The Good New Days


Cultural critics in this country disproportionately represent the generation who hoped loudly they would die before they got old. They have therefore been understandably resistant to admitting their dotage.

But self-denial has blinded them to the nostalgia that predictably attends old age. While they listen to Radio National or Vega FM and tell their friends they still occasionally tune in to ‘Double J,’ the truth is they have become Grandpa Simpson. They curse the failings of the young, unaware that the ringing in their ears is the low screech of swinging porch chairs. They may as well have an onion tied to their belts.

Contrary to the rising chorus of Baby Boomer derision, Australian art is alive and well and the fact that plenty of people think it’s crap is only further proof that artists are doing their job in the time-honoured style.

Art, with a particularly honourable mention of popular music, has a proud history of degeneracy. Jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, punk and now hip-hop have all been regarded as certain signs of the apocalypse at one time or another. It never came, of course or maybe it did but we were too busy getting down.

John McDonald, art critic for the Australian Financial Review and former head of Australian Art at the National Gallery of Australia, sums up the case for Grandpa Simpson in Arts Journal:

Australian culture has become insular, intolerant of criticism and controversy ordinariness and conformity has attained a new perfection. Australians have grown more prosperous and materialistic, without any corresponding growth in cultural refinement or curiosity. We no longer ask: ‘Was it any good?’ but ‘How much is it worth?’

Steve Kilby of the band the Church recently lamented of contemporary music: ‘It was alive, it was real and it was free. It’s heartbreaking to see what has become of it, and what the young generation will now accept.’ Curator and critic Michael Desmond wrote in Art Monthly  of the ‘gradual change in Australia over the 10 years since the Howard Coalition Government has been in power a rising tide of conformity and neurotic undercurrents in this country.’

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, academic Michelle Arrow wondered, ‘Why has everyone in Australia gone so damn quiet all of a sudden? Where is the response in pop culture to what are becoming known as (shudder) the Howard years?’ David Marr blames this malaise on our ‘old Australian contempt for difference, excellence and originality.’ On his recent retirement, Graham Murphy lamented, ‘The exciting new undergrowth has never been sparser.’

I am no fan of John Howard but I resent people manufacturing a phoney crisis in our national spirit to attack him. Especially when there’s no shortage of sensible reasons to attack him. I also resent people manufacturing a fake golden age of resistance in order to pillory the current generation of younger artists. Arrow continues:

Once, artists, musicians and filmmakers could always be relied on to adopt an oppositional perspective. Like the explosion of punk in the mid-1970s, Rocking Against Racism, Springsteen, the anti-Thatcher cinema of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, or the American political rap act Public Enemy.

First of all, 1976 may have been the year ‘the Air turned blue’ on the release of the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK and Joey Ramone arrived in London, but the top spots on the charts that year remained the property of ABBA, Elton John and Kiki Dee. In 1976 Australia, 12 students and a smack dealer may have been eagerly awaiting the new Saints EP but the punters were hoovering up Ted Mulry, the Bee Gees and Diana Ross. Best of all, it was the year Rick Dees gave full force to a generation’s latent rage in his immortal hit ‘Disco Duck.’ Revolution Baby!

Secondly, ‘scuse the pedantry but Thatcher wasn’t elected until halfway through 1979. Which means if punk was an explosion against government, it was an explosion against a Labour socialist government that couldn’t solve growing unemployment. In fact, despite the commonplace assumption that punk rebelled against conservative class structures and the monarchy, it was also determinedly individualistic and anarchic and therefore no more in sympathy with Labour’s Statist policies than with the Tories.

The absence today of a mass movement against the State does not reflect as poorly on the energy of modern youngsters as it does on the historical recall of their detractors.

The real and lasting lesson of punk was the value of self-reliance. The DIY ethic wasn’t just about dispensing with the inconvenience of music lessons. Handy punks took control of promoting, recording, merchandising, sales, and related entrepreneurship. There is no greater example of anarcho-capitalism than the Sex Pistols’s Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. From the McLaren/Westwood SEX fashion emporium to modern-day indie entrepreneurs like Black Yak records and Sass & Bide, the unlikely lesson of punk was to stop bitching and open a business.

On that score, today’s young artists have indeed learned their lesson. As Adrienne Adams writes in 2003’s NOISE festival magazine, ‘Turn on, tune in, drop out in 2003 the idea seems almost well, complacent. Turn on? How about plug in? Drop out? Try getting online.’

The modern international economy facilitates the exchange of cultural product from all nations and has disseminated cheap, simple technology to allow the practice and production of art more cheaply and accessibly than ever before. The proliferation of home-based music recording technology has allowed artists like the hugely successful Arctic Monkeys to graduate from their bedrooms to the Top 40 on the strength of home-produced material.

