Would you vote for a man with nothing but musical clichés between his ears?

Would you vote for a man with nothing but musical clichés between his ears?


norman lebrecht

November 24, 2013

Ed Milliband’s choice of Desert Island Discs – assuming it was his own and not some psephological committee’s – is shocking not for its bad taste but for its numbing banality. Every single song the Labour leader is a piece of public furniture, familiar to passing dogs on Comfort FM. Not one reveals an original mind, let alone a quirk.

There is nothing wrong with Ed’s songs in musical terms. But they seem to have been chosen not for any musical reason so much as for what they might represent in political terms – freedom, equality, struggle, strength of purpose – and what they might achieve among the electorate.

From that perspective, Ed is pitching for middle-class, multicultural, thirty-something voters who go to France and Florida for their summer hols. How vapid is that? How utterly dull.

ed milliband

Ed’s discs:

– Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika

– Hubert Parry – Jerusalem (lone classical pick)

– Paul Robeson – Ballad of Joe Hill

– A-ha – Take On Me

– Neil Diamond – Sweet Caroline

– Robbie Williams – Angels

– Josh Ritter – Change of Time

– Edith Piaf – Je Ne Regrette Rien


  • Ian Pace says:

    I’m more concerned with a leader’s policies on education, health, foreign affairs, how they will deal with poverty and low-pay, and so on.

  • I wonder if an American congressman could fare any better. Paul Ryan listened to death metal. (Sigh.) Jimmy Carter used to have Horowitz over for a concert. Now it’s nothing but twerking.

  • Michael Schaffer says:

    “Psephological”! Never heard that word before. Had to look it up. Who says you can’t learn useful stuff on the internet.

    I am puzzled though. Why is it “vapid” to go to France for holidays?

  • It could have been worse, as my friend Lloyd Arriola rightly says!

  • Alex says:

    I think this is really rather sad. Not because I care all that much about what he might listen to at home or whatnot; but because this is a man who may well be influencing arts funding, and educational policy one day. Surely at least some kind of respectful nod towards Sibelius, Vaughan Williams, Puccini… Anyone, at least one, was in order??

  • Mikey says:

    “Would I vote for a man with nothing but musical clichés between his ears?”

    Were I voting for the next president of the musicians’ union, then no.

    Were I voting for the next representative to a composers’ conference, then no.

    For a political leader? Who fricken’ cares.

    I am certain that the author of this blog has particular musical tastes with which I would disagree, things that would probably bore me to tears. But he’s allowed to have his musical preferences. Where I see an issue is when his musical preferences become a barometer for what is considered “banal”.

    If Ed Miliband’s musical tastes were to have an effect on how he might run the country, then let’s talk. If his party suddenly decides that no music other than A-Ha! or Hubert Parry shall be performed by any governmentally-subsidized arts organization, then yes, let’s talk about it.

    But what he’d bring to a desert island?

    There are so many other musical topics that are deserving of our attention. This is most definitely not one over which to get one’s panties in a bunch.

  • Gary Carpenter says:

    David Cameron chose ‘Ernie The Fastest Milkman In The West’ when he was in opposition. I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that a rubbish, lowest-common-denominator taste in music is any measure of a politician’s worth or depth but if you fancied a philosophical discussion on causation/correlation…

  • Greg Hlatky says:

    Why are musicians so insecure that they think they need validation by politicians?

  • Alberto Martinez says:

    Surely he´s not a fan of Luc Ferrari or John Zorn …

  • Neil van der Linden says:

    Unfortunately Milliband has a quite plain, mundane taste. One would like to see a politician with an elaborate taste in the arts, and then in several genres, because a politician who doesn’t have an eye and an ear for modern culture perhaps should be distrusted too, or at least know his or her humble place.

    That being said, unfortunately throughout history there are many examples of politicians with an exquisite taste in the arts who were outright horrible tyrants, or who failed. There is no need to mention the most obvious 20th century European examples, and one might also question many rulers of the past in this respect too. Mrs Mao was another example. Evita Peron? What was the taste of Franco.

    And what is the taste of Cameron and that of all his predecessors. Edward Heath could conduct the Meistersinger overture, that is something.

  • Andrew Adair says:

    You find it “shocking” that a politician gives an answer sufficiently broad to please as many people as possible and sufficiently bland to offend the fewest people possible?

  • John, a Brit is Santa Fe says:

    Well, in a broader way, this does reflect a general lack of interest and involvement in the classical music and operatic world in the UK – and maybe British politicians interest in the arts in general. And it’s about the same with US politicians as well. Does any president of the US attend events at the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC? (Thank goodness for Justice Ginsburg – who comes to Santa Fe every year!!). Alex makes a valid point about the fact that here are people who have the power to make arts funding decisions but for whom the arts appear to be meaningless.

    So when George Osborn (wasn’t it?) turned up at ROH for the Ring (wasn’t it?) he gets castigated for being elitist – and why is he not working…….How can you win?

