In this election year why does so little Australian music matter politically?
As I write these words, two of Australia’s most popular bands are gearing up to tour the country together. Billed as the ?Across The Great Divide? tour, Brisbane’s Powderfinger and Newcastle’s Silverchair will be filling stadiums and entertainment centres from Wollongong to Perth, ostensibly in the service of reconciliation. This joint tour was officially announced in late June, just one week prior to the Federal Government’s ?emergency intervention? into the Northern Territory, an intervention that will materially change the lives of indigenous people living in the Territory for decades to come: winding back land rights, increasing welfare and police surveillance, and establishing the kind of military presence in communities that is at best insensitive, at worst a warped, perverse echo of those bad old Protectorate days when government officers snatched away black children ?for their own good?. History repeats, the first time as tragedy, the second time as tragedy compounded by the bitter fact that we – as a nation, and as divided black and white communities living within it – have learned so very little. Or rather, white communities have learned little, while black communities have paid dearly for both the arrogance and the ignorance directed against them.
Perhaps Powderfinger will play ?Black Tears? while on tour – I dare say they will. The song, taken from their new album Dream Days at the Hotel Existence, deals with the case of Mulrunji Doomoodgee, a Palm Island man who died in police custody during 2004 after a ?tussle? outside the watchhouse on the island left him with four broken ribs and a liver torn in two. Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley – who admitted that he ?must have come into contact? with Doomoodgee – was acquitted of manslaughter charges on June 20th this year, one day before conditions in Northern Territory’s indigenous communities were declared a national emergency. Another coincidence of the calendar, only now the constellation of events reads like a rock fall, a catastrophe. Powderfinger censored the lyrics of ?Black Tears? on their album to avoid prejudicing Chris Hurley’s trial; post-acquittal, perhaps they will return to the original, uncensored version.
A live performance is not a document that can be tendered in court, and the contract that exists between performer and audience is a loose one, loose enough to withstand a great deal of testing behaviour by either party. But what will be the test here? Only the test of shared sentiment, the test of whether a protest song, however oblique, can tell a story that both performer and audience will agree upon. The greater test – that of a stylistic challenge, a protest as sound that might truly disrupt expectations, assumptions and narratives – will go unmet
Bernard Fanning will sing the lines to ?Black Tears? that are partly a garbled re-write of ?Strange Fruit? – a poem about lynching in the American south written in 1937 by Jewish schoolteacher Abel Meeropol (And did you know that Meeropol’s words were originally published in a union magazine? Strike one. And that Meeropol and his wife were the adoptive parents of the children of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, American communists executed in 1953 for allegedly passing nuclear secrets to the Russians? Strikes two and three: in today’s Australia, Meeropol would find himself up on terrorism charges before he could say ?SIM card?) and made famous when sung as a smouldering, clench-jawed j’accuse by Billie Holiday. And maybe a few people will fold their arms, disapprovingly, not wanting to listen. And then Silverchair will come on stage and do their prog-pop thing (is expecting them to cover ?Ebony and Ivory? taking speculation too far?), and there will be some talk of making our nation a better one, and an urge to ?get involved and donate? to Reconciliation Australia, partners of the tour, and do I think that these shows will truly shift debate around black-white relations in Australia? Not for a second.
I cannot fault the good intentions of the participants here, and, as fellow critic Andrew Ramadge noted in his Mess+Noise* review of *Dream Days at the Hotel Existence: ?when the country’s most popular band tackles the unpopular issue of injustice against blacks it is noteworthy?. The fact that two best-selling rock bands will be unleashing their stadium-friendly hits in the service of national healing while the Northern Territory echoes to the sound of marching army boots is a strange coincidence, but no more than one. That’s entertainment. The show goes on, and that’s half the problem.
?We have lived under 11 years of rule of by the Howard Government and still we have developed no sonic vocabulary that can speak to the humiliation, the moral emptiness and the sheer bloody violence of the times.?
What we are seriously lacking in this country is music that offers any political challenge to a listening audience. I’m not talking about issues-based songwriting ala Midnight Oil, I’m talking about music that provokes, threatens, engages or discomfits its audience as music*. We have lived under 11 years of rule of by the Howard Government – that’s 11 long years of workers being locked out of docks and factories, of asylum seekers being locked up in desert prisons, of indigenous riots and Centrelink queues and illegal invasions of sovereign countries – and still we have developed no sonic vocabulary that can speak to the humiliation, the moral emptiness and the sheer bloody violence of the times. Britain suffered the decimation of Thatcher and came up with (among others) post-punk, two-tone and rave. America took on the bathetic hubris of Ronald Reagan and gifted to the world hip-hop and, to a lesser extent, hardcore. Our present government has been just as ideologically driven, just as ruthless in their pursuit of opponents and their silencing of dissent, aided and abetted by an utterly cowardly opposition and where are we, musically, in return? Stuck with the same bands that have been selling records by the truckload since Howard was first voted into power. Right now it feels like *Groundhog Day without the comedy.
Where is the sound that will carry with it – now and in the years to come – the memory of human beings so abased and traumatised that they will scream ?We are not animals, we are not animals? from behind their prison bars to watching cameras and then sew their mouths shut? Where is the sound that will echo the thump of a girl’s head blown off in Basra or the numbing vista of football fields in Fallujah piled high with the dead – a sound like a fist through glass, like grieving outrage?
