Running Backwards Fast

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The Australian tabloid media loves it when pop artists are nominated for ARIA awards. Not because they want to support Australian pop music, but because they know that — 99 per cent of the time — pop artists will never win, and then the papers can go wild in a frenzy of "SNUBBED!" headlines.

At this year’s ARIAs, as you will have noticed, Jessica Mauboy got "snubbed". She was nominated for seven awards but only took home the Highest Selling Single paperweight. The industry at large love that category because it means they can feel safe in the knowledge that an ARIA category exists within which to corral all the people unworthy of real ARIA nods, since, as the popular Australian music biz rhetoric dictates, selling thousands of records means you’re a sellout, not a success.

As one report the following day put it, "the 20-year-old Mauboy, who has had a huge year commercially with the success of singles such as ‘Burn’ and ‘Running Back’, only managed to take out the Highest Selling Single category."

"Only managed". What a loser!

Like most awards nights, the ARIAs have long since ceased to demonstrate any particular taste (or even sense), but there was something galling in Mauboy’s end result. Been Waiting was a stronger album than that of eventual ARIA victors Empire Of The Sun.

Put simply, ‘Running Back’ was one of the most impressive R&B tracks of 2008 — there’s no "… for an Australian track" or even "… considering they found her on Australian Idol" that needs to be added to the end of that as a qualifier, either. The song — produced by local wunderkind Audius Mtawarira and featuring a guest spot by gun-for-hire Flo Rida — is a moody, slinky slab of R&B psychodrama that is easily as good as anything recently released by Rihanna et al. Indeed, the rest of Mauboy’s Been Waiting was similarly high quality, from the upbeat yearning of the title track to the skittery ‘Let Me Be Me’, which recalls Rodney Jerkins’ best work.

The annals of Australian music are littered with R&B tracks that should, by rights, have been huge hits: Jade Macrae’s excellent 2005 single ‘So Hot Right Now’ and Phrase’s ‘Clockwork’ from last year are two examples.

The same goes for locally produced pop — take Ricki-Lee’s ‘Sunshine’ or Scott Cain’s ‘I’m Movin’ On’ (the latter written by Gregg Alexander, whose Midas touch has worked for Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Ronan Keating and Michelle Branch, among others). They are all, as the cringe-inducing industry phrase goes, international-standard (as opposed to good-enough-for-shit-old-Australia?).

So what goes wrong? It’s hard to pinpoint.

When a song is good — witness ‘Running Back’ — the listening public reacts accordingly; if they hear a song they like on the radio, they’ll want to hear it again. When a local song — regardless of quality — is given a strong enough push on radio, the listeners eventually react. The trouble seems to be that for local artists who don’t come with a handle as handy as Mauboy’s ex-Idol credentials, the labels don’t seem to know what to do.

Mauboy, thankfully, has been embraced (relatively speaking) by local radio but, inevitably, Australian R&B seems to exist in an odd dead zone. Radio and television are more likely to import substandard US or UK fare than to give local artists a shot, and local artists generally lack the momentum to make the transition to overseas markets where their material could genuinely compete.

Is the mark of true quality in pop music production being able to "break" the US or UK markets? America invented the pop music industry (yes, it did exist before Lennon and McCartney), so it makes sense that artists who have pride in their abilities would try to make it there. But I’d like to think that we are big enough not to care if our pop artists don’t "make it" overseas — we should definitely be able to applaud them without getting the okay from America first.

That said, I hope I’m not alone in longing for the day when the Herald Sun can moan about Australian musicians being "snubbed" by the Grammy Awards, too.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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