Stephen Harper gets by with a little help from his songs, paper suggests

Stephen Harper's first tentative step singing in public at the National Arts Centre stage in 2009 was an astute way to change his image, says Carleton lecturer John Higney.

Carleton lecturer examines prime minister's increasing forays into public performances

Harper sings Sweet Child O' Mine

9 years ago
Duration 1:07
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his band the Van Cats entertain Conservatives at their Christmas party Tuesday night

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's first tentative step singing in public at the National Arts Centre in 2009 helped him craft a softer image for the public and set the stage for future performances, says Carleton lecturer John Higney.

On Oct. 3, 2009, Harper came on stage during a National Arts Centre charity gala and sat down at a piano to play a rendition of the Beatles' With a Little Help From My Friends alongside cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

The performance received a standing ovation and marked a change in Harper's image, says Higney, who on Wednesday presented a paper on the subject at the 2015 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences entitled "Mixing Pop and Politics: Stephen Harper's Musical Amateurism as Personal Branding."

"[Harper's] image was not known for being soft and approachable and I think music was one of the ways [the Conservatives] have as a means of deploying a softer edge," Higney told Robyn Bresnahan on Ottawa Morning.

Higney says the location and the song itself — with its opening line 'What would you think if I sang out of tune?' — all appeared to be chosen to avoid a risky flop.

"Even built into the song is the idea of failure, so if you failed, hey, it's in the song, so how can you fault someone for trying at a charity event?" he said.

The context and timing of the show was also crucial, he says.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper reacts to a standing ovation after he sang and played The Beatles song "With a Little Help From My Friends" on the piano during a surprise appearance at the National Arts Centre Gala in Ottawa on Oct. 3, 2009. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
"2009 was a really fraught time. The year before there was a prorogation, and right after there was a prorogation and the government was really just hanging on. So an election could happen at any point in time. And it's really... an important part in this perpetual campaign," he said.

Harper is hardly the first politician to turn to music to send a message — back in 1992 Bill Clinton famously connected with audiences during his U.S. presidential election campaign by playing the saxophone on the The Arsenio Hall Show.

More recently, across the House of Commons floor, the NDP's Andrew Cash, Charlie Angus and Megan Leslie now routinely perform musical numbers.

But Higney says he became interested in Harper in part because after the 2009 show he has sustained his performances, to the point where he is now putting on full shows with his band the Van Cats — a play on vingt-quatre, the prime minister's residence at 24 Sussex Dr. — albeit often for friendly, Conservative party audiences.

At a part Christmas party last December, Harper even strayed into rougher material like Guns N' Roses Sweet Child O' Mine.

It appears to be a crafted strategy, says Higney, but it's one that so far hasn't backfired for the Prime Minister, which is likely why he continues to perform.

"The risks are fairly great once you start doing this if it is an absolute disaster," he said.