I think about how being Australian factors into my identity constantly. Usually this is within the context of the music industry, and every morning I wake up to the evidence that the most ruinous attitude towards music in Australia is also the most pervasive. On my wall hangs the severed cover of Melbourne’s most popular music magazine from the 29th of December. “Album of the Year” it reads in thick, black text set against a yellow background, and underneath it lies the album cover of the victor, Tame Impala’s Innerspeaker. It was certainly an album of the year, in the sense that it’s an album and it came out one year, and I’ll even go so far as to say I liked it, but the best album of 2010? Oh, that’s right: Tame Impala are Australian, and the fact is when it comes to our press, that’s the most important factor. It should diminish the credibility of a magazine to say, “this is the best bit of music that came out this year” and place more regard to its place of origin than its merit, yet it’s everywhere. Is there such thing as “good music”? Debateable, but there is such a thing as G.O.O.D. Music, and that Kanye album was the fucking bomb.
This magnificent piece tackles one of the most frustrating, miserable aspects of Australian culture. Whaley from Polaroids of Androids:
There is a widely unspoken and extremely fucked up truth that exists within the Australian music industry these days, in fact it’s more of a subliminal motto that’s being upheld by posturing industry big wigs whom claim to be music lovers. If it could be put into words it would read something like — DO NOT CRITICISE. DO NOT ANALYSE. JUST SELL SELL SELL.
There is undeniably an impenetrable reverence that privileges Australian bands within the critical press, and at the top of this cabal is the radio station Triple J, the most influential in all the land for having cornered The Youth (which means it effectively decides what all the other radio stations play, too.) In Whaley’s gripe, Triple J championed an album (Art vs Science’s The Experiment) which everybody who had half a taste bud thought was a tediously bland record. It was especially disappointing after their wicked EP because it seemed like they were set to join the ranks of solid Australian electro acts (The Presets, Cut Copy, Pnau, Teenager) but when it came to recording an album, they could only dig out one track worth listening to. Exhibit B in the case of nationalistic nepotism is Triple J’s Hottest 100, a countdown that takes place every Australia Day of songs Triple J’s listeners have voted for via a poll in the preceding month. Last year, the number one song, the hottest song played on radio in 2010, was Angus & Julia Stone’s “Big Jet Plane”, the most insipid folk-pop ditty to ever insult our shores. It’s been pointed out that this is what the listeners wanted and not a decision made by Triple J, which is reasonable, though the counterpoint could be made that by playing such a terrible song so frequently they were just as culpable. Even so, Triple J just announced they’re nominating that Art vs Science album along with two others for an award which is decided for “creativity”, “musicianship” and “contribution to Australian music”, and if it beats Architecture in Helsinki, I’m checking out.
If this seems like idle whinging, I swear I’m coming to a point, and this is it: the mainstream tastemakers in Australia seem inexplicably dedicated to promoting the most average music as if it’s the best out there simply because it’s Australian, which entrenches the idea that all of the music made in Australia is just as passionless. It’s musical xenophobia: patriotic Australians exclude or are at least disparaging towards international acts simply for not being Australian, and the cultural cringe is a response to that. Realistically, Triple J and the aforementioned magazine have to highlight these Australian albums because if they didn’t, the entire country would rouse from their radio-induced trance and take to the streets. Case in point: Melbourne’s second most popular music magazine recently dared to promote X-Men: First Class on their cover instead of a band and the city rioted, resulting in the death of twelve freelancers and the editor gruesomely flayed in Federation Square. However, this doesn’t exempt them from being part of the problem because it’s a vicious cycle and there is plenty of Australian music that stands up without having to use its nationality as a crutch for acclaim, while still having broad appeal. In the same way that it’s ridiculous to think what’s played on the radio is indicative of everything worth hearing, it’s crazy to think what’s not played is so inaccessible and niche that it’s unfit for air-play. The gatekeepers in this country are letting us down by not looking hard enough, and they’re diminishing the vivacity of our culture by doing so.
But despite all this, and despite years of kicking and screaming and earning a reputation as the cringin’-est cringer on this seemingly irredeemable island, it’s time for me to come out of the closet and admit that I am head over heels in love with this country.
