Fauxstralian Britain

 Mark Simpson on how we’re all Australian now  

(One from the vaults, originally appeared in the Guardian Guide, 2001 – at what now looks like Oz’s cultural high-water mark)

If you listen carefully to the soundtrack on Puppetry of the Penis, a video of the show which recently toured Britain to sell-out audiences in which two Australian men, one with long frizzy hair, the other with a handlebar moustache, make their genitalia do impressions of hamburgers and vaginas, you will hear people laughing. Not the audience, who are too busy steaming up their opera glasses, but millions of Australians. 

Laughing at us.

They’re laughing because, as the video demonstrates amply (though not that amply – contrary to myth, not all Antipodean didgeridoos are as big as Rolf Harris’), the British are suckers who will pay any amount of money to see Australians perform ‘Australian’ for them. ‘Australian’, as any Aussie knows, is a British fantasy of Oz, as fictitious but as profitable as Fosters lager; a cartoon version of an Australia which if it ever existed at all ceased being the dominant one long before Paul Hogan’s first facelift.

This is because Britain is in love with her own vulgar fantasy of Australia, and for some time now has wanted nothing more than to forget her Imperial past, her class culture, her uncertain future – to forget herself and throw her starchy knickers in the air and become ‘Australian’. America is too big and powerful a former colony to patronise, Canada too boring and too French. So we have chosen Australia. 

Truth is, the British have been praying for years that those visitors from the Lucky Country would leave their surfboards under their beds and they would wake up pod-Australians, in a kind of Invasion of the Bollocks Scratchers. Hence Puppetry of the Penis will be watched as a ‘How To’ video by a nation of whingeing Pom Aussie wannabes. 

This Christmas, expect thousands of hotly embarrassed Brit males to be admitted to casualty departments around the country, doubled-up in agony, knees pointing together. Legions of Australian rugby players will have to be hired to tackle the knotty problem. 

However, the worst of it is that for all our desperate, painful attempts to become ‘Australian’, we Poms have only succeeded in becoming lousy Aussies. Australia has been described by the British as ‘Essex plus sunshine’, but actually the flip-flop is rather on the other foot.

As you can see from the evidence accumulated below, Britain today has ended up becoming Australia minus the sunshine, the swimming pools, the dentistry, a functioning transport and health-care system, or the self respect.

POLITICS

According to pollsters, we Brits are now almost as dissatisfied with the monarchy as our Southern hemisphere cousins. Interestingly, Australians recently decided in a referendum that that while they weren’t fond of the monarchy they weren’t too keen on the Republican alternatives either – a position which closely approximates that of British voters today.

The difference is, of course, is that we Brits would never be actually asked by anyone other than a market researcher – or the Guardian – whether we actually want the monarchy or not. And we’re the ones that have to actually have to live with the Windsors, and pick up their bills. 

SPORT

Like the Aussies, the British have succeeded in becoming bad losers as well. Unlike the Aussies we still don’t actually win anything. Meanwhile, it seems to be only a matter of time before England Captain David Beckham forces the England squad to adopt the Aussie Rules Football kit as an ‘efficiency’ measure (he’ll be able to play football and pursue his saucy semi-porno modelling work at the same time).

CULTURE

Many of our intellectuals are not only Australian expats: Germaine Greer, Clive James, Robert Hughes, Rolf Harris. It has been said that British culture has been ‘tabloidised’ – of course The Sun, the uber-tabloid which began this process, is owned by an Australian. However, if instead of ‘tabloidised’ we used the more accurate ‘Australianized’ no one would see what there was to complain about.

Everyone knows that regardless of who comes and goes in Whitehall reshuffles, the real British Culture Secretary for the last twenty years has been Sir Les Patterson. Interestingly, when someone wants to depict ‘Sydney’ visually they show an opera house; when people want depict ‘London’ they now show that big ferrous wheel on the South Bank. 

FOOD

We now all, by law, eat in public, especially on buses. We even eat in our back gardens when there is nothing wrong with our kitchens, poisoning our friends and gassing our neighbours, pretending we know how to use a ‘barbie’.  Often this is because most Brits can’t actually afford to eat ‘out’ properly, certainly not at London prices – which are designed to keep riff raff without company charge-cards out.

So it’s just as well most of us don’t know how many fine, and very, very busy inexpensive restaurants there are in modern Sydney and Melbourne.

SEXUALITY

Gay Pride Marches in Manchester, London and Brighton have renamed themselves ‘Mardi Gras’ parades, imitating, woefully, the world-famous street carnival in sultry Sydney. Every year, thousands of UK gays develop terrible colds as a result of dancing half naked on ‘Priscilla Queen of the Dessert Trolley’ floats in sleet showers.

Meanwhile, the heterosexual population of the UK seems to be becoming as laid back about homosexuality and previously unconventional sexual mores as the Aussies, including: sex out of wedlock, sex not in the missionary position, and even sex with the lights on.

