Charming with song
One of the talents that Canadian public figures have become known for in recent years is the ability to charm with song. Think of Margaret Trudeau and the song that she made up for the wife of the president of Venezuela; or of her daughter-in-law Sophie Grégoire Trudeau’s foray into public song on Martin Luther King day. Think of (or cringe at) the rendition of When Irish Eyes Are Smiling that was delivered for the benefit of Ronald Reagan on his visit to Canada by former prime minister Brian Mulroney—a performance that was reprised a few weeks ago at a charity fundraising dinner attended by Donald Trump. Think of Stephen Harper’s attempt to humanize himself with his performance at the National Arts Centre of With a Little Help From My Friends.
Yes, it seems that diplomacy is increasingly being done through music. We’ve come a long way since the days when oratorical skill and a familiarity with the issues were considered the main prerequisites to political success. Is it now becoming more important for would-be politicians to practise their musical chops than, say, to read up on macroeconomics?
To find out what the latest trends in political training for raw recruits are, we talked to independent consultant Jerry Mander, who runs the little-known Toronto School of Political Arts. Says Mander, “We teach the softer skills— making a warm introduction; gripping with a firm handshake and looking people in the eye; remembering a name; moving around a room; holding a baby without making it cry or leak; posing graciously for a selfie with admirers; talking down to people without insulting them; appearing interested at church teas. And, perhaps most importantly, singing in public.”
Tell us more about the singing, Mr. Mander.
“Well, you know what Maria von Trapp said: ‘Music acts like a magic key, to which the most tightly closed heart opens.’ But you have to go about it deliberately.
“First of all, you have to choose your repertoire carefully. You can’t choose a politically incorrect song—that got John Crosbie into trouble years ago. And you can’t choose a song that dates you. I remember one candidate in the 2015 election breaking out into a Perry Como song; he had a great voice, but his repertoire sunk him. Nor should you choose music that’s beyond your abilities. I had a student who was keen on Jimmie Rodgers, but he just couldn’t yodel—or at least, he thought he could, but the voters disagreed. And you’ve got to sing with feeling, but you can’t be pretentious and make like you’re the original performer.
“Second, you have to know the message you want to deliver to your audience. You can’t insult people or hit them with a sledgehammer. I hear Mulroney’s been working on If I Ruled the World for his next gig in front of Trump. And if I were advising Trump, I’d encourage him to woo the Australians by way of saying sorry to Mr. Turnbull for the telephone dustup with a rendition of Political Science by Randy Newman. The song is about ‘dropping the big one’, but there’s a nice little bridge in it which talks about saving Australia because we ‘don’t want to hurt no kangaroo.’ And if I were singing for the North Koreans—which would be a good entry point if ping pong or basketball diplomacy doesn’t seem appropriate—I would choose Let the Sunshine In: it would convey a political message in the nicest possible way.
“And finally, of course, you have to deliver the song with confidence. We start our students off with karaoke practice in my office. Then they sing for other students, who can be the harshest critics. Then we take them down to an old folks home, where the residents generally can’t remember who they listened to, so if things don’t go well, nobody is really hurt. After that, they’re as ready for prime time as I can make them.
“It sounds like a lot of work, and it is, but it can really pay off bigtime. I remember one Bay Street banker, a conservative candidate who was lagging way behind in the polls. That is, until he took off his jacket at a rally and launched into Bud the Spud. He was unstoppable after that.”
“Listen, I don’t have much time left. Our new ambassador to Russia is holding on line two wanting some pointers. He’s just about to do his version of The Song of the Volga Boatmen for Vladimir Putin.”
Well, thank you Mr. Mander. Makes you think a bit, though. Maybe music does belong in our school curriculum. It might someday save the world.