What hidden messages are there in these sultry hits from the likely next U.S. secretary of state?
(By Lauren Teixeira)
Secretary of State-designate Antony Blinken removes his face mask after being introduced by President-elect Joe Biden at the Queen Theatre in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 24. Mark Makala/Getty Images
The hastily scrambled-together portraits of Antony Blinken that various media outlets released this weekend, following U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s announcement he would nominate his longtime aide for secretary of state, painted a fairly consistent picture: that of an urbane, French-speaking career diplomat; a loyal deputy and low-key team player; a moderate with a taste for both intervention and multilateralism. In fact, only one incongruity stands out from his otherwise immaculate credentials.
Antony Blinken is a perpetrator of wonk rock (Music).
Most Americans have probably never heard of wonk rock. It’s a subgenre indigenous, and mercifully confined to the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. The city that gave the world go-go, the local music that depends on call-and-response from overwhelmingly Black audiences, also gave it this, perhaps the whitest music imaginable. As the name suggests, participants in wonk rock are morbid dweebs who by day haunt the city’s innumerable think tanks, media institutions, consultancies, and other government-adjacent bastions of “nerddom”. Wonk rockers congregate at events like the annual “Journopalooza”, where they form bands with groan-inducing names like Suspicious Package and Beats Workin’, and perform covers of songs that rocked when they were young, shiny-eyed wonklings.
You may find it humanizing that men with the power to shape the national media narrative, conduct domestic surveillance ops, and green-light bombing campaigns in Libya still feel compelled to produce and share middle-aged guitar solos in their downtime. Or, like me, you may find it disturbing. Can world-historical decisions really be made in a context of such utter lameness? Does the banality of wonk rock reflect the same everyday indifference where the lives and deaths of millions are shaped in D.C. offices? But one thing is for sure: A wonk never truly leaves his work behind. Although it may seem innocuous, wonk rock is always informed by the wonk’s day job; beneath the funky bass lines and power chords there always lurks a passion for a comprehensive data report, a finely crafted policy proposal, a pragmatic bipartisan compromise.
Which is why I spent several hours last night—quite possibly more time than any human being except Blinken himself has spent—listening to Blinken’s band, trying to divine the future of this country’s foreign policy. Like the artistic works of the powerful elsewhere, they need careful parsing. The expected secretary of state has two songs on Spotify under the moniker “ABlinken” (get it? “Abe Lincoln”??). They are, as others have noted, surprisingly good. “Lip Service” is a bluesy, Zeppelin-sounding jam that seemingly details a failed carnal encounter; while the acoustic ballad “Patience” gets wistful and lovelorn. I’m sorry to report that on both of these tracks it is easy to imagine the future shaper of U.S. power worldwide soulfully shutting his eyes as he croons lyrics like “So give me a chance to let you feel what I feel/ Cause my heart is sighing” in a husky baritone.
Which is why I spent several hours last night—quite possibly more time than any human being except Blinken himself has spent—listening to Blinken’s band, trying to divine the future of this country’s foreign policy.
Below I have highlighted choice lyrics from “Lip Service” and “Patience” along with my interpretation of what they portend for the next four years of international relations.
“I want to convince you/ This is a powerful fight”
It didn’t take too many listens to determine that “Lip Service,” which on the surface seems to be a straightforward account of sexual rejection, is actually telling the story of Blinken’s frustration with President Barack Obama, under whom he served as a deputy secretary of state. Blinken, who is openly pro-intervention, was reportedly upset when Obama failed to follow through on his promise to intervene in Syria after the Bashar al-Assad regime crossed the “red line” by using chemical weapons on civilians. Was all of Obama’s talk about the red line just “lip service”?
“Patience is the test of life itself/ And to fail would be suicidal”
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“Patience” strikes a more reflective note than “Lip Service,” suggesting that Blinken has reconsidered his ardently pro-interventionist stance. “Patience” came out the same year as Blinken joined a number of other foreign-policy wonks in signing an open letter calling for an end to American support of the Saudi bombing campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen initiated under Obama. The campaign, which Blinken had supported, quickly turned out to be a large-scale humanitarian disaster. Will Blinken take this nuanced view of intervention to his new job?
“From my heart I’m telling you I think I could love you for our lives”
It took me a while to figure this one out, but on the 25th or so listen it finally clicked: This line is about the South China Sea. The desire to resolve the conflict in the South China Sea and the nine-dash line rests deep in the heart of every foreign-policy wonk. Expect Blinken to take a stance on the Spratly Islands as soon as he takes office.
With Blinken set to assume one of the most powerful and challenging jobs in the world, we may not be getting much more from ABlinken. But perhaps, as travel resumes post-coronavirus, there’s the opportunity to take the show on the road. What could do more to promote the idea of America as a fundamentally benign, dorky power than to have the secretary of state serenade foreign leaders? Like former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin’s fondness for breaking into “Love Me Tender” on international occasions, this could be soft power at its very softest.