    • Neil van der Linden says:

      Obama maybe is not a frequenter of classical concerts but he chooses excellent pop musicians for his events. And Clinton had a good taste or good advisors in this too. He was helped by his ability of playing an instrument himself.

  • John says:

    We should at least be grateful that he didn’t choose anything by Mahler.

  • Gus says:

    Milibrand’s taste in music, its true

    lacks refinement, a bland, dull stew.

    But choose between good taste or a dozer?

    I’d vote left rather than rue

    a rarified scholar like Hans Joachim Moser.

  • Ed Milliband’s choices – should they even be his in the first place – reek of focus group investigation and approval. Since Alastair Campbell presented us with Tony Blair, nothing in NuLab’s public splutterings has had the merit of sincerity (I remember the ridiculously insulting photo released of TB and Pa Broon watching football on the TV together, a politically correct half pint of lager in front of each of them, shortly after we’d been told they’d had a falling out) and this laughably ‘eclectic’ selection instead just suggests that EM has no interest in music beyond what he thinks might earn him a few more votes in marginal Lib/Lab constituencies. Loathsome.

  • Incidentally, I went to a recital this afternoon where the accompanist was the spitting image of Ed Milliband. Anybody in the loop care to guess who it was?

  • Mark Stratford says:

    We all know that threads are in their declining phase when somebody feels the need to mention Hitler and I apologise. But let’s remember what exalted tastes he had – Schubert, Wagner and Bruckner for starters. Give us dull old Millibore any time with his Neil Diamond.

    • Neil van der Linden says:

      Exactly, that is why I avoided mentioning the Germans. And Karadzic was a respected poet I understood. Still a completely prosaic person does not automatically deserve my trust too. But hey, Parry’s Jerusalem has one of the greatest melodies ever written. And Neil Diamond was never really bad, although Sweet Carolina was his first saccharine recording after a few quite strong hits starting with Solitary Man.

    • Derek Castle says:

      “Don’t mention the War” – but I do remember times (perhaps it’s different now) when it did German politicians no harm to be seen at the opera in Munich and Bayreuth. John Major’s wife, Norma, is famously interested in opera, but that’s about it, apart from lesser luminaries, such as Michael Portillo. Don’t forget that the Bavarians subjected our dear Queen to 4 hours plus of Rosenkavalier on her first State Visit to Germany, when rumour has it that she much preferred the horse demonstration earlier in the visit. I find it hard to believe that Mr Milliband would seriously consider listening to this stuff on a desert island, over and over again.

  • Michael says:

    I would contrast this with an interview on Bavarian Radio a few years ago, where they caught Chancellor Merkel on her way to a new Bayreuth Parsifal. She not only had some interesting comments about what she was going to see, but added some thoughts about the two previous Parsifal productions she had seen there.

    Merkel to Milliband (or Cameron – cultural philistinism percades deep through both their parties) at a dinner party: “I went to see Parsifal last night”. Milliband/Cameron :”Oh, is that the new Scorsese film? Any good?”

    The gloomiest aspect of “Milliband’s” choices is that he either has no knowledge of the classical music tradition or has, but is scared for his political reputation if anyone were to find out.

    In the annals of Desert Island Discs, has any other person of equivalent [supposed] stature/position/education/intelligence produced a collection of recordings of such withering banality?

    • Mike Schachter says:

      Philistinism is it seems essential for British politicians, anything not to seem “elitist” ie able to distinguish the wothwhile from garbage. In continental Europe some interaction with culture is considered as quite a good thing for a politician.

      • Neil van der Linden says:

        Of course Britain has a trauma of being ruled for a century only by Etonians and OxCammers. Which by itself need not be bad. Being ruled by a sincere aristocracy in the true sense of the word is better for a nation.

        Eton nor OXbridge would guarantee a musical taste however. Nor in classical nor in pop nor in any other genre. But maybe yet there was a sense for broad education. Peter Phillips of the Tallis Scholars is from Oxford and maybe John Eliot Gardiner is from Ox or Cam. Are here any good art rock bands coming from there? Perhaps Radiohead.

        Anyhow maybe this is why British politicians now sometimes want to prove they are from the people by showing their popular taste. However I don’t know how well Merkel’s predecessors fared in this. Brandt? Kohl? Adenauer most probably yes.

        De Gaullle? Mitterand had a wide education. Giscard d’Estaing.

  • Lauren says:

    My first thought was of a photo of Hitler at the opera. But, as some have said, it is a bit passée to mention it. My next thought is Putin and what is happening in Russia the the moment with anti-gay, anti-freedom of speech (Pussy Riot) and anti-freedom of protest (Greenpace). Putin’s lapdog Gergiev has brilliant taste in music (no offence meant to actual lapdogs). I am a musician myself and would love to have both political prowess and great musical taste. Though given the choice, I would rather have a sound politician with poor taste in music rather than the other way round.

