Australian Music & Politics: Where’s The Power & The Passion?
Ill Manors, the accompanying soundtrack to Plan B’s directorial debut of the same name, landed at the top of the UK charts in its first week.
Quite the achievement considering the project sees the popular British musician get heavily into the politics behind last year’s London riots and the deprivation of today’s society.
Plan B has since been praised by many for creating what The Guardian called, ‘the best British protest song in years’.
As Plan B tackles Britain’s problems, across the pond, American musicians are also making their voices heard.
Bruce Springsteen got particularly fired up on his latest album, Wrecking Ball, taking aim at the people responsible for America’s financial crisis. Yes, The Boss is back and as angry as ever.
Of course artists being political isn’t anything new, just think of other internationally renowned acts like Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy, Bob Marley and even Bono as examples of musicians using their standing to influence public debate.
But here in Australia, music and politics are far less synonymous.
Sure, we saw The Temper Trap make a particularly cringe-worthy attempt at political commentary on the London riots with their song; ‘London’s Burning’ earlier this year. Then there’s Midnight Oil, also a glaringly obvious and historical example.
Other than those obvious specimens though, there aren’t too many other local acts that have powerfully communicated a political message with popular success the way the Plan B’s and Springsteen’s have in their respective countries. Of course, as with everything, there are some exceptions.
There are still a handful of artists who manage to incorporate their political ideologies with their music. Xavier Rudd is one of those few who has, in 2012, taken up a cause and passionately promoted it through his latest release, Spirit Bird.
Rudd labels our politicians as “a bunch of Muppets”, arguing ”we have a beautiful country, a country that we should be cherishing. But from an environmental point of view our nation is embarrassing.”
Out west, there’s The Drones, whose brutal colonial narratives and raw songcraft are used to dissect the Australian landscape and reflect on our history, asking their audience to learn from the past and see how far we’ve come and got to go.
A little-known hip-hop/rock band from Newcastle, Whitehouse, not only used their debut album, A Funky Intervention, to promote Aboriginal rights; but went on tour in July to urge their listeners to oppose what is essentially an extension of the Intervention into the Northern Territory for the next ten years under a new title ‘Stronger Futures’.
Melbourne’s Blue King Brown use reggae-style and afro-beats as a means of singing about environmental issues, while John Butler regularly filters his tunes with political rhetoric, singing about “serving the dodgy companies we keep” on ‘Revolution’.
These artists prove that there are contemporary issues and politics worth discussing. But whenever we think of music and politics intersecting, there are some things that famously come to mind. Namely, Midnight Oil and Paul Kelly fighting for land rights. But that was almost twenty years ago, what has really happened since then?
When music and politics have managed to converge in the past twelve months, it’s been seen as a novelty. A joke. Who else laughed at the hilariously awful rap about the carbon tax by MP Craig Emerson? Who is taking Angry Anderson’s new life as a member of the National Party seriously?
What makes Australian politics so hollow for these events to keep occurring? When Springsteen and Plan B used politics to influence their music, it strengthened their appeal. When this occurs in the UK or America, an artist’s popularity doesn’t wane because of their political ire.
So where is our Aussie Springsteen then? Our treasurer Wayne Swan modelled his political ideology on The Boss. That’s actually quite sad when you consider that one of our pollies had to search overseas for inspiration to serve our country.
At the moment our greatest exposure to music and politics coming together has been via ABC’s Q&A, intended as a weekly political summit, broadcast on government-funded national television.
It may be national, but its effects – musically-speaking – are quite minimal. Other than bringing up the obvious debacle of Kate Miller-Heidke’s appearance, other panel members to represent the arts have included Katie Noonan and Busby Marou.
Their influence though could barely be felt amongst the constant squabbling between both Liberal and Labor candidates.
Going by the arts representatives that have graced the show, you get the impression that today’s musicians aren’t particularly interested in politics.
Now, that may not be true, but perhaps there are others better suited towards the Q&A environment. Perhaps there are far better candidates to join Tony Jones and the panel one Monday night. Would John Butler raise his voice to show the public that musicians do have valid opinions?
Even then, while the TV show might reach a broad audience, it does not have the same effect as writing a popular song or dedicating an album to an important issue that affects our society.
Ganggajang – Sounds of Then (This Is Australia) Initially far from a commercial success when it was released in 1985, the song’s evocative lyrics of Australian suburbia and countryside have made it one of the most recognisable ‘Aussie’ songs. Watch video Watch this slideshow »