“There was something quite special about those early ARIAs, when peer recognition was the only factor and winners didn’t have to grandstand on TV.”
—Glenn Wheatley, ex-member of Masters and Apprentices
In tuning in to the 2001 Australian Rock Industry Association (ARIA) Awards, I expected to see a lot of shiny outfits, fake boobs, trendy cowboy hats, and, hopefully, some brilliant performances. What I didn’t expect was the repeated bagging, from presenters and winners alike, of other television networks, the appearances of music and media stalwarts, as well as some of the nominees themselves, and a host whose house burned down.
But that’s exactly what I got. Australians used to care about such things as ARIAs and Logies, which are kind of like Emmys, only voted for by the readers of TV Week magazine. But of late, it seems our biggest acts are just too cool for these glamourised productions. Way back in the early ‘90s, when ARIA decided to televise its awards show in order to compete with the newer, funkier Australian Music Awards (which have since disappeared), winning awards was something to be proud of. Australia had long been a place that produced some of the best and most innovative rock and pop music, and recognition was long overdue. The period was a definitive time in Oz music, with both pop and rock finding popularity on the charts and in magazines. It was a time when artists like John Farnham, The Church, INXS, Jimmy Barnes, Hunters and Collectors, and Jenny Morris could all share a stage comfortably. The 15th Annual Aria Awards, our latest gathering of icon-wannabes, proved this is no longer the case.
The ribbing began with the host, Australian stage star David Campbell. As he himself took time to mention in his opening, Campbell is most famous not for his work in theater, but for being the son of Jimmy Barnes. His opening monologue generated few laughs, with many of his jokes coming at the expense of already much maligned targets, including twenty-odd year veteran music reporter, Richard Wilkins, and Australia’s own Popstars’ Scandal’us, to Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and The Footy Show host, Eddie McGuire, not to mention New Zealanders. Campbell was also sarcastic and demeaning towards the audience, often embarrassing himself when waiting for a laugh that never came. When that happened, he blamed “the writers,” without realising that maybe he just sucked.
The show has never gone three hours without controversy of some kind, but it used to be all in the name of a good time. If anything serious did occur on Awards night, incidents were isolated and usually personal between the parties involved. We Australians are renowned for poking fun at ourselves, our way of life, and our stereotypes (look at Crocodile Dundee). What we aren’t known for is making fun of those we consider less than worthy. And Campbell wasn’t the only one to try to get a laugh by denigrating anyone even remotely uncool. This practice continued when usually funny ex-Good News Week hosts Paul McDermott and Mikey Robins delivered a slapped-together routine during their award presention, a routine that involved unnecessary (and unfunny) jibes at Scandal’us and 14-year-old Nikki Webster (who recently scored a Top Three hit single with “Strawberry Kisses”).
Multiple award winners Powderfinger took cheap shots at Webster, country star Lee Kernaghan, and someone who paved the way for them, Tex Perkins of The Cruel Sea. Powderfinger walked home with major awards, including Best Album for Odyssey Number Five (which also won Highest Selling Album, Best Rock Album, and Best Cover Art), Best Song for My Happiness, and Group of the Year, which of course meant they had to appear on stage almost as many times. It seemed as if the boys repeatedly went back to their seats, only to wait for their name to be called out, while deciding whom they would make fun of next.
It was after seeing all of this disrespect that I recalled watching the MTV Video Music Awards last year from my dorm room in Washington, DC. I was annoyed then, seeing the Wayans Brothers, Eminem, Christina Aguilera, and Fred Durst, among others, use the majority of their air time to make fun of or bitch about other performers. It made me long for the day when Michael Bolton used to get a standing ovation. Watching the ARIAs 2001, I was again longing for somebody to put sincerity back into music.
That said, there were a few enjoyable moments during the show, and they came from our veterans, our icons, and our very best. Unfashionable acts like Kernaghan, Wilkins, rock guru Ian “Molly” Meldrum, and 70-year-old country singer Slim Dusty treated the show with the respect it used to deserve, and Special Achievement Award winner Keith Urban accepted his prize with a charming, low-key few words, praising Australian music. Kylie Minogue accepted her Best Female Artist award via satellite from the UK. She also praised the Australian music industry, having a laugh at her own expense, thanks to the informed questions asked of her by presenter Wilkins. He, along with Molly, watched Kylie grow up in the public eye, beginning with her first Number One, a remake of “Locomotion,” back in 1987. This, again, reminded me that our industry newbies lack the sense of solidarity that comes from experiencing the ups and downs of success. The likes of Powderfinger, while playing in pubs for many years before hitting the big time, are only just beginning. While going from success to success, they are yet to experience just what it feels like to be the butt of everyone’s two-bit jokes. Kylie has experienced it, and survived fifteen years at the top of her game, but has only recently regained the respect she so aptly deserves.
It seemed that ARIA producers themselves were attempting to remind us of how exciting it all used to be, momentarily flashing back to ARIAs past, to big name guest presenters like Spice Girl Mel C, Richard Marx, and Janet Jackson, as well as showing some moments of real elation from past winners such as Savage Garden and Tim Freedman of The Whitlams, who accepted the award for Best Group from their namesake, former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.
The highlight of the night, however, came when INXS were inducted into the Australian Rock Industry Hall of Fame. A montage of the group’s most historic moments brought back a lot of memories, while the speeches given by each of the five remaining members of the group were inspirational. Michael Hutchence’s writing partner, Andrew Farris, brought a tear to the eye, reminiscing about the good and bad times in INXS, the future of the band (with new lead singer Jon Stevens, formerly of Noiseworks) and the influence Michael’s charisma and talent had over everyone with whom he came in contact.
I hope that Farris’ words reminded each and every member of the ARIA audience just what such nights used to be about, including the camaraderie of music. The carefree Australian spirit of the ‘70s and ‘80s created bands like INXS and AC/DC taking them to the top and keeping them there, while the sarcastic, caustic, who-gives-a-fuck attitude of the ‘00s is taking them away, forming a new breed of stars who seem to think that the only way to reach the top is to spit on the “little” people on their way.