War Against Pop

Saying, Singing & Suing

published in Real Time No.98/99, Sydney, 2010
Jay ‘JP’ Parrino on Australia’s Got Talent (2009); Men At Work with their Grammy albatross (1983)

Musical Workers

When Jay ‘JP’ Parrino covered Men At Work’s "Down Under" on Australia’s Got Talent in late 2009, one could witness culture imploding in many wonderful ways. Employing live sampling techniques, he built up layers of acoustic guitar to create a povera digitalis typical of the contemporary busker. While JP’s devices were perceived as a novelty by the show’s audience and judges, he employed them as meagre user-friendly tools, not as flashy instruments. His modus operandi was to literally build a backing for his voice and acoustic guitar accompaniment.

Performing against and with live looping was instigated by Alvin Lucier in the 60s, developed by Robert Fripp in the 70s, spectacularised by the Young Gods in the 80s, matrixed by Jeff Mills in the 90s, and deployed with virtuosity by Battles in the 00s. It’s safe to say that live looping is now a given vernacular in the technological production of music. Occurring within a mainstream context like Talent, JP’s use of the process demonstrates well how musical culture is now shaped. He simultaneously deconstructed ‘the song’ (voiced by Men At Work) and aurally constructed ‘a song’ (voiced by JP). The song this man made through his work clearly connected to both live and televisual audiences by virtue of how deftly he collapsed what was his and what was not. In an era wherein media has moved from saturation to atomisation (from the congealment of large forms to the unleashing of fine particles), performances like JP’s populist yet radicalised rendering of "Down Under" demonstrate how musical texts now implode without loosing their identity.

In shows like Talent, the surrendering of the performer to his/her performance marks the event as a social communion for those within earshot. As a desultory figure unconverted to the show’s jingoistic narrative, I try to maintain distance from its Red Rooster-like moniker, its flag-waving set design, its pathetically professional panel, its bug-eyed audience, its predictable swells of applause. Yet I cannot deny the power of song, of singing, and of an audience enthralled by a singer’s self-surrendering performance. True to the diacritics of folk culture, JP’s version sets up a dialogue with the original Men At Work version, and the two are empowered by a textual link where the songs speak to each other as much as they speak to me as an auditor of their voices and voicings.

Now, those with refined Rock sensibilities have long made sardonic quips about the numerous competitive TV shows based on Pop musical performance (the global franchises of Idol, Talent, etc.). But might not the predominance of these spectacles of amateur gumption, innocent drive and hysterical dreaming reveal the role song plays in popular culture? Songs are a particularly dialectal form of expression and intercommunication. The simple musicalisation of argot – of whittling a melody out of a popular epigram – is a form of linguistic sonography born of a living breathing culture. Words are always at a fork in the linguistic road: they can turn one way to be weighted by their written inscription (the rationalist law of the text) or turn the other way and be airborne by their melodic transformation (the transcendent charm of the song). Say something enough times and it will eventually be sung.

Mean Larrikins

Warren Fahey placing his bum on the ground (2010); a Girl Guide with friends

If there is one demographic watching and listening to Australia’s Got Talent on Channel 7, there must be another one watching Spicks And Specks on ABC. And if the former is defined by the supposedly insidious machinations of the Pop industry’s controlling of audiences incapable of articulating their relation to song other than mere consumption, then the other must be inversely defined. Despite being largely ignorant of the fact that the ABC stole the format for their 2005 show from UK Channel 4’s 1996 show Never Mind The Buzzcocks, the Spicks audience is congratulated on their upwardly mobile shift toward knowing when they are being manipulated and when they are not. The format of the show smacks of puerile academicism – uncomfortably echoing the panels first televised in Channel 7’s It’s Academic in the late 60s. Comedians, of course, are used to distract audiences from such irksome fare, but watching wannabe-cool comedians and grinning presenters fall over each other trying to prove their wit constitutes a far more embarrassing performance than the most inept of Talent’s hopefuls.

There are scant fragments in the televisual stream of Spicks that do not stray from the high-versus-low culture ossification which unwisely emboldens the intelligentsia. The trivia format suits the trivialization of Pop music in general, while the show’s incorporation of local and select overseas touring musicians fluffs up its notion of ‘real/true/roots/indie/non-mainstream/Rock’ musical culture. It’s a show suited to parents who remember their tertiary education via playlists garnered from JJJ. Like everything on the ABC, the ideological compaction and congestion of its slanted views, adopted poses, and supported truisms make it an insult to bother applying any semiotic reading of its monophonic voice.