Increasingly, our geographies both local and global are scarred by fences, prisons and security zones that, taken together, plot out a map of fear, but our bands continue with windblown balladry – the platinum sellers – and posturing boredom. Sure, the original death-disco funksters that our hippest artists like to bleat so loudly over – Gang of Four and Joy Division – also sang about the misery of not being able to pull on a crowded Friday night dance floor, but equally, their sound evoked decaying tower blocks and industrial pollution; the harshness of a landscape reconfigured by market economics and the punishment metered out to those who through poverty or political intransigence would not go with the trickle-down flow.
The promise and the strength of post-punk was that ?without a hint of condescension?, wrote Greil Marcus, the artists involved ?act[ed] out received ideas at just that point where they begin to come apart.? Seemingly natural facts were reconstructed onstage as social facts: loneliness became alienation, and alienation connected one’s own failures to a broader sense of disempowerment. Once you made the connections you could begin to bust a way out of them. It’s this urgency – you can’t buy it pre-worn from the boutique – which our current retro-revivalists are sorely missing: Expatriate, The Follow, teenagersintokyo, Bit By Bats – the whole sorry, shiny bunch. Alienation is still with us today, running like a sick pulse under daily life, but now it is fear that is presented as the primary natural fact. Where is the artist or artists willing to examine fear as a social fact, by making their audience afraid, by showing us that just as fear is constructed, so it can be dismantled? This is not a call for base punk rock or thundering doom metal, for fear is shadow as much – if not more – than it is substance: the quietest whisper that brushes across the back of the neck.
There are some flickers among the darkness. Australian hip-hop is in comparatively good health. Sydney MC Macromantics and Melbourne crew Curseovdialect both combine an audacious lyrical surrealism – a pile-up of images like ram-raiding a shopping mall – to booty-shaking beats. Dancing to ugliness. The Herd, have managed not once but twice in recent years to pull off musical interventions – ?77%? and their timely cover of Redgum’s ?I Was Only Nineteen? – unusual in both cultural impact and political commitment. MC Wire and Morganics continue their grassroots work with indigenous communities across the country, while their school-age prot’g?s Wilcannia Mob drop their surprise Triple J break-through ?Down River? onto M.I.A’s latest album – an incongruous though not unwelcome reprisal. Any sense, however, that our indigenous communities – particularly remote ones – are new musical ghettoes waiting to be broken open would be to misread the situation entirely. As if the politics of affluent Western listeners continually chasing the latest frontiers in world dance culture are not problematic enough, applying this dynamic to our own most marginalised communities misses the overriding point: their marginalisation. You won’t find a mobile sound system in a remote desert community too destitute to eat, and even urban artists are struggling with the fact that innovation – at least in hip-hop and dance music – has been almost entirely given over to digital technology. In other words: have technique, will travel, forwards. But technique increasingly requires tools, and sophisticated tools do not come cheap. For all their lyrical engagement many of our hip-hop artists are sonically underwhelming, hampered by a lack of resources and a concomitant lack of imagination that could make up for the cash shortfall.
And yet, that innovation is stemming from our hip-hop rather than from our rock & roll scene should come as no surprise to anyone who’s paid the slightest modicum of attention to musical history over the past few decades, for while hip-hop and dance culture continue to seed a countless array of global off-shoots, so the ceaseless whining of guitar rock dunderheads over the ?illusion? of originality will read like the pale excuse that it actually is: if your genre is moribund, either move on or do something about it.
Coming, finally, to those signs of hope at the more six-stringed end of the spectrum, glove-fisted Melbournians Eddy Current Suppression Ring have made good on all the menace they’ve ever promised with their howling new song ?Demon’s Demands? – even better, it’s the title track to a new documentary that exposes the Federal Government’s relentless hounding of unionists via the Australian Building Construction Commission. Meanwhile, DIY and experimental scenes bubble under the surface of every major Australian city – and no doubt some of the non-major ones, too – reinvigorating the politics and the listening of everyday life. Yet these nascent musical communities are as fragile as they are dynamic, tied inextricably to the existence of sympathetic venues – largely warehouses and squats – that shut down as fast as they open. And they are far – so far – from the awareness of most audiences as to be happening in an entirely parallel universe. Necessary – vital* – as experimental scenes are, they so often represent a deliberate retreat from broad public engagement and perversely, the further I have travelled over the years from the mainstream of Australian music the more deeply I have believed in the efficacy of the punk gesture, the dissent-into-the-mainstream, the storming of the (radio) tower; fervently wishing for some kind of cultural crash-landing that will re-engage me – and countless others – in truly public debate. But maybe I should be careful what I wish for. The Sex Pistols went live on national television and their 12-bar buzz has delivered nothing but diminishing returns for nigh-on three decades; Pere Ubu never made it to *Top Of The Pops*. Would the edgy bling of Macromantics or even the strip-light brutality of My Disco make a difference transplanted to *Rove Live? Would I leap from my armchair in triumph or simply dive under the sofa in embarrassment? I suspect the latter. And, much as I like and respect them both, I don’t believe that either artist is quite up to the fuse-lighting task.
What I want is for Australian music and the people that make it happen – musicians, audiences and critics alike – to take a good hard look at themselves, and at the world outside the door. Are we as politically engaged and as creatively energised as we could be? Are we being honest, self-critical and demanding of ourselves? Increasingly, I have looked to musical developments overseas – the dizzy, twisted spaces of dubstep and grime – in order to make sense of the world, and this disappoints me. The landscape that I want to experience the most is the one right here, but I find little local music to correspond to it. I want Australians to stop using our geographic isolation as an excuse – an excuse to always copy and never to innovate – and to see it at last as a strength, a chance to develop something unique. Music that is brave and frightened, ferocious and vulnerable, inviting and repulsive, pitiless and haunted all at once – music that truly challenges us to be human in desperately inhuman times.