POP

Australian soap operas swallowed British pop music whole. A helium-voiced, big-toothed Australian dwarfette former Neighbours star still reigns supreme in the British pop charts despite launching her pop career way back in the 1980s. This is down to the fact that her name is the most ‘Australian’, silliest name anyone in the UK has heard of and in fact a name the mere pronouncing of which makes anyone sound ‘Australian’. And because it means we can carry on ignoring contemporary, rather more interesting Australian acts, such as The Avalanches.

Meanwhile, the most important rock band of the last decade, Oasis, might have been mistaken for Australians if it wasn’t for their misanthropy and their inability to hold their drink. (It’s clear now that Oasis’ antecedents weren’t the Beatles at all but Men at Work).

MEN

New Lad was just a watered down form of ‘Australian’. A magazine version of ‘mate’ culture (confusingly, ‘Puppetry of the Penis’ is the video of the magazine). Estuary English a poor approximation of Australian. ‘Men Behaving Badly’ was all about this – hence the spin-off ‘Men Behaving Badly Down Under’ was not only inevitable but what the whole series was working towards.

‘Mooning’ only became a New Lad sacrament because we thought it was the national sport of Australia. Ironically, just as Australia was becoming one of the most metropolitan and middle-class countries in the world, we decided that it was a benchmark of non-ponce ‘authenticity’ and vulgarity. How sad are we?

WOMEN

Ladettes are just a pale imitation of Australian women.  (See early Germaine Greer)

TV

ITV has run whole ‘Australian’ weekends (ITV is almost synonymous with ‘Australian’ anyway). The dominant British TV format – reality TV – was developed in Australia, e.g. Sylvania Waters and Popstars. In fact, British docusoaps were really just national talent searches for somebody as irritating and as vulgar as the loud-mouthed woman in Sylvania Waters. (Whom we hated because she had a much higher standard of living than we did).

The biggest TV success of recent years, Big Brother, is clearly based on the British idea of an ‘Australian’ shared house in Willesden, North London, where the residents wear the same shorts in bed and out, and while away the hours making porridge, sunbathing, scratching, getting drunk, and talking complete bollocks. 

There are already rumours that the next generation of Big Brother programmes, tentatively called Big Sis, will feature a cast of out of work actresses thrown together and forced to wear ill-fitting dungarees and endlessly press towels in the laundry room – when they’re not engaging in very unconvincing lesbian love scenes behind bars.

Critics say this has already been done with a programme called The Girlie Show.

FAMOUS ‘FAUXSTRALIAN’ BRITS

  • Robbie Williams
  • Posh & Becks
  • Tracey Emin
  • Jamie Oliver
  • Zoë Ball
  • Damien Hirst
  • Chris Evans
  • Jenny Eclair
  • Davina McCall
  • Keith Allen
  • Chris Evans
  • Kelvin Mackenzie
  • Chris Tarrant

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What Happens When a Giant Brain Meets Kylie?

Genius, pop Svengali, theoretician of cool: Mark Simpson gets to grips with the man who really listens to `La la la, la la la-la la…

What do you hear when you listen to ‘Can’t get you out of my head’? This is a bit of a trick question as you probably don’t listen to ‘Can’t get you out of my head’. Not because, like most hit pop singles that are played endlessly on the radio, in shops, pubs, hospitals and clubs for a while, it is now something that you would never actually play yourself, except maybe at a drunken New Year’s party. But because it was never meant to be listened to in the first place.

It was pop music assembled with fiendish cunning and calculation out of over-familiar cliches (rather like Kylie’s voice, and rather like Kylie herself) to be a hit. By being something you hear but don’t listen to, don’t need to listen to. Background music to dance, drink, shop and die to. If you find yourself actually listening to a pop single, then it has failed. Pop music today is something people hear while doing something or going somewhere more interesting.

Unless your name is Paul Morley. Mr Morley has actually listened to ‘Can’t get you out of my head’. And as the beginning of his new book ’Words and Music: A history of pop in the shape of a city’ (Bloomsbury) makes clear, he was not dancing, drinking, shopping or dying to it, but sitting in his room. Alone. Mr Morley, to be sure, is something of a genius; he is also a very strange man. He appears to have actually listened – not heard, listened – to almost all the music you might file under “Popular”. This is no mean achievement; arguably it’s a very perverse one. What’s more, Mr Morley has done it with a very large brain indeed.

Here’s just one of the many, many fecund paragraphs in Words and Music about what he hears when he listens to ‘Can’t get you out of my head’:

“The song is a fluid thing of deep, deepening mystery, perhaps because what could be so corny, a pop song about love and desire, which doesn’t mean anything beyond its own limited world, has become something so profound. A pop song about love and desire that succeeds in communicating millions of unique things about the unlimited worlds of love and lust. It’s about how everyday life and love are a shifting set of compromises between the ordinary and the extraordinary…”

I’ve always admired Paul Morley, and for that reason I have never actually, properly listened to Paul Morley before. I have often heard him and been very glad to hear him while I did something else more interesting, but I’ve never really paid close attention before. Words and Music is the first time I’ve sat alone in my room with him and really listened. Unlike Morley’s journey with Kylie, I’m not so sure that this has only enhanced my affection.

