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The Sydney Morning Herald and the cultural life of Sydney

Moving to Sydney from Melbourne two weeks ago has pitched me into a realm of "branded content" that's fluid and without boundaries that stylistically apes media's alpha predator, the music video, the format that obliterated the distinction between salesmanship and entertainment. I had what I'm now starting to suspect is a quaint notion that media properties are anchored to particular places and their mission is to reflect upon and inform us about our shared world. In transit I encountered nothing but narratives wrapped around generally broad marketing opportunities: tourism advertorial videos on the airport bus, "Barney the Dinosaur" playing on the television screens in the departure lounge at the airport, pay television on my seat back in the airplane, convenience food identified by brand logo's offered for sale as the in flight meal, and when I'm staying in hotels I'm drawn like a moth to a flame to vapid television programs that are exercises in brand-building, for example "Victoria Beckham: Coming to America."

I don't doubt that I'm part of a culture that needs to be more mindful about the role of art to warn, nourish, and tickle the soul. When I think of the word "media" the image that comes to mind is of a Sunday edition of the New York Times -- online or the paper edition -- with its long, thought-provoking essays. So, I feel that I should welcome the Sydney Morning Herald seeding and encouraging debate by its sponsorship of the "Sydney Sustainable Futures 2030" discussions at the Sydney Town Hall. But I want the debates and soul-searching within the pages (or on the screens) of the newspaper itself, not as branded-content marketing synergies preceded by a couple of lead-in "teaser" op-ed columns. When I shake the Sydney Morning Herald and a slight but colorful lifestyle magazine falls out almost every day, my heart sinks. Robert Whitehead, who introduced and steered the fate of many of the magazines was the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald in the first few years of this century. On May 30, 2005 he wrote an editorial that introduced a Sydney Morning Herald initiative, the "Campaign to fix Sydney." Three months later he resigned and took charge of marketing and newspaper sales for the paper.

Last Tuesday night Robert Whitehead made some brief comments at the beginning of a discussion about the cultural destiny of Sydney at the Town Hall. The Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, the director of the Sydney Festival, Fergus Linehan, theatre director Neil Armfield, and Elizabeth Ann McGregor, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art all noted the enduring social value of art that's not, in the time of its creation, popular, fluffy or furry: not tourism-marketing-friendly words delivered in sound-bite chunks that can be quoted as slogans, images that can be grabbed for postcards, or music that's anthemic.

I was galvanized by almost every word that Fergus Linehan spoke. He came from Dublin to curate the last two Sydney Festivals and drew many of his references from his Irish heritage. We need to revere artists, he said, because their works provide the vocabulary for societies to begin speaking about the bloody and difficult phases they pass through. He quoted the writer Jeanette Winterson who aligned art with God: sometimes it fails, but "like God, art leaves us with footprints of beauty."

In January bright pink Sydney Festival banners that resembled newspaper headline sheets fluttered on flagpoles throughout the CBD, and the shows themselves seemed as urgent as the news of the day. The Festival highlight was Lou Reed's performance of his "Berlin" album (developed with St. Ann's Warehouse in New York, where it will play between December 14 and 17 this year), which has been nominated for a Helpmann Award (Australia's equivalent to the Tony's.) Lord Mayor Clover Moore could have been directly referring to Lou Reed and his "Berlin" album which charts a couple of vulnerable people driven to despair and death by personal and social demons, when she wrote in her Sydney Morning Herald op-ed piece that: "Artists challenge us to re-examine deeply held beliefs and prejudices, give us a sense of place, and they can help us understand our identities, as individuals, as a community and as a nation."

Fergus Linehan has recognized that a generation of youthfully wild rock and roll musicians is now mature and their music is deeply symbolic, reflecting upon their roles as members of communities, and coming to terms with what Rosanne Cash, who performed her "Black Cadillac" album at the Festival has said is the realization that they are now the wall between death and their own children. These two shows stood alongside dance pieces that were collaborations with rock and roll musicians. "Zero Degrees" by Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and the musician Nitin Sawhney, considered the jumping to conclusions about national and spiritual identity in a global atmosphere of terror, and The Holy Body Tattoo's resolutely hopeful "our brief eternity", set to grinding noise-music by the musician Jean Yves Theriault, based around a poem by William Gibson, considered what is lost, in human terms, when we are driven by the rhythms and logic of machines. The Sydney Festival linked the ideas that were common to each of the shows and created a dense and complex view of a whole world that's usually the painstaking work of feature journalists. This reflective depth and insight was missing from the small individual reviews of each of these shows in the Sydney Morning Herald.

I feel as if I've come full circle. The last time I lived in Sydney was at the end of the punk rock era, before I moved to New York and then Los Angeles, when the social observations of the local punk rock musicians weren't anything society broadly wanted to hear or the commercial music industry wanted to support and the musicians were, in some cases literally, run out of town. Yet the Sydney Morning Herald and its sister newspaper, Melbourne's Age, were publishing meaningful stories about these bands and the film-makers, writers, designers, and artists who were part of their world by writers who were part of that world. I was one of them, writing stories that were almost bibliographies, mostly concerned with the books that the musicians were reading.

