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‘Dear Mr. President’: Rufus Wainwright Is Back With a Political Anthem

It’s sometimes tempting to wish this midterm election was ancient history.

But for vocalist and composer Rufus Wainwright, ancient history is speaking to us right now. The artist’s newly released song and video, Sword of Damocles, draws on a millennia-old parable that teaches about the perils that come with great power.

The song came to fruition around the time of the 2016 presidential election. Wainwright had relocated to California from New York and was hanging out in what he describes as “that Hollywood bubble,” where common belief was Hillary Clinton would become the first female U.S. president. In an exclusive interview with Bloomberg Pursuits on the eve of the release of the video for the song, Wainwright, 45, admits, “There was a kind of undertow happening politically and socially that none of us really wanted to talk about.”

Two years later, like other artists exploring their feelings in the runup to the midterms, Wainwright believes the time is right to release the song with the intent to encourage people to think and, more importantly, vote.

Rufus Wainwright’s video
Before Wainwright knew the full story behind what would become Sword of Damocles, the title was placed in his head by a friend, the late writer/actress Carrie Fisher, who mentioned it while explaining her troubled state of mind. “I had no idea what [Carrie] was referring to, but it rang into one ear and didn’t leave the other one,” Wainwright says. “It was just stuck in my head. And it became this uneasy thread that I started writing about. It wasn’t even about politics at the time, more about this gnawing feeling that something was occurring.”

Popularized by Roman philosopher Cicero in his 45 B.C. book Tusculan Disputations, the Sword of Damocles tale centers on tyrannical king Dionysius II, who rules over the Sicilian city Syracuse during the fourth and fifth centuries B.C. Although rich and powerful, Dionysius II is distrustful of those around him and very unhappy. In Cicero’s version, the king’s dissatisfaction comes to a head when a young court flatterer named Damocles remarks how wonderful his life must be. In an effort to get Damocles to understand his predicament, Dionysius II sits him on a gold couch and showers him with rich clothing, food, and servants.

Damocles begins to enjoy the spoils but also notices a razor-sharp sword hung above his head by the king, which is suspended by a string of horsehair. Now constantly aware of the sword, Damocles begs the king to allow him to leave, having realized he no longer wishes to be so fortunate, as it comes with such dire consequences.

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, Wainwright researched the story and completed the song. “I was kind of shocked at how apt it was for what we were experiencing politically,” he says, viewing the tale as a parable about the impending doom that can come from—and be inflicted on—those in positions of power.

Having recorded the song a year and a half ago, Wainwright dropped out of the public spotlight to focus on his second opera, Hadrian. “Once I went back [into the spotlight], I could tell people were hungry for something to lay their shoulders on musically. I wanted to do the video for it and everything just kind of clicked and it took form very quickly.”

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