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Tuesday 20 August 2019

We should be so lucky: The long history of politicians cosying up to popstars

Leo's gushing letter to popstar Kylie Minogue has generated much mirth. But there's a long history of politicians cosying up to popstars, writes Ed Power

Leo Varadkar pictured with Kylie Minogue in Dublin last year
Leo Varadkar pictured with Kylie Minogue in Dublin last year
Former president Barack Obama on stage with Jay-Z and Bruce Springsteen at an election campaign rally in 2012
Former president Bill Clinton honouring Fleetwood Mac at Radio City Music Hall last year

Leo Varadkar must have been spinning around with anticipation after he was granted a private audience with Kylie Minogue ahead of her Dublin concert last year. Especially for Leo, the Australian pop star had agreed to a backstage meet and greet - where he presumably put his hand on his heart and proclaimed his ever-lasting fandom.

Had he paused for a moment to get Kylie out of his head, Leo might have wondered about the wisdom of the photo-op. Details of their meeting were widely circulated at the weekend, including the gushing letter he wrote Minogue ahead of her visit to Dublin (she later called him personally to explain that the concert was to be postponed after she became unwell). There has been a great deal of eye-rolling and giggling as the story broke - not to mention political criticism. Yet ought Leo truly be all that embarrassed?

His passion for music is well known. In 2017 Varadkar was photographed backstage at Dublin's Olympia with New York band LCD Soundsystem. And long before ascending to the highest office, Varadkar was a regular at concerts - though anyone who saw him at Mumford and Sons's 2012 Phoenix Park concert will have prayed his political acumen surpassed his taste in flat cap-wearing folk-pop.

There is, it is true, a long and inglorious history of politicians cosying up to pop stars in order to burnish their credentials with younger voters.

Generally all sides come out greatly diminished. That's so whether it is Bill Clinton tooting saxophone on the American talk show circuit and later inviting Fleetwood Mac to play at his inauguration (cementing their status as the last word in self-obsessed Baby Boomer soft-rock). Or if it's Ronald Reagan and Michael Jackson at the White House, regarding one other as if each has just beamed down from an alien planet.

Most notorious of all, arguably, was the disturbing chumminess between Tony Blair and Noel Gallagher in 1997. This yielded the instantly notorious photo of their chinwag at 10 Downing Street - an image that has since come to be regarded as Britpop's jump the shark nadir.

There have been surreal encounters too. In 2010 Theresa May was snapped with '70s rocker Alice Cooper after bumping into him on BBC's The Andrew Marr Show (insert your own joke about a bad influence on society…meeting Alice Cooper). Barack Obama, for his part, hosted Beyonce at the White House and name-checked Jay Z and Hozier as among his favourite artists (with memories of Varadkar and Mumford and Sons still rattling around our brain we have to ask, what is it about modern politicians and folksy musicians with ridiculous hair?).

Kylie-gate - can we please, please call it this? - is different in so far as it seems unlikely Varadkar was penning gushing fan letters in order to court favour among the plain people of Ireland. Minogue is a pop star for the ages. Yet her imprimatur is unlikely to sway voters in Kerry North or Longford-Westmeath (tell us we're wrong, Longford-Westmeath).

In other words, if he sinned it was in exploiting the trappings of the office to wheedle an audience with his favourite Antipodean chart deity. That's very different from the traditional charge that politicians are using pop stars as a conduit with which to ingratiate themselves with a segment of the electorate typically beyond their reach.

The practice has been ongoing since the dawn of pop. To their chagrin, the Beatles found themselves co-opted into Harold Wilson's 1964 British election campaign - with the Prime Minister then claiming credit for helping secure the Beatles their MBEs from the Queen in 1965.

"At the time, I was very proud," Ringo Starr would say later on. "It meant a lot to me - not that it gave me anything, but it gave Harold Wilson the election."

Just as notorious was Tony Blair's bid to hitch his New Labour movement in the UK to the Britpop scene of the early '90s. He and his team initially courted Blur, inviting the group's frontman Damon Albarn to a meeting in 1995.

"Blair became the Labour leader roughly six weeks after the release of Blur's album Parklife and the appearance of the debut single by Oasis," wrote John Harris, former editor of Britpop flag-waver Select magazine and author of the definitive Britpop biography, The Last Party. "Both heralded the decisive start of the Britpop era, during which the Union Jack would be rehabilitated as a pop-cultural totem, and chart-topping success would become the raison d'être."

Yet Albarn did not receive quite the welcome he had expected. Blair cringingly asked the singer about "the scene". The then Labour leader's press advisor and attack dog Alastair Campbell next weighed in, wondering, "What if you suddenly turn round and say, 'Tony's a w*nker'?"

Albarn insisted he would never do so but his ardour for British Labour waned thereafter. Instead, it was Blur's Britpop rivals Oasis who fronted for Blair.

"There are seven people in this room who are giving hope to young people in this country," Gallagher declared from the podium of the Brit Awards. He proceeded to namecheck Oasis, their record label boss Alan McGee… and Tony Blair.

"If you've got anything about you, you'll shake Tony Blair's hand, man. He's the man! Power to the people!"

The love-in culminated in that notorious Downing Street photo-op, snapped at a shindig thrown by Blair after he was elected Prime Minister as thank you to all the creatives who had backed his campaign

The cringe factor was strong, though perhaps not quite at the same level as Enda Kenny playing air guitar to Bruce Springsteen in Croke Park in 2016.

Worst of all, though, was the 1984 meeting between Michael Jackson and Ronald Reagan, where the American President seemed keen to squeeze in as many dad jokes as possible.

"Well, isn't this a thriller?" he began. "I hope you'll forgive me, but we have quite a few young folks in the White House who all wanted me to give you the same message. They said to tell Michael, 'Please give some TLC to the PYTs.' Now I know that sounds a little 'off the wall', but you know what I mean."

Compared to that, we can probably all agree that the unfolding story of 'When Kylie Met Leo' is a minor-wattage bru-ha-ha.

Varadkar, critics may argue, has better things to occupy himself with than hanging out with pop stars.

But at least he picked a celebrity most of us will be vaguely positive towards. Will this be the biggest fumble his government commits? We should be so lucky.

Irish Independent

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