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The Strange Pop Culture Tastes of Dictators

One of the most prurient aspects of reading the personal emails written to and by Bashar al Assad that were obtained by The Guardian has been the chance to observe the dictator’s strange shopping habits on iTunes. Apparently, the Syrian dictator is a big fan of contemporary party music. But Bashar is far from the first dictator to have a strange relationship with pop culture. From Frank Sinatra to LMFAO, TNR takes a look back at the odd cultural tastes of some of history's most ruthless rulers. 

Bashar al Assad. The Syrian dictator's recent purchases on iTunes include music by LMFAO, Chris Brown, Right Said Fred, and New Order. Of course, picturing Assad dancing to “I’m Sexy And I Know It” is an image that most of us would prefer to block from our minds. 

Saddam Hussein. The palaces of Saddam Hussein were found to have been adorned with fantasy art that included depictions of “naked blonde maidens menaced by dragons” and “warriors wrestling serpents.” It seems the former dictator had an aesthetic taste that was closer to that of an adolescent boy than that of a head of state. 

Kim Jong-il. The diminutive and departed former leader was a noted film lover, with over 20,000 DVDs in his personal collection. His taste in movies can hardly be considered highbrow, however, with titles such as Rambo and Friday the 13th listed amongst his favorites. Not just content to watch movies, he once kidnapped a top South Korean film director to make a bizarre version of Godzilla entitled Pulgasari

Hugo Chavez. Chavez, perhaps seeking to solidify his populist image, released an album of patriotic Venezuelan folk songs featuring himself on lead vocals in 2007. 

Muammar Qaddafi. Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi has become the poster boy for eccentric dictators. He had a major crush on U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a crew of exclusively female (and exclusively virginal) bodyguards—and  he also loved American musicians. He paid top dollar for musicians such as Beyonce, Mariah Carey, and Lionel Richie to perform private concerts for his family.

Slobodan Milosevic. The Serbian war criminal was a noted admirer of Disney and Frank Sinatra songs, though we’re guessing that the man who spent his later life trying to expand Serbia’s territory by military force preferred “My Way” over “It’s a Small World.”

Mao Zedong. Mao, near the end of his life, was advised by his doctors to stop reading due to cataracts, which began his interest in movies—particularly those of Bruce Lee. Because Hong Kong was still a protectorate of the U.K., Lee’s films were not distributed in isolationist Mainland China and Mao would have to specially send somebody to retrieve the films and bring them back. Mao was such a fan that he was said to have exclaimed “Bruce Lee is a hero!” and his aides feared returning the film reels back to Hong Kong in the event that Mao would want to watch them again.

Idi Amin. Idi Amin, dictator of Uganda in the 1970s, was fascinated with Scottish culture, giving his sons Scottish names and declaring himself King of Scotland. He also had a deep appreciation for bagpipe music—even attempting to create a personal bodyguard comprised of 6’4” bagpipe-playing Scotsmen.

Ferdinand Marcos. Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda, an avid fan of The Beatles, famously invited the Fab Four to a reception when The Beatles were touring the Philippines. When The Beatles declined the invitation, the country was so enraged over the perceived snub that riots broke out. In the ensuing chaos, The Beatles lost their police protection and security detail before fleeing the country. It is unclear if Imelda Marcos stopped listening to Beatles records after the incident.

Nick Robins-Early, Perry Stein, and Eric Wen are interns at The New Republic.