The late 80s and early 90s witnessed the wide-spread popularity of songs about work from working class artists such as Jimmy Barnes, Midnight Oil and The Black Sorrows. Even artists whose images were not built around the working class, like John Farnham, took up the cause of the worker.
It was all about collectivism, the grind of work and the corporate irresponsibility of employers to workers epitomised in songs such as Jimmy Barnes’ Working Class Man and Midnight Oil’s Blue Sky Mine. But the evidence suggests that not too many popular artists are singing about these issues now.
Rock music’s history is closely bound to the world of work. It emerged through Rhythm and Blues which has its origins in Afro-American slave music. The rhythm of this music paced that of work, while the lyrics reflected the terrible conditions under which slaves worked. With this long history and close association with the experiences of work it seemed a reasonable thing to examine how popular music, that which fills our airways, MP3 players and television stations, talked about work.
I decided to examine the popular Australian-produced music of two half decades - 1989-1993 and 2001-2005. These half-decades were purposefully chosen because the former was a period of recession and rising unemployment; the latter an economic boom period of falling unemployment. It would therefore be expected that some difference in singing about work might occur.
Yet the two half decades also have some important similarities.
First and foremost both were rocked by corporate scandals including the demise of Bond Corporation in 1989 with the then largest corporate debt in Australian history, and in the 2001-2005 period there was the James Hardie asbestosis crisis and the corporate mismanagement and ultimate collapse of both HIH and OneTel.
Both periods also ended in significant industrial relations changes - the Industrial Relations Reform Act (1993) and WorkChoices in 2005. It would therefore appear reasonable that there would also be some distinct similarities in the music of the two periods.
Every song on an Australian album in the top 50 ARIA album charts for the years in question were scanned for messages about work and the assumption of similarity was quickly refuted. Gone are the earlier collective voices of “workers of the world, run to the top of the mountain” to be replaced with individual reflections such as “why do I spend my whole damn life chasing paper …”
Gone also is the serious reflection of work as “hard” as in John Farnham’s “as the clock winds down on another day, worked your hands to the bone”.
Disappearing too is the class consciousness of songs such as Working Class Man and Standing on the Outside. Instead, the working class image has been borrowed by artists such as Shannon Noll who sing, not about work, but about love and relationships.
Most dismally, despite the corporate scandals of both periods, scarcely one Australian song hit the charts in the latter period to lament corporate misbehaviour at the expense of the worker. The John Butler Trio stood alone. By comparison, Midnight Oil took up the banner of the victims of Wittenoom and the earlier period also saw various artists including John Farnham, The Black Sorrows, Iva Davies, Ice House and Cold Chisel raise awareness of corporate interest at the expense of workers through their popular music.
It would be easy to explain this all away by the boom economic times we have recently been experiencing. But are things really so wonderful that our popular artists find no pressing need to raise public consciousness of some glaring issues affecting working conditions and worker rights? Only the John Butler Trio seems to think these issues of sufficient importance and, more importantly, only the John Butler Trio has managed to get these issues into the popular charts.
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