1987, Music, Society

Diesel and Dust (1987) by Midnight Oil

My whole life I’ve sort of wondered why “Beds are Burning” was a hit. (It topped our chart when I was 6.) I never liked the song but I never listened to lyrics.

Finally listening to this album after all these years, I find that I like the rest of the music on the record as much as I like the music in “Beds are Burning.” So let’s get the easy part out of the way and talk about the music:

This music reminds me not just a little bit of Billy Idol: mainstream ’80s pop rock posing as punk to those of us who don’t know better because their singer is not a conventional singer and sneers a lot. I can’t tell you why that rubbed me the wrong way when I was a kid and a teen – maybe it was because I liked conventional singers? – but, as an adult, it rubs me the wrong way because it feels inauthentic. Garrett is a punk singer in need of a punk band but, at least on this record, he’s fronting a band that is in need of a better vocalist if their otherwise middle-of-the-road music is going to win me over. So, safe to say I don’t like the music here.

But that’s not why this record is a big deal and it’s not why the record is at least worth discussing.

Because the real reason to talk about this album is that this record is about indigenous rights in Australia. To my knowledge, it is the first mainstream Australian rock album to discuss this and, moreover, it went something like 7 times platinum in Australia, meaning that a hell of a lot of people heard it.

Having lived in Australia myself (albeit briefly) I have a hard time imagining the cultural impact of this record, as I found Australia to be significantly more brazenly racist than Canada (at least until the rise of The Rebel) and so I’m left wondering a couple things: did Australians buy this record and not internalize it’s message? Or did they internalize this message and what I saw was an improvement? Was it just one generation? Am I speaking from ignorance given I haven’t been there in well over a decade? It is, to the best of my knowledge, still considered one of the great Australian albums (considered the best by at least a few writers) and the band are an institution, like a more politically active, more contemporary Tragically Hip or something. (To add to their impact, Garrett was a minister in the Australian government at one point. Jesus.)

The thorny question about this record for (many) people in 2017 is that the members of Midnight Oil are “white.” In this age of apparent hyper-sensitivity and easy outrage – I say “apparent” because I consider the internet merely a megaphone for these feelings, not the creator of these feelings – an album about indigenous rights and culture made by white people is an easy target for the criticism of “cultural appropriation.” Some of the songs are just about indigenous rights but some songs aim to tell indigenous stories and even back in the 1980s, some were saying Midnight Oil had no right.

But the little bit of reading I’ve done on it suggests to me that Midnight Oil went to fairly great lengths to expose white Australia to the issues of the indigenous people. As a mainstream rock band, they had an audience that an activist wouldn’t, or that aboriginal musicians likely wouldn’t. They seem to have gone to fairly great lengths to include aboriginals in their promotion of these issues.

So my concern around labeling something like this “cultural appropriation” is based around this question: what do we want people to do? Do we want people to ignore the suffering of others or do we want people to pay attention to it? If we want them to pay attention to it, we shouldn’t then condemn them for the way they pay and draw attention to these problems, should we? We can’t have it both ways. Nobody knows what the right way to handle subject matter like this is until people react. Midnight Oil could not have guessed that this would be one of the biggest albums in Australian history but certainly that’s better than them ignoring the issues altogether, right?

Anyway, can’t say I like the music, but it provoked much thought, which is something.


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