“I forbid you to like it:” The Smiths, David Cameron, and the politics of (mis)appropriating popular culture

Stephen R. Millar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Abstract

In May 2006, the newly elected leader of the British Conservative Party, David Cameron, appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Disks, where guests are asked to choose eight records they would take with them to a desert island and explain their selection. After almost a decade in opposition, the Conservative Party was widely considered “out of touch” and Cameron used the opportunity to discuss his vision of “compassionate conservatism,” couched within an overview of his favorite bands. Cameron’s castaway playlist included The Smiths, Radiohead, and Pink Floyd. While little was made of the playlist at the time, Cameron’s election to Prime Minister in May 2010 generated new interest in his personal affairs. Cameron’s privileged background together with his government’s unpopular austerity measures, combined to make him a hate figure for the left; his musical tastes have been rebuked by fans, his political opposition, and the artists themselves, as being incompatible with his right-wing political program.

Johnny Marr, former songwriter and guitarist of The Smiths, encapsulated this discontent in December 2010 when he tweeted: “David Cameron, stop saying you like The Smiths, no you don’t. I forbid you to like it.”

There are parallels between David Cameron’s appropriation of The Smiths and Ronald Reagan’s use of Bruce Springsteen. In trying to explain the contradictory plurality of postmodernism, Stuart Hall highlighted Springsteen as a phenomenon that could be read “in at least two diametrically opposed ways,” on account of his being “in the White House and On The Road.”

This article examines music’s role in the creation and maintenance of collective identity. It explores why David Cameron’s musical tastes elicit such an emotive response from fans, as well as the artists themselves, and why they consider his stated musical preferences to be disingenuous. The article aims not to sketch out the traits of an “ideal listener,” nor to rehash Adorno’s debates around “expert” and “emotional” listeners, wherein the structural and technical understanding of the former is prized over the simple enjoyment of the latter. Instead, it seeks to focus on an example of someone whose listenership fans deem “inauthentic.” This negative approach seeks to further problematize notions of authenticity by extending the debate into the realm of the listener, using Cameron as its case study.

Original languageEnglish
JournalEcho: A Music-Centered Journal
Volume13
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2015

Keywords

  • identity
  • collective identity
  • music
  • popular culture

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