Antony Blinken, the secretary of state and first guitarist, has broken with the tired protocols of the past, faced the complexities of the multipolar twenty-first century world, and issued a Spotify playlist. This may be a better way of reaching new audiences than bombing them. But shouldn’t public figures be judged on their records, not their record collections?
“The thread that runs throughout my life is probably music,” Blinken told Rolling Stone last year as he meditated his mixtape. Hitler would probably have said the same about painting had Rolling Stone been around to profile the Viennese amateur who was turning the art world upside down. George Kennan would probably not have said the same, but then, Kennan was the career diplomat whose strategy of containment won the Cold War, not a self-publicizing amateur who can’t contain his own self-regard.
Blinken argues that music “transcends borders.” The same goes for the immigrants at the Rio Grande and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, two jams which Blinken might more usefully apply himself. His playlist is meant to soften up the foreign publics that the swinging secretary performs for when he’s not putting together wicked beats. The effect, however, puts the “offensive” into “charm offensive.” Like the administration it serves, it is a shifting mass of cliché, trapped in the pre-1990 world, yet bizarrely pleased with its own mediocrity. Like the administration or a Jimi Hendrix bathroom break, it is one long exercise in accidental feedback.
There is no faster way to fall out with a friend, antagonize the stranger and confirm your enemies’ contempt than asserting your taste in music — apart, that is, from doing really bold solos like flitting from Afghanistan without telling your allies, promising everything to Iranian negotiators before the negotiations begin, or threatening to fight Putin over Ukraine and then backing down. Blinken managed to accomplish all four. His playlist is the soundtrack to failure. Too bad “The Sound of Silence” isn’t here.
His choices are also an invitation to mock the United States and exploit the naivety of its emissaries. The Turkish tyrant Erdogan will look at Blinken’s preference for “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” by They Might Be Giants and conclude that, strategically speaking, Blinken might be a midget. He might also take offense, as British listeners will when they hear the terrorist anthem “Come Out, Ye Black and Tans.” And what perverse inspiration drove Blinken to torment the Australians, already trapped in an endless cycle of lockdowns, with that aural invitation to voluntary euthanasia “Down Under” by Men at Work?
The Germans, facing an energy crisis of their own creation — Angela Merkel closed their nuclear plants — will listen to “99 Red Balloons,” Nena’s warning of nuclear apocalypse, and feel their American ally is laughing at their misfortune. They will also know the secretary is as deficient in musical taste as he is in diplomatic chops. For if you insist on being trapped in the Eighties, everyone knows Nena’s German-language original has a certain je ne sais quoi that the English version lacks, ja?
Vladimir Putin will give a plasticated smirk at “Back in the U.S.S.R.” But Putin isn’t trying to get back to the lost era of communism when the Beatles stood for freedom. He wants to get all the way back to the really good old days, when Russia was ruled by emperors with “Great” as their surname. With Ukraine on the brink and Biden’s bluff called, is it such a great idea to insult Putin with the camp disco of Boney M’s “Ra-Ra, Rasputin,” masterpiece though it may be?
Diplomats used to hide their thoughts with a poker face. Henry Kissinger didn’t signal his plans for getting America out of Vietnam by putting Motorhead’s “Bomber” on repeat. This administration should be continuing the Trump-era reckoning with decades of bipartisan foreign policy failure. Instead, its foremost diplomat shrugs off his responsibilities with Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire.”
Mysteriously, the most suitable titles of all seem not to have made the cut. “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” for the Americans trapped in Afghanistan. The O’Jays’ “Backstabbers,” for the end of the romance between Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Ultravox’s “Vienna,” a saga of a failed romance to bring a tear to the eye of the most seasoned Iranian diplomat. Then again, we’re only a year into this administration and its aural accompaniment. Wait for the flip side of Blinken’s musical autobiography: “I’m A Loser.”