Peter Garrett: Best of Both Worlds?

Note: there is probably nothing new in this post for Australian readers.

In my last post I hailed M.I.A. for the relative subtlety of her political message which was embedded in, but did not overpower, its medium.  Not all overtly political music is necessarily cringe-worthy though.  Case in point: the grand-daddies of hyper-political music in Australia, Midnight Oil.

Formed in Sydney in 1976, Midnight Oil hit the big time with their 1983 album 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1.  At least three of the songs from that album alone are etched on the Australian psyche: the anti-war anthem ‘Short Memory’, the subversive challenge to the bipartisan pillar of Australian foreign policy that was  ‘US Forces’ (the album was also the band’s first American release) and the pièce de résistance: ‘Power and the Passion’.

Despite the strength of their messages, the music is rarely drowned out.  Neither is it hand-clappy protest music.  It is harsh, direct and engaging.  The music moreover more than matches the content for radicalism.  ‘Power and the Passion’ is a perfect example.  How many other top ten hits contain both a drum solo and a brass outro?

The band’s other great album Diesel and Dust (1987) followed a six-week tour of remote Australia.  The album went platinum in the United States and seven-times platinum in Australia.  It contains the now iconic ‘Beds Are Burning’.  You don’t need me to offer an interpretation.

But Midnight Oil are not only interesting for this blog because their music was political.  Lead singer Peter Garrett is (at least from an Australian perspective) the musician politician.  He joined the left-er of Australia’s two major parties, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) in 2004, two years after Midnight Oil disbanded.  He was elected to the lower house that year and has been an MP ever since.

Garrett has always been a larger than life character, all limbs, bald head and that unique and much-ridiculed dance style.  In 1984 Garrett ran for the Senate as the lead on the Nuclear Disarmament Party ticket.  He polled respectably but failed to gain a seat because the ALP directed its preferences elsewhere.

Labor won government in 2007 and Garrett was rewarded with a Ministry and his dream portfolios of the environment and arts.  In early 2010 he was made the fall-guy (probably unfairly) for a failed home insulation subsidy scheme and stripped of parts of the environment portfolio.  Following the most recent election he was moved to the education portfolio and made a member of the Cabinet.

Garrett has been pretty upfront about the fact that he has had to moderate his views to be a viable member of the ALP.  He has been mocked by the other side of politics, parodied in the media and disowned by many fans.  You only have to look at the comments on some of these YouTube clips to see the deep dismay of many at what is perceived as one of the most dramatic instances of ‘selling out’ ever.  With the recent successes of the Green Party at the federal level – they are a junior partner in the current ruling coalition and hold the balance of power in the upper house – I wonder if he regrets the scale of his compromise back in 2004.  On current polls Labor will be dumped at the next federal election to be held some time before the end of 2013.

In 2009 the Oils reformed to play a concert to raise money for victims of the 2009 Black Saturday bush fires.  Before that televised stadium gig they played two warm up shows in Canberra.  I caught the second.  Apart from the novelty of seeing a Minister dancing maniacally, they were really, really good.  Garrett was clearly enjoying himself (see below clip) and commented on how much better it was than his day job.  The crowd was ecstatic (although crowds are always good in Canberra – we’re just so grateful when someone includes us!)  Thankfully they did not self-censor: ‘US Forces’ was a particular highlight.

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