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Opinion

LOVE THE STRINE

Courtney Barnett
Courtney Barnett

Superfluous Opinion #1: Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying & Love The Strine

Has anyone else noticed that the sound of Aussie accents is bloody massive in local pop music right now? Because it seems that the strine is ‘in’ right now. Strine, by the way, is defined in the first search engine result I got as “the English language as spoken by Australians; the Australian accent, especially when considered pronounced or uneducated”. So there. It is a real word.

It has been a long progression to the point where the Australian accent is considered acceptable in a musical context besides comedy (although some props have to be given here to comedic songwriters like Kevin Bloody Wilson et al). The most notable of the current lot is probably Courtney Barnett, who might be the highest profile Australian artist in the world right now – we’ll get to her in a second. But lets rewind the tape a bit first:

One of the first places that references to Australian places and vernacular speech began to appear in popular music seems to be in the songs of Slim Dusty, who is about as universally loved in this country as is possible.

Skip ahead a bit and there were Greg McAinish’s lyrics for the Skyhooks, as delivered by an absolute legend called Shirley Strachan. Skyhooks songs like Lygon Street Limbo, Balwyn Calling, and the less geographically-themed Why Don’t You All Get Fucked are good examples of the specific Australia-themed references or interpolations in their lyrics.

But if you haven’t heard the Skyhooks, check the audio I’ve linked – Shirl didn’t exactly wear his Strine on his sleeve vocally-speaking, did he? Neither did fellow 70’s legend Bon Scott . (And before you start – yes, I know Bon was bloody born in Scotland. But he had a Perth accent and grew up about 100m from where Mojo’s tavern now stands, so he’s ours.)

In fact – Nick Cave, Silverchair, Grinspoon, The Living End – none of their music really has any noticable strine. Nor Does Kevin Parker’s, Meg Mac’s or the work of many other Australian acts. Why not? Well, it could be that they just don’t naturally sing with an especially Aussie inflection. Or maybe they don’t feel like singing with one. It could be the overwhelming influence of American and European music on our national consciousness.

But consider that definition from earlier, “… the Australian accent, especially when considered pronounced or uneducated”. “Uneducated”. By whom? Why? It’s probably a symptom of our treasured cultural cringe – a concept which doesn’t need to be elaborated upon here. But has it contributed to artists deciding to suppress or hide their natural Australian intonation?

I remember my own first experiences with recording using a tape four-track. This was only 10-or-15 years ago, and I wasn’t trying to be cool by using cassettes – digital recording tech was a lot more expensive then, especially for a teenager. That multitrack deck was an awesome toy at the time – you could layer a drum machine loop, feed the guitar into an effects unit to imitate a bassline, stack a lead break on top… it was just like having my own portable Olympic Studios or Electric Ladyland – except when my older brother wanted to use it. It was his, in fairness.

But then came that fourth & final track, reserved for vocals. I’d first practice along to the tape a few times without hitting record – because you don’t want any of those “thunks” that cassette heads make when you hit record.  As an aside – Tape wears out with each use, and cassette tapes were designed for economy rather than fidelity. Cassette technology was horrible, I’m so glad it’s gone.

So anyway, then would come the time to ‘sing’. Arm track 4, hit play/record, screw it up, rewind, repeat. An hour later I’d have it nailed. Or so I thought. Upon playback, the first problem was my lyrics, which always suck. And there was singing itself – hardly my strong point now, let alone 15-odd years of practice ago.

But then there was that accent – my bloody accent – that made me ask “holy crap, do I really sound like that? Is it really that nasal?”

Well yes, yes it is – that’s just how I fuckin’ talk, mate. But in 2005 or whatever, there weren’t really many Aussie voices on the radio to use as a reference. The problems with lyrics and pitch I could work on, but that Aussie strine was harder to mask. It was very discouraging as a teen to hear how jarring that accent sounded in the context of music that wasn’t taking the piss. Not that there’s anything wrong with taking the piss – as I said, the world of Australian comedy has been all over the strine for decades, and taking the piss is virtually a national tradition.

But I assert that a certain level of prejudice against the perceived “bogan” or “yob” quality within the Australian strine has been at the heart of it’s suppression in popular music. I don’t think it’s any secret that there is a certain level of class prejudice in Australia (go on, admit it), and I don’t think it’s any secret that the bogan subculture is associated with lower income socioeconomic groups. I trust you can see the line I’m drawing here.

But – this self-imposed ban on the strine could be on the way out, at least with regard to the narrow field of pop music. Fast-forward the tape to c.2015, when Courtney Barnett’s voice was probably the first place I noticed this apparent wave of mainstream, contemporary artists who sound obviously Australian. Courtney Barnett could hardly be described as “uneducated”, and her deadpan delivery hardly considered “pronounced” . Barnett is pretty popular now, to say the least – even in the US.

Fast-forward the chrome tape a little further to now (sorry, I’m set on this cassette tape analogy) and in Perth we have proudly strine-ing locals like Grant Larseny and Peter Bibby, while nationally we have people such as The Chats and the aforementioned Courtney Barnett – one of the biggest indie artists on the planet – singing to the world in a definite Australian accent.  The revolution is on!

Speaking of The Chats – give Bus Money from Get This In Ya a listen. I’ve linked it to conclude our lecture for today, because I can.

I’m not advocating that everybody should start singing in an Aussie accent. Nor am I inferring that singing with any particular accent is better than another – sing your own way.

But if you want to sing in an Australian strine, there’s never been a better time to do it. This apparent movement to redefine the strine appears to have begun as an organic thing – amongst a variety of artists & genres, with no regard to how it might sell overseas.

And that’s a breath of fresh air. Because I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of voices that resemble mine being used as a cheap punchline.

What do you think? Am I full of shit? Do Australian accents make your ears bleed? Are cassette four tracks actually totally awesome and not just currently the subject of nostalgia for a golden era that never was? Let us know in the comment section, because post engagements help keep me employed here.

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