How to collect pop music from down under, part three: the pop course

The history of Australian rock and Australian pop are so intertwined, I had a bit of difficulty figuring out who to put where. That means, yes, I know I did not mention two bands I would typically be mentioning on the rock column – but then, that’s partly down to how I’ve perceived those bands from my perch here in the Philippines, both of which are still staples of retro playlists, or what’s left of them.

The first band is Crowded House, whose oeuvre is more than “Don’t Dream It’s Over”. Neil Finn’s songcraft is so irresistible – melodic and spot-on – that they did straddle the line between rock and pop; and besides, you really remembered the band more for the melodies. The second band is Men at Work, who espoused the mischievous nature of Australians, one best captured in their biggest hit, “Down Under”. But then I remember “Who Can It Be Now?” more – that definitely was a staple of retro days on the radio. (Well, there’s a third, but that’s me forgetting about Divinyls.)

So, yes, it’s partly perception. In Australia they’re one of many bands performing all over; elsewhere in the world they’re pop superstars. But then again, they rose in the 1980s, when what we called pop covered a lot of genres. Now, pop is the stuff you’re tired of, the stuff you don’t like by default. But then that’s not fair, is it?

 

By that definition, then – and I don’t mean to suggest I don’t like her – Sia should definitely be on this list. After Kylie Minogue, she’s the biggest pop star to come out of Australia. “Chandelier” remains inescapable, I’m sure – I’m expecting to hear that from cover bands performing at Christmas parties; it’s become a classic like that. But her career hasn’t been the most straightforward; before finding success as a pop star she fronted an acid jazz band, took a stab at going solo, and then moved to London to provide vocals for electronic duo Zero 7.

Her later solo work saw her take the singer-songwriter trail, through which she got a bit of kudos, both because of her atmospheric delivery and her even hazier songs. Six Feet Under fans would remember her song “Breathe Me”, which played in the series’ final montage; that booster her profile in the United States. Before the success of her album 1000 Forms of Fear she began flirting with more electropop: “Clap Your Hands” would have slotted nicely into the hipster pop mold. She also spent some time writing songs for other artists, before returning to performing as a collaborator, and now, as that singer who covers her face all the time.

In a way, a bunch of Aussie pop artists tend to be hard to categorize. I mean, do you call Gotye pop? Sure, “Somebody That I Used To Know” was really ubiquitous, but before that he’s had some relatively big hits in Australia (“Heart’s A Mess” is often covered) and, prior to that, was with the Basics. (He still is with them, actually.) But then, I did mention 5 Seconds of Summer last week.

 

A group definitely in the pop lane is Air Supply. Now, here’s an act you can’t escape. The Philippines being a hot country, one can’t help but associate their songs with the stifling sun – you’re walking on a crowded sidewalk and someone’s got his radio on, loud, and the radio station is likely playing one of their songs. In that context some may call them really cheesy pop, but their harmonies and melodies captured the appeal of the rise of middle-of-the-road pop in the 1970s.

While the duo’s guitarist Graham Russell is English, vocalist Russell Hitchcock is Australian, and the duo first saw success down under, earning a reputation but not quite becoming as big as their other soft rock contemporaries in other parts of the world. The release of “Lost in Love” in 1979 caught the attention of record producer Clive Davis; the following year, an album of the same name was released, which began their string of top ten hits in the United States. While their sound have long fallen out of favor (except perhaps in Asia, where they’re frequently performing in concerts) they continue to produce new music to this day; their last album was released in 2010.

 

Another pop duo from Australia is Savage Garden, although their career sat in a different decade – and hasn’t lasted at long. But by then, pop music has changed, from the more organic sound of the 1970s to the glossier sounds of two decades later, definitely inspired by the progresses of the 1980s. That said, the duo had its origins from yet another pub band: multi-instrumentalist Daniel Jones was in a covers band with his brothers, and Darren Hayes answered an ad looking for a vocalist. The two later decided to pursue a project of their own, releasing their debut single, the glossy and trippy “I Want You”, in 1996.

That said, they’re better known for the gloopy. “Truly, Madly, Deeply”, released the following year, was inspired by Darren’s longing, as recording the album separated him from his family and wife for an extended period for the first time; it topped the charts both in Australia and in the United States. They moved further towards adult contemporary territory for their second album (save for “The Animal Song”) but unhappiness in the band – and Darren looking to go solo – led to the duo splitting in 2001. They’ve always ruled out a reunion.

 

Australia also loves their singing competitions, with several of their biggest pop acts having come from the television. Inevitably I’ll be focusing on Australian Idol, their version of the juggernaut franchise which ran for seven seasons. As the theory goes, the first winner is always the best known, so even if I didn’t really like his songs, the spotlight goes to Guy Sebastian, who has scored twelve number one hits in Australia. Jessica Mauboy, who finished second in the fourth season, has also had some career longevity; the same is the case with Ricki-Lee Coulter.

The country’s love for a good singing competition had led to Australia being the only country from outside the European Broadcasting Union – and outside Europe, way outside Europe – to take part in the Eurovision Song Contest. In 2016, their first year as a proper competitor, they fielded Dami Im, winner of the fifth season of The X Factor Australia; the sheer power of “Sound of Silence” (and perhaps the novelty of Aussies competing) sent them to fourth place. (Some argue they should’ve won, but then, Eurovision was equally about the camp and the geopolitics.) By that point Australia’s long past their thing for bubblegum pop, with winners from singing competitions – and other pop stars in general, like Gabriella Cilmi – quickly shifting towards more R&B-based sounds.

 

Missy Higgins also won a competition, although it was one from Triple J, so it always had this sheen of cool. That song she (well, technically, her sister) submitted was “All For Believing”; it appeared on her 2004 debut The Sound of White, one of the first albums I ever bought. Her sound was bound to appeal to me – I was into piano-driven pop at the time, although half the record featured the guitar more. Hesitant to be packaged into just another pop star (it was the early 2000s, after all) her later albums saw her hone her songwriting and explore further sounds, with her latest album Solastalgia going just a bit more electro than her previous work.

Ultimately, that’s the interesting thing about Australian pop. The ecosystem meant you’d be really hard pressed to find someone you can comfortably categorize as pop, at least in the American sense. The rock bands leading the way meant the pop stars followed the same template. Even those who joined singing competitions ended up going their own way: take Matt Corby, who was runner-up in Australian Idol‘s fifth season, or Lisa Mitchell, who competed in the first season – both took the singer-songwriter route (and with different takes on husky) and saw relative success inside and outside Australia. I need not feel bad about not covering a lot of ground last week. [NB]

 

[Next week: we explore Australia’s rich indie tapestry.]

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