Saturday, 1 August 2009

Diamonds in the Rough: The Problems with Australian Music

Generally speaking I am as patriotic as the next bloke. I love my Aussie Rules, I am a member of the greatest political party in the world, the Australian Labor Party, follow the Aussie cricket team even when its playing like crap, and generally take the opportunity to bask in nationalistic glory. However there is one facet of Australian culture I treat with the utmost contempt: Australian music.

For a nation so small in population terms we perform remarkably well on all other international stages. We are consistently in the top ten for medals won in the Olympics, our actors win Oscars, or are in critically successful (or popular) movies and TV shows. We are respected in all other forms of the world’s cultural pursuits, so why haven’t we achieved the same success in music?

Part of the reason is the Australian industry’s utter banality. The most popular album by an Australian artist last year was David Campbell doing a bunch of swing standards. In the two years previous, it was Human Nature doing a bunch of Motown covers. No originality there whatsoever. However, the problem is not just commercial, the Living End recently won the country’s top songwriting prize for White Noise. The problem with that is the song sounds like every other song they’ve recorded in the past decade, even though they all sound like crap. Matters are not helped when thoroughly ubiquitous, ordinary, and derivative bands such as Silverchair and Powderfinger continue to snare the industry awarded ARIAS and get treated by the music press as darlings.

UK music critic Everett True moved to Australia last year and captures the gist of the problem rather nicely.


Australians don't have much respect for the music press - it runs counter to their culture. Australian rock is all about "Good on ya, mate - well done for getting up on stage and switching that amplifier on". The idea of anyone actually daring to criticise musicians for the sound they make is almost heresy. Everyone is treated equally, which means no knocking anyone back, however great the temptation. (That'll be why Australian rock is best known to the outside world for such musical abominations as Silverchair, the Vines and Savage Garden… Unsurprisingly, Australians get the music press they deserve.

Naturally True was howled down and his comments were treated with utter contempt. But he continues to be right on the money. The recent poll conducted by Triple J on the 100 Greatest Songs of All Time is further evidence of this. Listeners of the so called ‘alternative’ radio station only chose two songs featuring female vocalists, both performed by Massive Attack. Predictability, the cultural monolith of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit garnered top spot in all of its vastly overrated glory. It reflects the vomit inducing tendency of both the Australian public and its media to favour not only male artists, but towards unimaginative rock standards, which make up just over half (51) of the list.

However, there is hope. Over the past month I have listened to five fantastic Australian albums that might well buck these existing trends. Three have been released in the past month. Post Rock band Decoder Ring return with their fifth album They Blind The Stars and the Wild Team, with their sonically charged dreamscapes including the majestic song Charlotte Rampling. Sarah Blasko's third album As Day Follows Night continues to impress me after several listens. Lisa Mitchell’s debut album Wonder, released yesterday proves that genuinely original talent can emerge from the Idol juggernaut, which usually settles for commercial mediocrity.

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The other two albums were released last year and have emerged to me as late discoveries. Lior’s sophomore album Corner of an Endless Road, is an example of both fine folk music and superb songwriting talent. Sia’s latest album Some People Have Real Problems also displays these same characteristics and brings her blues infused jazz vocals to the forefront.

While each may get occasional play through Triple J, they will once again revert to their tried and true traditional radio station format, albeit with an Australian focus. Think of it as Triple M for the hipster wanker. Kings of Leon, the White Stripes and Powderfinger will still dominate those airwaves no matter how hard Triple J listeners pretend otherwise, just like its cousin a few letters down the alphabet.

It is why I will never be patriotic about the Australian music industry, despite a few diamonds emerging from the rough. May FM radio and industry awards die a gruesome and bloody death while I discover these buried treasures.

4 comments:

  1. Everett True gave a lecture in one of my subjects last semester. He is interesting...

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  2. Ahhh! You're forgetting JET! And isn't Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers originally from New Zealand?

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  3. Just listened to a Missy Higgins cd. I think she's great! But sad. haha. Thanks Missy Higgins for making me depressed!!!

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  4. Miranda, I hoped you were kidding on both comments, but I guess not. :P

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