The Go Betweens song "Darlinghurst Nights" from their 2005 album "Oceans Away" looks back to that time in Sydney, when some of the Saints had a band called the Laughing Clowns who played shows in Darlinghurst pubs with colored carnival lights strung across the front of the stage, that had been organized by Ken West who is now the owner of the hugely successful Big Day Out Festival. The song mentions that the gathering point for the musicians was the house of the writer Clinton Walker, who is something of a social anthropolgist and cultural historian, who reflects upon music as the common language that united a set of people with incredibly diverse interests and references. Clinton had published fanzines and hosted radio shows and published an anthology, "Inner City Sound," that took the pulse of the punk rock era as it was happening. He'd been in Brisbane where the oppressive and corrupt state government and its police had been particularly brutal with the punk rock bands, and the Saints and Go Betweens and other local bands simply left town, and often the country. "Darlinghurst Nights" is a chronicle of disaffection and yearning to be a part of a wider world of ideas, to be connected with an artistic history, for life to have meaning. Nick Cave is another high profile Australian musician who was utterly unappreciated by a wider audience and derided by the music industry at the time, and left Australia.

Clinton has written several books: a study of the development and rise to popularity of country music among indigenous Australians, "Buried Country," his memoir of the punk rock era, "Stranded," a biography that's also a work of investigative journalism into the life and death and significance of AC DC lead singer Bon Scott, called "Highway to Hell", and "Golden Miles" a book on the designs and culture of muscle car enthusiasts in Australia, that also has a soundtrack. He's compiled television series, including "Long Way To The Top" a history of Australian rock and roll for Australia's equivalent of both NPR and public television, the Australian Broadcasting Commission. Yet when "Inner City Sound" long out of print, began appearing in bootlegged editions and selling for outrageous sums of money on e-Bay, it was an American publishing company, Verse Chorus Press , that brought it back into print, and also publishes a full edition of "Highway to Hell" with all of the photographs from the original hardcover publication, while the Australian paperback version has no photographs at all.

Clinton told me that the current Premier of Queensland, Peter Beattie, hands out Go Betweens and Saints cd's to visiting dignitaries, and two weeks ago funded a lavish music festival that re-united the original Saints line-up. When Grant McLennan of the Go Betweens died of a heart attack a year ago tributes flowed in from around the world, with the New York Times and the Times of London among those that ran obituaries. In most cases the rest of the world embraced and celebrated these Australian musicians and Australian popularity followed. A Go Betweens song, "Streets of Your Town" has been used by Rupert Murdoch's Brisbane newspaper, the Courier Mail in its television ads. Like many of the Go Betweens songs its delicacy and sweet chorus is compelling and catchy, but belies a melancholy, and mentions those ignored by society, the "battered wives". It's reminiscent of the way that the darker truth of Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" was ignored by President Ronald Reagan when he used it in patriotism-boosting ads.

The melancholy, sadness and acts of violence in the pop songs of the musicians of this era has never been widely understood or appreciated for the symbolic associations. The Sydney Festival's building of rock and roll songs into theatrical works, and a recent staging of the dark original version of Sleeping Beauty by the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne, that's underpinned by music that includes a song by Nick Cave, grasp the power and resonance of the mature works of these rock and roll artists, in shows that have been embraced by the public, but solid examinations of the worlds and cultural significance of these musicians and their works is mostly relegated to specialist or small, independent publishers. When Sydney Morning Herald music critic Bernard Zuel remarked last weekend in a review of "Intermission" a collection of the solo works recorded by Grant McLennan and Robert Forster through most of the 1990's, while the Go Betweens were on hiatus, that "my only serious complaint about this double-disc set is the absence of some kind of linking, critical essay or even a personal note from Forster," it seemed an acknowledgement that the newspaper no longer values creating these insights and analyses itself.

In the June issue of the Australian independent magazine, The Monthly, Eric Beecher, who'd been editor of the Sydney Morning Herald during the punk era considered the fate of newspapers and how they might balance the declining print sales, with the rise of publishing on the Internet that's not supported by any strong revenue stream, with the newspaper's mission to write the difficult, slowly-gathered painstaking stories that tell society what it may not want to hear. He feared that newspapers are in a downward spiral, diluting their content and making it more marketing friendly. In 2005 he bought, an online news service that tries to balance the need to raise revenue with covering the behind-the-scenes stories that other news organizations "can't or won't cover."

There's little lasting nourishment in marketing tie-ins and yesterday Sydney Morning Herald and Age columnist Maggie Alderson wrote of her disaffection with the shrillness of the sales pitch in fashion magazines. "Of course the whole point of fashion mags is to reflect the perpetual forward motion of that industry, based entirely as it is on the ascendance of the new," she wrote. "It's just that in the good old days those new trends and moods were translated into magazines as conceptual ideas, which stretched the mind and delighted the eye -- not just as a non-stop shopping list."

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