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"I come from a land down under," Men at Work sang at the top of the U.S. charts in the early '80s. "Where beer does flow and men chunder." They came from a land 10,000 miles away and one day ahead, and promoted a quirky little stereotype for the world to hang upon its historical belt: traveling locals in fried-out combies, soothing themselves with Foster's and Vegemite sandwiches.
There's another Australian stereotype: the sun, surf, mullet haircuts, brown brick houses, and placid green lawns that supposedly characterize the suburbs. And from such surroundings have emerged some of the land's most simultaneously loved and ridiculed musicians.
In Australia, for as long as this little twentysomething can remember, at 5:30 every afternoon the television drama Neighbourshas been the primary source of after-school entertainment. Ramsay Street, based on the inner suburbs of Melbourne, has been home to Oz's favorite teenagers and their parents for over 10 years. There, at the head of the road, from the living room lights of an orange-brick, pooh-brown-bordered house, emerged the closest thing to Madonna Australia or the world has seen. Kylie Minogue, the original Neighbourssweetheart whose on-screen romance as the blond-haired blue-eyed Charlene (with the b-hd b-ed Jason Donovan) has shaped the minds of many a provincial couple, and is the blueprint for a long, laughable line of TV-turned-pop stars.
She's been on the scene since singing Little Eva's "The Loco-Motion" as a Neighbours promotion in 1988; it hit number one there and number three here. That was the last America heard of her, but in Europe and at home she became the biggest-selling female of her era. Madonna was even wearing white clinging Kylie T-shirts before she embraced Britney.
Along with some decidedly classy classic pop creations, Kylie's eighth album, Light Years(Parlophone/EMI import), includes "Kids," a duet with Robbie Williams's infamous ego, which proves her powers of infectious irony and transports her into Prince and Beck territory: "Me no bubbletious/Me smoke heavy tar/Me be grooving slowly where you are . . . And I don't mind doin' it for the kids." Then there's "Your Disco Needs You," which she cowrote, and which is so brilliant I want to squeeze your American nipples so hard you'll be screaming her name for mercy. "You're lost in conversation and useless at Scrabble," she trills, her voice round and serious among a background of regal horns and soprano highs.
The biggest obstacle Kylie has conquered is Australia's attitude toward its stars. In the '80s, she was considered a "bit of a Debbie Gibson" with her bleached blond perm and bouffant bangs, but with an accent as strine as they come"Aw, Jase, not now hun, oi gotta finish me 'omework," she would say to an eager Donovan. Today, after having proved herself in foreign lands via a duet with Australia's alternative icon Nick Cave that elevated her national status from starlet to potential respectable pop-rock figure and a reported romantic relationship with Michael Hutchence, the rock frontman infamous for his erotic death, Kylie is the closest thing to a heroine any Aussie singer is going to get. (And besides, she's little and lovelyevery gay boy and lipstick lesbian's dream.)
John Watson, manager of those little surfers-turned-rock-gods Silverchair, says, "If there's something different about Australians, it's that we don't like wankers." Along with AC/DC, whose schoolboy rock and pubbish charm has for 20 years kept the family happy at home while maintaining creative dignity in the saturated American market, and Midnight Oil, who became world famous singing about the land rights and environmental degradation and social security close to every Australian's heart, Silverchair is one of the few bands that have managed to map a happy medium between celebrating their roots and reaching a wide-open market. "You can't get away with pulling too big a star trip down here," Watson says. "Australians don't like people who get too big for their boots."
And if you do, you'll pay. Melbourne-based speedmetal foursome Shihad go all out onstage with thrashing and lighting, face scrunches and dramatic arm swings. "They're like Kiss without the makeup," says Richard Kingsmill, host of the Oz Music Showon Triple J, the independent radio station responsible for introducing and supporting most of the nation's new alternative and rock music. "They play every show as if it's their last." But unlike their Yankee motivators' antics, their theatricality draws repugnance from the Australian masses. Displaying such unnecessary emotion gets them dismissed as "try hards."
However, as we showed last year, with voracious cheers for battlers like Cathy Freeman then symptomatic tears of what the media down under labeled "post-Olympic depression," Aussies are a sentimental bunchmodest for reality's sake (while the women may glow, the men do plunder) but proud as punch when it's deserved. The performances of Brisbane pub-rock band Powderfinger are as dry as the nation's desert. Singer Bernard Fanning and his boys saunter onstage in T-shirts and old sneakers and do their thing like nonchalant buskers on a street corner with barely a grunt for the crowd. And not only are their concerts sold out nationally, Powderfinger are, next to U2, the biggest-selling rock band in Australia at the moment. Their 1998 album, Internationalist, entered the charts at number one, boosted by how the mellifluous single "The Day You Come" opens optimistic chests to the sunset and lets wise eyes nap in a moment of familiar warmth. "Consciences relapsing, the system is collapsing, on the day yeeouu come, rising high," Fanning soars among strings that swim.
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