The Ugly Australian Underground?
In Australia, there is a heavily networked multi-city DIY music scene – an ‘underground’ – that largely rejects the label of ‘indie’ and distances itself from Triple J and other media outlets that have been allegedly central to ‘supporting’ youth culture. In his book containing 50 interviews with bands in the scene, Jimi Kritzler has called this the Ugly Australian Underground.
Evelyn Ida Morris, who sometimes performs under the name Pikelet, made a Facebook post about the writing out of females in the ‘scene’ and the shabby treatment of the few females included in the book. The post garnered over 650 responses. She then wrote a piece for The Lifted Brow, ‘Noise in our Heads’:
‘Although my post was in reference to Noise in My Head, it was intended as and expression of exasperation about something far more insidious and pervasive that has bothered me periodically through my ten to fifteen years of involvement in music. I’ve been repeatedly frustrated to see women’s omission from musical history and musical activities’.
Her new project, Listen Listen Listen, ‘is committed to bringing feminism and equality into music in Australia, and will allow the conversation to grow and change however it needs to’.
These are the kind of ‘struggles’ that Bourdieu proposes are at the centre of our social existence. The fields we participate in have a doxa (common sense, taken for granted stuff) that is misrecognised as ‘natural’. They also have an illusio, which has the double meaning of the way we think pursuing something is worthwhile and the way we invest ourselves in it. The struggle alluded to in the above example is to challenge the doxic gender norms that have become ‘normal’ overtime whilst females in the field experience those norms as a form of symbolic violence (and, as documented in the efforts by the Listen collective, sometimes faced with real physical and sexual violence and harassment).
Another struggle in and around this scene is over the very meanings of its position in social space and the politics of its sounds.
Classification Struggles: DIY vs. Indie vs. Mainstream
‘Indie’ music, once arguably seen as an authentic ‘alternative’ to the crass and commercial ‘mainstream’, has provoked some vehement debate about whether it has become the habitat of the privileged and the site of the ‘hipster’ co-optation of alternative culture. For instance, the band Mumford and Sons, who are still often labelled alternative or indie, are the children of the UK 1% while co-opting the sounds of folk and sing about ‘rising up’… In Australia, these struggles are sometimes expressed over the role Triple J plays in shaping who gets heard, bands altering their sound to get on the radio, the Triple J ‘sound‘, and the general homogenisation of music and music reporting.
Participants in my research with young people in the national scene have all struggled to give a name to what they do… even the term ‘DIY’ invokes some consternation around its possible connotations and associations. Naming something, especially something that is creative and means a lot to you, is hard because once it has a label, it can be categorised and co-opted. It feels condescending and cosmetic.
Dolewave, Punk and the Politics of a (Non)Genre
One of the genres of music that can be considered a part of the ugly Australian underground, despite some times being not so ugly and underground, is Dolewave.
Some of the bands included in discussions around dolewave include, among many others: Dick Diver, Twerps, Kitchens Floor, Bitch Prefect, The Ocean Party, Lower Plenty, Weak Boys, and School of Radiant Living.
Jimi Kritzler, author of Noise in my Head: Voices from the Ugly Australian Underground, on ‘dolewave’:“My book is 500 pages and not once is the phrase ‘dole wave’ mentioned. I think this adequately surmises my feelings about intellectualising ‘dole wave,’ which in my mind is a non-existent genre. These bands who one might link to dole wave – Dick Diver, Twerps, Kitchens Floor, Bitch Prefect – they are just great pop bands. To force on them and the music some kind of socio-economic status is ridiculous. I don’t think any of the aforementioned bands would ever describe themselves as dole wave. Dole Wave is a hilarious joke taken too far by critics struggling to link a batch of bands together who in no way subscribe to such a half-baked music theory”.
I somewhat agree with Kritzler here, but I’m going to intellectualise it anyway… I think that the writing around the genre and the popularity of the bands in the genre is interesting in and of itself, even if it isn’t really a genre.
