Toby Keith. Lee Greenwood. The Rolling Stones.
In the eight months since he was elected president, Donald Trump has demonstrated some clear musical favorites. When the history of his administration is written, though, the artist who figures most prominently in the story may not be one of those whose music Trump has blared at his rallies and events.
That chart-topper could turn out to be Emin Agalarov.
The 37-year-old son of one of Russia’s richest men, Emin (as he’s known onstage and on his records) crash-landed into American conversation this week when the New York Times reported that, through an intermediary, he’d approached the president’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., during the 2016 presidential campaign with an offer to connect the Trump team to a Russian official with damaging information about Hillary Clinton.
Pundits took instantly to social media to claim that emails between Emin’s publicist and Trump Jr. represented a smoking gun in the investigation into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with the Russian government to disrupt the U.S. election.
It’s an extraordinary role for a musician, certainly one as little-known in this country as Emin. But after a crash course in Emin’s catalog, what strikes me as most remarkable about this guy’s sudden notoriety is how deeply unremarkable his music is.
To put it in more familiar terms, pretend that we’d learned tomorrow that French politics may have been dramatically shaken up by Imagine Dragons.
Just because Trump wasn’t using Emin’s music to stoke his crowds doesn’t mean the president was outside the orbit of the handsome pop star, who splits his time between performing and doing business as part of his family’s real estate company.
The two met, according to reports, when Trump selected Emin and his father, Aras Agalarov, to host the Miss Universe contest in Moscow in 2013. (At the time Trump co-owned the beauty pageant.)
Emin even got Trump, then the star of NBC’s “The Apprentice,” to appear in the music video for his song “In Another Life,” which had Trump delivering his signature line from the reality series: “You’re fired!”
“Donald Trump is a super-successful businessman,” Emin told the Chicago Tribune in May. “His main advantage over other world leaders that sometimes come to power is that he actually ran a huge corporation. He built a big business over the years and guided thousands of people towards certain goals. A lot of the politicians that come to power have never even managed a hundred people. That is his main advantage.”
Nonbelievers may argue it was the force of Trump’s acrid charisma — his ability not so much to manage people as to agitate their fears — that propelled him to the Oval Office and has kept up his approval ratings among his core supporters.
You can detect shades of that strong personality in many of the musicians Trump is drawn to — in the Stones (even if Mick Jagger has disavowed the president’s admiration) and definitely in Keith (though the provocative country star is more complicated than he’s often made out to be).
Yet listening to Emin’s soppy ballads and edgeless dance-pop tracks — tunes he’s released across a string of albums sung in Russian and English — I hear only the cool corporate efficiency of someone eager to repackage reliable commodities.
“Good Love”? Like George Michael minus the sex. “When I Fall in Love”? Pretty but shallow. “Mack the Knife”? As unthreatening as I’ve ever heard anyone do that happily twisted Brecht-Weill ditty.
Even Emin’s collaborations with proven hit-makers — such as “Boomerang,” a 2015 team-up with Nile Rodgers of Chic — feel like halfhearted approximations of more vivid source material.
Which is perhaps to be expected of a pop act linked to a politician.
But if Donald Trump promised us anything — if Donald Trump has given us anything since he first turned his sights on the presidency — it’s an upending of the norm, a sacrifice of American propriety in exchange for an infinite supply of tawdry satisfaction.
And now you’re telling me a singer this bland could play a role in changing the course of American history?
We deserve better — or at least worse.