It isn’t the way that he writes – which is all too frequently stunning. Or the inexhaustible connectivity of his mind, which has more ideas per sentence, per phrase, per comma, than most writers have in their entire lives. It’s just that, like the meandering narrative and deliberately uber-pretentious conceit of this book, I’ve lost track of what the point of Morley is. Perhaps though, this is my fault. You see, I have also lost track of what the point of pop music is.

Once upon a nostalgic time, pop music was invested with far too much meaning. This was the late 1970s and early 1980s, Morley’s heyday as a rock critic, when he coined the phrase New Pop to describe a kind of pop that was smart and superficial, profound and commercial all at once. In other words, pop music at that time was made in the image of Paul Morley. Little wonder then that he actually entered the Matrix, via projects he was involved in to varying degrees such as Art of Noise and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and transfigured himself into a pop star/Svengali/theoretician of cool.

However, since then pop music, which once seemed so important, so precious and so other-worldly at the same time as deliciously vulgar, has swallowed everything and become the world, and has, inevitably, turned out to be, like us, rather less interesting than we thought. Like Kylie, it is bland, shiny, serviceable, very professional and for the most part entirely undeserving of serious thought.

Morley knows about this problem. It is after all his problem. Hence the poser on the back of his book: “Has Pop Burnt Itself Out?” Hence the book is (very) loosely based around the (deliberately uber-pretentious) conceit of Morley driving in a Smart car with Kylie towards “a virtual city built of sound and ideas” while trying to convince her to allow him to write a book about her. It’s all very ironic, but it is also, I’m sorry to say, ultimately a bit pathetic too.

Morley of course knows this as well. His very large brain understands everything, but it most particularly understands that writing about music is as stupid as “dancing to architecture”. In fact, it’s rather easier to imagine Morley dancing to architecture than actual music, which would be really ridiculous. Actually, the trouble with this book is not that it’s like watching someone dance to architecture, but that sometimes it’s like watching your dad dance to architecture.

Music is a form of architecture. Especially the kind of popular music that Morley is most interested in: the cool, structured, mathematical electronic music which began with Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk, and which influenced his favourite bands New Order and Human League. And also ‘Can’t get you out of my head’, which steals from all of these.

As Morley puts it in his groovy architect boogie:

“It is an elegant demonstration of the way that all great music is about a relationship between sound and silence, between holding and letting go, between motion and pause.”

The architecture of Morley’s own book is, however, a mess. Even the blurb has no structure: “part novel, part critique, part history, part confessional, part philosophical enquiry, part ultimate book of musical lists”. If it were a building, Words and Music would be condemned. As a piece of pop it would not be requested on the main dancefloor, but it might possibly make the chill-out room.

Of course, this is deliberate too. Words and Music is ambient, often dazzling prose that never really arrives anywhere, least of all a “virtual city built of sounds and ideas”. Morley is Eno via a wordprocessor rather than a synthesiser. As Morley writes on his hero:

“Eno, to edit a long story short, coined the word `ambient’ to describe a kind of intellectual easy-listening music. An easy-listening music that has certain levels of difficulty in its make-up. A background music that you could take – as a weighty provocation – or leave – as a sound drifting around its own pretty pointlessness.”

Likewise, to edit a long, long story short, Morley’s prose drifts around its own pretty pointlessness.

(Originally appeared in Independent on Sunday 03/08/2003)

Anyone Can Be Kylie Now

This viral video promoting a new X-Box dancing game is nicely done and very funny. But I think it also illustrates quite dramatically, if probably unintentionally, what metrosexuality can mean.

Although of course it’s played for giggles, the story of the male Kylie obsessive having his legs waxed and painstakingly assembling his own camp Kylie outfit, gold lame hot pants included, copying and practising her daft dance moves in his living room – and finally managing to take her place on stage – is in some ways about as serious cultural observation as you can get. In a post-metro world men are increasingly doing and wearing and using and expressing – and shaking – things which before were restricted to women. And of course, ‘gays’.

The ‘stalkers’ sexuality isn’t stated, though making him look a bit average-joe (albeit with very appealing eyes), giving him a Scottish accent (which to English ears sounds butch) and face fuzz is perhaps to discourage the viewer from assuming that he’s gay. He could be, but he could also be bi or straight. It’s immaterial – just as sexual orientation is immaterial for metrosexuality.

Anyone can be Kylie now.

And thank God the ad didn’t go down the manly strap-on route of a lot of advertising recently, and try to frantically butch up something that isn’t very butch, and start talking about ‘mandancing’ or some such shite. Though perhaps the reason this viral doesn’t do that is because it is disco dancing, after all.

Sometimes though metrosexuality isn’t just about enjoying some of the sensuality and fun that was until recently ‘only for girls’. Sometimes it can be about actually taking the place of girls. And locking them in the dressing room while you prance around in their place (see also nice Mr Cameron and Clegg, who are so metro, by politician standards, they don’t appear to need many actual women in their Coalition cabinet).

But then again, post-feminism, we think nothing of women taking the place of men.

Hats off to Kylie for being such a good sport in taking part in this video – which, even if you don’t accept what I’m saying about metrosexuality, is clearly based on the idea that anyone can ‘do’ Kylie.

And what’s more, they’ll ask you back for an encore.

Tip: Andre Murracas