  • Alexander Hall says:

    Since the days of Edward Heath we have had nobody in Downing Street or standing in the wings as opposition leader with a real interest in classical music and the arts generally. Unless people at the top really care, there is not much prospect of getting the new concert-hall which a city like London desperately needs. At least Red Ed’s brother has a wife who played in the second violin section of the LSO and I often saw hubby sitting in the Barbican for a concert, presumably to offer more than just moral support. The likes of Tony Blair have only been interested in strumming electric guitars and rubbing shoulders with celebs from the entertainment world.

  • Mark Stratford says:

    I hear that EM’s chosen book was Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and his “treat” a chicken korma !

    • Michael says:

      Ed Milliband’s autobiography will surely be entitled “One Shade of Grey”.

    • Neil van der Linden says:

      Hey let us all imagine what the choice (if edited by himself) of Cameron or Blair would be… And if his brother’s wife is violinist I am sure music tastes must be sometimes on the table. It seems that he doesn’t care that much to show off. Which is good too. And then again Parry’s Jerusalem is a song that one could hear forever. By the way the double-entendre in this choice is brilliant. The Millibands recently were accused by the Daily Mail of being perhaps not British enough as their father and uncle were staunch leftists if not communists, and as they are of Jewish descent (hear who is talking, the Daily Mail that in the thirties hailed the German invasions into neighboring countries). So Jerusalem, which is about both Jerusalem and Britain, is a brilliant choice for this reason too.

      And hey, politicians should also not only be measured by what they know about concert and opera going. Not only by knowing Sting, Bog Geldof and Richard Branson personally either. Obama affiliates himself with top should and R&B artists, excellent! Not the hillbilly taste of Bush. And if Clinton wanted to be seen with Dave Brubeck and Herbie Hancock, excellent!

      Being on a desert island and having Je ne regrette rein as one of my ten choices however would amount to torture. However great Piaf is of course. But Je ne regrette rien every half hour (as that is the total amount of minutes or repertoire Milliband would have on his MP3 player apparently).

      And again better an aloof sincere non corrupt politician with a lesser choice in music than the other way around.

  • Tommy says:

    Blair and Cameron’s choices were altogether more interesting:




    The Beatles

    Bruce Springsteen

    Samuel Barber

    Robert Johnson


    John Williams (guitarist)


    Bob Dylan

    Benny Hill

    Pink Floyd



    The Smiths


    The Killers

    I guess politicians can never win with Desert Island Discs. If they choose a wide range of music (heartfelt) they will be accused of trying to please everyone. If they choose bland, boring music (also heartfelt) they’re accused of being bland and boring.

    There is an entire episode of the excellent BBC kids comedy ‘My Dad’s The Prime Minister’ (written by Andy Hamilton) based on the prime minister having to choose his records for Desert Island Discs. Very funny and highly recommended.

    • Neil van der Linden says:

      Funny. What was the choice of the PM in the BBC kids comedy?

    • Neil van der Linden says:

      Cameron’s choice might very well be ghost written.

      I once saw our Dutch PM Rutte in a classical CD shop. Rutte in his youth years had been a promising piano player. He had two advisors with him or guards or maybe just Sunday afternoon social friends. One brought him many CD boxes with complete works by Debussy under Boulez or maybe even music by Boulez himself. But in the end Rutte left with three choices:

      – Mahler V by Karajan from a DG bargain series; Karajan’s Mahlers were excellent by idiosyncratic so either Rutte was not that familiar with Mahler, or he thought Karajan would be a solid choice, or he already had all other Mahler V’s possible and thought that for 5 Euro he should buy this one too

      – three early Beethoven piano sonatas by Brendel on Philips in a bargain series.. works one would expect he already would have… including complete recording by Brendel..

      – music for choir and chamber ensemble by Chausson, a very off-middle of the road choice, and for full price why this one?

  • Pixy Harris says:

    Anyone except badger killer Cameron (and all his lies on the subject and who chose mostly junk for his desert island). In any case why, just because we love classical music, should everyone be expected to do the same?

  • Kenneth Griffin says:

    Desert Island Discs is generally broadcast each week in a regular Sunday midmorning primetime slot, and then repeated during the working day in the same week. But, for one edition each year, the live Ceremony of Remembrance from the Cenotaph replaces the main Sunday broadcast. That edition is only aired once, in the weekday daytime slot. Obviously, this annual edition is saved for the guest of the year with the lowest public profile and the least popular musical choices. This year, this wooden spoon was awarded to Alfred Brendel. His eight discs were composed by Handel, JS Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler and Schoenberg.

  • Martin says:

    Dare I say it again? Milliband is British for contraband.

  • I believe Clement Attlee had no taste in music at all, he was rather a good Prime Minister though

  • Freddy says:

    Theodore McGuiver – was it Tim End?

  • Petros Linardos says:

    Edward Heath’s classical music credentials were good enough, but how effective was he as a Prime Minister?

  • CicelyW says:

    Greh Hlatky wrote: “Why are musicians so insecure that they think they need validation by politicians?” Couldn’t agree more. I find the sneering snobbish attitude of certain commentators offensive. I suppose since male politicians’ dress sense or comportment aren’t the usual point of attack or comment then “let’s go for their taste in the arts or football teams” is the message.