Way Out West is a column where Melbourne-based writer and cultural critic Sam West thinks (a lot) about music-related stuff, and life in general. The name of the column comes from an old trance song Sam likes. Read more Way Out West here.
I set myself the challenge of avoiding the existential abyss this year. Last time I covered Meredith Music Festival, I lost my job and spent some time on the Midland Highway freaking out in a crumpled Go-Get car. Since then, I’ve realised that jobs aren’t as important as I previously thought. After I got home that year, I told my mum’s partner Barry that I thought my career was in tatters. He has cancer and has had lots of different jobs. He said “In my experience, you either have enough money but no time, or you have plenty of time and no money. Just try enjoy what you have most of before it changes.” So this review goes out to Barry. And to my girlfriend, who got mild heat stroke on day one of Meredith Music Festival 28 but still doofed til sunrise on day two. And to my cousin who attended the festival for the first time this year and, it turns out, is genetically predisposed to dance like me. And to this year’s designated driver Matt, who got sick and had to leave early.
Before Matt left, he told us this story back at camp about how OJ Simpson derailed David Hasselhoff’s singing career. This was when OJ fled from police with nothing but a gun, a pile of cash, some family photos and a fake moustache. The car chase was broadcast live and went on to become one of the most watched events in television history. This was unfortunate news for The Hoff (at that stage still taut and gleaming with post- Baywatch stardom,) who had a major pay-per-view special due to air that same night. It was supposed to rebrand him as a Bublé-esque crooner and be his breakthrough pop moment. But, of course, few Americans watched it because they were glued to the sight of OJ getting chased, very slowly, by a fleet of cops. Fast-forward to today, and Hasselhoff’s only hits are ironic YouTube tributes to his former playboy persona. It could’ve all been different. Maybe somewhere in the multiverse, dusty Meredith punters listen to his hits on Smooth FM to help soothe their frayed synapses on the car ride home.
I’m not sure about how much of Matt’s story is true. He was recovering from a fever and could’ve hallucinated the details. Right now, I’m back at my computer with enough reception to check the facts, but I don’t want to. It can be way more fun to play around with alternate realities than to submit to the one you live in. Which is one of the reasons the Meredith Music Festival stays so vital. After coming to this place for the last thirteen years, it’s clear the main appeal for city-slickers like me isn’t the line-up (as consistently great as it is.) It’s the chance to act out an alternate reality: one where the suburbs have no fences and the CBD feels like it’s built for reciprocal joy rather than the exchange of capital. It’s a bit like what one of the original organisers, Matt High, said when the festival turned twenty: “Meredith was there to be [a] little fantasy weekend. And it wasn’t about getting more people, and it wasn’t about making lots of money. It didn’t make money.”
If it didn’t make money back then, you can bet it makes money now. But the fantasy is still largely intact. I remembered this at Inspiration Point not long after Melbourne stalwart Jnett destroyed her closing party set. The grass was damp and the wind turbines in the distance were cutting up mist. It was by no means a perfect morning but people were making the most of it: blasting disco, talking shit and doing rolly-pollies down the hill like their stash was empty but they were determined to get one last gravity-induced high in before Sunday really began. I’d just lent my lighter to some trippers who walked away promising they’d throw it back. When I smelled the burnt-plastic spice of DMT wafting up from their group, I knew my lighter was probably gone for good. It had been absorbed into the infinite oneness of the spirit molecule.
We eventually had to call out for them to return the lighter. One of them tried but it only landed about halfway. I got up, felt how the dampness had set into my clothes, and started trudging towards the stupid thing to retrieve it when a stranger shouted from behind me: “Sit back down! They should get it.” He’d watched the whole interaction, and it seemed he couldn’t just sit back and witness this kind of injustice. This guy was dressed in a full suit and had a briefcase, like he was a stockbroker or lawyer. He seemed pretty official and the trippers respected his demands.
After we’d thanked the kind businessman, he came over to say hi. Turns out his briefcase contained no stock options or court documents. It was full of Mentos, Chupa-Chups and nangs. On that particular morning, his only trade was sugar treats, breath-freshness and neuron suffocation. I returned my lighter to my pocket and lay back down with a Cola-flavoured Chupa-Chup my mouth. The turbines in the distance kept converting the breeze into clean energy and I thought: ‘Wow, this is how the world should be.’ And, obviously, it is. But really, it’s only an alternate version. And it’s almost over. And fuck, Matt’s still sick and we still haven’t figured out how to get home.
Earlier that day Billy Bragg sang a song about how “We build the wall to keep us free/ the wall keeps out the enemy/ the enemy is poverty.” It’s a classic pinko sentiment from good old Billy, who’s wise enough to admit music can’t change the world. Instead he believes empathy is music’s real currency. Music breaks down walls and we begin to understand each other. He said cynicism is empathy’s adversary, but “if you combine empathy and activism, you get solidarity.” Later, he sung a ditty about unions and the crowd cheered.
