Monday, December 22, 2008

Maintaining the Rage?

The below article, Maintaining the Rage: Rocking with a Conscience I wrote for Rolling Stone Australia's 2006 Year Book. Two years on and the Make Poverty History engine that was once chugging away, working hard, collecting every celebrity and do-gooder in its path has now lost all steam. Nine days from 2009 and the website outlines their goals for 2007 with no '2008' tab to speak of.

So what happened? Gone are the lame wrist bands. Gone is Lord Bono. Gone too is his son, Christ Martin, who realised if he stopped trying to save the earth and focused on tunes he could write an interesting pop record again. Gone is John Butler, with his dreadlocks went his political activism. And gone are Liam Nesson and Jamie Foxx clicking their fingers in front of a white background that I always thought was just a really intense ad for GAP.

Or can we just assume that the whole thing worked a treat. Passing the hat around at a rock show really did the trick and that poverty was indeed made history. Hell, not only did we Make Poverty History but we Rocked the Vote as well. There's a democratic President about to take the seat, and he's Black to boot. It's all coming up Bono. So I guess Eddie too can stop writing politically-charged rock songs and get back to his grungy and introspective Clinton-era ways. Break out the cigars. Here's the text.

Maintaining The Rage: Rocking with a conscience
Music fans and activists at Melbourne’s Make Poverty History concert were treated to a surprise appearance by Pearl Jam and Bono at the November 17 2006 event. The duo, dubbing themselves U-Jam added international clout to the concert that already featured local artists the John Butler Trio, Jet, Paul Kelly, Eskimo Joe and Sarah Blasko. The CEO of World Vision Australia, chairman of Make Poverty History Australia, Minister Tim Costello also took to the stage.

Pearl Jam and Bono opened the show with a stirring and alternate rendition of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World”, a song that Pearl Jam have been playing live for many years.

“It was very cool to be present for that moment,” says John Butler. “That chorus is like the beacon of hope in the song. So in the Make Poverty History context it seems very relevant to me. We’ve got a long way to go to make progress and globalisation fair and sustainable for all human beings on this planet. That's why we got to "keep on rocking in the free world”, otherwise ‘the dream’ is just a joke.”

While U2’s main business in Australia was a national tour based more on feel-good anthems than overt songs of protest or activism, Bono had arrived wearing not only his trademark sunglasses, but the hat of a diplomat. “He’s the only historical figure I know who can play both the prophetic outsider role and loudly criticise governments and then play the insider role and go into the halls of power whether it’s the White House or Downing Street and cut deals for the poor,” says Costello. This was no more apparent when Costello issued a challenge to his brother, Treasurer Peter Costello to meet with Bono and discuss Australia’s international aid contributions towards the Global Fund.
While Bono’s post-meeting statement was diplomatic, vague and generous towards the results, Tim Costello continues to underline his relevance. “In the past he has influenced Bush to change America’s contribution from millions to 14 billion to the Global Fund and it’s American version.”

Three weeks earlier at the ARIAs Midnight Oil was inducted into the Hall of Fame. The rock ‘n’ roll bureaucrat Bono introduced them in a pre-recorded tape that stressed the importance of the Oils and their contribution not only to the Australian musical landscape but also the World’s. Silverchair then took to the stage with a powerful rendition of the Oils’ “Don’t Wanna Be The One”. At the end of the performance Daniel Johns graffitied “PG 4 PM” in stark white spray paint against the black backdrop – taking former Oil’s frontman and recently elected Labor frontbencher Peter Garrett by surprise.

As spokesman for the Oils, Rob Hirst seized the opportunity to ruffle a few feathers within the Australian music industry, and spark a debate to an audience of millions as to whether Australian music still has any fire in its belly. He said “Last week GW Bush finally admitted that Iraq may prove to be his Vietnam, but Vietnam inspired some of the greatest protest songs ever written. Not so now, surprisingly, even when hundreds of thousands of Australians crowded our streets to demonstrate their opposition to another senseless war. Maybe complaint rock is still being written, but it’s ignored by an industry hypnotised by get-famous-fast TV shows. Bless you, John Butler, but you shouldn't have to do it all by yourself.”

Hirst’s comments pushed Butler into the spotlight. He says “I think Rob was speaking generally, and generally on the mainstream commercial airwaves, I would say there isn't a great deal of strong opinions other than that of love. Which is great and all but for any other kind of opinion, especially those of dissent, it's rare to find. The only song I can think of in recent times that was saying something about our political climate on commercial radio was Powderfinger's "The Day You Come" speaking of the rise of the fascist One Nation party and leader Pauline Hanson. However, the minute you go even a little underneath the mainstream one finds there is an enormous wealth of acts speaking out about what's going on in our society.”

