An Aussie favourite ... The Go-Betweens. Picture: Peter Anderson
An Aussie favourite ... The Go-Betweens. Picture: Peter Anderson

What makes “Australian music” Australian

So Triple J have shifted their "Hottest 100" from January 26, but will "play only Australian music" on Australia Day.

But what is Australianness in song? A thread can be traced but the pattern is anything but common.

"Round and round, up and down", from the Go-Betweens', Streets of Your Town, stands out as a quintessentially Australian lyric in a song of familiarity and belonging.

"But I still don't know what I'm here for", singer Grant McLellan adds. This contrast of connectedness and uncertainty abounds in our songs and in our cities. Just ask anyone contending with Sydney trains at the moment!

The most Australian songs, I reckon, describe places "without a postcard".

They map the emotive spaces that - like the landscape - defy geography, resist certainty and ignore convention.

Where's the most heartfelt place to be in this country, any day of the year? It's "The Pub With No Beer". "Lonesome, morbid [and] drear". Trifecta!

And where do you go "when life is making you lonely"? Not downtown. It's the "Wide Open Road". Australia's foreboding, barren and unending desolation is, The Triffids assured us, your sanctuary when "the one you love is with someone else".

Similarly, the sleepless melancholy of the "thirteen hours on a bus" between Paul Kelly's, St Kilda and Kings Cross triggers visions both cities struggle to recapture amid "brawls" and "lockouts".

 

Quintessentially Australian ... Music legend Paul Kelly. Picture: Patrina Malone
Quintessentially Australian ... Music legend Paul Kelly. Picture: Patrina Malone

 

Like the "track winding back to an old-fashioned shack", the track appeals far more than the destination in Australia's most loved songs. We even celebrate the gruelling "way to the top" for those who "wanna rock'n'roll". No easy rides. The harder the better.

Australia in song is a country of restlessness, drift and tension. Not of place, finality or resolution. "Time is a traveller".

Where does belonging reside in song? "Words are easy. Words are cheap" we hear in Yothu Yindi's, Treaty. It's a stark calling-sort of broken political promises. A portent to fake news, "heard ... on the radio", and seen "on the television." It's also an uplifting call to unite. Incredibly powerful.

The land is everywhere and nowhere in these songs. It inhabits and seeps through every line yet it is never pinned down. Never owned. Never abused. Never given away.

A single day or lone song cannot represent a nation. In, Under the Milky Way, we simultaneously "wish [we] knew what we were looking for", and know "what [we] would find."

Australia is both a wish and an eventuality. Australianness remains - tenuously - a wide open proposition. That's something worth singing about. Any day of the year.

Andy Marks is a former member of Sydney band Crow and assistant vice-chancellor at Western Sydney University.

 



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