Rock’n’roll has always defined itself as the ungovernable voice of opposition to the establishment. Since the first guitar was plugged in, the form has been the primary artistic arena for expressing ideals utopian, outrageous and righteous. There are reasons why protest songs are a universally recognised genre, and why we hear rather less of nuanced, policy position ballads.
This may be why rock stars have seemed the celebrity group least keen to pursue careers in grownup politics. Until recently, they’ve generally left it to actors, whose skills – appearing plausible, remembering lines, facing the right way, not bumping into scenery – are more readily transferable.
However, as the generation whose political attitudes were shaped by rock’n’roll in the 1960s and 1970s reaches middle-age, rock stars are now running in gathering numbers.
Former Midnight Oil vocalist Peter Garrett is a cabinet minister in Australia. Brazilian singer Gilberto Gil served as his country’s Minister of Culture. Peruvian warbler Susana Baca filled the same role in Lima.
Other musicians have set their sights still higher. Country singer Kinky Friedman – best known for hits such as Get Your Biscuits In The Oven And Your Buns In The Bed and They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore – ran for governor of Texas in 2006, under the slogan “How Hard Could It Be?”
Former Fugees rapper Wyclef Jean stood for the presidency of Haiti in 2010, but was disqualified on the not unreasonable grounds that he didn’t actually live there.
Senegalese superstar Youssou N’Dour, who announced his candidacy for his country’s presidency this week, may do better. He has many advantages. He’s rich, famous, and owns a television station, a radio station and a newspaper. He’s also running against an incumbent, Abdoulaye Wade, who is 85 years old and has a tendency for flamboyant gestures that demonstrates an awkward relationship with reality.
The adage that one campaigns in poetry but governs in prose applies most unforgivably to those who’ve lived, as wealthy rock stars do, in some measure of exile from planet Earth.
This correspondent once asked the best known rock activist, U2’s Bono, if he could ever imagine trying to acquire a full-time political platform, by seeking the presidency of the Republic of Ireland. “No,” the singer sensibly replied. “I wouldn’t want to move to a smaller house.”