The Politics of Naming
In the past, the naming of a genre has always engendered discussion and debate. These histories are contested. Was Heavy Metal coined by William Burroughs? Steppenwolf? Barry Gifford in Rolling Stone in 1968? Was Punk coined by Dave Marsh? Legs McNeil? Was Grunge coined by Mark Arm of Mudhoney? Or Everett True of Melody Maker? The mythologising around names is part of the mythologising history of rock.
Unlike traditional music genre terminologies created by prominent musicians, ‘experts’ or journalists in and around the scene, ‘dolewave’ was coined by a discussion board participant under a pseudonym on the website Mess and Noise. With the Internet providing a searchable history, things have changed and maybe the politics of naming has democratised and demythologised, where fans on blogs and discussion boards can be responsible for the naming of new genres. Another example is Chillwave (Youth Lagoon, Washed Out, Neon Indian etc) named by Hipster Runoff blogger ‘Carles’.
Categories and Naming
‘Knowledge of the social world and, more precisely, the categories that make it possible, are the stakes, par excellence, of political struggle, the inextricably theoretical and practical struggle for the power to conserve or transform the social world by conserving or transforming the categories through which it is perceived’ (Bourdieu 1985: 729).
The discussions around dolewave are a good example of this.
Is it’s actually a thing? Regardless of whether it’s a thing, what does the discussion even mean? Is there a politics of ‘dolewave’? Is it a rejection of the precarity of the Howard/Rudd/Abbott era? What ‘class’ are the dolewavers representing and is it ‘authentic‘? Is there such a thing as ‘authenticity‘, even in underground music? Who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’? Is it an example of artistic critique or fatalistic apathy?
‘Dolewave’ is discussed in these terms around the politics of genre making and distinction. It was an ironic joke. But is has stuck and grown to be meaningful, even if the bands don’t like the label, and even if some of them engage with it ironically themselves. The irony is itself political. It has become something whether they like it or not and is used by participants in the scene even when they are rejecting it.
I think the term ‘dolewave’ is often taken too literally. What binds the themes of what these bands sing about is the experience of youth precarity, regardless if they are middle class, working class, or, on the dole, employed or under-employed.
Dolewave Opinion Pieces
Social media, blog discussions and journalistic pieces serve to both maintain dolewave’s cultural distinction while at the same time debating its legitimacy, authenticity and its very existence. Here’s some excellent examples of quality music writing around the scene:
“These bands are powerful now because they reject the neo-liberal, self-improvement, mortage-till-death, make-a-buck-or-die, protect-at-all-costs impulses which are more real now, in established workaday Australian life, than ever before
Dolewave reveals that our former notions of Australianness were flimsy, and that what remains when these notions are removed is… basically nothing. We have nothing. We have no identity but our illusions and our atrocities.
I think the best dolewave is intrinsically depressed. Bitch Prefect and Dick Diver are beautiful and poignant in an aggressively sad way, in a fashion we can only laugh along with. Dick Diver’s ‘New Start Again’ is a paean to the years when artists and outsiders could exist without being ‘creatives’, when unprofitable, art-for-its-own-sake wasn’t necessarily a contract with poverty.
Dolewave is not important but it is, at least, smart. It is beautiful, sad and smart. It is not, as some of its detractors have surmised, the result of blind apathy. It is bearing witness to these developments and insinuating their results. But it is pop music so it does not bludgeon. It is understated yet incisive. It is aesthetically unambitious but it contains multitudes. Dolewave is the exploration of a dream which, once potent, is no longer believable. Notions of ourselves are the only positive thing we have left”.
“I’ve resisted the use of the ‘dolewave’ term since its inception because I find it to be not just reductive, but classist and mean. People who use the term often use it as a form of condemnation; it can often be quite snobbish. ‘Dolewave’ to me is used to belittle something, as if they are saying: “you are singing about poverty and thus you are no good to me. Maybe you should work harder and get a better job.” Lately though, both sides of the class war have accepted its usage and I’m not one to argue with them; I’m happy to use it here for ease of reference.
