Midnight Oil Brings Australia Home

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In the days immediately following my return to Australia in September 2017, after almost 30 years of living in the United States, an old high school friend invited me to go with her to see Midnight Oil at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl. I was an Oils fan as a teenager almost by osmosis: My best friend was obsessed with them, and my stepfather was part of the same late-70’s Australian punk scene from which they sprang.

I arrived at the Bowl in a daze, an otherworldly shock at being home in Melbourne after so many years. The show was electric: The frontman Peter Garrett had the same energy as he’d had when I saw them in the same location three decades earlier (despite Garrett taking a long break from the band, during which time he became a federal politician). A soft autumn rain fell on the crowd as thousands of voices around me rose to sing along, to anthems like “Power and the Passion” — songs I’d not heard in public in years. I felt inextricably at home, surrounded by people who shared my musical culture — a culture I’d spent most of my life missing.

Last weekend I saw Midnight Oil again, at Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne. They are in the midst of their “Resist” tour, supporting an album of the same name. In June they’ll take the tour — which they say will be their last — to the U.S., playing far smaller venues than Rod Laver’s almost 15,000 seats. I wish I could see them in a more intimate setting, but I’m not sure it would make up for that sense of camaraderie, of a huge crowd singing along to every song.

At Rod Laver, the opening band was Amyl and the Sniffers, a ferocious anthemic pop-punk band that is steadily on the rise in Australia and gaining recognition internationally as well. Amy Taylor is a force as lead singer, her long blonde mullet and sneering, strutting stage antics like a mix of Chrissie Hynde, Mick Jagger and Johnny Rotten, with a dash of Gwen Stefani. She and her band are also unapologetically Australian, her thick accent shining through, her lyrics about pubs and chip shops as well as more universal topics. Are they too Australian, I wondered, to break through to an American audience? What does that even mean?

Australia, of course, has had more than its fair share of music that made it big overseas. AC/DC, INXS, Iggy Azalea, Kylie Minogue, Tame Impala, The Bee Gees … the list could go on and on. And yet some musicians that are absolutely iconic here in Australia have never quite broken through in the U.S.

Crowded House can pull in a fairly large audience in American venues, bolstered by the enduring success of their 1986 hit “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” which reached No. 2 on the Billboard charts in the U.S., though many Americans who are familiar with that song wouldn’t know that the band has continued to produce music to great success in Australia.

Nick Cave (who, admittedly, has not lived in Australia since 1980) holds a large cult following globally, which seems to be growing exponentially every year. But Paul Kelly, who is regularly (and only somewhat accurately) described as Australia’s Bob Dylan, has never gained a large foothold in the U.S. market, despite touring there regularly. His 1988 song, “Dumb Things,” which was on the soundtrack of the movie “Young Einstein,” was his most successful international hit.

I’ve seen Paul Kelly play in America roughly a dozen times, usually in tiny venues. I wonder why he does it, when he can easily fill arenas at home. Perhaps the experience of intimacy is as magical to him as it is to the audience — and it is magical, heartbreaking, transfixing. I’ve brought along American friends and family to his shows, hoping that by listening to this intensely Australian singer who has meant so much to me that they might understand something of my Australian soul.

They usually don’t get it. I’ve wondered aloud for decades why that is. My brother had the most poetic response: “Listening to Paul Kelly is Australian in the same way as the spooked feeling that grips you when you’re alone in the bush. Try telling someone about that — unless they’ve experienced it, unless they’ve lived here, they won’t get it.”

I have a more straightforward theory, which is that Americans and Australians generally have very different relationships with sincerity. Kelly’s songs are often beautifully earnest — there is very little sneer, and the occasional winks are so dry that non-Australians might miss them completely. In American pop culture, sincerity tends to be treated with distrust, especially in the too-cool world of rock ’n’ roll.

I believe there’s something truly special happening in Australian music at this moment, particularly in the punk and noise rock arenas, and I hope bands like Amyl and the Sniffers, and my current obsession, Tropical F*** Storm (sometimes known as TFS), will break through to a worldwide audience. (Seriously, if you like your music loud and slightly discordant but thoroughly melodic, you should check out both bands — TFS is also touring the U.S. this year.)

The world has missed out on so many great Australian acts, in almost every genre, artists who just never managed the leap across the Pacific. Thank the goddess that I’m home now, to sing along, to revel in their greatness.

Now here are this week’s stories:

Australia and New Zealand

Cheng Lei, who was a business news host for CGTN, China’s main international broadcaster.Credit…Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
  • Australian Journalist Who Worked for Chinese Media Stands Trial in Beijing. Cheng Lei, a former CGTN host, was detained in 2020. The Chinese authorities have accused her of divulging state secrets but offered no specifics.

  • How Australia Became an N.B.A. Point Guard Pipeline. The N.B.A. Global Academy has developed a reputation for training elite young passers, including Josh Giddey, the sixth overall pick in last year’s draft.

  • Hillsong, Once a Leader of Christian Cool, Loses Footing in America. Amid a series of crises, including the resignation of its leader, the evangelical powerhouse has shed more than half its American churches in just a few weeks.

  • ‘Can’t Cope’: Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Suffers 6th Mass Bleaching Event. This year offers a disturbing first: mass bleaching in a year of La Niña. The grim milestone points to the continued threat of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.

Around the Times

Ukrainian servicemen help a family cross a river on the outskirts of Kyiv on Thursday.Credit…Ronaldo Schemidt/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
  • More Mixed Signals From Russia as Ukraine War Enters Sixth Week

  • Many Teens Report Emotional and Physical Abuse During Lockdown. New data on teen mental health during the pandemic suggests that for many, home life was full of stressors like job loss, hunger and even violence.

  • She Took the White House Photos. Trump Moved to Take the Profit. The former chief White House photographer made plans to publish a book of Trump photos. The former president had other plans.

  • This Is What Happens When Globalization Breaks Down. The story of one shipping container from a factory in China to a warehouse in the United States traces the arc of a global supply chain consumed by trouble.

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