“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 Neighbours has 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 Neighbours sweetheart 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 lovely—every 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 Show on 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 bunch—modest 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.
The new Odyssey No. 5 (Universal) is more sentimental and just as melodious. “This will be an uncertain time for us,” the album opens, and though it continues “my love,” preparing us for a collection of, essentially, love songs, the line could be a declaration of the band’s current limbo. Rolling Stone in Australia predicted the album would gain them overseas exposure, but it hasn’t happened yet. Accompanied by climbing violins and campfire guitar licks that lead always to soft distorted climaxes, Fanning sings in a voice that moves from dark to up and sweet and has a bamboo-wrapped adolescent core. Powderfinger are Australia’s Radiohead, sometimes its Pearl Jam, and potentially its U2. They are resented by bedroom musicians who smoke good pot and flick obsessively for inspiration beyond the guitar-band norm. But the boys from Down Under’s Up North are adored by the pop and alternative hordes.
It’s anyone’s guess as to why the rainy-day essence of Powderfinger is not as bottlable as the postcard lyrics of Men at Work or the well-guitared pop-punk of the Living End. “There’s a sense of irony in a lot of our music, a self-effacing quality that may be a hindrance to overseas success,” Richard Kingsmill says. “But, well, I think Americans just don’t get our sense of humor. And that’s annoying.” “The Metre” is a noted favorite off Odyssey. “Welcome to the saving grace,” Fanning sings in a deep monotone. “There’s a sunset on the road.” But the descending bow strokes of the melody are nothing but melancholy. “Keep your glass topped up; it’s not over yet,” he then warns. It’s not ha-ha funny; the charm lies in its absolute denial of romantic ideals. Whereas bigger is all that’s acceptable in the U.S.—without a throbbing ego in this cruel culture, your petals will just keep on shrinking—subtlety is the key in Australia, and there is no tolerance for pretense. The last thing you want to be in our exotic land is “up yourself.”
It’s a confusing and random mix of talent that appeals to American lobes. The Polyester Embassy (Columbia), debut album by the tinny Melbourne duo Madison Avenue, has but one catchy phrase: the title to their American dance hit “Don’t Call Me Baby,” which hook gives false hope of a “new feminism” already fulfilled by the Spice Girls. Where Kylie Minogue is an enduring silk, one sweat drop on the polyester sustaining Madison Avenue releases an odor all too reminiscent of uninspired days of drinking cheap goon (wine in a foil cask) at the back of a school dance.
Where pens should be pointing is to corners less obvious. Four years ago, from inland Violet Town (population approximately 2000), 12-year-old schoolgirl Ella Hooper, slouched forward and dressed all in black, and her brother Jesse submitted a tape to Triple J’s Unearthed—an initiative calling for material from country-town bands and responsible for rummaging out some of Australia’s finest rock stars. Aussies love exacting lyrics like “Boring, ignored by the things you are taught by the outside world/Just wearing black won’t take care of that/Don’t be stupid, girl.” So last year, Hooper’s foursome, Killing Heidi, came away from the 14th ARIA Awards with Best Rock Album, Best Album, Best Group, and Best New Album Artist honors, beating out predicted favorites Madison Avenue and Vanessa Amorosi, who are both doing well in the States. Killing Heidi’s first album, Reflector (Universal), mixes dark with light, raw rock with Portishead. Hooper is Shirley Manson, Courtney Love, Aimee Mann, and a true-blue small-town Aussie chick with the vocal cords of a rainforest bird. So far, America hasn’t noticed.
Impressively, however, the latest blue eyes attracting American all sorts are those of Kasey Chambers, whose album The Captain (Asylum) aimed to change the Australian public’s view of country music. She is fast becoming the Ani DiFranco of country, her album having gone well over platinum down below and selling big in Europe and the U.K. as well. Chambers has ridden her proverbial horse all over Tamworth (Australia’s country capital) and Nashville with her family in the Dead Ringer Band, and now she’s doing it on her own with a petrol-coated throat that opens and cracks like good sex when she’s trading her “soul for another” and that dances like a precocious Punky Brewster when she’s taking “comfort in the rosewood.” Her vocal range puts her up there with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton. Her lyrics will often make you cringe, but she can also make doing the heel-and-toe polka seem damn cool.
As much as Australia needed Midnight Oil’s Peter Garrett in the ’80s, his idiosyncratic jerking movements drawing attention to the burning beds of industrial miners and the lost land of our indigenous, today we need a young Chambers to speak of our sadness, our isolation, and our alleged overwhelming love for lager with the seriousness of an eager artist and the cheeriness of a girl who lived “that Southern kind of life.” “Well it hurts down here on earth, Lord, it hurts down here on earth,” she says. “It hurts down here ‘cos we’re running out of beer. But we’re all gonna die someday.”
Killing Heidi play Shine April 11.
George Smith on Rose Tattoo.