Delta Week

Delta Goodrem’s “Innocent Eyes” Defined a Generation of Young Women

This week marks the 15th anniversary of Delta Goodrem's seminal debut "Innocent Eyes." We look back on Delta's impact on Australian culture.

by Katherine Gillespie
22 March 2018, 7:00am

It's Delta Week on Noisey Australia! To celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of her seminal debut Innocent Eyes, we'll be running Delta Goodrem-related writing every day. Check out the rest of the series here.

Do you remember when you were seven, and the only thing that you wanted to do was line up for three hours at Sanity in a suburban shopping mall and get Delta Goodrem to sign your deluxe edition Innocent Eyes CD? If so, you’re definitely not alone. Goodrem’s ballad-heavy 2003 debut was this country’s best-selling album of the 2000s, surpassing two P!nk releases and Kylie’s Fever. It was played on repeat in tween bedrooms across the nation, inspiring a generation to take up piano lessons and dress exclusively in boho tops from Supré.

Innocent Eyes is a classic. Fifteen years later, it’s a sad fact that its impact on the Australian cultural zeitgeist has gone mostly unexamined. The album’s clear-hearted melodies, overplayed on Australian radio yet mostly ignored on the international charts, take full advantage of (and in some cases, even predict) key trends in confessional adult contemporary pop. What’s most remarkable about Innocent Eyes, though, is its breathless and endearingly melodramatic naivety. Goodrem’s heartfelt collection of songs about lost innocence is a time capsule of girlhood for twentysomethings all over Australia.

Appropriately, Innocent Eyes has a coming-of-age story behind it. At 14 years old, Goodrem caught the attention of manager Glenn Wheatley when she sent a demo CD to the Sydney Swans asking whether she could sing at one of their matches. The AFL gig never happened, but Wheatley wrangled her a deal with Sony less than 12 months later. Initially the label marketed Goodrem as a dance pop artist in the vein of Britney Spears or, more likely, Nikki Webster. It didn’t work out: her first single, “I Don’t Care” failed to impact the ARIA charts, despite sharing the same writing team as Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle”.

So, at 17, Goodrem switched gears. She balanced writing the piano-driven tracks for Innocent Eyes with exam study and her acting work, starring as virginal schoolgirl and aspiring singer Nina Tucker on Neighbours. The Channel Ten fame formula worked for her as it had once done for Kylie Minogue; Goodrem was a household name in Australia, and to a lesser extent the United Kingdom, from the moment her single “Born To Try” debuted in the top three of the ARIA charts in late 2002.

Goodrem wasn’t destined for Kylie levels of international stardom, but back then it felt like she was, particularly if you were a young girl falling in love with music for the first time and saving up to buy her CDs and concert DVDs from Target, as most of her fans at the time were. Delta Goodrem was a goddess who had descended from heaven and moved into the house next door. She was approachable and sweet but impossibly beautiful, her eerily symmetrical features and windswept curls instantly becoming an devotional symbol of womanhood for young girls. Goodrem was a popstar with a non-American accent, an Australian singer who still somehow looked like she came from another world. There was no one who could touch her, and the fact of her existence felt precious.

In the tradition of teenage popstar debuts like Britney Spears’ ...Baby One More Time and Killing Heidi’s Reflector, Innocent Eyes contends with mature themes—love and sex, betrayal and heartbreak—on deceptively sweet and innocent terms. Goodrem makes wise-beyond-her-years declarations that “life’s full of mistakes” and sings about cheating boyfriends with a Jojo-esque cynicism (“You’re just so predictable in every way/ I want you to know I know your game”). The album is imbued with a dark sense of drama, particularly on its title track. “Innocent Eyes” perfectly soundtracks an experience that sits a little bit before Britney’s “I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman” on the puberty timeline. The song considers the fraught transition from girlhood to teenagerhood, the years before the prospect of actual womanhood even becomes a concern. There’s plenty of material written from the perspective of the schoolyard rather than adult experience on Innocent Eyes, but the lyrical rawness works, in the same way it later would for a Fearless-era Taylor Swift. Lyrically and thematically, Innocent Eyes is also an obvious forebear to Kelly Clarkson’s Breakaway, the album that pulled Clarkson away from American Idol and into the pop canon.

