Is Australian Music Identity Still Shaped Through Pub Rock?

We look at the next generation of local musicians who are making a noise and making it clear.

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02 February 2016, 12:57am

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It’s 3am, half your kebab is on your shirt, and you’re standing on a table scream-singing the lyrics to Jimmy Barnes’ "Working Class Man" (ignoring the fact that you have to be up in a few hours because you are, in fact, a working class man). While knowing the chorus of "Never Tear Us Apart" by INXS is basically the unofficial Australian citizenship test and pub rock will hold a place in our hearts until the day that beer stops coming out of a tap, today Australian music is incredibly diversified and a next generation of locally-grown artists are carving out a new identity for Australian music.

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, pub rock struck a chord with Australians. The frontmen were real Aussie blokes—rough around the edges, blue collar battlers, hooligans—whose lyrics were locally specific and about issues that everyday Australians could relate to. The Cosmic Psychos, for example, were fronted by bulldozer-driving vocalist Ross Knight, and were known for both putting pubs out of business and their humorous, self-deprecating lyrics. This honest, unadorned approach to songwriting still holds strong. In "Depreston" from 2015 debut album Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit Courtney Barnett paints a poignant picture of millennial struggle and broken Australian dreams. “You said we should look out further, I guess it wouldn't hurt us, We don't have to be around all these coffee shops, Now we've got that percolator, never made a latte greater, I'm saving twenty three dollars a week,” she delivers in signature deadpan, evoking familiar images of suburbia, gentrification, and the daily 9-5. While distinctly Australian, Courtney’s music has won over international audiences—she was nominated for a Grammy last year, and this April will play Coachella before an extensive US/Canada tour (she even performed "Depreston" on The Ellen DeGeneres Show last year).

Some of the most iconic pub rock classics are anthems about Australia itself. 1982 hit "Great Southern Land" by Icehouse is about a nation grappling with its identity and history, while The Go-Betweens’ "Cattle and Cane", released a year later, was written by vocalist/bassist Grant McLennan about growing up on a Queensland farm. Imagery of the Australian landscape was prevalent in songwriting throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, and we can see artists today also embracing their Australianness. Melbourne-based synth pop duo Client Liaison look to ‘80s Australiana for inspiration, in regards to both their music and image. Their "End Of The Earth" video takes kitsch Australian cultural motifs and moments—from Shane Warne to footage of the Sydney Olympics—to explore the contemporary Australian psyche and what it means to be Australian.

As a genre, ‘dolewave’ also explores Australian identity—albeit more pessimistically. Almost an extension of the slacker movement, bands like Melbourne’s Twerps and Dick Diver, and Adelaide’s Bitch Prefect are characterised by sprawling guitars, lyrics about everyday struggles, and an unmistakably Australian vocal delivery. On Bitch Prefect’s "Bad Decisions", singer Scott O'Hara laments fucking up over and over again, opening with, “I went outside and I went to a park again, I was sitting outside, I was sitting outside in the rain, then I got in a car and went into the city, and I was making bad decisions at every opportunity.” It’s a feeling most 20-somethings can relate to—suburban boredom and the doldrums of working shitty jobs.

While ‘70s and ‘80s pub rock was mostly made up of white dudes playing guitars, as Australia has become more culturally diversified so has its music identity. Born in Zambia, raised in Botswana, and based in Sydney, Sampa The Great burst onto the music scene last year with her stereotype-smashing music that blends poetry,R&B, and rap. Growing up in Africa has been a massive influence on her music, and she brings with her a politically conscious message. "Revolution", from last year’s debut release The Great Mixtape, samples black activists including Malcolm X, Leo Muhammad, and Dr. Khalid Abdul Muhammad to raise issues of race and oppression, while "F E M A L E" teases out her identity as a female rapper.

She’s a welcome breath of fresh air to the Australian hip-hop scene (again, mostly comprised of white males), and her boundary-pushing music goes to show the ever-evolving face of Australian music identity.

This article is presented in partnership with JD Future Legends

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