There’s no irony in sipping at a VB with your mates, it’s an unconscious acceptance of your place in the class war. I feel it’s the same case when a band sings badly about drudgery and failed attempts at self-improvement.
For dolewave, it’s important to note that most bands aren’t having a laugh when they namecheck brands and locations. They are recounting aspects of their lives through details that mean something to them. In listing off perceived failures and contextualising them, you empower it, and dolewave makes it culturally important to embrace your flaws.
When you don’t have money and you don’t have an identity, you do what you can: you pretend it’s all okay, you have a whinge, you go out and have a laugh, you learn a few open chords and read from your diary”.
“What struck me about both accounts was the absence of aesthetic politics and taste. Flying Nun style jangle pop is not exactly working class music. (That’s metal.)
The vibe of these bands is the eternal share-house, forever stuck at that moment when you say to yourself, ‘Enough of this shit’ but can’t scratch together the bond for your own place. For many of us, this carries right through into our 30s where, ‘Why can’t I afford a house when I work full-time?’ takes over.
And what I like about some of these bands is that they marry this feeling to some of the more blissful moments extracted from the mess: it doesn’t cost a lot to have a picnic in the park or to record at home. There’s more to life as well as less.
Imagine being a teenager listening to years of shitty coke party rock or angry indie-pop and then, when the dawn finally breaks, you get Kevin Rudd (incompetent and a prat) and then Julia Gillard (incompetent and a homophobe), all soundtracked by the dying embers of shit like Sneaky Sound System, Jet’s second album and that half-inflated silverchair reunion. That’s the germinating political setting of ‘dolewave’ to me.
Dolewave, to me at least, feels exactly like Labour’s legacy, not Howard’s. I can take or leave many of the bands labelled dolewave but I totally respect all of them for their blanket rejection of this recent past. For none of what happened in those last years of Howard prepared anyone for what came next. All our pop songs of rejection and home-spun valorisation didn’t mean a thing when the ‘distant future’ proved such a bummer”.
“Dolewave… doesn’t look to change anything. Its approach is one of begrudging acceptance of a system that crushes its creative aspirations and celebrating, ironically, the failure to achieve the societal definition of success. As Shaun put it, it is “intrinsically depressed,” a romanticism of “the few virtuous characteristics of white colonial Australia” and a lament for artists unable to disassociate their art with poverty. It carries none of the aggression of punk and makes no attempt to enlighten anyone. It also provides, in the songs that focus on what Ian Roger’s piece termed “some of the more blissful moments extracted from the mess,” a jaunt in escapism, reminding us that life can still be enjoyable on the cheap.
Punks, in part thanks to their hardline upbringing, felt it was not their own failure but the failure of the system that condemned them to a bland existence. They were told that art could not flourish in the system and this triggered a desire to overthrow it. The psychology of dolewave is somewhat more complex. Thanks to that constant mantra of “try and you will succeed,” instead of being angry at a system that doesn’t work we are left with unrealistic expectations and a feeling of personal failure. We’ve accepted the system, having lived our lives thus far under the illusion that we can exist as we want under it. In our minds, our failure to thrive is our own. From here it’s not hard to come to the simple conclusion that the reason dolewave is so apathetic is that you can’t rage against what you can’t blame.
But to me, despite its inoffensive and unchallenging musical makeup, it is extremely unsettling. It is, essentially, an acceptance of a system that shits on creativity and art and leaves it forever associated with poverty. Self-deprecating lyrics, in-jokes about ignorant yuppie social-climbers and remembering how good it was that day we all got drunk in a friend’s garage are all well and good. In fact, at times they’re great. But I’d much rather if dolewave wasn’t “intrinsically depressed” and “poignantly beautiful,” but wanted to simultaneously fuck up the system and enlighten the masses to the plight of our society.
