We survived!  Yesterday the partner and I returned from what organisers claim is the world’s biggest touring contemporary music festival – the behemoth that is Australia’s Big Day Out.  We attended the Sydney 22 January show, which was only the second time we’ve done a BDO, the first being in 2001 when we watched the likes of PJ Harvey (who was brilliant), Placebo and Coldplay go through their paces.  Whilst He Who Stayed Up Until Midnight To Book The Tickets and I both love our contemporary music, very much in fact, to the point that for me it’s rare that a week goes by when I don’t return from a visit to my favourite independent music store with a CD or vinyl record in hand, in the days leading up to our, well, big day out we began to feel more than a little apprehensive.

For a start our combined age is 77, which is bloody scary when put like that, so we’re not really in the festival’s target demographic.  Plus neither of us likes the heat and crowds make us nervous (which means we’re not huge fans of the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras either).  And I hate city traffic.  So considering that we were driving three hours to Sydney to share Olympic Park with 50,000 revellers in temperatures hovering over 40 degrees we had every reason to feel a bit on the ‘this could be very scary’ side.

But, yes, we survived, with sore legs and a touch of sunburn our only war wounds.  Though I do have another wound, which I’ll share with you shortly.

The Horrors' Faris Badwan

All the bands we saw largely impressed.  Miami Horror did their New Order-pop thing.  Sugar Army were heavier and moodier than I expected.  Karnivool thrilled with their Tool-esque twists and turns and professionalism.  Decoder Ring were deeper and grungier live than their recordings would suggest.  What I heard of Oh Mercy made me want to learn more about these guys.  Passion Pit, whose Manners album is a bit too poppy for my taste, looked like a bunch of good people – more than once they reminded the audience to look after each other because of the scorching heat.  I thoroughly enjoyed The Horrors; I’d love to see a full-length gig from these guys, although the guitars were lost in what was a muddy mix, but that could have been due to the ear-plugs I wore throughout the day – I used to think ringing in the ears was the sign of a good night out, but these days I love my music too much to do any further damage.

Dizzee Rascal was certainly a crowd favourite – we watched a stadium filled with 30,000 people going, erm, bonkers for the East Londoner.  Lily Allen did her catchy pop thing.  Phrase and his band chucked everything but the kitchen sink into their set and thrilled a small though devoted crowd.  And then there was Muse, who rocked the stadium senseless.  Within a couple of minutes of walking onto the stage they had everyone – and I really do mean everyone – singing along to the chorus of ‘Uprising’, the first song on their overblown but great album ‘The Resistance’:

They will not force us,

They will stop degrading us,

They will not control us,

We will be victorious.

For me, however, it was Peaches who was the pick of the musical crop: funny, funky, sexy, theatrical, outrageous – she was the only act I saw who was committed to actually stirring the pot.

I wrote ‘musical crop’ in the previous sentence because my personal highlight of the entire day was being able to watch Angelica Mesiti’s ‘Rapture (Silent Anthem)’, a piece of video art that won the 58th Blake Prize, which is Australia’s oldest art gong dedicated to ‘spirituality and religious and cultural diversity’ (the latter being more than a little interesting in this context).  In a darkened tent we were invited to sit on bean bags and watch on a large screen slowed-down images of audience faces from the 2008 Big Day Out.  The hero-worshipping eyes, the ecstatic smiles, almost the pain of being so close (close to what? close to so many things) – this is art that knows precisely what it wants to say.  In twenty years time it’ll be this that I’ll recall.  For more information, visit http://www.angelicamesiti.com.

A screen grab from Angelica Mesiti's 'Rapture (Silent Anthem)', 2009.

The crowd?  Despite the heat and the amount of drinking going on and the bucket-loads of other substances thrown into the mix as well and the general overall intensity of the event, everyone in the main seemed polite, respectful and looking out for each other.  In the twelve hours we were there we saw only one altercation, and that was just between a drunk bloke who’d walked into a group of young girls, or the girls had walked into him, whatever, there were just a bit of harmless verbal jousting and that was it.  That the event organisers had set up free water stations, were regularly showering the crowd with water cannons, had volunteers spraying anyone who needed it and were evicting those who looked too wobbly on their feet no doubt helped to keep things as harmonious as possible without it turning into a hippy love-fest.

So, if you’re interesting in sampling what’s hot (huh!) in the Australian and international music scene, there’s probably no better opportunity than the Big Day Out.

But I’d be lying if I finished this post here, because there’s something very worrying going on with this festival.  If you’re looking for a crowd that reflects the diverse cultural mix of modern Australia then you’re not going to find it at Big Day Out.  I was hard-pressed to see anyone of Asian or African or Middle Eastern appearance.  The BDO crowd is 99% Anglo-Saxon.  And very proud of it: there’s a heck of a lot of Aussie-flag capes, Aussie-flag dresses, Down Under terry-towelling hats and nationalistic tattoos on display.  I really have no idea what motivates someone to have HANDMADE IN AUSTRALIA permanently emblazoned across their chest.  One Australian band that I won’t name observed of the crowd that they looked to be ‘a good Aussie lot’, as if this was the best compliment imaginable.  Christ, at one point even the young blokes manning the Skywalker ride got a crowd doing the completely inane ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi!’ chant – I mean, what’s that all about?

Obviously the fact that the festival runs over the Australia Day long weekend has something to do with it, but that can’t explain the intensity of the feeling that’s on show.

Statistics regularly reveal Australia to be one of the most multicultural societies in the world, reputedly second only to Canada.  The 2006 census showed that 50% Australians were born overseas or had one or both parents born overseas.  There are 266 languages spoken at home, the most common being Italian, Greek, Cantonese and Arabic.  But none of this is on show at the Big Day Out.  What’s on show is the most nationalistic crowd you’re ever likely to experience outside of an official Australia Day event.  And, even though I’m a six-generation Australian and rather fond of the country I call home, this display of nationalism didn’t sit comfortably with me one bit.  It’s just plain ugly.  And it’s not harmless cultural pride either.  It’s nationalism, pure and simple.  It’s protectionism, it’s aggressive xenophobia.

In 2007 the Big Day Out organisers infamously reminded attendees that the festival was not an Australia Day event and asked people to leave the flag-waving at home.  Predictably this caused an outcry, with the then prime minister, the fear-mongering John Howard, describing the move as ‘stupid’.  But I reckon the organisers could see the future of their festival and didn’t like it one bit, and I get the feeling they still don’t like it one bit.  Regrettably, though understandably, they’ve not had a second go at stopping the nationalism from getting out of hand.

The potentially frightening thing is this: what exactly did the Sydney crowd have in mind when it sang along so fervently to that Muse chorus?

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