All of the aforementioned is depressing as hell but dismissing all of the art produced in Australia for it is still a petty, ignorant stance to take. The cultural cringe is a fallacy because it’s born from and encourages passive living; it’s convenient to believe the mainstream represents the entire culture because popularity is a meretricious barometer of taste, because it seems like only the best stuff should become popular (we know it’s not true but it seems like it should.) It’s easy to take a look at the mainstream playlist and write off the rest of Australian music too because it means you don’t have to go to the trouble of finding the bands you might actually like, but then you miss out on bands like Royal Headache and Woollen Kits who are so fucking real that they make you wanna cut off an arm to punish yourself for not being more proactive sooner. Willful ignorance is far more egregiously sinful than having your taste decided by a radio station, and casting aspersions about the quality of art because of its place of origin can be fun, but it’s still just about the most bullshit thing I can think of.
Enough of this complaining though, if we’re going to change the paradigm we’ve gotta start celebrating what sincerely deserves celebrating rather than just poking holes in what doesn’t. Here’s the hard sell and if this list doesn’t convince you that Australia’s worth your attention then I can’t do anything for you: first of all and most basically noticeable is that strangers here are generally alright. I’ve had countless free bus rides on extremely late nights after losing my ticket just by being honest and polite, and the other night I ordered a pint of Carlton Draught (nobody drinks Fosters) but only had my card on me - no cash - and the bartender said, “It’s alright, mate. Have this one.” Small things, admittedly, but it’s times like those when you’re in a bind that the kindness of strangers becomes such a radiant blessing that it reaffirms your faith in humankind. Also, the government heavily subsidizes students’ lives by being really generous with money, making it possible for anybody to get what they need for a degree (I’m sure “anybody” is optimistic but the system seems pretty effective and errs on the side of giving too much rather than too little.) The Curtin on Lygon St, which is by most appearances just another humble and poorly-lit bar for nine-to-fivers but which has a playlist filled out by Pavement, The Libertines, The White Stripes, and a healthy dose of classics set to the mute b-movies always rolling on the back wall (lately it’s been Blacula.) The weekday morning Jarmusch while watching all the kids hurry off to their first classes. This blog, this blog, this blog and these blogs. Collapse Board. Polaroids of Androids. Aforementioned garage rockers like Royal Headache, Woollen Kits, and all the other scrappy little punks I’ve been hearing lately who’re fighting their way out of the suburbs this year against the muzak-loving Australian press. Gotye. Jinja Safari. Savage Garden. Jack Ladder. Nick Cave. Julian Assange. Andrew Denton. Tony Martin. Puking on the steps of St Paul’s at 5.30am and coming back in the afternoon to see some hapless kid sitting with his books right where the gin met the pavement. Shanghai Dumplings. Karaoke at Charlton’s. Paul Kelly!
Paul Kelly. Paul Kelly. So close to not making the cut for this ambitious saga for the very shameful reasons I’ve just explicated. I’m glad he did make it though. There’s a unique thrill in listening to great music produced in your hometown because it reveals that you aren’t that far away from the fun after all. Turns out you can find your romantic adventure any time, any where, not just up on Hennepin, or Lexington, or Tenth, or Gasoline Alley, or Cyprus Avenue or any of those other chronicled and oft-dreamed about locales, but right here in this town! Walking through Fitzroy at five in the morning while listening to Gossip is not particularly adventurous, especially dangerous, nor does it require any measure of skill, talent or special knowledge, but I feel as if I’m living a legend as it’s told. “I was going home on Fitzroy / She was walking with her new boy / She said ‘Paul, this is Tommy’ / Well I never know what to say when I meet ‘em.” I wasn’t unlucky enough to bump into any exes with their new boyfriends, but now that I think about it we did bump into a girl we know on a first date with a dude who walked into her restaurant. Everyone thought he was annoying apparently but I tried to include him because we get pretty parochial and feeling like a fifth wheel on a date is lonely.
Being Australian can sometimes feel like being that fifth wheel at the global table, which I imagine is why the press is so desperate to assert Australian talent that has the most immediate appeal as much as possible. It’d be nice if we stopped doing that and maybe took some time to conjure something worth hearing before speaking, though. That dude didn’t get a second date, by the way, our friend moved on almost immediately. “I really liked him, he was really nice, but some of the things he said were pretty dumb and I’m really picky,” she told me with a little bit of regret. I can’t imagine there’s a single Australian out there invested in the art of the country who doesn’t understand what it’s like to be thought of in the same way.
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