Nation, Authenticity and Social Difference in Australian Popular Music: Folk, Country, Multicultural
Smith, Graeme, Brett, Judith, Journal of Australian Studies
Since the 1980s Australia has been engaged in a long running and many sided debate about the basis of the Australian political community. Immigration and multiculturalism, relations between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians and the meaning of Australia's historic ties to Britain have all focused political attention on questions of the contemporary cultural and political basis of the Australian nation state and its relations to past national understandings.
Debates about the basis of Australia's shared national community do not just take place in parliament and newspapers, in the speeches and writings of politicians, journalists and academics. They occur in the multi-layered meanings of popular commemorative events such as the 1988 bi-centennial celebrations, in advertising imagery, in media discussions and talkback radio, in local historical societies and they are acted out in every day life in the cultural choices people make -- about what to wear, what to eat, what films to see, what music they like.
This article is about three genres of Australian popular music: public Australian folk music, multicultural music and Australian country music and the claims each makes to be distinctively and representatively Australian. These claims are made not just through the musics' differing images of Australia and representations of the relationship between the Australian present and past but in the way each musical genre enacts a distinctive desired relationship between individual, community, state and nation.
The reading of social attitudes in popular music forms is a commonplace of popular culture studies, often focusing on song lyrics, the interpretation of which are easily amenable to the techniques used on other language texts, or on the economic and social conditions of musical production.(1) Such approaches can yield much of value, however they generally ignore both the performative and the specifically musical elements of the musics, as well as being unable to talk about the diverse ways in which the interaction between performers and their audience can be understood. This latter is particularly important for our analysis, for it is in the ideas and practices which shape notions of a musical community that we find idealised notions of the imagined national community. As well, the three genres are partly overlapping in musical style. Analysis of the musical material alone would thus fail to capture the very different ways in which closely similar musical items are interpreted in different musical contexts: for example a Slim Dusty song in a folk venue compared with a country music venue. Our object of analysis is best captured through the concept of a social musical genre as it is used by the Italian musicologist, Franco Fabbri. A social musical genre encompasses musical codes, rules of behaviour, social relationships, ideological meanings and shared understandings.(2)
Folk, country and multicultural music are not mass popular musics but nor are they small subcultural taste groups. To judge the significance of these musics solely in terms of the music industry's benchmarks of record sales and air time would be to underestimate their cultural significance. Surveys find that about 17% of Australians give country music as their favourite music, despite its relatively low record sales.(3) The high-rating, nationally-networked, ABC Sunday morning program, Australia All Over, which espouses a homey rural nationalism, draws its music almost entirely from the folk and country repertoire and claims to be the most popular radio program in Australia ever, with 1.6 million listeners.(4) Items of multicultural music are regularly presented at official government functions as emblematic of contemporary Australia's rich cultural diversity, as well as being played regularly on the ABC.
These three social musical genres all share a distance from the mass music industry. This distance is chosen and self-conscious, a sign of the authenticity of the music and in particular of the authenticity of the music's relationship to its audience. Appeals to `authenticity' are common for popular music genres, carrying claims to the innate expressive powers of the music in contrast to musics produced and imposed from above. And despite the apparent popularity since the mid 1980s of post modern and self-reflexive musical understandings, ideas of authenticity have a continuing power and resilience.(5)
Authenticity can be located at different points in the cluster of features which make up a particular social musical genre: in the imagined historical conditions of the music's development, in the nature of the sound (acoustic rather than highly produced, for example), in the simplicity of the lyrics, in the sincerity of expression in performance, in the faithfulness of the fans, in the friendliness of the venue. There is an interaction between aesthetic musical choices and the social contexts of the musics, in which musical choices are mapped onto ideas of preferred ways of organising social space and preferred ways of establishing social solidarity, which in turn become the basis of the different imagined Australias which these musical genres project. In this way these social genres can speak of country and city, Anglo-Australian and post-war migrant, mono-culture or multicultural nation, community or state, national identity or global incorporation and their different stories invoke competing understandings of the desired relations between individual, community, state and nation in contemporary Australia.
Australian public folk music is the music promoted by and performed in the Australian folk music movement, a network of specialist venues, concerts, festivals, performers and audiences which make up a loosely defined `scene'.(6) We call this public folk music to distinguish it from the contentious category of musical folk culture understood as small-group, face to face informal culture. Public folk music is typically a popular music movement which borrows and continues some of the aspects of so-called folk culture, although it is distinguished from it by its much greater self consciousness. It memorialises and celebrates the ideals of small group performance and it keeps alive older, `non-official' musical styles which had hitherto continued independent of institutional and large scale economic support. These are given a national, historical, or broader social significance.(7)
This public folk music genre is the closest of the musical genres discussed here to the classic formation of cultural nationalism. In Australia its core canon and cultural strategy was established in the 1950s by radical nationalists seeking a distinctive national type linked to the left's values of collectivism, egalitarianism, and general suspicion of authority. Russel Ward's Ire Australian Legend is the clearest account of this left nationalist project and of the itinerant male bush workers of the nineteenth century as its paradigm.(8) Folk music activists collected and performed `the old bush songs' which they defined as Australian folk music, and revived nineteenth century singing and instrumental styles.(9)
This repertoire and musical style was an emblematically central part of that taken up in the youth folk boom of the early 1960s associated with urban coffee houses and folk clubs like Melbourne's Frank Traynor's. With the addition of British immigrant performers, the coffee house folk scene developed into the folk club movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, with its fluctuating relationship to the youth counter culture. During the 1970s the network of clubs consolidated, folk festivals emerged as key performance sites and a national infrastructure of activist administrators was formed.
The folk club, which was important and popular for folk fans in the 1970s, receded in importance in the 1980s, to be replaced by folk festivals which have opened folk's performance style up to a much broader audience. In the 1980s the circuit of festivals became larger and the festivals more professionally organised, as permanent administrative structures replaced the small local enthusiast committees. Festivals like the Port Fairy Folk Festival and the Woodford festival now draw crowds of about 60,000.(10)
The festival movement has greatly diversified the styles of music offered as Australian public folk music.(11) At the centre are established sounds like the solo confessional singer songwriter, along with conscientiously revived or maintained vernacular musical styles, sometimes referred to as named system musics, or …
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Publication information: Article title: Nation, Authenticity and Social Difference in Australian Popular Music: Folk, Country, Multicultural. Contributors: Smith, Graeme - Author, Brett, Judith - Author. Journal title: Journal of Australian Studies. Publication date: September 1998. Page number: 3. © 1998 University of Queensland Press. COPYRIGHT 1998 Gale Group.
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