Bernard Fanning agrees that the protest voice has not been completely lost. Later in the ARIA evening, as he received an award for Album of the Year for his debut solo album Tea and Sympathy he replied to Hirst’s comments. He said it wasn’t solely John Butler who was standing up for change but he accepted the challenge and called on more artists to do the same.

Craig Mathieson, senior writer for Rolling Stone and author of The Sell-In suggests the meaning in music does exist but has been buried a little deeper. “It’s now far more subtle. Part of the ‘80s political vibe was very obvious, very "I'm rockin' in my blue singlet and singing about steel workers while taking 20 grand off the door deal". There was more back then, but some of it - not Midnight Oil - was a pose. Now you have a Powderfinger, a Herd, a Drones, etc, but no-one wants to be deliberately anthemic in covering politics. Today, to me, we're a far more sophisticated audience. Grand gestures from previous eras now appear either corny or staged.”

Tim Levinson aka Urthboy from the politically active hip-hop collective The Herd says, “Political music and ‘complaint rock’ as Rob Hirst put it, is not cool. There are various ways of presenting music that is perceived as cool and political music is not that I believe. Quite often you are categorized or dismissed as one trick-ponies. Often people will think, well I’ve heard that before.” Levinson believes the audience are more infatuated with escapism. He elaborates, “There are people who are getting a few little political bits into their music but it’s certainly not perceived as being an appealing way to take your music. A lot of bands are influenced as what they perceive as being exciting. In the last few years it’s gone from a revival of rock ‘n’ roll to this 80s haircut style of band and that’s considered edgy and yet anyone making political music is instantly going to divide any potential audience they have.”

“In Australia,” says Mathieson “it's worth noting that we have no history to match America's - we didn't have the music of the 60s, we don't have an ‘Ohio‘ or ‘Fortunate Son’ as inspiration. Is it cool here? Not particularly, but if you can do it as well as The Drones do on ‘Jezebel’ - a black box recorder for the 20th century that explodes into future tense - then it's impossible to deny”.

A recent case study by Jenny Waterhouse of Queensland University of Technology proves the major players in the music industry aren’t willing to take risks and will only release what is tried and tested, the ‘get-famous-fast TV shows’ as Hirst put it, leaving the confrontational songs alone. Adding weight to Butler’s comment that Hirst was referring to the mainstream, to commercial radio and television. It’s the reason why frustrated artists such as The Herd took the independent road as John Butler did, creating their own record company Elefant Traks to release their music and be able to make their statements without the bureaucracy of a major record company.

Pearl Jam, have proved you can make political music on a major label while being one of the biggest bands in the world. Their self-titled album of 2006 featured “World Wide Suicide” (which reached #2 on the Billboard Mainstream rock chart) and went on a tirade against the Bush administration. In the past they’ve had equally politically-edged songs “Do the Evolution” and “Bushleaguer”.

In 2004 Pearl Jam were one of the main acts on the Vote For Change tour held in cities that were considered swing states, such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and the critical Ohio. Other artists included Dixie Chicks, Neil Young, Jackson Browne and Death Cab For Cutie. While the tour was considered a success in raising money and awareness none of the states went differently than expected, with Ohio staying with Bush, despite the tour holding six concerts there.

On the band’s website is a link to Rock the Vote that aims to inspire young Americans to become politically active. Vedder and Pearl Jam have been strong voices against the Bush Administration. There is a strong activism component that links to a number of organizations and likeminded websites dealing with Arts and Education, health, the environment, women’s issues and Native American rights. There is also an explanation of their Carbon Portfolio Strategy – an effort to advance clean, renewable energy and carbon mitigation within the band, from daily routines to the heavy emissions that come with touring. The aim to be carbon neutral is also followed by the likes of the Dave Matthews Band and Dixie Chicks.

But whether musicians are using the message within a song to provoke and agitate as Hirst claims, or not, it seems they still have a conscience. Many artists are happy to lend their voice, their music and their time, as well as money to a good cause. As well as the Make Poverty History concerts there has also been November’s Legs Eleven in Sydney’s Domain that brought together Tex Perkins and Tim Rogers, Sarah Blasko, Bob Evans and more raising money and awareness for breast cancer research. John Butler has in the past donated a percentage of ticket sales from his tours to organizations such as the Wilderness Society, Save Ningaloo Reef Campaign and the Refugee action coalition. On his recent Funky Tonight tour, one dollar from every ticket sold went to the campaign to stop the proliferation of the Uranium Industry in Australia.

Likewise Fanning earlier in the year gave the proceeds of the only official single from Tea and Sympathy to Youngcare an organization that helps create appropriate care facilities to those young adults suffering from Multiple Sclerosis. He also, with Kasey Chambers played a benefit show at Brisbane’s City Hall in June.