At FBi,  the Sydney music station I helped to establish, we receive teetering piles of new Sydney music every day. A lot of it is produced by independent artists who no longer need to wait for record company backing to cut a CD. Last year, rock gods du jour Wolfmother walked in with a self-produced demo so good it went straight to air that very day.

Generally speaking, contemporary music is not taken seriously as an art form. People of taste and means are expected to grow into an appreciation of modern painting, contemporary cinema and avant-garde theatre but somehow to grow out of an interest in contemporary music. The same people who can’t accept that three chords and a pair of tight jeans could be art will recoil in shock at the notion that a Mondrian, Basquiat or Pollock ‘could have been done by my three-year-old.’ In music as in society generally the cry goes up that contemporary values are in disarray.

Hip-hop has aroused the most vehement criticism. Treasurer Peter Costello recently opined, ‘We do not have to look far to see evidence of moral decay around us. We can see it and hear it in
entertainment like rap music.’ Some hip-hop is dreadful, certainly, as is some metal, some pop and some classical. But hearing Costello damn an entire movement on the basis of what he thinks he knows of gangsta rap shows how closed some people’s minds are to new culture. The predilection of US white-power activists for the traditional ‘Aryan’ art form of folk music shows you how dangerous it is to mistake style for substance.

The local hip-hop scene contains much to be glad about. Groups like the Herd and Hermitude speak with a clearly Australian perspective, from their accents to their subject material. Last year, when FBi called for submissions for our Stolen Records CD, a compilation of Sydney hip-hop, we were overwhelmed with material. The energy and lucidity of artists like Ozi Batla and Urthboy puts paid to the notion that this a degenerate art form. Hip-hop and spoken word encourage the development of literacy and advocacy in young Australians. Groups like the Herd and Combat Wombat are using the art form to engage with issues of the day.

Local hip-hop or skip-hop as it is sometimes known is also raising the profile of other rhyming-based performance such as spoken word and poetry slamming. Noting the effect of hip-hop on the re-birth of poetry, reviewer Katrina Lobley observed that no less a figure than George Orwell had foreshadowed that poetry would have to come out of the salon and onto the airways to become relevant to the wider community. In a 1945 essay arguing that poetry might be saved if it was transformed via the airwaves into a spoken art form, Orwell said, ‘The common man [is]becoming more and more anti-poetry, the poet more and more arrogant and unintelligible, until the divorce between poetry and popular culture is accepted as a sort of law of nature.’

Poetry unquestionably ‘high art’ has come down from the ivory tower, its entrée to cool society afforded by its kinship to hip-hop. The national youth broadcaster, Triple J as well as my beloved FBi and dozens of other broadcasters now regularly put poetry on the air and poets set the stage afire in poetry slams such as Bardflys, Token Word, the Leichhardt Poetry Slam and Citizens of Language. No surprise then that Def Poetry Jam (based on the Tony Award-winning Def Jam Poetry) was the sell-out success of last year’s Sydney Festival.

US parenting proselytiser Mary Eberstadt calls contemporary music ‘uniquely degraded.’ It makes me wonder how she missed risqué lyrics from my parents’ generation in Lou Reed’s ‘Heroin,’ Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Pusher Man,’ the Beatles ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,’ the Doors’ ‘The End,’ the Rolling Stones’ ‘Mother’s Little Helper,’ Isaac Hayes’s (Academy Award-winning) theme from Shaft the ‘private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks’ or any number of other songs about drugs, degeneracy and debauchery, all released when my parents were in high school.

Our kids may be listening to ‘Fuck You Right Back,’ but let’s not forget that our parents were hearing about Lola who ‘never lost her head even when she was giving head.’ Patti Smith was ‘Pissing in the River,’ Grace Jones was ‘Sick and Tired of all this Bullshit,’ and the Knack were ‘always struck by the touch of the younger kind.’ And way, way back when, there was Chuck Berry singing about his ding-a-ling on the Top 40.

I was flicking through some back catalogues recently and happened across the Rolling Stones’s classic zip-fronted sleeve cover. Somehow it had never occurred to me playing this record as a child why Mick Jagger had ‘Sticky Fingers.’

Cassandra will be speaking at the 2007 Sydney Writers’ Festival on three panels: Australia Inert   (Saturday 2 June, 9:30-10:30am), Don’t Panic  (Saturday 2 June, 4:30-5:30pm), and Fear & Politics Sunday 3 June, 11am-12pm).

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.