Piano ballads aren’t given the credit they’re due at the best of times, especially not those that speak to “the little girl inside”. Innocent Eyes is a starry-eyed record, and while it’s easier now to appreciate the virtues of its frank and confessional songwriting, Goodrem’s earnest adult contemporary vibe never even felt remotely cool back in the day. She was a young woman singer, it was young women who liked her music, and in the eyes of critics this was to Goodrem’s detriment. Innocent Eyes received positive reviews, but they were always framed with the implication that real music fans should feel guilt for listening. “Really, this isn't bad at all,” a reviewer for The Guardian grudgingly admitted back in in 2003.

There have been few local musicians to inspire the tween devotion that Delta did with Innocent Eyes, and her iconic Visualise national stadium tour—her first, taking place in 2005 after she’d released two albums and made a full recovery from Hodgkin's Lymphoma—was one of the biggest tours by an Australian artist ever. That year, Goodrem sold more tickets than Destiny’s Child, more than 50 Cent, more than Green Day. By 21 years old, Delta Goodrem ruled Australia.

But she’d done no US press for Innocent Eyes during her recovery period, and while her second record Mistaken Identity—the lyrics of which describe a young woman’s brush with death and, at the same time, fame—sold incredibly well in Australia, the singer’s chances of breaking into the US market appeared to have been dashed. She’s continued to release music here ever since, but if we’re on the subject of lost innocence then seeing the megastar who defined your childhood reduced to becoming a judge on The Voice is heartbreaking. This is the same singer once so beloved by the Australian public that during her cancer battle in 2003 the ARIA Awards were transformed into a bizarre and in retrospect disturbing funeral-esque tribute to her talents. There’s nothing wrong with a steady paycheck on The Voice, but there’s a jarring contrast between what her career could have been and what it is now.

Delta Goodrem was never going to be Kylie Minogue. She doesn’t have the sexual potency, and you can barely picture her with a drink in hand, let alone performing classic party bangers at Mardi Gras. But she is, as Innocent Eyes and plenty of her later work testifies, an incredibly gifted songwriter, and a powerful vocalist. Her story, that of gargantuan local success that never translated overseas, is one shared by many. History has shown how major record labels fail Australian artists, and women have always been the greatest victims of this—Goodrem is joined in her lack of North American airplay by other enormously popular singer-songwriters like Missy Higgins and Megan Washington. You always got the sense that Goodrem’s blindingly fast rise to fame made her even more susceptible to the tall poppy syndrome we ruthlessly subject all our performers to. Many of our greatest musical success stories—Kylie, Sia—only became so when they effectively cut ties with their home country forever. It’s not a coincidence.

Delta, for all her strange career decisions over the years (Cats? That much-publicised failed move to Los Angeles?) could never be called a failure. She’s about to star in a TV biopic about Olivia Newton-John, and millions of millennial women in this country will, for the rest of their lives, hear one of Innocent Eyes’ five hit singles on the radio and be instantly transported back in time to their girlhood. That image of a gorgeous, confident young woman pouring her heart out in front of a grand piano, wearing a fairytale princess-style ball gown with her hair styled in 2000s prom-style ringlets, so earnest and yet so mysterious at the same time, is as crucial a piece of national music history as “You’re The Voice” or “Never Tear Us Apart”. Maybe I’m just lost in my reflections, but Innocent Eyes is one of Australia’s most important cultural documents. She may never have made it overseas, but Australian women are lucky to have grown up with Delta.

Kat Gillespie is an editor at VICE Australia. Follow her on Twitter.