Once, back in the 60s and 70s, the phrase “world class” demarcated the line between Australian arts – including popular music – and the rest. Our cultural cringe was as rife as gonorrhoea was at the time, but not nearly as easy to treat with a shot of penicillin.
Since then, after rock raiders like INXS, AC/DC and Men At Work and more recently Vance Joy, Sia, Flume and Courtney Barnett rained down international hits, I thought we’d risen above the cringe. But has it simply become internalised? Are our modern day writers and performers really valued in contemporary Australia? Or are we battling the 2019 version of this phenomenon?
Whether abstract or figurative, mural, statue or installation, our monuments and public artworks talk to us about who we are. The large majority salute white men – traditionally explorers, political and military figures. In recent years, paint protests on Captain Cook statues in Sydney and Melbourne, including on Australia Day, display changing attitudes to the status quo. Sports legends are also popular in public art, but surely there is more to the Australian soul than that.
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Read moreRepresenting the arts, ballad and short story writer Henry Lawson (1867–1922) has 12 various statues, plaques and artworks in his honour, while Adam Lindsay Gordon (1833–70) has nine, according to Monuments Australia. It is dead-set true that Australia needs more monuments to women, although Dorothea “I love a sunburnt country” Mackellar, opera singer Nellie Melba, children’s writer-illustrator May Gibbs, novelist Miles Franklin and poet Judith Wright are among those remembered this way.
People of colour also need more public art tributes. It would be terrific to see good renditions of Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter serenading each other in Fitzroy, for instance, although it is challenging for people well and truly alive, like Archie, to face a statue of themselves without some confusion.
Slowly, I believe, the cultural cringe that sees contemporary musicians as not worthy of respect is changing. It is interesting that Queensland, once at war with rock as detailed in Andrew Stafford’s book Pig City, has led the way since 2010 with their Go Between Bridge (to the Go-Betweens), ornate 70m Bee Gees Way in Redcliffe, and a giant mural to The Saints unveiled in 2017. Such tributes recognise more recent storytellers and the importance of popular music to the Australian journey.
Michael Hutchence with his partner Rosanna Crash in Hong Kong in 1987. (Collection of Tina Hutchence.) Photograph: SuppliedThey also attract significant tourism boosts for local businesses. Fremantle has its Bon Scott statue drawing selfies galore, but Melbourne and Sydney, the biggest creators of contemporary music stars, songs and recordings, have faltered. AC/DC Lane, Amphlett Lane and Rowland S Howard Lane in Melbourne are significant places to visit. But we need this thinking to proliferate and we need the lasting respect and solidity of beautifully executed, 3D bronze and stainless steel as well.
If our long-resistant cultural cringe is to be put to the sword, arts-centric Yarra Council, rich in rock gigs, bars and entertainment venues, is the right kind of local government to lead the way. Yarra supported Melbourne’s Overload poetry festival for most of its decade-long existence from 2002, evidence that it supports literature and the arts from the most street level up.
Recently the council announced a plan to erect a statue of INXS frontman Michael Hutchence, who wrote the lyrics to great international hits like Original Sin, Never Tear Us Apart and Listen Like Thieves, and sadly died in 1997.
Hutch is the perfect subject for our next contemporary rock statue. It seems cringe-worthy that the man who led what was the biggest band in the world for a couple of years, with international hits through the 80s and 90s, still has no local public monument 21 years after his death. He was more than our most beautiful frontman. He was also a dancer with a rare gift, inspiring his audience to dance with him, a heartbreaking singer and a sensitive, dreamy-minded lyricist whose abiding messages were love and peace.
Revealed: Michael Hutchence adviser used tax haven to exploit unheard songsYes, he is another white man. But Michael Hutchence made 20 years of powerful music with INXS; and also with Ollie Olsen, in Max Q (1989), and on the soundtrack of Richard Lowenstein’s Dogs in Space (1986). That cult classic, which Hutchence also starred in, was filmed and recorded in Richmond, providing a strong link to the proposed site of the statue green-lit by Yarra Council in December. It’s just across from the new statue of Molly Meldrum and his dog Ziggy, near the Wall of Music mural at the back of the Corner Hotel, winner of the publicly-voted Best Large Venue gong at the 2018 Music Victoria awards. There, perhaps, he might invite you in to join him for a quick drink to celebrate music, poetry and the ongoing rhythm of life.
• Jen Jewel Brown is an Australian music writer and poet