In short, someone please tell me punk’s not dead”.
The Power to Nominate
For Bourdieu, the symbolic order confers in some the ‘power to nominate’ where those high in cultural capital tend to have a monopoly of the processes of legitimate naming (Bourdieu 1985).
‘All the symbolic strategies through which agents seek to impose their vision of the divisions of the social world and their position within it, can be located between two extremes: the insult… and official nomination’ usually an imposition of the State who holds the ‘monopoly of legitimate symbolic violence’ (Bourdieu 1985: 732).
Bourdieu sketches out three levels where these struggles take place: the Personal; the Authorised and State.
The personal day-to-day level of individual perspectives produces self-interested forms of naming in the form of nick names, gossip, banter, arguments, insults, accusations and even slander.
It is unlikely that these forms of naming struggles have capacity to enable recognition unless the individual possesses the capitals to do so from the authorised level, especially if one is authorised through qualifications, credentials and occupations – the critic, the academic, the author or the journalist for instance.
At the authorised level, what may look very much like personal squabbles can attain a legitimacy that can conserve or transform a field.
The State is the ‘holder of the monopoly of official naming, correct classification, the correct order’ (Bourdieu 1985: 734). The State both hold the means to decide and ascribe the means to reach the authorised level, while also holding the authority to legal, legitimised and official naming.
In the naming of dolewave, there is an ironic inversion of the ‘State’ level category of welfare, done by individuals at both the ‘personal’ (blogs and discussions) and ‘authorised’ (books and journalistic pieces) levels. But the authorised level here, especially the bloggers, are relying on subcultural capital to legitimise their ‘authority’, not State consecrated forms of cultural capital. In an ‘underground’ struggle such as this, mostly played out away from mainstream media (although making some forays into that space) it will be interesting to see who is in the canon of Australian underground music in 10 years time.
Will those not in Kritzler’s book fade away to irrelevance? Will the Listen project balance the gender bias? Will the discussions about Dolewave and those included under the moniker appear more prominent than they really were? Or will Dolewave be irrelevant to Oz rock history?
Bourdieu’s Relational Sociology of Struggle
“Analysis of the struggle over classifications brings to light the political ambition that pervades the epistemic ambition of producing the correct classification… to set forth the frontier between the sacred and the profane, good and evil, the vulgar and the distinguished” (Bourdieu 1985: 735).
Journalists and opinion writers are traditionally ‘professional producers of objectified representations of the social world’ (Bourdieu 1985: 730). Or more accurately, they are professional producers of representations of their own social world. The rise of blogging (like zines before them), especially in underground forms of culture, affords the rise of authority based on subcultural capitals.
The politics of naming, the policing of genre boundaries and the discussions over the politics of scenes are where distinction happens. These are struggles over legitimacy and authenticity – that is, identity. Dolewave is not yet ‘consecrated’… we will not really know of its historical cultural importance for years.
‘Bourdieu’s approach to class embodies his relentlessly relational conception of social life’ (Wacquant 2013: 275). While his approach has mostly been categorised towards understanding social reproduction, it is in fact the notion of struggle that is central to Bourdieu’s work and key to understanding social reproduction and social change. The ‘genesis of groups’ (Bourdieu 1985), the work of creating ‘realized categories’ (Bourdieu 1996); the energy and affect of classification struggles (Bourdieu 1986) is where a Bourdieusian informed sociology of class needs to shine its light.
As Wacquant argues, what should constitute the object of sociology is not just ‘individuals or groups, which crowd our mundane horizon, but webs of material and symbolic ties’ (Wacquant 2013: 275).
It is through classification struggles around notions like Dolewave, or the gender struggles faced by women in a male dominated music scene, that symbolic ties are made and unmade. It is through the work of remaking that we struggle to make the world in our own image.