INTRODUCTION TO THE INTRODUCTION
This is a fairly meagre attempt to add my own POV to two recent pieces on what some critics and listeners (and detractors) are calling ‘dolewave’. To my ears, it’s Australian guitar pop music, that avoids any sense of power- or punk-. I wrote this on Sunday morning after reading Shaun Prescott’s piece on Crawlspace and having a bit of a chat to him on Twitter. Max Easton posted his own follow-up not long after. Together, they’re entirely good enough. Between them, they’d make a good popular music study group: Shaun’s sense of ideology and social stratification (cultural studies, sociology) meets Max’s careful eye for what my colleagues would call ‘spatial concerns’. Both are equally important: power and place make the world go round.
What struck me about both accounts was the absence of aesthetic politics and taste. Flying Nun style jangle pop is not exactly working class music. (That’s metal.) Why did these bands choose this sound? And why now? Why is there any similarity between them at all in 2014?
My answer to this feels flimsy, at best.
But it’s all that would come to me when I wrote it.
Shaun Prescott published a provocative piece over the weekend on dolewave, that loose collection of Australian pop bands that he expertly describes as being ‘beautiful and poignant in an aggressively sad way’. The vibe of these bands is the eternal share-house, forever stuck at that moment when you say to yourself, ‘Enough of this shit’ but can’t scratch together the bond for your own place. For many of us, this carries right through into our 30s where, ‘Why can’t I afford a house when I work full-time?’ takes over.
It’s such a double-edged frame of mind:
Why can’t I get what I want?
Why do I want what I want?
Age old stuff.
And what I like about some of these bands is that they marry this feeling to some of the more blissful moments extracted from the mess: it doesn’t cost a lot to have a picnic in the park or to record at home. There’s more to life as well as less.
Anyway, what I found interesting in Shaun’s piece was mainly my own baggage, my own history. This is what his writing stirred up.
Let me tell this to you, if you like?
MURMURS OF DISSENT IN AUSTRALIAN GUITAR POP LAST DECADE
I spent about half my 20s around indie-rock bands that sounded like beefed up versions of the current bands pinned ‘dolewave’. This is circa 2002-2008. These bands I’m talking about were kinda sloppy but kinda brilliant pop/rock bands that combined a Flying Nun sensibility/accent with whatever else they could get their hands on: post-punk, select bits of Sonic Youth, classic rock, the poppier end of 80s hardcore, Pavement, Guided By Voices, lo-fi, you name it.
Specifically I’m thinking of bands like The Bites (and later Hand Hell), New Estate, Dollar Bar, The Zebras and a constellation of others that more or less came and went in the blink of an eye. I’d put this era of Screamfeeder in there as well. The production/songwriting on the last couple of Screamfeeder releases are right out of this playbook.
None of these bands had much to do with localised iterations of hardcore or punk or noise in the cities they came from. It just wasn’t that moment. It has none of these roots. This stuff comes out of urban pop scenes.
And musically, this isn’t the pre-history of dolewave. I wouldn’t tar those bands now with an association to this stuff (for reasons described below) but there is a common sensibility at work. These are all bands that are interested in pop structures and suburban Australia and not really knowing what to do next.
To me, they absolutely fit the themes Shaun writes about, if not the clique. These were bands that rejected:
“…the neo-liberal, self-improvement, mortage-till-death, make-a-buck-or-die, protect-at-all-costs impulses which are more real now, in established workaday Australian life…”
They played melodic songs with choruses, to 30 people a couple of weekends a month.
In short, it felt the same.
…all of those bands from last decade were potently uncool at the time.
Some had a following but they were about as far out of vogue as the mind could wander.
I’m glad they were uncool because it was a weird time.
Early 21st century Australia fucking sucked:
Howard was at the height of his powers and seemed unstoppable. He had the best part of a decade left to run.
Alongside which, dance rhythms finally stormed the walls of Indie™ and what should have been a jubilant moment went sour pretty quickly. All of a sudden we had a hundred dance-rock bands propped up by Vice magazine and the return of club nights. In short the tone of the time was: it’s fucking midnight in Australia (politically, socially) so let’s parti!
Rock’s great response: nu-rock. ‘Get Born’ by Jet was released in 2003. Can you imagine playing ‘Bad Decisions’ onstage in an era where people took Jet seriously?
And compounding all this: another cyclical backlash against political correctness. It was particularly brutal this time round. This specific couple of years were probably the most homophobic, munted, patently fuckedheaded moment in Australian music I’ll ever live through. (I hope.) Say what you like about the culture of cheap for-clicks outrage operating at present but it’s 100% better than this era I’m talking about.
So things are going greeeeeaaaat and we have a hundred bands that sound like a danceable dude-bro version of The Cure and a few rawk throw-backs balancing the till.
And in the middle of this?
Kirsty Stegwazi singing about the gentrification of Fitzroy, dumb rich kids and this tale of temp-work laid out over a beautifully pop second verse:
And when you vote me/
From your three-girl/
Dog-eat-dog suburban right-wing Axis-of-evil/
Worst kind of reality I’ve ever been in/
Ask me if there’s room for you and your friends in my life boat/
And I’ll tell you sweat-heart/
I don’t think so.
In Brisbane, Tim Stewart was just as ticked off:
I’ve never known the morning to not give up the night/
There must be ways, we haven’t discussed/
To stop going crazy from doing what we must/
Had a falling out with love and a falling in with lust/
A falling out of favour with the folks on the hill/
(You’re) behaving like a child with your hands in the till/
That was the temperature we were all feeling.
Howard and the passé state of guitar music in Australia.
These bands I loved were playing on a scorched earth. But it was provocative enough to make us all really angry. The enemies were pretty clear. The main one had a name. We could pin the whole monty on him.
UNTIL LABOUR SAVES THE DAY
To me this is the space before dolewave and it bears little stylistic relation to what came next.
Imagine being a teenager listening to years of shitty coke party rock or angry indie-pop and then, when the dawn finally breaks, you get Kevin Rudd (incompetent and a prat) and then Julia Gillard (incompetent and a homophobe), all soundtracked by the dying embers of shit like Sneaky Sound System, Jet’s second album and that half-inflated silverchair reunion.
That’s the germinating political setting of ‘dolewave’ to me.
Dolewave, to me at least, feels exactly like Labour’s legacy, not Howard’s.
I can take or leave many of the bands labelled dolewave but I totally respect all of them for their blanket rejection of this recent past.
For none of what happened in those last years of Howard prepared anyone for what came next. All our pop songs of rejection and home-spun valorisation didn’t mean a thing when the ‘distant future’ proved such a bummer.
Postscript: One day I was walking down the street and ran into a guy I knew who had just returned home to Brisbane from a long stint in Melbourne. I asked him why he moved back and he said, ‘Melbourne’s a great place for a good time and the worst place ever for a bad one.’ And it’s true: it’s hard to get too down on yourself in the clear skies of a Brisbane ‘winter’ plus you never expect much at the height of summer either.