Across the other side of the globe the likes of Chris Martin and Coldplay have felt the philanthropic pull towards Oxfam’s Make Trade Fair campaign. Although Martin doesn’t expect or want to be the next Bono, and while he’s well-versed on the subject, he said on Enough Rope with Andrew Denton in July “I think we can make as meaningful a contribution as Beyonce can to L'Oreal. That's what I feel we can do. We don't necessarily have the answer on Fair Trade and we don't necessarily know anything. We know probably a little more than some people, but we're not experts. Even if it's just advertising the two words, then it's just in someone's head. When you're not a politician and you start getting involved in politics, people are a little wary of it.”

Tim Costello head of World Vision says the general public are suspicious of politics but believes it’s the politicians that turn them away, saying, “I think 95 per cent of the Australian population aren’t really interested in politics. They focus on their own lives and politics is blur, something they consider at election time. They are interested in music, that’s why they listen. When Paul Kelly or Bono speak about the poor, they listen. For politicians they generally don’t listen. They’re just not interested. They’re so used to politicians slagging off at each other for political advantage that they discount the value of the words, the words don’t have the gravity.”

But time’s are a changin’ and the recent Labor leadership changeover in December 2006 safely installing Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard as Leader and deputy respectively saw Garrett move into a more prominent position on the front bench – appealing to a younger generation of voters and environmentalists, a necessary shift in the eyes of Costello. “Garrett is one of the few politicians that for people who aren’t interested in politics, actually listen for who he’s been. His long history of connecting his music with his values has won deep respect.”

Along side Chris Martin is Radiohead’s Thom Yorke who has backed Make Trade Fair and who’s albums like Amnesiac and Hail To The Thief as well as his recent solo album The Eraser are filled with protest songs. Of Bono’s ability to meet with politicians he’s said in the past “the difference between me and Bono is that he's quite happy to go and flatter people to get what he wants and he's very good at it, but I just can't do it. I'd probably end up punching them in the face rather than shaking their hand.”

With a more cynical opinion on the benefit concerts and the power and clout of rockstars, a group of independent artists from the US and Canada teamed up with UNICEF, to not only raise money but mock a few of history’s greatest rock charity moments. Artists such as Beck, Karen O, Thurston Moore, Buck 65, Peaches, Comedian David Cross and Elvira, Mistress of the Dark as well as members of Islands, Postal Service, Sum 41, Wolf Parade and more under the guise of the North American Hallowe’en Prevention Inc recorded download-only track “Do They Know It’s Hallowe’en”. The track aimed to raise funds and awareness of UNICEF’s tradition of Trick-or-Treat for Halloween wherein kids help kids by going door-to-door collecting donations rather than lollies.

The song’s inspiration stemmed from a frustration with other benefit songs’ often patronising attitude and western-centric worldview – a belief in tune with the July 15th New York Times editorial that said Live 8 and the Make Poverty History campaign was an “insult both to Africans and to common sense” – the song mockingly begs the rest of the world to help stop the terror and atrocities that spread throughout North America every October 31.

“You can’t completely front on those events because they are bringing an awareness about these issues” says Levinson. “As much as cynics would like to say it’s just rubbish. It is focusing people’s attentions, but I’d be surprised if there were any great outcomes. You put on these shows that are all attached to the draw card of celebrity and it becomes another New Weekly/Who Magazine kind of event. People can feel good because they’re supporting a good cause. If that contributes to people being engaged by topical issues, and where people say ‘actually it’s cool again to not only give a fuck about ourselves' that’s good. These are generally great 'good vibe' events but I’d like to see more attention to outcomes."

Hirst speaks with the same passion he has had for nearly 30 years and with the aim to provoke, inspire and agitate. It’s not John Butler doing it all himself but if Hirst’s comments force ears to prick up, inspire other musicians to become active and aggravate those complacent ones then the torch that Midnight Oil burnt can be passed on.

While the message may not be in the content of the music like it used to be – brandished earnestly with blue singlet bravado – artists like John Butler, The Herd and The Drones are still writing challenging music, but as Mathieson puts it, with subtlety. In other ways artists like Hilltop Hoods, Silverchair, and Sarah Blasko maintain the rage in their actions with a palpable move from apathy to activism. And there will always be international supergroups like Pearl Jam, Coldplay, Green Day, P. Diddy and his 2004 “Vote Or Die” t-shirt and of course U2, who choose to use their super powers for good, rather than evil.

Published in Rolling Stone Australia's 2006 Yearbook.


  1. Loving the blog sir.

    Incidentally, the first time I saw footage of Bono and Eddie Vedder holding hands triumphantly/worthily at the front of the stage, I vomited in my mouth a little bit.