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Maintain your rage: Why I want Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott to guest-programme ABC rage

The following is a guest post by Hugh Jorgensen

The history of musical atrocities committed by Australian politicians is a disturbing one. Craig Emerson’s ‘one-man Skyhooks-cover-band’ last year was just the latest stomach-knotting recital from an MP that has forever tainted an otherwise treasured song.

In 2005, Alexander Downer did irreparable damage to our standing in Asia by subjecting the region’s diplomatic community to his cover of Elvis’ ‘It’s Now or Never. In 2007, Bronwyn Bishop and Tony Abbott tried to conjure up some Astaire-Garland magic with a duet of ‘We’re a Couple of Swells,’ (for those too young to remember, it’s from the 1948 talkie Easter Parade – contemporary!) And, in 2010, Joe Hockey donned a tutu and pranced around to ABBA’s ‘Dancing Queen’ on live TV (he has since claimed the Docklands-Nuremberg defence: ‘I was just following Micallef’s orders’).

But as the list of politician song-crime grows ever more heinous, I’ve thought of a way for our MPs to give something back to an art-form they have thus far only contaminated. The reparations involve, in part, answering a question I’ve often pondered: ‘do Australian MPs interpret music in ways that generally reflect their political ideologies?’

I’ve long suspected this is the case, but to my knowledge there is no reputable dataset from which one can draw a justifiable conclusion.

The most relevant research in this area comes from a handful of American psychologists who, after multiple surveys of thousands of subjects, found progressive liberals tend to prefer more abstract and poetical forms of music: music that is musically and lyrically challenging (showing a stronger preference for jazz, folk, modern rock and classical music). Conversely, conservatives generally opt for music that is ‘familiar’ and that doesn’t require too much interpretation in order to be enjoyed (country). Naturally, these results should be taken with a grain of salt. Although the authors insist their work was not political in intention, they do concede their own progressive tendencies potentially undermine the neutrality of the study’s design (on their finding that conservatives also have a greater fear of death, one professor notes: “What’s wrong with fearing death? If you don’t fear death, evolution eliminates you from the population”).

In any event, data on the musicological preferences of the men and women who inhabit the Australian parliament is scant.  It is also a slightly more complex situation in Australia given the bizarre social-conservative/economic-liberal/agrarian-socialist mix of the LNP.

Nevertheless, there is the occasional piece of anecdotal evidence that potentially suggests the above research may also have some potency for ‘Straya. When Wayne Swan revealed his adoration for the multi-layered blue-collar social poetry of Bruce Springsteen, Joe Hockey responded that ‘rock music’ (therefore Springsteen) is ‘just for entertainment.’ And, while hardly an extensive comparison (this is a blog, get over it), might there something to be said for the fact that ‘Beds are Burning,’ the most famous song by Midnight-Oil-frontman-cum-ALP education-minister Peter Garrett, contains this challenging refrain, inspired by the native title debate:

“How can we dance when our earth is turning,
How do we sleep while our beds are burning?”

Whereas Angry Anderson, formerly-frontman-of-Rose-Tattoo-soon-to-be-National-Party-candidate, is most famous for belting out the chorus line:

 “I’m a bad boy … a bad boy for love,
I’m a bad boy … a bad boy for love”

Which is about being, well, a bad boy. For love. This is not to undermine Anderson’s legendary Aussie-rock anthem, so much as point out that the two songs and musicians cater to audiences in … different ways.

And then there are the words of Australia’s own doyenne of conservative philosophy, John Howard. The man who makes Ned Ludd look like Thomas Edison. Yes, John Howard and his ironic love for the melodies – i.e. not the lyrics – of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. In Howard’s words: “[to say that] someone who may not share the views of the vocalist, can’t enjoy the music … that’s the sort of thing you expect from the politically correct brigade.” A ‘brigade’ that presumably includes people such as… well, Dylan and Baez.

But what we really need before we can say anything meaningful about this subject is a more reliable time-series of anecdotal data. And, as the title of this piece suggests, I have an idea about where to get it.

As our political masters prepare to bunker down in the bitter campaign trenches for another six months of mud-slinging electoral warfare, I propose we set aside one day in 2014 for a Joyeux-Noel style truce on the famous couches of ABC’s ra-ra-ra-ra-Raaaage.

Yes, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott ought to participate in a ‘RAGE election special’ (hopefully the first of many), where each party leader gets to introduce 25 videos of their own choosing (or, if they are feeling really generous, 20 each and 10 to Christine Milne).  Of course, Abbott and Gillard don’t have to film their introductions next to one another (let’s be realistic here). That can be sorted out later with THE MAGIC OF TELEVISION.  Inevitably, the title of the special would be the Whitlamesque ‘maintain your rage.’

Sure, both leaders have previously released occasional tidbits about their musical predilections to poor-man wankmags such as Grazia and The Australian: Tony Abbott apparently likes listening to Elvis, Glen Campbell, Roy Orbison and the Beach Boys, whereas the Prime Minister’s ‘go-to artists’ (which read suspiciously like a jukebox playlist at a western suburbs RSL) are: Springsteen, the Oils, Chisel and Crowded House.

But the problem with puff-pieces on politicians is that you can never be sure if the responses provided are ‘gospel truth.’ Do they actually represent what the politician in question thinks? Or, more likely, are they just some pap that has been churned out by PR-reps and voluntary interns monitoring electorate email accounts?   How else could you explain Joe Hockey’s inclusion of Delta Goodrem’s ‘Believe Again,’ Nickelback’s ‘Far Away,’ and Gabriella Cilmi’s ‘Sweet About Me’ in a list of his favourite songs of all time? (I hate to sound like a musical snob but the idea that a 45-year-old male’s favourite songs of all time appear to be ‘the last three tracks played by Kyle and Jackie-O’ is … anyway).

The same goes for Kevin Rudd’s ‘all-time favourite’ list, which conveniently manages to have something for several major demographics: Sinatra (seniors), John Denver (rural), Handel (nouveau-riche), Israel Kamakawiow’ole (Greens voters), Midnight Oil (outer-suburbs) and Powderfinger (swinging voters).

Hopefully, by forcing Gillard and Abbott to compile their Rage playlists on-site and introduce them in person (without a PR au-pair to hold their hand), both leaders would have a strong incentive to select songs they actually cared for and could say something interesting about.  It would be hard to feign genuine affection – before camera – for a song they did not actually appreciate but chose in order to appeal to voters from outside their base … as entertaining as it might be to see Tony Abbott introduce Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way,’ or Julia Gillard present anything by Kevin Bloody Wilson.

Of course, there is a valid concern that every man, woman and angsty rage-watching teen would pore over each leader’s playlist and thereby draw unwarranted assumptions about Gillard’s and Abbott’s personalities. And sure, the most likely outcome is that their respective musical choices would just confirm our prejudices about either person. But just think of the valuable information to be mined! Data is just so in right now! (see: Nate Silver) Although, I guess it might also be a distraction from official government or opposition policy (or lack thereof) and other big issues that actually matter … why yes, we can start filming this weekend!

By Hugh Jorgensen