One Australian's experience of defining her own cultural identity through the music of her home country.
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When I was 12, I left my home country of Australia for the big city lights of London. While I’ve been back several times in the years that followed our move, something I have struggled with as a young adult is forming my own cultural identity, finding myself in a culture that is not really my own. I was lucky enough to go to an international school, and while this did open incredible doors for me, it led to some disconnect, not only between myself and my home country but also between me and British culture; something I’d not really experienced directly until university. Finding myself in this cultural limbo has meant that I’ve had to find identity in places other than my surroundings. For me, one of the biggest sources of this has been music.
Listening to songs that are fundamentally ‘Australian’ has made me feel at home, even though I’m thousands of miles away. It has allowed me to shape my sense of self for myself; someone who isn’t entirely Australian but who is fundamentally that too. Music has always had an incredibly transformative effect on me and finding my ‘home’ while away from home has been one of the most important things I’ve gleaned from it. These are the songs that have had the greatest impact on my cultural development, and I hope you can take something from them too.
Down Under – Men at Work
What is possibly the most classic Aussie song on this list, Down Under is what most people would think of when they consider Australian music. I first formed a proper connection to this song just before we moved, for exactly that reason; there was something about the funky beat and slang-based lyrics that evoked such a joyous feeling of home. I can vividly remember crying to Down Under in the weeks leading up to the big move because it was while listening to its unmistakable introduction that I began to come to terms with what I was leaving behind. Even though it came out long before I was born, let alone before I thought of myself as an Australian, there is something about this tune that takes me right back at home every time I hear it, and I am sure it is much the same for other Aussies, international or otherwise. Australian culture is something that I find hard to define for people who have never experienced it firsthand; it’s a fascinating mash of elements from all over the world, baked together in a melting pot of 45-degree weather. Hearing that represented, vegemite and all, in a cheesy tune like this is an incredibly powerful thing by way of my Aussie identity, even if the only time I hear it is in an ‘oldies’ club mix.
Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again - The Angels
This song has an interesting place within Australian cultural history, less so because of the song itself, but rather its reception and what it represents for the Australian people. Originally released as a ballad, this tune was re-mastered in a more upbeat rock style, which defined the Australian music scene in the 70s and 80s. Written after the lead vocalist lost his girlfriend in a motorcycle accident, the song stayed on the charts for 19 weeks after its initial release and was voted in the top 100 most Aussie songs of all time. The reason it is significant, however, is not due to its emotional backstory or lyrics but rather because of the Australian public’s reaction to it. In the great tradition of audience participation, the Australian people created a call and response chant to the inevitable question of “Am I ever gonna see your face again?”. I don’t think I can use the language I normally would when singing along to this song here, but please do yourself a favour and find one of the recordings from when a crowd was present. This song was introduced to me a few years after I’d moved, around the time I really discovered music. It was a bonding experience between my Dad and me, him being a young man in Australia at the time this music was coming out, and me being very happy to take any opportunity that I could to swear loudly. Connecting with others through music, especially my Father, has been instrumental (if you’ll pardon the pun) in the development of my identity as an Australian living abroad. Even though it is incredibly profane and maybe a little bit disrespectful, something about violent swearing sung in tune by thousands of people really manages to encapsulate the spirit of Australia.
Smoko - The Chats
I can still remember the first time I heard ‘Smoko’ by The Chats. The music video had gone a bit viral on Aussie Facebook (having racked up nearly 15 million views), and inevitably came up on my feed, quite possibly changing the course of my life as a music listener. The Chats are one of the most well-known pub punk/rock bands in Australia, with their tunes being defined by grungy messy guitar riffs and lyrics with a very yell-able quality. For those not in the know, ‘smoko’ is a cigarette or lunch break from work, something most identified with ‘tradie’ culture, or anyone who works in a manual labour job. If you listen to Smoko, Australian or not, it’s incredibly likely that you will be singing it for weeks to come, as all of my home country was for a good portion of 2017. This song helped me to define my cultural identity as a young person; The Chats certainly aren’t your parent’s punk band, and for me, are representative of the developing music scene back home. Through songs that sound like they were written in your mate’s garden shed, the band is able to capture some of the grittier sides to Australian culture that maybe aren’t as familiar to the outside world. They’ve got the ‘Aussie-ness’ of crocodile Dundee, with more of the authenticity, and have been vital in my journey of discovering what being Australian means to me. A great big chunk of my cultural consciousness has been formed by my parents, as they are the biggest connection I have to back home, so finding something in which I can find myself as an Australian individual was a significant turning point in my efforts to define myself in relation to my culture.
White Wine In the Sun – Kate Miller Heidke
Taking a sharp turn from grungy punk bangers, this song is actually a cover of a lovely Tim Minchin ballad, but that I feel is arguably better than the original. This is a Christmas song, something that we don’t have many of in Australia, that personally never fails to make me cry like a baby. One of the strangest parts of Australian identity, which for me is also one of the most fundamental, is our hot Christmases; seafood and beer for lunch, followed by a swim in the pool to escape from the ridiculous heat. Living abroad has meant that I’ve not been home for Christmas in 7 years, and for someone who is a big fan of the season, this was one of the hardest parts about moving. This song beautifully captures the feeling of coming home to family but also reminds me of what I am missing out on by not being there. Even though I have to stop myself from booking a flight back every time I listen to it, finally having a Christmas song that speaks to our experience of the holiday, and such a stunning one at that is so validating. This song just goes to show the power of music and reminds me that I am not alone in my ex-pat experiences, even though it certainly can feel like it when you are thousands of miles away from home.
Rae Street - Courtney Barnett
Returning to some of the more up and coming music from back home, we have one of my favourite artists at the moment, Courtney Barnett. While her music has traditionally been more along the lines of The Chats, recently she has taken a turn towards more relaxed tunes, with Rae Street being a perfect example of this. This song is an ode to suburban life, with lyrics centring on the little mundane moments that fill the everyday. Relatively simple, this song takes me back to childhood; transcending the more performative representations of Australia that some of these other songs utilise, but being incredibly evocative of Home nonetheless. Anyone who grew up in the suburbs, wherever that may have been, can relate to this one and its bitter-sweet take on nostalgia. While this song does remind me of what could have been had we stayed, something about Courtney Barnett’s music makes me feel connected to Australia despite the years between us, but in a way that validates the new identity I’ve shaped for myself in that time.
And so, this is the music that has made me. It’s a messy collection, with little reason or rhyme but it has all been fundamental in shaping my identity as an Australian abroad.