During his visit, Bragg found time to visit Q&A. One of the kids involved in the school strike was in the audience, and he asked the panel: “When will the government start to care about my future and children around the world by acting on climate change?” The host turned to Billy Bragg for answers, and he said “It’s their future they’re talking about. Of course they should be able to make a stand.” No one should be telling these kids to ‘be less activist.’ It was heartwarming because this kid encapsulated everything Billy was talking about. He was smart but he wasn’t cynical.
I am though. I’m 32 years old and I haven’t seen a prime minister serve a full term since I could vote. The only one who implemented an effective carbon policy got knifed as soon as she got it passed. Some days I’m like ‘Fuck striking from school, perhaps it’s time we just opt out from the whole nationhood thing all together.’ Sorry granddad (thanks for your service) but it’s looking more and more like a unified nation is an outdated concept. We can do better. You talk to some Meredith punters and they’re as angry and scared as me. The cooked ones might even agree to join the revolution. I mean, if you can afford a $400 festival ticket (plus supplies and pink flamingos) surely you can take some time off work for some legitimate civil disobedience. The next generation don’t seem to have a problem with it. But we’re not going to revolt. We’re not going to strike. And I think that might be because Meredith funnels our civil disobedience into manageable weekend-sized chunks. We get home, eat a banana, have a long shower (too long by the parched look of the surrounding farmland) and just get on with it. We’ve built a wall to keep us complacent.
But that’s the abyss talking. The trick is to try tap-dancing around the black hole without falling in. So if you want believe we’re better than the ugly headlines, Meredith is the perfect place for it. All the best aspects of ‘our culture’ are celebrated: tolerance, larrikinism, artistry, innovation and conservation. At this year’s festival, Mambali proved First Nations music can and will rule the main stage, and that it can’t be relegated to some kind of ‘world music’ status. Mental as Anything proved you can reach puffy middle age and still rock out harder than Bryan Ferry at his peak. Likewise, Mim Suleiman proved you can dedicate your life to be being a party starter whenever you feel the calling. Sui Zhen proved high-concept art pop can be unsettling and fun. The Breeders proved they were The goddamn Breeders. Native Cats proved you can do much more with Nintendo DS than collect Pokémon. Yaeji proved she could control the sky. Someone shaped a doof stick into a ‘like’ notification, as if to insist being a music fan has always been more about ecstatic hugs in the crowd than numbers on a screen. There were countless other examples of what makes music culture beautiful. At Meredith, this energy is contained and packaged perfectly. But once you’ve fenced it off, do you risk pacifying it entirely?
It doesn’t take much to find cracks in the fantasy. The editor of this very publication is brown and when he covered Meredith, people kept asking about curries and cricket scores. Towards the end of Shrimpwitch’s set, some white looking guy with dreadlocks yelled “Give us a smile!” at the women on stage. I was talking to my friend about it and she reckons it’s because this guy felt the need to reclaim the space. He couldn’t handle women having that much fun up there on their own. She also told me some nutcase cracked her in back of head with a plastic bottle and accused her of stealing beer. There’s violence, misogyny and racism simmering beneath the euphoric togetherness. Even in the fantasy version of Australia.
Of course, Australia isn’t ‘real.’ It’s just a collective agreement with abstract borders. The terms are negotiable. So I’m going to turn Billy Bragg again for some guidance. He said our cheering charged up his activism. This enthusiasm inspires him to keep performing which, in turn, means crowds around the world have chance to harness his calls for action. I love this idea because it does away with the pretence that music reflects culture—that you have history happening in the foreground, while art exists in the background reacting to more important events. Music can’t change the world but music fans can.
Meredith prides itself on being on the right side of cultural change. Each year the lineups get more diverse, the No Dickhead Policy gets more precise, and the green initiatives get better. At the same time, we’ve only seen politics get nastier and more short-sighted. This is because we live in a place where there’s an increasingly free exchange of disruptive ideas offset by institutions that subsume and resist change. The only way this works is if you believe major events happen, and then art comes along to assess the damage: to reflect or decorate.
That’s a cynical way to be. It’s possible, but unlikely, that a state full of cynics would create a wilder, freer, funner version of the CBD an hour outside the city limits (which they can subsequently use up and leave behind). But only open-hearted believers could dream up a festival this good up in the first place. So listen to Billy and let art and music charge your activism. Or rearrange your perspective. If you just need to party to celebrate getting through another year with your mates, that’s okay too. Go home, have a shower (quick as you can manage) and do with the leftover energy what you will. Flick the dial to SmoothFM and try to enjoy what you have before it inevitably changes. And don’t be a dickhead.
Sam West is a cultural critic and editor from Melbourne. Follow him on Twitter.