Nation, Authenticity and Social Difference in Australian Popular Music: Folk, Country, Multicultural

Article excerpt

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. …