Over the past week, Missy Higgins’ Oh Canada and Tim Minchin’s Come Home, Cardinal Pell have focused attention on a genre that is sometimes considered to have disappeared from the Australian musical landscape.
To many Australians, protest songs have been best delivered via the tinnitus-inducing power chords of 80s-era mainstream rock.
Minchin’s recent effort, however, uses a generic pop musical language to create a sense of parody. Higgins uses a different musical language again, a texture that aims for the heart.
Her song is a moving tribute to Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian refugee who tragically drowned in Turkey en route to Canada. Featuring choral-synth sounds and a purified electric piano, Oh Canada starts very simply and intimately – with no drums or rhythm to disturb the plaintive focus on loss.
Gradually, as the story unfolds, the music expands, adding rhythm. It gets bigger, swelling with emotion as Higgins sings higher and louder at the prolonged and confronting climax. In the song’s accompanying music video, the sinking boat is followed by a brisk montage of terrible images drawn by children who’ve likely been witnesses to violence.
All that musical texture drops to nothing at the end, right when the drawing of the boy’s lifeless body on the beach is revealed. The return to musical simplicity to underscore the fragility of the little boy is devastating.
For more than a decade, articles bemoaning the lack of political music in our modern popular culture have appeared sporadically.
But the notion that Australian music lost its protest edge somewhere between Beds are Burning and Peter Garrett’s maiden speech to Parliament is only half-true.
Australia’s rock-era protest songs were certainly the most successful in terms of mainstream hits, but underground and independent labels have always maintained the rage, albeit with less visibility. And powerful social messages were also conveyed by song well before the angry 80s.
A short tour of Australia’s protest song history shows that protest music didn’t so much disappear as morph from mainstream to many streams, tracking alongside popular music in general as it became fragmented and stylistically diffuse.
I am Protest, hear me roar
Eric Bogle kicked off Australia’s anti-war ouvre with The Band Played Waltzing Matilda in 1971. A powerful but unassuming song, it combines the sound of anti-war folk music with more than a hint of the original Waltzing Matilda’s poignancy. Redgum’s I Was Only 19 (1983) was an important follow-up in this genre.
Another early modern-era song of protest was Helen Reddy’s I am Woman Hear Me Roar. As a song about empowerment, its aim was to inspire.
The song uses a technique called modulation to underscore the lyrics, sometimes changing key in a novel or surprising way to make the music and listener feel like they’ve been literally lifted up.
A Hammond organ provides a subtle southern gospel church feel to heighten the positive vibes.
The time had come
Some time in the 60s, rock began clawing the mantle of authenticity (in the sense of musically expressing the true emotional state of a community or group) away from folk music.
Rock’s essential promise was “no fakes allowed” – only genuine-article premium raw emotion, perfect for protest.
Even as pop’s synth-based sheen was increasingly applied to mainstream music, Australian pub rock thrived through the 70s and 80s. And, of course, just either side of the 80s is generally considered to be the golden era of Australian protest songs.
You can hear the relationship between folk and rock when comparing two classic songs: Paul Kelly’s From Little Things Big Things Grow (1991) and Midnight Oil’s Beds are Burning (1987).
The Dylanesque From Little Things Big Things Grow draws on an ossified style, Aussiefied and refreshed here with a dose of country.
Narratively down-home lyrics are set to four simple chords, repeated hypnotically throughout the entire song.
The balance of circling around two brighter/ sweeter chords and two darker/ sadder chords creates an appropriate mix of hope and melancholy. That repetition and predictability gives the ear a sense of reassurance and creates space for the listener to focus on the lyrics.
From Little Things Big Things Grow tells the story of how the Gurindji people’s claim can be seen as igniting the Indigenous land rights movement.
Aboriginal themes and issues are easily the most significant causes Australian music took up in the protest heyday, and Beds are Burning is probably the most famous example.
Midnight Oil ups the anger quotient with spat consonants and grotesque vowels in the verses, contrasting with a soaring and imploring chorus.
While harmonically straightforward in general, the famous opening and closing guitar riff frames the song with a harder substance and defines the defiant political stance.
The urgency of Beds are Burning reflects the incredible story of the people it advocates for. The Pintupi were among the last groups of people to move from “desert to settlement”, some voluntarily in the 1930s; others forcibly in the following decades. In 1981 they returned to country and Beds is an expression of support for the return of title to the Pintupi.
If Beds are Burning wasn’t already seared into public consciousness, it should have been by the events of 2000. Midnight Oil performed the song at the Sydney Olympics’ closing ceremony with “Sorry” plastered all over their black clothing.
A pointed dig at Prime Minister John Howard’s recent rejection of symbolic apology and reconciliation, the political irony is legendary: Howard had claimed Beds are Burning was his favourite Midnight Oil song.
This either proves that music can be appreciated separate from message (hands up anyone who can understand every word in a Thom Yorke song?), or that Beds are Burning was the only Midnight Oil song Howard was familiar with when put on the spot.
Another classic is of course Yothu Yindi’s Treaty (1991), a stunning song that seamlessly fuses a distinctly rock aesthetic with Indigenous singing, ironwood clapsticks and didgeridoo.
It was also the first song in an Aboriginal Australian language (Yolngu-Matha) to gain extensive international recognition.
The success of songs such as Treaty might in part be due to the empathic response music creates in people. Such a response allows the listener to metaphorically step into another person’s shoes and see the world from their perspective.
The irresistible quality of that singing and sound in Treaty is such that people are inexorably drawn into an emotional connection with the music, making space for an empathetic relationship to the lyrics and message.
The impact of Treaty was profound: by successfully embedding Indigenous music in a rock context, it became an empathetically accessible sound for people of all dispositions. An increase in support for Indigenous issues flowed from the widespread cultural reach this song enjoyed.
The herd versus the pack
Previously the most popular vehicle for venting anger over social issues, rock’s demotion from pedestal to “just another genre” was clear by the early 2000s, as musical styles fragmented.
Australian hip-hop was one genre that picked up the slack of social conscience.
77%, The Herd’s post-MV Tampa hip-hop takedown of the Howard government, (named for the percentage of population who supported its actions at the time), was uploaded to YouTube in 2006 but “only” has 232,000 views to date. Beds are Burning is nudging 60 million views since 2009.
Originally released in 2003, The Herd’s song set itself apart from the pack along with a host of Indie-Rock, Punk, Hip-Hop, Industrial, Electronica, Acoustic-Folk, SynthPop, Power-Pop, and PowerNoise bands.
No doubt in reaction to the commercially-driven, blandness of popular music, it had become necessary for these musicians to remain alternative or risk collusion with the big end of town. At that time protest music was also increasingly preoccupied with the pitfalls of global capitalism.
Oh protest music
The musical expression of protest continues to evolve. Higgins’ and Minchin’s contrasting song styles – tackling two very different issues – are musically well-crafted, with Higgins’ excellent video packing an extra punch.
These ruminations haven’t even managed to get to the phalanx of other Australian musicians that have done and are doing important work in political music – Christine Anu, Blue King Brown, the John Butler Trio, Kev Carmody, Neil Murray, Powderfinger, Archie Roach, Xavier Rudd, Tiddas and Warumpi Band, among others.
In that context, whether the two prominent songs of the last week might have cracked a new level of mainstream popularity remains to be seen.
At the very least there’s new and beautiful proof that Australian protest music is brave, alive and well. It’s just speaking new languages.