song to see which of these roles they are attempting to play. At first pass, a politician singing is a curious phenomenon, but it can also be an insightful form of self-expression, if we follow Whitman’s logic.

In 2009, Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave his first musical appearance – a rendition of the Beatles’ With a Little Help From My Friends, on stage at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, alongside Yo Yo Ma. If the intention was to soften his stiff public demeanour, the result was only partly successful. Performed alongside a world-renowned cellist in a formal concert hall, what charm the performance has comes mainly from the kooky juxtaposition of the political and musical worlds. The normally staid Harper singing “I get high with a little help from my friends” sends a strange message.

And this performance was just the beginning. Harper and his backup band the Van Cats have been belting it out on a regular basis since 2009. Their repertoire is a safe and familiar mix of Beatles classics and crowd favourites, like “Sweet Caroline”. With Harper now playing at Christmas parties and rallies in a casual plaid shirt, Harper’s PR team have managed to tighten up their image of an ordinary man with an ordinary pastime. John Higney, a professor from Carleton University, points out Harper’s feigned amateurism – the well-maneuvered balance of actual skill and cultivated humility, although it’s hard not to compare the performances to a child singing a song for his parents’ dinner party.

Yet, Harper’s songs don’t always land well. Take, for example, his version of Hey Jude, performed for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife at a dinner in Jerusalem. Sloppy and a little less curated than usual, the chorus sounds an awful lot like Hey Jude with the ‘d’ dropped. The overt show of political support for Israel, a pet foreign policy stance for Harper, is signified through the faux-intimate setting, dinner and a song. Bibi smiles politely and says, “Thank you, Stephen. That was great.” One feels a hint of the eye-roll

Whether it has softened or entrenched a certain view of the Prime Minister, Harper’s songs are fairly apolitical, in content at least. In contrast, Vladimir Putin’s 2010 rendition of “Blueberry Hill” became, however unintended, much more of a statement. Sung in the midst of rumours that then-President Dmitry Medvedev was considering running for re-election, Putin’s choice of song is bold. Although his fingers shake on the keys at first, when he stands up to the mic, he coolly puts a hand in is pocket and delivers a song made famous by American jazz greats, from Louis Armstrong to Fats Domino.

Putin, known for his lousy English, chooses a ubiquitously American song. It’s hard to tell whether the choice is meant as a competitive gesture: the horseback-riding, tiger-hunting Russian leader confidently mastering, even casually appropriating, an American tradition. Maybe, with the shadow of corruption charges looming over him, the performance is a way to ask for validation and recognition. In the end, the song becomes larger than Putin – as Hollywood celebrities clap and sing along, and Sharon Stone throws up a peace sign, it becomes a collective experience. Aside from being truly bizarre, what strikes me watching this five years, a civil uprising, an annexation, and a harrowing war in Eastern Ukraine later is that he would never make such a poignant choice today. In fact, the performance, at a children’s charity gala, may have been one of the last diplomatic exchanges between the two nations.

Both of these examples – Harper’s garage band and Putin’s crooning – are far cries from one historic form of public song: the church choir. In his eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, South Carolina President Barack Obama seems, whether he planned to or not, actually moved to song. After a 35-minute speech, Obama pauses and, with no backing band behind him, sings the first line of Amazing Grace. Amazing Grace isn’t simply a song, it’s a hymn: a song, often sung in a group, in praise of something larger than oneself. Soon after he begins to sing, the congregation joins in and, no matter how one feels about the sanctity of faith or the church, the result is moving.

Returning to the idea of song as shorthand, group song has the power to move a group of people quickly to a communal, nuanced, and atmospheric place, not just ideologically, but physically, through the act of singing. Obama’s Amazing Grace transcends the eulogy-by-way-of-sermon that it follows and expresses the difficulty and complexity of this current moment for race-relations in America’s history. It’s not just that Obama has a better voice than Harper or Putin; it’s that the politician, by singing, brings a group of people together in song and collective mourning. In this case, Whitman’s analysis hardly applies. The politician, unlike the shoemaker or the young wife, has the power to tune all the voices in the choir into one song. The downside, of course, is that these songs are only shorthand – the communal experience, the familiarity of the lyrics and the melody, evokes an emotional reaction without necessarily evoking a sense of resolution or a way forward. One hopes that Amazing Grace begins what it fails to fully articulate: a meaningful conversation. As our attention turns to the ramp-up of the Canadian federal election campaign, I wonder if we might see our own politicians singing a different tune.


Liza Kobrinsky graduated from the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance in 2014. She also graduated with a B.A. from the University of Toronto with a double major in Economics and English. She has worked for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada and Finance Canada and is interested in labour economics and income mobility. She hopes none of her own singing ever ends up on YouTube.