But a late 2007 “Children’s Music Edition” episode on the show became unintentionally infamous when one question innocently proposed a melodic connection between the 1934 Girl Guides campfire sing-along "Kookaburra" composed by Marion Sinclair, and fragments of the flute interlude in Men At Work’s international number 1 song from 1981, "Down Under". Less than 2 years later in mid 2009, the purported owner of the copyright of Kookaburra – Larrikin Music Publishing – claimed copyright infringement of said property and moved to sue the owners of "Down Under"’s copyright – EMI Music Publishing Australia and co-composers Colin Hay and Ronald Strykert.

A lot of press has since danced a predictable waltz around this case: freedom of speech; money-grabbing lawyers; pop music always ripping-off; denial of technical harmonic quotation; ethical averment of fair usage; etc. But the intersection of the arts and legality exacts such a tiresome charade of grandiose ethics. This case is not about money, music and ethics. It’s about the forced divide between pop culture and folk culture (in shows like Spicks). It’s about how the two are implosions of the other, how they live off the other, and how their mechanisms are now more than ever shared (as in shows like Talent). And it’s about how the intelligentsia slathers ethical-mongering, political-correctness and proscriptive-nationalism on such a public incursion of national identity crisis (as in the Larrikin vs. EMI case), rather than provide a contextual critical insight into the deeper issues which shape these cultural ground swells.

Thieving Magpies

Greg Ham playing the guilty flute line in Land "Down Under" (1983); hilarious hosts of Spicks & Specks (2007)

Like the atomisation which now defines ‘war’ as an asynchronous concatenation of disparate events and locations with no holistic sense of convergence or interconnection, ‘cultural wars’ no longer require metaphors based on Great Wars, where notions of front-lines and avant-gardes romantically heroicise how individuals contribute to the shaping of culture. This is ultimately a good thing, for culture – from its conservative models of anthropology to its radicalising models of neurology – is best interpreted as noise of the crowd than scripture of an author.

"Down Under"’s para-conscious quipping and cribbing of "Kookaburra" can be viewed semiologically (though not ‘legally’) as a therapeutic retort to having suffered the indoctrination of "Kookaburra" in primary schools, where kids were forced to listen to such songs broadcast on ABC radio through PA systems fixed atop the blackboard in a scenario straight out of George Orwell’s paranoid mind. Am I alone in detesting "Kookaburra" and every single faux-folksy, pseudo-pioneer, colonial-jumbuck, banjo-jangling ditty which the ABC ideologically served up as part ‘children’s music’ and part soft enforcement of a default-leftist, neo-Maoist, pro-Folk, anti-Pop statement of Australiana? Both Kookaburra and the Larrikin copyright claim recall an epoch of reclaiming iconography for a dangerously jingoist, post-convict liberation, with Blinky Bill, the Easter Bilby, Cuddle Pie and the Southern Cross rebutting overseas imperialism. (Ironically, it was the populist "Down Under" and not any folksy tune that – through its appropriation by Australia II upon winning the America’s Cup in 1983 – sung the praise of Australia internationally.)

When Larrikin sued Men At Work, they impressionistically painted their case like the Eureka Stockade, with true blue Australian Folk music battling the corporate ogre EMI. Larrikin – personified by the APRA-lauded aegis of self-appointed Australian folk historian Warren Fahey – has long wheel barrowed a divisive and separatist notion of Australian Folk music, often intoned as if a local hero is struggling to gain respect for the unsung songsters of white rural colonial history. Yet if Larrikin adopted a modern diffusive notion of folk dissemination, they would realise that their battle was long won once Qantas Airlines forced its boarded patrons to suffer a broadcast playlist of semi-acoustic, pub-rockish, sunburnt country Aussie spirit fodder (remarkably similar to the ‘live’ sounds on Spicks). The risible iconography that attempts to monopolise the Australian voice as one big rural campfire round is as ideologically loaded as chants on Cronulla Beach. When Qantas and their corporate brethren of image marketeers broadly assume the cultural validity of such ‘music of the land’, it suggests that what Larrikin would claim to be Folk is now the most pervasive form of nationalistic Pop.

The word ‘kookaburra’ comes from the Wiradjuri ‘guuguuburra’. The voice of the kookaburra underwent indigenous and colonial linguistic translations before the Girl Guides claimed kinship with its song via the colonising practice of western diatonic harmony. While Larrikin attempts to grandstand a mean-spirited sense of folk culture by suing Men At Work as the Girl Guides Association celebrate their centenary, lyrebirds mimic car alarms, bell birds interface with mobile phones, bowerbirds collect plastic bottle tops. And magpies continue their chattering in the magpie culture of music wherein all is borrowed, all is robbed, and all is sung.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © respective copyright holders.